So Long Mustafa. A Great artist passes

An excerpt from “Everything for Love,” WC Turck, available on Amazon and at barnesandNoble.com

Mount Trebevich loomed high above the school and city center. Smoke drifted lazily from the Serbian trenches there. Those trenches could see up and down every street and alley in Sarajevo. They weren’t shooting today, despite the clear weather. They didn’t have to. Fear and unpredictability were as formidable to maintaining the siege as bombs and mines and bullets.
It was dusty and cold inside. The walls were covered with graffiti, so much that it seemed like something of a work in progress, a final assertion of a dying city, or the cynical conscience of the world. The building became a living history of lives that faded like echoes. There were declarations of love, calls to revolution, an homage to Che Guevara, filthy words and phrases in a dozen different languages and scripts. There were sketches, cartoons, Rock bands, rap verses, poetry and bits of prophetic wisdom like:

Ever since Tito died the world has gone to shit!
Elvis


Hasan was waiting for us in one of the first floor sculpture studios. The room was empty. Everything that could be burned had been pilfered. The books, desks and easels were all gone. Hasan looked so forlorn surrounded by that emptiness. He looked up smartly as we entered. His face was filled with worry.
“Where have you two been?” he asked.
“It’s my fault,” I said. “I had to deliver some things to a friend at the hospital and we got held up.”
He said we were late to meet with one of Sarajevo’s premiere artists. His name was Mustafa Skolpjak. He lived in the Academy of Arts building across the river. We hurried across the Princip Bridge, the spot where a young Slav nationalist had assassinated the Austrian archduke Ferdinand in 1914, beginning a series of events precipitating the First World War. The academy was an odd looking building with a prominent silver dome. At a glance it appeared abandoned. The tall windows had been blown out and shells had punctured the dome. The once carefully manicured lawns were overgrown with tangled weeds.
The heavy wooden door groaned loudly on its hinges. For a moment we stood in a narrow channel of daylight, illuminating part of a long staircase to one side, and a dark hallway to the other. We followed the hall past deserted studios to the small office where Mustafa lived.
“So would you like to meet Sarajevo’s greatest artist?” Hasan asked.
“Besides you and Nadja?” I winked, with a grin. He chuckled and said something about going into politics as he knocked at the door.
There was a long pause before a shadow disturbed the sliver of light beneath the door. I had read a good deal about Mustafa in the Press back home and was expecting someone fiery and philosophical, someone who exemplified the defiant persistence of the Sarajevo Arts community. Instead the man who opened the door was rather short and kind of dull. He had a thick, brushy mustache and heavy gray stubble. He smiled broadly when he recognized Hasan, though it seemed a terrific effort for him, as though it was not at all a natural act.
In jeans and a beat up leather jacket, his hair somewhat askew, Mustafa was more like a character from a Kerouac novel than anything else. He was quiet, hardly an egoist like Picasso, and certainly not the swashbuckling sort like Hemingway. At first impression Sarajevo’s greatest living artist was rather mundane.
“You’ve gotten big,” he rubbed Sulejman’s head. He invited us inside, apologizing that he had nothing to offer.
Stepping into the studio was like stepping into a small attic crammed with undreamed of treasures. The air was stale like an attic and filled with dust that hung like constellations among nebulous clouds of cigarette smoke. Midday sun flooded through a translucent sheet of UNHCR plastic covering a small window. The light was quickly scattered by abstract constructions of colored glass collected from around the city. Renderings and small paintings covered the walls or were stacked around the room. To one corner a mattress was braced between two burgeoning file cabinets. A tiny sink was filled with dishes and a pair of socks. Below the sink was the obligatory collection of buckets and jugs. At the end of his cluttered desk was a giant stack of magazines and newspapers from around the world. I mentioned that I read articles about him in America.Mustafa_Skopljak_vertikala
”America,” he pondered. He stroked the stubble of his square jaw. “What do they say for me in America?”
“Mostly how you’ve led Sarajevo’s art scene, and how you’ve triumphed and found inspiration in the war.”
“Hmm,” he considered. “I don’t find inspiration in the war. Other people’s words. I only find survival, but that doesn’t pass the time quite so well, and certainly doesn’t feed the soul.”
“All of these magazines and newspapers have stories about Mustafa,” Hasan motioned to the stack on the desk.
“Amazing,” I said.
Mustafa seemed almost ashamed of the attention. “It was only necessary to destroy a nation and murder two hundred thousand people so that I could become famous.”
We all looked to the window as a shell exploded on the mountain. The long, low rumble could be felt through the floor. It shook free more of that ever-present dust, but there was more to the sound. It made Mustafa’s life and talent so fragile and fleeting. Like every other man in the city he was a soldier, and if the Serbs tried to take the city his celebrity would afford him no special privilege. A single bullet or shell could instantly extinguish his rare gift. The artists of Sarajevo were a brave and resilient bunch, but they were also mortal.
We didn’t stay long at the academy. Mustafa was a private man, and despite his graciousness, our visit was something of an intrusion. Besides I was still suffering from the day before and wanted to go home and take a nap.
Hasan was headed back to school. Sulejman wanted to meet his mother at Markale (pronounced MARK-A-LAY), but Hasan didn’t want him to go there alone. The boy begged me to go with him, but I wasn’t really interested. Hasan could see that I was beat and scolded Sulejman about pestering me. With that Sulejman pouted and complained that he was sick and tired of sitting in the house with nothing to do. Out of sympathy I relented.
The Markale outdoor market filled a small square just off Marshal Tito Street, at a place where the street was at its narrowest. Markale was protected on three sides by the high walls of surrounding buildings. It was more than a market. It was an integral part of the city’s social fabric. Neighbors met to swap news and gossip. That simple function was even more important during the war.
Hardly a year had passed since a Serbian mortar slammed into the market killing sixty-eight, but old habits were hard to overcome. Within days of the attack Sarajevans returned to reclaim the market. As Sulejman and I crossed the street it was already jammed beyond capacity with shoppers, beggars and gawkers. I recalled Serbian assertions that the Bosnians had inflated the number of dead by dragging out cadavers. As packed as the market was on any given day it was a miracle that only sixty-eight had died that day.
Shopping was, of course, a relative term in besieged Sarajevo. People were crowded among the tightly packed tables, ogling a pathetic offering of goods. There were putrid looking chicken and pigeon carcasses, some washes with bleach to kill the smell. Not that it mattered. Even at ten or fifteen marks for a scrawny one the price was well out of reach for most. The NEW YORK TIMES some months earlier had celebrated the falling price of food in the city. Over the summer a pound of beef had plummeted from around a hundred Marks to twenty-five. The paper failed to mention that twenty-five marks represented one or two month’s income for most families. Prices fluctuated wildly with the fighting. A single egg might cost a few Marks in the morning, and go for six or eight or ten by afternoon.
Nadja was at the back of the square, looking over a paltry collection of small vegetables grown in the many war gardens that sprang up around the city. I stepped across the small crater punched by the February shell to reach her. It struck in a corner reflecting the full force of the blast into the square, turning tables and body parts into lethal missiles.
Nadja and Hasan had just been paid for the month with a carton of smuggled Drina cigarettes, or roughly the equivalent of one small chicken. She was haggling over a pile of little potatoes, scrawny carrots and some mangy garlic cloves. I gave Nadja a twenty Mark note, but the old Gypsy woman behind the table complained she couldn’t possibly make change for that. Nadja was a shrewd negotiator and managed enough vegetables to make a pot of soup for the next couple of days. She stuffed the precious goods into her tattered purse and, clutching it tightly, hurried out of the market.
“Did we do good?” I asked.
Nadja nodded. “I’m satisfied.
The street opened to a wide boulevard. Cafes had sprouted along sun drenched sidewalks as an assertion of the city’s undying spirit, as if the war was a distant thing. But reminders of the war were never very far away. There was the shriek of a patrolling NATO warplane, a firefight on the mountain and the grating annoyance of a passing UN tank. Just beyond the fringes of the cafes, where patrons chanced a Mark for a moment of normalcy, disowned refugees and the homeless begged for mercy or some small hope from those who had lost both a long time ago. Only the dead or the insane could truly escape the war, and at every given moment everyone in Sarajevo teetered at the edge of one or the other.

So long, Dear Friend

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