Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bosnia: The Burdens of History

Having just written an article about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and poring over documents describing the destruction caused by urban warfare in cities, it is doubly unsettling to remember that Sarajevo went through a much longer, much more destructive trauma a mere fifteen years ago. The Siege of Sarajevo lasted three years, as Bosnian Serb militias backed by the Serbian Army ringed the hills over the city and poured shells into the downtown areas to which the Muslim majority had fled for safety. In Budapest we could listen to the reports on the BBC, or if we wished something more immediate, to the live broadcasts of Radio Sarajevo on regular AM radio. It was that close. Today Sarajevo is alive again, but the scars are still obvious for all to see. Aron and I went to the Sarajevo City History Museum, located across from the gaudy Yellow Marriot Hotel in the narrow strip of downtown that used to be called “Sniper’s Alley. One exhibit was dedicated to objects concocted during the siege of Sarajevo, and to the will to survive while dodging bullets in one’s own apartment or trying to feed a family on meager rations smuggled in through the enemy lines.Without access to resupply of guns, locals came up with their own home made weapons, zip guns on a military level. Electricity was provided by a variety of jerry rigged devices, from car battery generators to crank powered flashlights made from bicycle lamps.On entering the museum, there was a wall where it seemed that local residents had donated personal mementos – photographs of family members lost during the siege, newspaper clippings, and a blood stained sweater that had obviously belonged to a child.There were several fresh hand-made posters calling for the unification of the two separate Bosnian governmental zones now that Ratko Mladic had been arrested and handed over to the International court in The Hague for trial. After the museum, more history. I hailed a cab and took Aron up to the Jewish cemetery in Grbavica, up along a hill just above the city center. The cemetery occupies a hillside that slopes steeply down to the river and exposes the city center itself.During the siege, Serbian militia snipers used the protection of the cemetery to shoot and shell into the downtown of the city. Until a few years ago the cemetery was heavily mined and unsafe to visit but like most of Sarajevo it has been demined now. Although most of the names on the stones reflect the Sephardic majority of Sarajevan Jews, the Ashkenazic element is obvious by the appearance of Hungarian Jewish names as well. Not surprising, since Jews from Hungary and Galicia went to Bosnia in the 1870s after it became a protectorate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I wrote about Jewish Sarajevo on the blog here, so I won’t repeat myself, but in the spirit of presenting too much history, there is one photo from the Jewish museum that bears repeating.During WWII the Jews of Sarajevo were forced to wear yellow Jewish stars. Here we see a Rivka Kabilo, a Jewish woman being escorted by Zenejba Hardaga, a Muslim woman, who held her arm to obscure the incriminating star. Today Hardaga and her sister are both recognized as “Righteous Gentiles” at the Yad Vashem museum in Israel. And of course, if that isn't enough history for you, remember that Sarajevo is where the first world war began when Gavrilo Princip assassinated Grand Duke Ferdinand of Austria on the Latin Bridge crossing the river in downtown Sarajevo. From a dispute about Serbian nationalism grew a typically silly bush war that quickly became a pointless tragedy. Within a month of the assassination Europe was at war, and nobody has ever explained exactly why.Nobody knew what they were actually fighting for. All that history makes you hungry. And the reason we were in Sarajevo was that I had promised to show my son the Glories of Sarajevo Cevapi, which we covered in the last post. But man does not live on cevap alone, although it is not inconceivable that I could. There was burek to be had, usually for breakfast, and our Hotel was located a full thiry seconds from the alley that is home to Sac Burek, which I crowed about the last time I visited Sarajevo.A sac is a metal pan hung by chains above a charcoal fire, kind of an Ottoman dutch oven. While most burek is now baked in a pizza oven, Sac Burek does it old school, meaning the burek is probably the best in the old city, and served with a ladle of slightly soured kaymak cream.After breakfast, coffee! Coffee shops are usually tiny, and located near to other eating places. You don’t get coffee where you eat, you go to a specialist for it. And then, just when you think you will never see a vegetable again, there are the Ascjinicas.These are small restaurants specializing in stews and soups.The most famous is Asem, which serves up some fine okra and veal stew, to be sopped up with spongy somun bread. Alter we tried the Sofra, just off the Sebilj square. Aron ordered the mixed plate of stuffed peppers, but also stuffed onions and stuffed grape leaves served with a dollop of yoghurt.Did I mention that we visited during Ramadan? Yes, and it was a hard one – with temperatures in the area of 38 (that’s around 98 Farhenheit) and the days long, a lot of people simply closed up their shops and waited the day out. But nobody ever worried themselves about the people who do eat during the day. Bosnians are like Turks in their attitudes towards Islam – rather easy and tolderant.This is not Wahabi run Saudi Arabia or fundamentalist Iran. At around 7:45 a canon – yes, a real canon – would go off signaling the end of the fast and the time for the nightly iftar feast, and Sarajevo’s old city would fill up with families looking to stuff themselves through the relatively short night in order to fuel up before the next dawn.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Sarajevo: Cevapi for the End of Summer

Summer is winding down but I managed to squeeze one last road trip out of it before the temperatures cooled down. I met my son, Aron, in Sarajevo, keeping good on a birthday promise that I would show him the best cevapcici in the world. And Sarajevo has just that, along with a beautiful Ottoman style old city and enough history to keep an eighteen year old history buff occupied for four days. It's been two years since I last visited, and I have had a yearning to come back ever since. It is a city of heroes, a city of survivors, and a city in the midst of renovation and rebirth. Oh… and coffee.Aron has developed into something of a coffee fanatic, and Sarajevo is a coffee obsessed city. Unlike the tea addiction that characterizes Istanbul or Skopje, my other two favorite Ottoman cafĂ© cultures; here you have Bosnian coffee at every corner. Essentially, it’s the same as Turkish coffee, but like a lot in Bosnia, it comes cheaper here than elsewhere – with the Bosnian mark running two BM to one Euro, coffees cost fifty Euro cents.With rooms renting out at 15 Euro each, and a plate of the world’s best cevapi going for 3 Euro, Sarajevo is a place I can afford to kick back and enjoy without feeling like I need to have an ATM machine strapped to my back. When I lived in Skopje, Macedonia, during the hyperinflation era in the late 1980s my Macedonian friends had a term for spending the day passing the time in cafes rather than pursing the protestant work ethic in a deflating economy: badialdzija. Its from an old Turkish term meaning “producer of nothingness.”They were masters of badialdzija, spending the days sipping tea with art students in Skopje’s old town and nights drinking rakia. I used to change a US $20 bill at the bank and walk away with a shopping bag of Yugoslav Dinars, enough to pay for cevapi and teas for my whole crowd of lazy intellectuals and shiftless Roma and Turkish sufi friends. Sarajevo brings me back to that vibe. Aron is a hardworking, industrious kid, and he desparately needed to be taught a lesson in Balkan sloth. With temperatures outside at the hottest of Europe’s this summer (38 c. or 98 Fahrenheit) there was little to do except sit in the shade of the coffee houses and watch time pass idly by.After his discovery of Bosnian coffee – served in a finjan that will fill two small cups after a nerve-wracking wait for the muddy dregs to settle, accompanied by a wad of loukoum, a soft Turkish sweet to take the edge off the bitterness – my son had a goal. He would himself become a master of Bosnian coffee. So, off to buy a coffee set.The street of coppersmiths had all manner of coffee paraphernalia on sale, but thinking better of it we wandered just a bit outside of the Bascarsija center to a small copper shop I had seen on a siise street near the Bascarsija tram stop. Aron picked up a set at 20% cheaper than our lowest negotiated price in the market. And then there is Bosnia's entry in the world of ground meat: cevapi. Of course, we can digress endlessly on where you can find the best cevapi, and I have on these pages previously, but there is no way out of presenting the latest in cevapi porn here again.Zeljo’s is usually mentuioned as the Big Daddy of Bascarsija cevapdzinicas, with two locations located on opposite corners. Zeljo’s meat is excellent, but they differ from other cevapdzinicas in the way they serve their spongy somun flatbread toasted but not dipped into a broth to dampen it while toasted on the grill. For that, try the cevap at Hodzic’s, which has spread into a mini empire of cevap houses all over the old city (named, appropriately, Hodzic #1, Hodzic #2, etc.)Cevap slightly bigger, and the somun bread is fluffier and dipped in some broth before being toasted. How many hours of my life have I spent arguing with friends whether Zeljos or Hodzic is better? How many more will I waste? Hmmm... How about something completely differnt. So different as to almost comprise a completely alternative food group? How about... the Banja Luka style cevapi! The Banja Luka style cevap served at Kastel is still one of my favorites.The Banja Luka style means that the cevap are made somewhat smaller, but served in bricks stuck together, which preserves their juicyness, and an even damper steamed bread. Apparantly, in Banja Luka itself, which is now in the Serbian Republic, the secret ingredient is a bit of pork mixed into the cevap meat mix. That doesn’t roll in Sarajevo with a Muslim majority population and a very large population of Muslim refugees resettled from Banja Luka. I noticed this elsewhere in the Balkans: cevap places often prepared their products with a stated intention of being off limits to Muslim minorities. This reaches its most absurd peak in Bulgaria, where almost every meat product available is made from ground pork, unlike Turkey, where beef and lamb rule. Needless to say, Bulgaria is not a culinary standout. One final cevap discovery came when we took a tram ride to the far end of Sarajevo – in the Ilidza neighborhood out near the Sarajevo airport. Ilidza was heavily bombed during the siege of Sarajevo, and many of the ruined buildings along the tram line have still to be renovated or bulldozed, and then you arrive in a cement city center evocative of communist times when pleasant architecture was secondary to providing quick cheap housing for the proletariat masses. We had been hoping to connect to visit either the famed tunnel museum or go out to the beautiful park in Vrelo Bosna, but a lack of information and the baking heat drove us into the nearest lunch joint.Excellent cevapi for 3 BM (Euro 1.50) Given that I live in a country that lacks decent hamburgers, I can get by knowing that an annual trip to Sarajevo (only Euro 54 round trip on the train, albeit an 11 hour gruling slog through Slavonia) will keep me fueled for a year’s worth of excellent ground beef goodness. Oh, and did I mention that we visited during the final days of Ramadan? I will in my next post.