07 August 2012

A City East and West

There's a line down the middle of Sarajevo, but it's not one you'd expect.  On one side is the Morića Han, a perfect example of the east.  There's something both soothing and sharp about carpet sellers, with their bright eyes in the semi darkness and their still faces.  One feels one shouldn't trust them, with their treasures from Persia and Afghanistan stacked in neat piles.  Still, it's impossible not to be drawn in; they're merchants in intrigue more than yarn.  The Morića Han is full of these people, the smell of old wool and dusty light.  An inn and trading station for centuries, the Han's ancient back rooms still have some imprint of the caravans and the old empire.
Sarajevo was once the second most important Ottoman city, a huge metropolis and site of the largest Islamic library in the world.  On this side of town, legends of the Orient still swirl in the alleys.
On the other side of town, in the yellow hued "Markale," vendors display hanging garlands of sausages and white cheese under fluorescent light.  The pink fleshiness of the marketgoers and mongers, the height of the windows, the meaty offerings, the airy environs - this could be a hall in Salzburg, it feels and looks so Western.  This is the other bank of Sarajevo's current, where the aesthetic of a different empire washed up and stuck.
Sarajevo is a city with one personality and two faces.  Taking an evening stroll with the locals on Ferhadija street is an exercise in patience.  The walking is slow, we often got caught in the snarl of children, high heels, amorous couples.  Moving slowly west, the buildings begin in the classic Ottoman style, with looming mosques, low caravanseries and markets built in grey brick and red tile.  Then, without warning, the landscape shifts to central europe, with pastel walls and secessionist-white moldings.  There is literally a line in the street where the buildings change. Standing there, one can look east into the Ottoman past and the 1600's, then turn and face the west, Austro-Hungary and the beginning of the nineteenth century.
In the outskirts, there are shrapnel holes and Tito's buildings, the concrete immensity of the TV station and the sprawl of the olympic village. But Sarajevo condenses and intensifies as it closes in on itself, until the narrow lanes and coffee shops press up against one another in a traffic jam of tables and young people.  It's particularly hectic in the Ottoman side of the old town.  We've spent hours wandering ćevapi scented courtyards and hookah-smokey passages.  It's the kind of city where one glimpses things in dark doorways.  Outside our hotel, this tight cluster of tables hums with conversation and laughter until the small hours of the morning - there are three different establishments, but they are packed in so closely that it's impossible to tell where one place's tables begin and the others end.
The western half has its share of atmospheric cafes and bars, with a different kind of nostalgia and a more local clientele.  At Zlatna Ribica (Goldfish Bar), old televisions flicker black and white and stylish young people drink rakija at brass tables.  It's a spectacle, a re-imagination of Lautrec's Paris by way of Leningrad.  After an hour or so of drinks, the waiter said he didn't have change for us - he told us to take our money and come back later to pay.
There's a big architectural difference, but the two sides of Old Sarajevo still feel like the same city.  It's a fairly homogenous capital, and almost everyone, everywhere, is Muslim and Bosniak.  The culture doesn't change from place to place, only the sense of history.
The Austro-Hungarian part of town is laid out in cleaner lines and wider avenues.  Not long after the Habsburgs acquired the city in the 1870's, a large fire destroyed much of the existing city.  Austrian engineers and city planners took it as an opportunity to begin afresh and experiment.  Trolley cars were installed in 1885 as a test before they were brought to Vienna, and architects were given space to work in the new Secessionist movement style.
There are many cities where east comes up against west. It's a common travel trope, used to give some feeling to places in the middle.  In Sarajevo, the physical division is clearer than other places, even if the culture is more nuanced - it's said that people from Asia feel that Sarajevo is very western, people from Europe feel that it's Oriental.  Looking up, minarets jostle against steeples.  Sarajevo's young people have embraced a low-key version of Islam - headscarves are a fashion statement more than a religious one, the prevailing climate is a mix of liquor, cigarettes and the call to prayer.  The cosmopolitanism in the street is of the violin case and bookishness variety.
The so called "Latin" bridge transcends all of Sarajevo's periods. It's now the most touristed landmark in the city, more for what it represents to the world than to the city. Built in wood under the early emperors and later shored up with stone, the little, three-arched walkway is now backed by a line of colorful, Austrian-style townhouses.  Of course, the bridge is famous for a different reason - this is the place where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, helping to bring about the first world war.  It's a funny place to be so weighted with history.  The water underneath is barely a trickle, the span isn't long.  On the shadier side, a booth serves coffee and soft drinks to visitors.  A young American man asked us about the lemonade one morning.  He was fresh off the bus and seemed excited, we were at the end of our stay and feeling complacent.  As he sat down and looked at the city, we thought about what he was going to make of Sarajevo - how surprising it would be, how adventurous.

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