MY SARAJEVO, unfortunately, is decreasing day by day. Some people leave while other people arrive in this city that is constantly being built and rebuilt, often hideously. Only that which cannot be rebuilt remains in memory.
I wrote an entire book about this city, the book of poetry — Transsarajevo — along with countless other texts. I built this city in my literature, and the city was built into me, in a symbiotic process. At one time, I was heavily addicted to this city — wherever I went, I could hardly wait to return to it.
Several times I tried unsuccessfully to leave Sarajevo, but people from here know how difficult such a move can be. Right now, I feel I’m the closest I’ve ever been to departure, because the only things keeping me here are happy memories.
To be clear, Sarajevo is a comfortable place for many, if your priorities are to work minimally and to live a simple life. This is quite possible here, and in fact all over Bosnia; somehow people are surviving. They like parties, entertainment: hedonism can seduce you at any moment. The food is good and cheap if you come from Western Europe or some other rich country. People are hospitable and cordial, if we exclude certain taxi drivers and the usual fraudsters.
Life can be beautiful here, but only if you are able to build an impenetrable capsule around you, an indestructible envelope that can keep out the negative energy that fills the atmosphere of this city and can seep into your very being.
If you are a foreign tourist then you need to know that you are coming to the only capital of a European state where the water supply can be cut off at any moment, and not be turned on for days. Sometimes, when I have some cosmic luck, my street is spared from midnight until 5:00 a.m., but sometimes I have no water from midnight until 10:00 or 11:00. And I live in the center, near one of the most elite quarters. If you are wondering why we have not protested about these conditions, the answer is that we did protest, especially back in February 2014, when the city streets around the Presidency of BiH looked like they did during the last war — again engulfed in flames. The protest did not bear fruit, because most of the citizens of this city were not interested in systematic changes. We who actively participated in the protests remained a frustrated minority.
We all know of Sarajevo’s historical associations, but very little of that can be found in the present-day city. In the 16th century, Sarajevo had a steam system for underground heating and a better water supply than it has today. It had the first European tramway, before Vienna.
World War I started here, the 1984 Winter Olympics were held on the surrounding mountains, and the last Bosnian war also left its visible traces. The war recovery phase is still in progress. In this respect, Sarajevo is a great city, a metropolis with a spirit that did not want to yield to grenades and snipers, and used all its military capacity to repel those who had been granted permission from Europe and the UN to kill civilians unhindered, like in some dystopian film. You probably don’t know this, but during the war, various adventurers came from all over to the Serbian positions on the surrounding hills, in order to feel the thrill of shooting at civilians in the besieged city of Sarajevo. The most famous tourist of this type was the Russian writer Eduard Limonov, whose gun fire on the city was captured on film by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski in the movie Serbian Epics.
Sarajevo is a great city. Its citizens endured the longest military siege on a capital city in modern history. More than 11,000 civilians — of all nationalities and religious affiliations, as well as those to whom neither nation nor religion meant anything — died during the siege. Through it all, Sarajevo remained an open city and did not allow hatred to rule.
Sarajevo is the only city whose inhabitants — ordinary people, writers, poets, and artists — burned classics of world literature during the long, cold winters of war at the end of the 20th century. In the poem “Coffee on Balzac” (“Kava na Balzacu”), Ilija Ladin writes:
We burn books
To serve you coffee on a copy of Balzac
Or would you prefer tea on Goethe?
Sarajevo is a city where it is quite normal for temperatures in February to drop to -16 degrees Celsius during the day, sometimes even reaching -26 degrees, while summer temperatures can reach 41 degrees. There is no moderation here; everything is exaggerated, especially the irony. Black humor is a trademark of this city. Here’s a Sarajevo joke premised on the Grimm fairy tale of the fisherman and his wife: “Mujo caught a fish in the Miljacka River — a golden Chetnik (Serbian) soldier, and the golden Chetnik said to him, ‘Let me go and I will fill up three mass graves for you.’”
Many foreigners stayed here during and after the war. And I’ve even heard that there is a term in psychology for the condition some of them experience: “Longing for Sarajevo.” I know what that means, because I was myself, and still am, a patient longing for this city. In Sarajevo, fans of the local football club are called “Želje patients” (from FK Željezničar — a cult Sarajevo amateur club from the suburb of Grbavica).
I had the honor to live for several months in a city that was still under siege. I say “the honor” because I saw what the city looked like at that time. From the outside — demolished, vacant, overgrown with untended grass and plants; but on the inside there were clubs, cafes full of life, joy, and optimism. It’s a Sarajevo I will never forget. I will always remember the clubs where we drank local beer and smoked bad grass, listening to eternal jazz music and enjoying peaceful moments after the end of the war was officially proclaimed, even though the shells continued to fall, and people continued to die on the streets. That experience is comparable to the feeling that London residents must have had during the Blitz — that spirit that defies death, even though our little war and World War II were not on the same level.
My Sarajevo is this spirit, the power to get up after you’ve been knocked out and still beat your enemy. Sarajevo is a victor in that sense, although in any every other sense it is a loser. But this should not be a negative story.
My Sarajevo is when the tram driver stops at the traffic lights, opens the door, and goes to the bakery to buy a snack, while the passengers sit without protest and wait for the journey to continue. My Sarajevo is the restaurant terrace of the The Two Fishers, where we socialized and discussed the fate of our country with alcohol and mezze, and where I wrote half of my poetry in my head.
My Sarajevo is also the bookshop and bar Buybook, whose name plays with the English language and our native tongue, in which “bajbuk/bajbukana” means a prison. This is where, at one table or another, I told most of my war and postwar stories. Buybook was my capsule, where I thought about literature and wrote my texts on the invisible typewriter of my mind.
In my recollections, Sarajevo is great, although in actual fact it decreases day by day. Yet its metaphorical size is so great that it will always have its place in my mind and heart. It’s the city in which I have lived the longest stretch of my life.
Sarajevo is a city that has outlived Orwell’s dystopia — a city that overcame death by releasing it into its backyards, into its football fields. For those who do not know, it should be noted that during the war, the fighters and citizens of Sarajevo were buried in the yards and gardens of this city, and at the training pitch of FK Sarajevo, due to the lack of space in cemeteries, and because the criminals on the hills would shoot even during a funeral. Apparently, it’s not enough to kill a man once.
Public spaces were also used to grow vegetables, so that for years after the war, in front of buildings, you could see the vines of tomatoes laden with fruit, along with purple cabbage heads, as well as the green feathers of red onions scattered on the ground by rain.
There is a patriotic pop song that says: “Sarajevo will thrive, everything else will pass.” In a way, this verse is the living truth. Sarajevo survived and rebuilt itself, although its wounds are still deep and not completely healed.
There are people who believe that modernity ended with the Siege of Sarajevo and the city’s destruction. For me, that era is still ongoing and has no intention of ending. Sarajevo was burned to the ground in 1697 and again in 1992. My Sarajevo always has the power to begin again. That’s the city’s strength: its vitality. Sarajevo will thrive, everything else will pass.
Translated by S. D. Curtis
Faruk Šehić has been hailed as the leader of the “mangled generation” of authors born in 1970s Yugoslavia, and his books have achieved cult status with readers across the whole region. His books include the collection of short stories Under Pressure (2004, Eng. translation 2019, Istros Books) and the novel Quiet Flows the Una (2011, Eng. translation 2016, Istros Books). Šehić lives in Sarajevo and works as a columnist and journalist.