The sun was a sickly yellow ball suspended in the soupy smoke and haze at the end of the valley. The cold reached out from the shadows of the Austrian quarter. What remained of the day ran as a narrow channel of light along the wide promenade. Further on the Western world gave way to the old Turkish bazaar of Bashcharshija. The line was sudden and unmistakable. Vasha Miskin became Sarachi as neatly laced cobblestones changed to uneven quarry stones. The Western philosophy of anonymous commerce gave way to intimate passageways and narrow alleys interwoven with crooked arteries of small shops and Eastern-style kafanas.
Ana and I crossed from West to East past a cordon of soldiers hunting deserters. Muslim men filled the walled courtyard of the Gazi Husref beg Mosque. Its marvelously tall spire disappeared high above ancient maples shrouding the lane. At the head of the valley, the crumbling walls of the fortress Jekovac looked down upon the city. Autumn leaves fell like snow upon the smooth stones. For a moment any distinction between past and present became irrelevant.
“Such a pretty place,” I remarked.
“You should have seen Sarajevo before the war,” Ana remarked wistfully. “It was so beautiful. We really had everything here. We had the mountains and skiing. In a few hours you could be on the sea. There was opera and Rock music. You could go for Chinese food by the river, see a French film at the theater and stop for coffee in Bashcharshija. And friends… we would all go for parties in the mountains: Serbs, Croats and Muslims. It didn’t matter who you were. None of us had learned to hate each other yet. Guys would play guitar under the stars and everyone would eat and sing and…”
Her words trailed away into some distant and private memory. She looked at me as if something had been stolen from her. “You could be any religion or no religion. We celebrated Hanukah with Jewish friends, Bajram with Muslim neighbors and Orthodox Christmas with Serbs. We were so lucky to see the world with so many different eyes. It was like we could see just a little bit more of God.”
“So what happened?’
Ana only shrugged, as if the weight of the answer was too much to bear.
We wandered through the old Turkish market, definitely but not purposely towards the ruins of the Library. It was once a beautiful building, dominating the end of the valley, where the river cut among the deep gorge on its way to Pale. Ana could not bring herself to look at it, and instead kept her eyes to the ground until we crossed to the river. Incendiary shells from Serb guns had destroyed the library, and with it a treasury of Bosnia’s heritage. The steps where Austria’s Archduke stood before being assassinated in 1914 led to the scorched and blackened shell of a building. Ana hurried onto the bridge, and leaned at the rail. I joined her there an instant later.
“Look,” she said as the setting sun cast a pale orange glow upon the shallow waters of the Miljatcka.
The river ran straight through the city between high stone walls. Buildings crowded to either side. The bridges appeared stacked upon one another. As people moved back and forth across them their long shadows were cast upon the glittering sunlit waters of the river. Pigeons gathered in the stone arches of the Princip Bridge. I looked at Ana, her gaze fixed on the city. The city and sunset were reflected in her eyes.
“It’s beautiful,” I said softly, as much about the city as for her.
I could hardly take my eyes off her and would have been content to remain there forever. Ana’s shoulder fell quite casually against mine. The energy passing with that touch was every bit as powerful and fluid as river.
“Do you have a girlfriend somewhere?” she asked.
“No not really,” I said.
“You’re not married, are you?”
“Definitely not,” I laughed.
“How come? There isn’t something wrong with you?” she crossed the bridge and I followed.
The cobbled streets of Bistrik climbed steeply before us. This was old Sarajevo, a collection of mostly Muslim neighborhoods called Mahalas. The Mahalas were almost separate communities unto themselves, collections of homes where clear distinctions between neighbor and relation had long ago dissolved. There were houses and families that went back generations, even centuries. Ana was a stranger here as much as I was. The odd looks from doorways and windows only confirmed that fact.
“Be careful what you say here,” Ana warned at barely a whisper. “Many here were supporters of Tsatso.”
I knew the name well In the first weeks and months of the war Musan “Tsatso” Topalovich and other would-be warlords had helped rally the city’s defense. His men fought bloody, wasteful battles from the trenches a few hundred meters above Bistrik. But his forced conscriptions, executions and brutality against Serbs and Croats in the city soon besieged the city from within as well. A government crackdown finally ended his reign of terror. Doubtless, Tsatso’s ad hoc defense those first days and months had save the city, but at a terrible cost. For the Muslims of Bistrik, however, Tsatso was not a criminal but a savior who had saved them from annihilation.
“But Tsatso is dead now,” I observed.
“Here he is a martyr and a hero.”
“Is he a war criminal or a hero, in your opinion?”
The question made her visibly uncomfortable. She kept looking to the darkened houses.
“It is best that we not talk about such things, especially not here, and especially not us.”
I didn’t pursue the subject, seeing how it upset her so. We found a set of stone steps and paused for a moment to look out across the city. Bashcharshija was laid out before us, the red tiled rooftops set ablaze by the final assertions of daylight.
“So how come you never got married?” We started down the uneven steps.
“Honestly,” I replied, “I don’t think I ever will. I have this foolishly unrealistic idea of what marriage is supposed to be: totally equal, friends, lovers, soul mates. I know it’s an unattainable expectation, but I couldn’t be happy if I settled for something less.”
“If you hate it so much why not change your expectation?”
“I don’t know,” I said, a bit forlorn. “Guess I’m just hopeless, and part of me thinks I’ll actually find what I’m looking for.”
“But if it causes you so much pain?’
“Right now I’ve got no reason to change. All I have to worry about is my cat.”
“A big fat one!” I opened my arms wide.
“How big?” she gasped.
“Well not so big. Seems like it for how much he eats.”
“And his name?”
“Like the city?”
“Like the movie: Woody Allen. I was watching it when a neighbor came over with this little black and white kitten. I had no interest in it, but the kitten sat on my shoulder through the whole movie, and by then I was hooked.”
“Fall in love fast, eh?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“And you have no kids?”
“None that I know of. What about you, ever see yourself married?’
“I told you, my parents are divorced. They had an awful marriage. The whole thing really jaded me to marriage.”
“I think that a man expands himself in marriage. He expects to have all his needs filled. He wants a maid, a cook, a mother and a whore. A woman tends to sacrifice to fill that need. She loses herself to become those things. She gives up her need and identity for him, and freedom for her children. That’s what happened to my mom, and I don’t want to lose myself.”
“What about children?”
She smiled mischievously. “None that I know of.”
Our eyes met, and for the first time I thought it would be nice to kiss her. I felt sure she was thinking the same thing, but I blushed and looked away. From the corner of my eye I could see that Ana was blushing too.
We turned down a long sloping lane bounded to one side by the towering walls of the Sarajevo Pivara, or brewery. A fire hose carried water from the Pivara to a gurgling spigot. The natural spring within the walls of the brewery proved to be one of the few reliable sources of water for the entire city. There was a line of haggard looking folks waiting to fill water jugs at the spigot. Ana stopped at the top of the lane. Her face darkened with a memory.
“I hate this place,” she said quietly. “We came here for water the first year of the war, my sister and me. It was a dangerous time. Nobody trusted anybody. A lot of Muslim refugees were coming into the city to escape the Serbs, and they needed some to place to live. Some Muslims in our neighborhood wanted to put us out of our place because our mother is a Croat and my father is a Serb. They wanted to give our place to some refugees. They would see us here waiting in line for water, with the rest of the city, and calls us Chetnik whores. Sometimes others would join in, cursing us, spitting on us or spilling our water.”
“You must hate them?”
“You must remember that real Chetniks were murdering and raping thousands of Muslims, and the Croatian Army refused to help break the siege. There were no frontlines, not as they are now. It still wasn’t certain that the Serbs would not take the city, and they found some Serbs in the city who were preparing for that. There were Serbs in the city with death lists of Muslim neighbors. Many people in the city simply disappeared. We were just two young girls. One word and we would just disappear. So we would stand there and cry, and wait for our turn for water.”
Ana led me to the courtyard of a small Mosque. Dozens of stone markers could be seen through a small embrasure, the stones sinking gradually beneath deepening grass. The branches of a willow hung in mourning above the stones, lightly brushing their round tops. Ana pressed her cheeks to the iron bars of the embrasure. I put my face close to hers, pretending to look in at the courtyard when I was really looking at her. I breathed in her perfume.
“…but the rain is still pouring down as it has for days,” I said softly, relishing in her nearness, “and the pigeons coo in the attic. They announce the day that has not yet come. My hand becomes stiff from holding the pen, the candle spits and sparks a little as it staves off death. I look upon these rows of words, tombstones of my thoughts, and do not know if I have killed them or given them to life.”
“Mesha Selimovich,” she said, surprised.
“Dervish and Death, my favorite Bosnian novel.”
“You know of Bosnian writers?”
“My grandmother knew him.”
We were very near the river again. The city was quiet, the streets nearly empty…