Sunday, October 22, 2006

The merciful, the compassionate

God is one, apparently.

I am standing next to Tarik. On my other side is a man standing so close to me, that our hands touch. In front of me is a row of men, behind me too. We are all lined up, as if we are reporting for army duty. It is Friday evening, the last Friday of Ramadan, and I am in a Mosque, and I am praying.

Lejla and Tarik are my oldest friends in Sarajevo, and I have been moaning to them for the last two years that I want to attend a service in a Mosque. Tarik complained that he harldy ever goes, and that he has sort of forgotten how it all goes. He says that Lejla and I have forced him to go to the service.
Once we are in the Mosque, I have the feeling as if everybody is watching me. However, there are more green-eyed blond guys like me in the Mosque. Lejla later tells me that Bosnian Muslims sometimes have difficulties getting in a Mosque in Arabic countries, since people there do not believe they are Muslims.
Tarik thankgod (thankallah) does know what to do, and he instructs me to do the same as he is doing. He calls it gymnastics. Thirtythree times we do a rikaat, which is a prayer that is part of terawih, which again is (part of) the evening prayer. It means thirty-three times bowing of the knees, sixty-six times touching the ground with your forehead and 45 minutes of sitting on your knees. It is hard work, the Islam.
In order not to look odd I murmer some prayers I know, and move my mouth when Tarik moves his mouth. He finds this hilarious.

Before the service a man is giving a sermon. He talks about how a good Muslim does not drink, how Allah is merciful and compassionate and that a devout Muslim takes an active part in public life. His words boil down to the same as clergymen on Saturday in Jerusalem say, or on Sunday in Rome.

After the service we have drinks. We are going out, so I call them 'Muslims light', and talk about the 'Sarajevo Islam'.
when I am walking home, at 02.00 and a bit drunk, I rethink the conversations we had about Islam that evening and the evenings before, and I start realising that calling them 'Muslims lights' is a bit unfair. They do live according to Islamic rules, but they interpret them so that those rules are no dogma's but guidelines in how to lead the life of a good person. The same as liberal Jews do with Jewish law, and most christians with christian rules.
I do not call my friends in Holland who go to church but do not live according to all Christian rules 'Christians light'. Islam in Sarajevo is just like Christianity in Holland: people here are predominantly Muslims, but it is not a constant issue. Unlike what sometimes in Western media is perceived, are not all Muslims constantly busy being a Muslim. At least not here. People are just lawyers, partymakers, drunks or feminists, and happen to be Muslims, too. In Holland this kind of attitude by Muslims towrads Islam is seen as the exception. Here it is the rule, and in my opinion a very healthy one. It is the same kind of rule by which people in Holland live.

All political correctness aside, I like the term Muslim light. Whenever Lejla lights a cigarette, ar Tarik has a drink, I will call them that. Just because I can, and just because they understand what it implies.

Labels: , ,

running track

Friday, October 20, 2006

Snipers Valley

I try to run at least twice a week. The run is not very long, about half an hour, but it leads me through some hilly terrain. It is enough to keep me in shape, but too short to call it training for a marathon.

The run leads me along the zoo, were I turn left and run through a street were all the houses that are there are still ruins. They were part of a hospital before the war- now they are just bombed-out rebble. Usually I am all by myself in that particular street. There is nothing to do, the road does not go somewhere interesting, and there is nothing to see. However, yesterday I was running there with Ian the Monitor, and there were a lot of cars. It was dark, but there were lights between the rebble. I have learned never to go into bombed houses or to walk over unmowed grass since there is a chance that it is still mined, so I was surprised to see a crowd antzing through the debris. We stopped at a van, where people were unloading boxes and asked what was going on. The persons we asked were very dismissive, almost hostile. We insisted, and eventualy, after we spoke Bosnian, German and English to them, they told us, in English with a leftenant Grueber kind of accent, that they were shooting a movie. Obviously it was a warmovie- why else would you weant to fim in this part of town? It was a German warmovie and they told us that the working title of the movie is "Snipers Valley". We laughed a bit, in surprise. Snipers Alley was a street in Sarajevo during the war, and it was for most internationals the epithomy of the ludacrisy of the war here. We asked whether they were sure that they did not meant "Snipers Alley", but they were adament that the name they gave us was right. We walked away, joking about the ignorance of the film makers. The next van we passed by had a sign KFOR on it. A new surprise for us, since KFOR is the UN military force in Kosovo- therefore not the kind of vehicles you would expect here. So again we asked, to a much friendlier guy this time. A bit embarrassed he told us that they were filming a movie about the 1999 war in Kosovo, but that Kosovo was quite well rebuilt after that war, and that Sarajevo in movies still looks like a better war zone......

You can be appalled by this. One can say that the international community and the Bosnian society have partly failed in rebuilding the country, especially compared to Kosovo. However, I would like to see it from a different perspective: every country has its attractions, with which it makes money. Holland has it tulips, BiH has it ruins. And if that makes the filmindustry work, and if it generates money, why rebuild this small part of town? However, personnaly I would have asked the German moviemakers to change the name of the film......

Monday, October 16, 2006


Nenad's mother died at the age of 93, the day before yesterday. Being born in the Second Balkan war of 1913 (which arguably was not fought in Bosnia proper, but in the terrirory of the empire it belonged to, and near enough Sarajevo to be politically affected by this war), she survived 4 wars in Europe- Second Balkan War, Worl War I, World War II and the civil war in the nineties of the last century. For someone like me, for whom the Second World war is 'the war', this is unimaginable. her death ends an era. In live she must have been a goldmine for historians.

I decide to go and pay my respect to her, by formally visiting Nenad. He lets me in, and offers me drinks- hard liquor. He and his friends have been drinking a bit already, and within moments we are talking football and Yugoslavia, despite his mother being in the room next to us. Nenad offers me a rakija, a home made brew with an alcohol percentage of over 40 percent. Rakija is a drink widely drunk by everybody in the country, on every occasion. With every glas we drink to the peace of his mothers soul. I do not want to be the one who breaks her peace, so I drink 4 glasses with them, although it is only two pm. After 4 glases I am afraid of my own peace, and I leave. Cynically I think that now Nenand can leave BiH if he wants to; however, I think he will never leave this country or city. Sarajevo tends to get under your skin. Under mine too.

Monday, October 09, 2006

One man's truth.... the other man's propaganda.

I went to Belgrade this weekend, and it was a confusing experience. Partially because of the female hosts, who were very charming, and partially because it made me realise that my view on the region is largely defined by the war in BiH. If not solely defined by that war.

Until 1991 Yugoslavia was just another eastern European state to me; a holiday place for my parents in the fifties, sixties and seventies. No more, no less. The break- up of the state and the war in BiH particularly where part of the rhythmn of European life when I was a teenager- I grew up with the news about it. In law school, the war was used in case studies, and as an intern at the ICTY it was my bread and butter. I never visited it when it was prosporous, and for a foreigner who works on war crime trials in BiH and who grew up watching the news about the war, it is still omnipresent here; it is my frame of reference. To cut a long story short, I have a horrible confession to make: BiH for me is not Ivo Andric, Dino Merlin, Danis Tanovic. It is not Haris Silajdzic, Vranac or Neum. It is not even Nenad, Gabelina 12 or propuh- it is it's recent history; it is 1992- 1995. I wish it was different, and I wish it was less pathetic, but it is a fact.

History is what you make of it, and it is often made by the journalists who write about it, and of the memories of people who lived it through. History is not an abstract science, where only facts count- a society is build up by the interpretation of those facts, the history. So my view of the war here is the view my friends give it, and their interpretation of the truth. And my friends live and lived in Sarajevo. And although they are surprisingly forgiving for what happenend here, and although they have very heterogenous groups of friends, and although they have been to Belgrade, their stories colour my picture of the Balkans, and even more than I was willing to admit. Since I am not from the Balkans, seeing the perspective that my friends have, and understanding the subtleties they understand is difficult; as a foreigner you tend to miss those. Things tend to stay black and white, even if you think they are grey.

Therefore Belgrade was an abstraction for me, further away than it actually geopgraphically is from Sarajevo. It was a mandatory place to see, but a trip to Morocco via Budapest and London was easier planned.

Belgrade was great. Our hosts were more than lovely, and they went out of their way to entertain and impress us. Their question why I never visited the city before, was therefore not just justified, but also painful, and at that moment impossible to answer. Maybe this blog is the answer.

Belgrade has its own history, linked to that of Sarajevo, but not by definition intertwined by it. And admittedly, the latter is was what I thought. It has its own war, the one of 1999. And I am sure that if I would live there, that that would be my frame of reference. The scars of that war look cleaner than the ones in Sarajevo; NATO laser guided bombs leave different marks than RPG and mortars. However, they are obviously there, in the city and in the minds of it's inhabitants.

As the outsider that I am in this region, it is unfair to be judgemental. By virtue of my work, it is impossible not be so. However, I can demand of myself not to make it cloud my opinions, and not to think in black and white about places I have never seen, and peoples I have never met,and situations I can not judge.

Therefore going to Belgrade was confusing: because of the hosts, and because it, and they, opened my eyes.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

A polling station, Maglaj


In front of home


So the monitors were monitored. And thus the elections took place in a dignified and orderly manner, but ofcourse not everybody is happy with the results. The Croat member of the Presidency Jovic for instance. He claims that the victory of his party is stolen by Bosniaks, and therefore he will not be a member of the Presidency any longer (I do not follow his rational...). He is quoted saying: "I am the Croat member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, otherwise something shocking and perhaps tragic wil happen to this country." "Everything is open and everything is possible after what has happened." Right, loosing is an art, and he does not master it.
Jokes aside, it is quite shocking to hear a politician, even a President, say this about the result of a democratic process. It is in my eyes more than the words of a dissapointed loosing polictician; those are threaths, and maybe even incitements to violence and. Threaths to people and to a society. But of course we should interpret his words in a different light, and see it in the light of the emotion of the moment and so on and so forth. Right.

It can be roughly argued that in the Federation the more moderate parties won, and in the RS, as expected, the party of Dodik, know for its nationalistic rethorics, won. Researchers from an NGO from Sarajevo called 'Alumni Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies' found that politicians during their campaigns here devoted an average of 1,5 % of their speeches to concrete issues, the rest was lost on rethorics. Interesting....

I could have made a difference here too, by the way- I almost voted....
Since we managed to loose the monitors we were monitoring within thirty seconds after leaving the parking lot of our hotel, we went on our own to a polling station, just to see what it was like.
When we were there, someone came up to me and asked whether I, since I was a foreigner, wanted to help an elderly woman vote -obviously I look very trustworthy. She had problems with her eyes, which I interpreted as her being illiterate, but it seemed to me that she knew who she wanted to vote for. The voting process however is quite cumbersome. You have to fill out 4 different forms, and it was not all clear what everything was (my Bosnian is existing, but not good enough to be able to understand everything). So when I entered the booth with her, it turned out that she did not have a clue about who she wanted to vote for- I could fill out whatever I wanted!! I do believe in civic duty, but this was a bit too much. I apologized, and went to the polling chief and told him to find someone else, who reads Bosnian better, in order to really help her.... I could have been big, if only....

So much for the elections. As far as I understand my friends, nothing will change now- maybe the seating in Parliament, but not the policy...

The weather has changed- winter is coming. The last week was warm, with a very warm wind, like a Mistral. Today it started raining. Non-stop.

Yesterday I saw the movie 'Balcancan'. If you ever have the opportunity to see it, do it. People here are very good at taking the piss out of themselves, and this movie excells at it. No matter how bad the situation is here, they manage to make very black jokes about it....
Tommorow off to Belgrade. If anyone has tips, please let me know.