Feb 182015
 

Erbil woke up this morning to news of a major Islamic State attack on the Peshmerga line defending the city, about 28 miles away, in villages along the road to Mosul. According to CNN, the attack began at 9pm last night, and the fighting was so close that coalition aircraft couldn’t bomb IS positions: the risk to Kurdish forces was too great. According to reports, had the thin defensive line broken there would be “little standing between ISIS and the Kurdish capital,” though it does seem the attack was less an offensive on Erbil and more of a diversionary provocation to draw the Peshmerga away from Mosul.

I came to Erbil more to get a sense of how a national identity coalesces after a period of trauma (basically the Kurds have been under attack for decades; they were famously gassed by Saddam Hussein amidst a genocidal eradication campaign after Operation Desert Storm, but also fought their own civil war in the 90’s and have been repeatedly persecuted by Turkey) than to learn about the effects of the emergence of the Islamic State. But the proximity of last night’s attack naturally made that more of an issue.

I couldn’t tell much from my hotel window, so I got online to see what the expats were talking about in an Erbil Facebook group I’d joined. Within 30 minutes of someone posting a link to the CNN article (CNN was ultimately the most authoritative source on the attack), there were more than 60 comments in the discussion. The mood was tense. First, there were several frantic requests for more information, and better sources. Then a plea to remain calm, mixed with some information via someone’s colleague who talked to a colonel on the front line basically confirming the CNN report. Then, I thought, the conversation took a strange turn. A few people started berating those who were posting information, saying that merely discussing the attack played into the IS propaganda machine; instead the narrative should be “the Peshmerga are attacking IS positions!” The conversation eventually reached a sort of equilibrium in which a few people shared false information (including one woman who claimed that planes couldn’t engage IS because the fighting was too close to Erbil – clearly untrue) and were quickly rebuked, most seemed to be more curious than concerned, and others continued to express general support for the Peshmerga and disapproval for sharing even objectively accurate news.

I’d had enough of that, so I went out and made for the center of Erbil, where the citadel – claimed to be the world’s “longest continuously inhabited urban area on earth [sic]” (Lonely Planet) – stands surrounded by Erbil’s bazaar, which yesterday was completely packed when I walked through just past noon. When I returned today just past noon, it was…packed. In fact, in no discernible way did today feel any different than before, somehow more disquieted, or subdued. Men sat together and drank tea, women browsed through book shops… at one point a couple of young kids walked by me and made it about 20 feet before they realized I was a foreigner and they could practice their English with me. “Hello!” they shouted. “How are you?” I turned and waved. As I continued around the citadel, I heard behind me perhaps the remaining extent of their English. “Thank you! I love you!”

So what is it like to be in a city 28 miles away from attackers the likes of IS? It’s hard to say, because it doesn’t seem to make sense to consider Erbil through that lens. Though it’s clear the Kurds in Erbil feel emotionally tied to their Peshmerga fighters (below, a picture of a Dodge Charger in a camo paint scheme and bearing the Kurdish flag, in honor, says the owner’s nephew, of Kurdistan’s militia), there’s no sense of hardship or of living under threat here. The normalcy is striking. I felt the same when I was in Sarajevo in 2010. Just 15 years after the city had been held under a choking siege while throughout the country Bosnian Serbs committed genocide against their Muslim neighbors, the dominant imagery of contemporary Sarajevo was that of young people hanging out in cafés, drinking coffee and watching soccer with friends, while others shopped for handbags in the city’s shiny new malls. I suppose the lesson here is: what else should you expect? I finished my walk thinking that Erbil today is yet another affirmation of the indomitable human spirit, a spirit that says “Thank you Peshmerga, fuck you ISIS,” and goes on about its day.

When I returned to the hotel I went back online to check the Facebook discussion. The attack had been definitively repulsed, but I was curious to see how things settled down, and if there was any new information. But when I logged on, the whole post was gone, erased in favor of a “Keep calm and support the Peshmerga” poster. On Facebook, just as on the street, it was as if the attack had never happened.

"Did you see my uncle's car?" Sarkawt asked as we munched popcorn in his small shop for men's clothes. "He painted it to honor the Peshmerga."

“Did you see my uncle’s car?” Sarkawt asked as we sat on plastic stools in his cramped men’s clothing shop, munching on freshly made popcorn. “He painted it to honor the Peshmerga.”

 

 Posted by on February 18, 2015 at 7:13 pm
Apr 082013
 

One of the last, and best, classes I took at Dartmouth was called War and Peace in the Modern Age. Though taught in the government department by an expert on nuclear weapons, it turned out to be one of the closest things to a comparative literature course that I took in my four years of undergrad. Nearly all of the course readings were first-person accounts of warfare, often in novel form. Here’s a bit of what the syllabus had to say about the assigned works: 

The readings are generally personal accounts that I assign to convey to you – to the extent possible – first-hand descriptions of what war is like. The biographical accounts of what took place in several wars are designed to help you develop a mental picture of war as a process conducted, for the most part, by people your own age. I hope the readings give you a sense of war through the eyes of 20-year olds.

Still, after reading My War Gone by, I Miss it So (which devoted fans of The Wander Years [hi mom and dad] will remember as the book that inspired me to go to Bosnia – you can read about that here) about halfway through the term, I started to wonder why it was important for anyone to have that “sense of war,” not necessarily as future policy makers, or writers, or military officers – not even as voters – but rather, simply as human beings. Of what value is it truly to expose ourselves to the frontiers of the human condition? I felt doing so was important to me, but could I make that case universally? Over the past four years, I’ve had a handful of “eureka” moments when the case for the “direct experience,” the exposure of our selves to the limits of humanity, has been abundantly clear. But the logic tends to slip away as quickly as it arrives, and I’m left again with nothing more than my personal conviction, the conviction that this exposure helps define what it means to be alive, and that finding this definition is one of life’s greatest goals. Recently, a dear friend gifted to me an out-of-print collection of some of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s essays and news dispatches. Besides writing The Little Prince, Monsieur de Saint-Exupéry spent time as a war reporter, covering among other things the Spanish Civil War for a handful of French newspapers. More than just answering the question of whether The Little Prince was an isolated incident of genius, his reports from the Spanish fronts bring us closer to understanding the significance of human consciousness:

Human events display two faces, one of drama and the other of indifference. Everything changes according as the event concerns the individual or the species. In its migrations, in its imperious impulses, the species forgets its dead. This, perhaps, explains the unperturbed faces of these peasants. One feels that they have no special taste for horror; yet they will come back from that clump of trees on the one hand content to have administered their kind of justice, and on the other hand quite indifferent to the fate of the girl who stumbled against the root of the tree of death, who was caught by death’s harpoon as she fled, and who now lies in the wood, her mouth filled with blood.

Here I touch the inescapable contradiction I shall never be able to resolve. For man’s greatness does not reside merely in the destiny of the species: each individual is an empire. When a mine caves in and closes over the head of a single miner, the life of the community is suspended.

His comrades, their women, their children, gather in anguish at the entrance to the mine, while below them the rescue party scratch with their picks at the bowels of the earth. What are they after? Are they consciously saving one unit of society? Are they freeing a human being as one might free a horse, after computing the work he is still capable of doing? Ten other miners may be killed in the attempted rescue: what inept cost accounting! Of course, it is not a matter of saving one ant out of a colony of ants! They are rescuing a consciousness, an empire whose significance is incommensurable with anything else.

Inside the narrow skull of the miner pinned beneath the fallen timber, there lives a world. Parents, friends, a home, the hot soup of evening, songs sung on fast days, loving kindness and anger, perhaps even a social consciousness and a great universal love, inhabit that skull. By what are we to measure the value of a man? His ancestor once drew a reindeer on the wall of a cave; and two hundred thousand years later that gesture still radiates. It stirs us, prolongs itself in us. Man’s gestures are an eternal spring. Though we die for it, we shall bring up that miner from his shaft. Solitary he may be, universal he surely is.

Addendum: The more I learn about it, the more I realize how significant an event the Spanish Civil War was, despite the prevalent narrative about very little happening in the world between the World Wars. At the very least, it inspired some great literature and art, including Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. And while I’ve never been a student of art history, Guernica is one of the first paintings I can remember learning about.

Addendum: On the subject of war reporting broadening our understanding of humanity and all its definitions, I can’t help but to include this passage from Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone by, I Miss it So: 

As darkness fell a young woman staggered weeping up the street and collapsed into the arms of those sheltering behind the Swedes. Friends managed somehow to extract the story of what had happened to her – the rape – and told the Swedes that her paralyzed father still lay in the apartment block. We went with a Swedish patrol to find him, carrying him back to the other Muslims for his final night of life. The idea of some things is enough to jam your mind, let alone seeing the reality. If you read about it in the newspaper you may not feel it, you may fall for the empty sterility of the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ without ever understanding what it really was: persuasion through terror. After the war had finished one of the columnists who wrote about Bosnia without ever having been there offered the opinion that ‘ethnic cleansing’ was a good idea as it led to the definition of peaceful borders similar to those between Britain and Scotland. He seemed very pleased with this comparison. Perhaps if he had his youngest child raped beside his death bed, he would have a different view.

 Posted by on April 8, 2013 at 3:48 pm
Aug 112011
 

Well this is interesting. Shared a cab with a Danish guy named Daniel from the guesthouse to the bus station, stopping along the way to take a picture of the statue of Bill Clinton (seriously, they love America here. There are American flags all over the place. As I noted in a FB status, this and Albania may be the only foreign countries where Canadians should, as a rule, say they’re American instead of the other way around). The cab dropped us off about 100 yards outside the bus station and we had to walk in. Daniel’s heading to Skopje as well and we both needed tickets (buses run to Skopje about ever hour so we both figured we’d just get here and then figure things out). But before we’d gotten far, a driver in a smallish bus stopped and yelled to us, “Skopje?” We looked at each other, then back at him and said, ” Uhhh, yeah?” and he took our bags and ushered us into the bus. We doubted that is standard operating procedure even here, so we confirmed twice that the bus was in fact heading to Skopje, but it still felt a bit suspect, and we were both glad we weren’t alone.

That was about 15 minutes ago. Now we’re parked at an actual platform at the station, and things feel a bit more legitimate. Some guy even came by and made us walk unto the station to get tickets. We’d already paid the driver (he gave us our money back), but I think the guy wanted to be sure the station got its 50-cent station fee. We should be leaving for Skopje in a few minutes now.

***

Having an iced mocha now at Caffè di Roma in the place where people in Skopje hang out at night. Somewhat eclectic soundtrack – heard Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Deep” for the 14th time this trip (I’ve been counting [update from Belgrade: 16 times, now]), which was followed by Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.” Ok, but the current song, Creed’s “Higher” is an interesting choice. A few more thoughts on Pristina before I write a bit about Skopje. I’ve been trying to think of what it is exactly that makes a city seem poor. Maybe this is an obvious question, but what are the specific things we process to arrive at that conclusion? I think it’s more than physical indicators: old and poorly maintained cars, obstacle-courses-for-sidewalks, exposed wiring in even nice restaurants’ (Home’s) bathrooms. I’m not sure why, but I don’t feel satisfied by that kind of explanation. Besides, my thought wasn’t that Pristina looked poor, but that it felt that way (the word “poor” feels like a perjorative, but I can’t think of another way to say it right now, so that’s what I’ll use), so that feeling has more to do with an aura than the city’s physical state. As in Podgorica, I had this nearly overwhelming sense of joylessness walking around during the day. Not that there was an abundant feeling of sadness, just an absence of happiness. Perhaps I was naive to expect a palpable excitement in the air now four years after Kosovo’s independence, but Pristina lacked that “new country” feeling, if such a feeling exists. On that note, I didn’t see nearly as many UN or NATO vehicles out on the streets as I thought there’d be. I think their presence would have lent more of an air of the excitement I was expecting.

Finally, the word that’s come to mind today when people I’ve talked to have asked me about Pristina is “dusty.” In part because the roads are mostly crumbling and because the climate is rather arid, plus the total lack of any kinds of emissions standards, the air in Pristina is laden with particulates. Yes this is of course a physical feature, but just as the word aura is related to the word air, this physical atmospheric condition has, I think, a depressing effect on the figurative one.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what I expected of Pristina, so I can’t say if I got it or not. I’m definitely glad I went, but I’m also glad to be writing this entry from Skopje.

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 Posted by on August 11, 2011 at 6:45 am
Aug 112011
 

I suppose I should write a little about Zagreb. Sabina and I had a bit of a disaster getting there when the guy at the info booth in the train station neglected to mention that Funk Lounge (where we were staying) is not the same as Funk Hostel (where he sent us), so we ended up walking 20 minutes to the wrong place, only to find we were supposed to have gone about 30 minutes in the opposite direction. Fortunately there was a tram line that went from near where we were to the right hostel, but it was about 8:30 pm, and – wow, lightning directly overhead… hope this bus is in good shape (not likely) – and all the places to get tickets were closed. By now we were pretty tired, hungry, and frustrated, so we decided to chance the control and hopped on the tram sans tickets. Aside from having to wait 25 minutes for the damned #5, it all worked out just fine.

Perhaps better than fine, as on the way from the tram stop to Funk Lounge, we ran into Wendy, a British girl who was also staying there. We invited her to join us for dinner, she showed us the way to the hostel, and we were off after checking in.

Wendy proved to be one of the most entertaining people I’ve met in a while. From northern England, she described events as “mental” and a group of people as “just ace.” She’d been traveling for the better part of the past year and had an endless collection of stories to tell. She’d been in Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls, and honestly, I’d put her account of it right up there with Hemingway’s.

Funk Lounge was one of the nicer hotels I’ve been to. The fact that it had opened three weeks before we got there probably had something to do with that. The bed was amazingly comfortable, and the great night’s sleep I got there played a big role in deciding to stay for two days. Zagreb itself – well, there’s not much to say about Zagreb. Like Austria, Croatia makes me a bit uncomfortable. I feel it’s managed to go largely blameless for its role in the Balkans Wars (never mind the role of its fascist ustaša in WWII), and through an aggressive marketing campaign, it’s attracted enough tourists to get away with charging Western European prices in a still very much Eastern European country.

The bus was a few minutes late, but now I’m on it and bound for Kosovo. For some reason, I always get a bit of a thrill when I begin a flight or bus ride at night – it’s somehow more adventuresome. Am I crazy to take a bus that will get into Priština at 3 am, crossing the border into Kosovo sometime around midnight? Maybe, but I think it’s going go be awesome.

[Wrote this part from Skopje]

I enjoyed my time in Zagreb. Wendy ended up being in the same room as Sabina and me, plus this other guy we we pretty convinced was part of the Russian mob and was in gown for some sort of drug deal. He left his stuff but didn’t show up the second night, so things must have gone poorly for him. Sabina, Wendy and I hung out in the Old Town in the morning – I got amazingly delicious (and cheap!) blackberries from a giant fruit market – before Wendy left to catch her bus to Belgrade. It’s funny how quickly you get to know people when you travel with them – I can’t believe it was only 14 hours from when we met Wendy to when she left. Had a lazy afternoon after that. We went to the cathedral formerly known as St. Stephen’s, where the Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, Croatia’s religious leader during WWII, alleged Nazi collaborator, and nationalistic symbol of Croatia is buried. The more time in spend in the Balkans, the more I believe Croats to be the most dangerously nationalistic people in the region.

Sabina was really fun to travel with. She studied English in college and now teaches high school English and math (makes sense), so she’s totally fluent. Every once in a while I dropped a strange idiom and she either got them all or is great at faking it. It’s funny, too, how conversing with a non-native English speaker – regardless of his or her fluency – makes you aware of the peculiarities of the language. It also changes your accent. After three days with Sabina and Wendy and being diligent about good articulation, I already had that vaguely English (ie. ‘proper’) accent that Americans get when they’ve been out of the country for a while. It’s crazy how quickly that happens – and I didn’t realize it until I met another American and felt my American accent come back. So that was Zagreb, and the next day I was on the train to Banja Luka.

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Such a classy hostel!

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Getting dinner in Zagreb with Sabina and Wendy. Though we all ordered the same beers, theirs were served in "girly" glasses. It reminded me of my trip to India, where I was (rather uncomfortably) given preferential treatment (I was the only white male of the 5 officers), earning myself the nickname Bosswalla. So it goes.

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Oops. I thought I'd ordered pasta...

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I think this one was still alive...

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Zagreb Cathedral, final resting place of nationist symbol Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac

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Irrelevant, yes, but I liked this picture, so it's in the blog.

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The only hostel I've been to that gives you fresh watermelon in the afternoon!

 Posted by on August 11, 2011 at 6:19 am
Aug 112011
 

On the miniest of buses now, heading to Srebrenica. 20 seats, but it’s smaller than the 15-passenger bus I sometimes drive for admissions. We were supposed to leave two minutes ago, but so far I’m the only one on it. Today, I think, is going to be a real adventure.

Stopped at a roadside restaurant now, despite the fact that we’re supposed to be in Srebrenica in 5 minutes. I’ve dozed most of the way. A few passengers have come and gone. Currently another woman and I make up the bus’s human cargo – I’m guessing we’ll be it until Srebrenica. I’m not sure having 3 hours there will be worth the 6-7 hour round trip, but I would have been disappointed if I didn’t go, so so be it. Right now, it’s nice to be out of the bus for a bit. It’s a beautiful day.

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Because anything else was not an option

11:20 as an arrival time must have been a typo. Getting dinner now at To Be To Be, a restaurant in Sarajevo that crossed out the “Or Not” during the siege and kept the modified title after the war. I came here last year (and in fact sat at the same table), but it’s a fitting place to eat after today, I think.

So I arrived at the town of Srebrenica just before 1 and caught a cab to the memorial some 8 km away. The memorial is not much more than an open-air mosque and a cemetery, but when I entered, rounded the small visitors’ building and saw the expanse of gravestones before me, I was so overcome with sadness that I wept. I didn’t expect that. But then, I suppose you can’t know what to expect when you’re confronted by a physical representation of more than 8,000 victims of a massacre that lasted less than 24 hours while dozens of impotent Dutch UN soldiers stood idly by. Many graves were freshly dug – an investigative team did not even begin uncovering bodies until 2002, and the process is ongoing.

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While moving, there wasn’t exactly that much to see at the memorial, so after about an hour, I shared a cab with an Italian named Roberto back to Srebrenica. I found out later that I could have wandered into the old UN station which was in an abandoned factory across the road. I’m sorry I missed it, but that’s ok.

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Entire families were eliminated in the single greatest act of genocide since WWII.

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In the small museum donated by the US - a worker holds the hand of a victim buried 7 years earlier.

I’d found out earlier that there was a bus back to Sarajevo at 4:30 (thought I’d have to take one at 3:15), so I had, thankfully, some time to spend. Roberto and I got lunch at a small restaurant, where an American about my age overheard my American accent and introduced herself. In brief, she and another woman there are working for an NGO called BosFam, a women’s advocacy org founded during the war. It was nice to meet some people connected with the current state of affairs here in Bosnia.

Before long, I had to leave to catch my bus. At the station, I learned that my return ticket was actually for the earlier bus. Sarajevo has, naturally, two bus stations (one Serb, one for the Federation) served by a two different bus companies. That is, quite simply, the way of things here. It ended up being fine – the ticket to the central bus station cost as much as the cab ride back from Lukavica (the Serb station I’d come from in the morning) would have been, so I didn’t mind shelling out the 20 KM. And it was a much more comfortable bus, AND it got in 30 minutes faster. Total round trip for the day: 7 1/2 hours. Still, I’m glad I went. This is something I’ll probably be processing for some time.

Going to head back to the hostel now. Heading to Podgorica, Montenegro in the morning, then catching a night bus to Priština. I’ll should get there at about 3 am (I guess I can hope that bus is late?), occupy myself until morning, and stay one night in Kosovo’s capital before exiting the country into Macedonia.

 Posted by on August 11, 2011 at 5:53 am
Aug 072011
 

Sitting along a little brook at a small restaurant in Mostar, trying to have a quick dinner before I’m off to meet Andrew Rayner. I’d really like to shower before I go (it was brutally hot this afternoon and I’m feeling kind of gross), but I’m supposed to meet him in 30 minutes and I just ordered, so I don’t think that’s going to happen. I should have planned this better.

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Andrew giving some direction during a break in rehearsal. Note the setting.

Came in at about 3 on the bus from Sarajevo. Two other people on the bus (Australians, naturally) were going to my same hostel, so we waited together at the station to be picked up. Got to Majda’s and was instantly glad to be back. I think I ended up not writing much about Mostar on my last trip (hopefully Slovenia won’t experience the same fate this time!) so I’ll be sure to detail both the city and Hostel Mayda’s, the “Best Small Hostel in the World 2009,” according to HostelWorld. One of my first activities of the afternoon was meeting Andrew, who’s here in Mostar working with Dartmouth’s Professor Emeritus Andrew Garrod on a production of The Tempest. I hung out for a bit watching the students rehearse in the remains of the city’s old university library. It was a a moving sight. Andrew and I then made plans to meet again later. Before getting dinner, I decided to check out the ‘sniper tower,’ a former bank that was thoroughly gutted in the war and, with its commanding views of the front line, became a popular sniper’s nest. Some pictures:

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Alone at sunset in a building filled with debris, broken glass, and other remnants of war, I was a bit on edge.

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Bullet shells. 16 years after the war, they still litter the floors of the former bank. It was difficult - nearly impossible - to stand their and truly fathom what they represented.

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The sniper tower isn't a museum. It doesn't have open hours or an infomation desk, and it definitely doesn't have handrails.

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In the back on the top floor, a ladder to the roof

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...and a great view of a park on the Croat side of the city. One of the strangest things about Bosnia is the inescapable juxtaposition between physical evidence of a devasating war and the relaxed, happy, "Balkan" way its citizens go about their lives. I've spent three weeks in Bosnia and I still find it jarring.

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Also in view, UWC Mostar, an experiment in combining Croat and Bosniak educations in a still-divided country.

[Next day now, after beers with Andrew and Katie, D’11, the night before and then a slow morning]

Met Andrew at 4 but he’s got a production meeting at 5, so now we’re going to meet again at 9. The plan is go to go karaoke and then apparently there’s a foam party tonight. In Mostar. In a cave. I’m either too old for this, or it’s too potentially awesome to pass up. Obviously “too awesome” is winning now, but we’ll see what happens later tonight.

So now I’m having a cappuccino in a café attached to one of Mostar’s nicest hotels. These are the kinds of places I come to when I just want to sit quietly and detach myself from my environment for a while. I’m even listening to my own music for maybe the first time on this trip (except for “Bratislava” in Bratislava). Things would be just about perfect if not for this little fly that keeps landing on my feet.

It’s a rather dreary day today, somewhat unusual for Mostar. It’s supposed to be sunny and 93 tomorrow. So I spent the first part of the day at the hostel, getting to know some of my fellow travelers and taking care of some things for work. It’s nice I can get away, but it’s also difficult to be out for a month with so much going on. I’m really appreciative the office let me be gone for so long, though.

Hostel Majda’s is quite literally one of the best hostels in the world. She converted an apartment in an otherwise drab tower into one of the coziest spaces imaginable, and she and her staff dedicate themselves tirelessly to ensuring her guests are comfortable. Case in point: while I was emailing this morning, Amina up and offered to make a cappuccino for me, free of charge. But the better example of the hospitality of Majda and co. is fro last year while in Dubrovnik, Croatia (a postcard of a town, but totally skip-able if you ask me), I made a reservation at Majda’s. Unfortunately, I didn’t have email access after that, so I missed the emails from Majda asking when I was getting in so that she could send someone to pick me up. When I arrived in Mostar the next day amid a light rain, I took a deep breath and started walking the ~2 km to the hostel, but before I even made it out of the station, I was stopped by a woman calling my name. I can’t remember her name now – in fact, I don’t think I ever heard it correctly – but she’d come down to the station just because “we thought you might be coming in now.” then, I remember, we proceeded to speak in French (she’d worked in France) about Michael Moore and healthcare in America before getting to the hostel, where she made me coffee and gave me a piece of cake. Such was my introduction to Majda’s, and it should be no surprise that I’m back for 4 nights. The hotel is also known for Bata’s (Majda’s brother) tours of the city and the surround area, including some of the most beautiful places in Europe. That’s tomorrow, and I’m very much looking forward do it.

Seriously, is Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down (Interpol) just about a perfect song or what?

So back to Sarajevo, and maybe I can even write about Slovenia today!

 Posted by on August 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm
Aug 052011
 

(At Vinoteka now, one of my favorite restaurants from my last trip to the Balkans).

A few incidences in my relatively short life have convinced me that difficult journeys often yield rich rewards. This is true on two levels. The first is simple: arriving at any destination after having a hard time getting there is, well, nice. It’s a challenge overcome. Maybe poor planning put me in a difficult situation, but I worked my way out of it, and that invariably feels good. The second is a bit harder to define, because the cause and effect relationship is far from clear. Time and again, though I’ve found that good things happen after a difficult journey. My faith in this phenomenon is nearly absolute – it’s one of the reasons I chose to come back to the Balkans. This trip is more challenging than some (less, of course, than others), and, as a result, better or more interesting things will happen on it, as if by some force not unlike Karma. In fact, I’m a bit mystified as to how or why this kind of thing consistently occurs, but it’s getting to the point where I’ll deliberately embark on more difficult ventures because I believe the payoff on the other side will be greater. Perhaps confirmation bias is responsible for such a belief, or maybe it’s just that difficult travel depresses my emotional state, so a rise at its end would be more dramatic. Regardless, perception in this case equals reality, and I’ve almost come to expect (seemingly) extraordinary things to happen after a trying series of events.

(An alternative explanation is that I’m just easily pleased or tend toward gratefulness, which would lead me to be overly delighted in perhaps normal, quotidian occurrences. Not that I’d consider that a bad thing.)

In the case of Banja Luka, that “great thing” was the hostel owner, Vladimir. Vladimir is a Serb (though his name is Russian), 27, who grew up in the RS, the Serb part of Bosnia and Herzegovina as defined by the Dayton Accords, the agreement that ended the war in 1995. He’s got a degree in programming (that would, in all probability, allow him to work in nearly any country), is the son of a former RS intelligence officer, is curious about people and about the world, and above all, is wonderfully social. I came back to Bosnia hoping to engage even just a few people in conversation about the current state of affairs here; I didn’t expect anyone I met to also talk so freely of the past, and I certainly didn’t expect that person to be among the first I met here.

Our conversation started about cycling (I was wearing a T-shirt with a bike on it when I checked in, and Vladimir, among other things, runs a small store where he sells bicycles), but quickly (I don’t remember how, exactly) shifted to politics, a near-impossible subject to broach here (hence, if this wasn’t obvious already, my delight). The conversation was clearly going to last for a while, so we went to the bar just downstairs, I offered to buy him a beer (he got juice, instead), and we talked for nearly 90 minutes. If anything, I wish the conversation had been just a bit shorter, as it was nearly impossible for me to remember everything we talked about. Here is a cleaned-up version of my notes, which I took later that afternoon.

On happiness: Apart from politics, Vladimir and I spent a good deal of time talking about happiness. In the RS, he told me, the average workday is about 4 hours. That’s it. That leaves lots of time for, well, just about anything else. Last year, I wrote a bit about Belgrade’s café culture and how spending a few hours at a café is part of almost everyone’s day. Just today Vlad’s had coffee with friends 3 times. “If I have a problem with something, I talk about it with my friends, and I’m better. So psychotherapist here, he is poor man!” While the problems with a 4-hour work day don’t need much extrapolation (after 10 years of construction, a highway project in BiH has maxed out at 30 kilometers, for example) happiness and our gross misconceptions of how to obtain it is a favorite subject of mine, so it was interesting to hear Vladimir’s take on it. But then things got a bit more serious.

On the current political situation: “It’s not that we (Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks) hate each other, it’s that we don’t trust each other.” I wonder, though, is constant suspicion that different from hate? That which we call a rose / By any other name…

On the war: According to Vladimir, the war wasn’t about religion. It was about money. Foreigners wanted access to markets Yugoslavia was doing well in, so money poured into nationalistic organizations, which in turn convinced the nations they were enemies of each other. “Yet to understand what happened you must understand 1000 years of history.” Like many in the region, Vladimir seemed nostalgic for the Tito era, when, despite clear differences between them, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs all got along, the economy worked, etc. In hindsight, it’s clear (to me) that the situation was rather untenable. I didn’t push Vladimir here – I was more interested in hearing his unfiltered take on history – but talking about foreign influences without mentioning Tito’s death and the collapse of the unifying ideology of communism is, well, incomplete. Still, I think there’s a lot of truth to his claim that the media is incapable of portraying two “good guys” fighting each other – there must always be one good guy and one bad guy, and the Serbs have always been the bad guy.

On unification (between the Federation and the Republika Srpska): Not going to happen. Ever. As soon as the US, Germany and France stop paying attention, the RS will “be a new country.” In a test referendum, ~95% of respondents in the RS would vote for independence, says Vladimir. I didn’t ask him about turnout for that test… In 1992, about 64% of Bosnians turned out for their referendum; 99% voted for independence. Vladimir says the 2 (or 3) sides are simply incapable of talking to each other. “In the Federation, they want Sharia law. I’m Orthodox Christian – I don’t want that in my country… the sides will never agree.” His prediction? “In the next ten years, there will be a war for an independent RS.” Would the RS ever join with Serbia? “We’d like that. Serbia is like our mother… but no – it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond, and the RS would just be a little part of Serbia. It would be better to be independent.”

On the difference between religion and ethnicity: “This is the only place in the world where your religion is your ethnicity. If I were to become Muslim, the Serbs would say, ‘You’re not one of us. You’re Bosniak.'” Vlad’s father, who was in “the intelligences” during the war, says you can’t even criticize the Orthodox Church – it’s un-Serb. But Vladimir has his criticisms. Overall, he struck me as very open minded, and being so is something that’s clearly important to him. He opened a hostel in large part because he likes talking to others, especially foreigners, and hearing their perspectives. Still, it was surreal to have a conversation with someone who has a totally different version of history than I, yet has completely rational opinions in the context of that history. It’s not as if Vladimir understands the history of the Balkans exactly the same way I (and the West) does and has simply drawn crazy conclusions – it would be easy to dismiss that. But it’s clear Vladimir is both intelligent and well-educated – he was a serious pleasure to talk to – yet he does not think Ratko Mladic is really a criminal, for example, and he believes accounts (or stories) of extreme brutality during the war tone overhyped partial truths, which are, he says, more dangerous than complete fabrications. I should also mention here his line about how Serbs are such experienced fighters (they’d been fighting ever 10-50 years for the past millennium), they (the Serbs) were looking forward to fighting the US, but, he said, with a hint of regret I found only mildly discomforting, “the US only attacked from the air.”

On governance: The biggest problem with BiH is that is has 14 governments (if I’m not mistaken, they are those of the RS, the Federation, the independent Brčko Canton, the nine cantons of the Federation, and then the country as a whole), and they all must agree for anything to get done. That of course, is impossible. Of all the political entities, Vlad says, the RS is the most functional because it is unified and only has one government – whatever Banja Luka decides, goes. The same isn’t true for the rest of the country. [So far, there are two potential thesis projects from this trip: the genesis of BiH’s government as created by the Dayton Accords and prospects for its longterm stability; and the differences in primary and secondary education between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs in BiH and their effects on identity, historical memory and nationalism]. Vlad says people in BiH are paying a lot of attention to Belgium, another European country divided between two nations, to see how such a government might be able to function. I noted that Belgium hasn’t had a government for more than 300 days. “400,” he corrected me, “just a couple of days ago.” It was unclear whether or not he found this discouraging.

On Mostar: One of the things I’m most interested in is trying to figure out how exactly Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks consider their differences, given the close links between religion and nationality here. Vladimir seemed to answer that earlier when he said they’re basically completely synonymous. Still, I asked him about religious icons as nationalistic symbols – for instance, in Mostar it seems to me the crosses in town are less a symbol of Christianity and more about being Croat. I don’t think Vladimir understood my question — there really is no distinction here. But he did offer his take on Mostar – the Muslims and Croats were in competition. “First the church was here,” holding his hand over the table, “then minarets went to here,” holding his other hand higher, “then church was higher, than minarets… and then finally the Croats got a hill and put a cross on it. The Muslims don’t have a hill, so they lost. I’m waiting for them to get a helicopter and carry a minaret up into the air!”

So went our first discussion. I’ll write more about Vladimir later. For now, I’m obliged to note that once again, I’ve received free liquor after asking for my check, though, as this is my second time at Vinoteka, I rather expected it. Bosnia’s herb brandy is, at any rate, a powerful digestif. For the record, €21, including tip, for wine, entree, dessert and brandy at a very, very fine restaurant. But now it’s off to my film. The one I wanted to see was already sold out, but Broken Mussels, a Turkish film, looks promising.

 Posted by on August 5, 2011 at 12:45 pm