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A Lament for Sarajevo (Part 1)

April 23, 2004


By Gene Glickman

Like most people, I view the recent history of Bosnia & Herzegovina as a great tragedy. But it has a personal poignancy for me because my family and I lived in Sarajevo during the academic year 1969-70 and I have been back many times since then. I have many friends from there, many of whom I do not now know their whereabouts or even whether they are dead or alive.In the late 1960’s I had been drawn to Yugoslavia because of its unique brand of socialism, its independence from military blocs, and its live folk culture. Since I would be on sabbatical leave from the Music Department at Nassau Community College, I wrote to the Sarajevo Academy of Music and was invited to teach there. My family lived as ordinary residents of the city. My three girls, for instance (then aged 6, 8 and 10) all attended the local elementary school. We rented an apartment from a local woman, who stayed at her parents’ apartment while we occupied hers.

Memories of Sarajevo

My initial contact with the Academy of Music was a letter I wrote in September 1968, stating my experience and qualifications. I said that my family and I would like to live, and I would like to teach, in Sarajevo. In about a month I received a reply asking if I would like to teach two two-week seminars. I immediately replied in the negative, saying that my family and I hoped to live there for nine or ten months. I didn’t hear from them for a considerable period of time. When the reply finally did come and it began “Dear Colleague,” I knew things would work out. They apologized for the delay, saying that “such discussions take much time,” and offered me a year’s appointment. I accepted immediately.

When we arrived in September we made contact with the Dean of the Academy of Music, Teodor Romanić, who showed us to our flat. The latter was in a small apartment house complex in a western suburb. We lived on the second floor, sharing the floor with an across-the-aisle neighboring family. The apartment itself was a four-room box. It had three all-purpose rooms in three of its corners; a small kitchen and bathroom occupied the fourth. (There was hot water only in the bathroom.) Each of the all-purpose rooms had convertible furniture; they were sitting rooms during the day and bedrooms at night. Dean Romanicґ also put us in touch with a neighbor of his who taught English — Milica Kajević — who had agreed to help orient us about Yugoslav language and culture.

Sarajevo lies in the valley of the Miljačka, a shallow river which wanders through the city in a generally East-West direction; many foot bridges and a few automobile bridges cross it. The city is surrounded almost entirely by high mountains, which is why it made such an admirable Winter Olympics site. It has three distinct architectural styles, arranged concentrically and chronologically. The oldest and smallest was Baљ čarsija — a maze of alleys with small handicraft shops and market places, surrounded by one- and two-story Turkish-style houses, dating from the era of Turkish control. Further west along the Miljačka were rather pompous Austrian edifices. Then, spreading out north and west were post World War II industrial buildings and high and low-rise apartment complexes. It was in one of these that my family and I stayed.

Snapshots of Sarajevo: My Neighborhood

Our apartment house was one of several in an area known as “Čengić Vila,” named for the wealthy family who had owned all the land in the area and had had a villa there in pre-revolutionary days. We lived on Palmiro Toljatija Street, named after the Italian Communist leader.
On the day we arrived, my children decided to go exploring. As they reached the outer door, as if by magic they were surrounded by forty or fifty curious kids. My girls were like an amoebic nucleus: when they moved, the entire juvenile mass shifted with them.

My children attended the local school. On its first day, three Yugoslav children appeared. It was their self-appointed job to escort my kids around and show them the ropes. Because English was the preferred second language, with instruction in it starting in an early grade, they accomplished this with a certain amount of ease. (Dean Romanić explained to me that, as citizens of a small country, they felt obliged to know one or more “major” languages. The oldest seemed to lean toward French or German, middle-aged people toward Russian, and the young ones toward English. Our neighbors were of all three major ethnicities — Serb, Croat and Muslim — often in mixed marriages. Ethnicity was rarely stressed: often we didn’t know someone’s ethnicity, or we found out about it incidentally. Our across-the-hall neighbors were Muslims and I was touched to see on their wall a picture of Moљa Pijade, a leading Communist then already deceased, who was Jewish, as am I. There was no ethnic segregation, nor was there income or status segregation. In addition to the Romanić family and the Kajević, both of whom were cultured and well-educated, one of our neighbors was a janitor, another was a bus driver, etc.

Our neighbors were actually neighborly: the way baby-sitting was handled, for instance, was that when we wanted to go out, we informed our neighbors and left our door open, so they could listen for our kids. As the postman made his rounds, he carried gossip as well as mail. So within a few days everyone knew of us and curiosity and support were both unbounded.

My neighbor and I often played chess in his apartment. Normally he and his wife were very calm and fairly reticent. But one time we happened to start speaking about World War II. The wife lifted up her skirt to show me her war wound and spoke vociferously about the invaders. I learned afterwards that virtually every Sarajevo family had lost someone in World War II.

Sights often seen from the window: someone beating household rugs on a crossbar set up for that purpose, teenagers playing soccer using this same crossbar as a goal post, two men sitting on a bench playing chess, two children sharing one pair of skates, two young men playing badminton without a net, sheep attended by their shepherd eating the grass around the apartment house. In the warmer months we (along with everyone else) had a marvelous view of the surrounding mountains; in the winter they were totally obscured by the smog generated by the widespread use of locally mined soft coal.

During the winter snows, vehicles similar to oil trucks arrived from hot springs in Ilidћa (the town just to the west of Sarajevo), loaded with hot water with which to melt the ice-bound streets. During the spring, one of these same trucks participated in the making of a TV beer commercial. After the shooting of the commercial was concluded, with many gallons of beer left over, it pulled up at our housing complex to give away beer. Everyone dashed for jars and pitchers to gather up the goodies and an impromptu party developed. (Trucks pulling other trucks were known as “slepers,” a pseudo-Yiddishism I found endearing.)

I didn’t actually experience this, but I was told that there were actually several families in the complex who kept goats in their bathtubs. Whether or not it was true, the story symbolized the rapid demographic transition Sarajevo was then experiencing. It had tripled in size since World War II.

Snapshots of Sarajevo: Everyday Life

The city operated at a very slow pace, probably inherited from the Turkish era. I was a told that during earlier times the postman would sit at a local pub while people brought him mail to deliver. He would place the mail carefully under his bottom and stay seated until the pile got too high; then he would deliver the mail. One of the things I learned over the year was patience — a very hard lesson for a New Yo
rker. Here are some manifestations of the atmosphere:

People got around Sarajevo mainly by means of the trams — electric trolleys dating from the Austrian period (The Austrians experimented with the tram system in Sarajevo before installing it in Vienna). (The trams could not climb the many foothills, however, because many side streets simply turned into stairways. For these parts of the city there were buses.) Often the trams’ electricity would flicker out and people would sit and schmooze while waiting for it to go on again. I also witnessed several incidents where someone on a tram would be reading the newspaper over a stranger’s shoulder, and they would get into a conversation about the news item.

My friend Midћat Riđanovic, who had a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Michigan and who taught English at the University of Sarajevo, told me that time was reserved at each department meeting for joke-telling. Sarajevo seemed to be a joking city. Many were told about a hapless Bosnian Everyman to who would occur such mishaps as an accidental fall into the Miljačka.

A typical joke: A married couple was going to have a baby. They went to a local craftsman and put down a deposit on a cradle, but when the baby came the cradle wasn’t ready. So the couple made do without, and then as the baby grew up they forgot about it. When it became an adult and in turn got married and was expecting, the prospective grandparents suddenly remembered the cradle they had ordered, and went to claim it. But when they reminded the craftsman about their order, he slammed their deposit onto the counter, shouting, “I will not be rushed!”

Every day in the late afternoon there was “korzo” (taken from the Italian word “corso”) – a time when virtually the entire population strolled around town on the main drag — Marshall Tito street. Each family group greeted friends and acquaintances, teenagers eyed each other and joked together. This was a long-standing custom in every Yugoslav city and town I visited.

The national coffee drink was the strong and sweet turska kava — Turkish coffee; every business or social transaction required it. An elaborate ritual surrounded its service: the guest would get most of the bubbly surface and cubes of sugar would be passed around. It was a common sight on the street to see a waiter carrying turska kava on a tray to some gathering or another.

When what I thought the beginning of the academic year had arrived, I was anxious to start teaching, but each time I approached Dean Romanić he told me to “come back next week.” Finally, in the second week of October, I began. I taught my classes through a non-professional — a young man named Slobodan Spirić, who did not know English himself, at least not at the beginning, but who was fluent in French and German and had a good grasp of Latin. Since he himself was a musician and because he could infer a lot from cognates, I was able to communicate with my students quite well through him.

The Music Academy had agreed to provide my apartment with a piano. One day in late October we were greeted by the sight of a man on a tricycle with a large basket attached to its front pedaling up to the apartment house with an upright piano perched on its basket. The neighbors helped us get it up the flight of stairs. The tuner, noting that several notes had been improperly aligned by its Czechoslovak manufacturer, said ironically, “that’s socialism.”

Snapshots of Sarajevo: Economics and Sociology

We perceived a contrast between necessities like food, clothing and rent and luxury items such as washing machines. The former were very inexpensive, the latter very expensive. Entertainment was evidently seen as a necessity. Movies could be seen for a quarter; we could and did hear recitals of leading American and Soviet concert artists for fifty cents a ticket.

It was refreshing to watch TV programs uninterrupted by advertising. Instead there was a period in the early evening devoted solely to commercials, most of which seemed very naive to us. All TV news programs began “Dear Male and Female Viewers. . . .”

There was an absence of class or status distinctions. At the Music Academy where I taught, everyone seemed to relate to each other without formality. The same was true at the school my children attended. The teachers and the janitorial staff treated each other as equals. One of the first Serbo-Croatian expressions my children learned was “Ooh! Ooh! Call on me, comrade teacher!”

At the last faculty meeting of the year at the Music Academy, where they were saying goodbye to me, I witnessed a dispute between a representative of the Ministry of Culture for the Republic of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the faculty. The debate centered on the purpose of the Music Academy. The government spokesperson wanted it to prepare music teachers for the small villages while the faculty was insisting “we need to turn out professional musicians; if you want teachers, get them from the Education Department at the University.” What intrigued me most was not the content of the arguments but the fact that the Music Academy was asserting itself boldly and successfully against the State.

Snapshots of Sarajevo: The Environs

>From every vista during the warmer months one saw the greenery and the flowers on the surrounding mountains, but in winter they were shrouded in “smog” (the word itself had been appropriated bodily into Serbo-Croatian). One day we went with some neighbors by car onto one of them. We suddenly emerged from the smog into brilliant sunshine and saw a goodly crowd of adults and children on sleds no bigger than an adult’s bottom with no steering mechanism — they were controlled with the hips.

As an area influenced by Islam, there was running water everywhere. Often when hiking in the mountains we would come upon a pipe placed on some out-of-the-way trail, with water gushing forth, for hikers or shepherds. We also would often happen upon a small plaque with the name of a partisan, and sometimes a picture, commemorating his or her death during World War

My eldest daughter needed a new prescription for her eyeglasses. We borrowed someone’s health card (which enabled all citizens to receive free medical care) and took her to the eye doctor, where she received a thorough examination involving three separate visits. Then we took her and her new prescription to the store which sold lenses (if you wanted a pencil eraser or an automobile tire, you went to the store which sold rubber goods — if you wanted a pair of glasses, a camera or a microscope, you went to the lens store). When the lenses were ready, Ann decided she didn’t like any of the frame styles, so they put the new lenses in her old frames. Because she didn’t get new frames, we didn’t pay anything.

While I was making a grilled cheese sandwich, the hot cheese fell on my foot, giving me second degree burns. We arranged that I be taken to a doctor, again through the use of someone’s card. His English had been gleaned from American movies — he diagnosed my condition as “the chiiz diziize.” He was the physician for the post office workers, so his office was in the main post office. His waiting room was plastered with posters stressing prevention: cut your hair short, so it doesn’t catch in the sorting machines; get your flu shots, etc.

Milica Kajević was complaining about one of her students, who “just didn’t apply himself.” When we started to talk about his possibly distorted home life, she said, “Oh yes, that’s the psychological explanation.” Our silent reaction: “Is there any other?”

We met some American tourists who had been island-hopping in the Adriatic and had missed a connection. They wer
e trying to thumb a ride on the Adriatic Highway when a bus filled with Yugoslav tourists stopped. When the driver asked them what they wanted, they explained their situation. They were asked to wait for a moment, after which they were invited in. They learned later that the delay had been due to the Yugoslavs voting as to whether they should come aboard.

After getting a flat tire while driving in the hinterlands, I neglected to sufficiently tighten the lugs on the spare tire. After a few miles we broke down again. We had a good tire on a bad wheel and a bad tire on a good wheel. What to do? The first driver who passed — a truck driver — stopped. He explained to us that there was a law that required drivers to aid those in need of assistance. He was able to re-inflate the flat tire with an air pump on his truck, so that it would hold until we reached the next town. When we got there, we went straight for the repair shop. While painstakingly remaking and realigning the lug holes, the repairman said, “We’re better mechanics than those in your country. There they throw things away; here we actually repair them.”

It was the same when we blew a fuse in our apartment. We called my chess-playing neighbor and in five minutes he had put the old fuse back together.

Yugoslav handicrafts are very beautiful, especially those from Bosnia & Herzegovina. A cooperative (operating under the Yugoslav system of workers’ self-management) called “Bosna Folklor” specialized in making and selling these crafts. My wife and I wanted to purchase a tablecloth with a matching set of napkins. We noticed that the napkins did not truly match the tablecloth, and called the saleswoman’s attention to it. In similar situations in the United States the sales person simply puts the item aside, saying “let me show you something else.” There, the saleswoman called all her colleagues around to confer. Their most obvious emotion was anger: they were furious that this mistake made the items unsellable. More than anything else this lack of alienation from each other, and from the process of manufacture and sale of goods epitomized to us what Yugoslav self-management was all about.

At the same time things were far from perfect. There were grave deficiencies. Cavities in children’s first teeth were often neglected; the winter smog was terrible; it was a public scandal that some doctors took money in “white envelopes” under the table to administer better care to the “donors”; the educational system often cultivated rote answers rather than deep thought. Yet what we experienced overall was a warm city in an intact society, one struggling with modernization and technology, but making progress toward a better life.

Gene Glickman (1934-) holds a doctorate in musical composition from Indiana University. He is a choral conductor and arranger. Some of his thirteen dozen arrangements have been published by Warner Chappell and by Earthsongs. He is also a published author, having co-written “The New York Red Pages,” published by Praeger in 1984. He is now retired, after having taught music at Nassau Community College on Long Island for some thirty-five years.

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