Letter from Sarajevo

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is notorious for many reasons. It’s where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, an act which sparked World War I. The city also hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. And it is also the tragic place besieged during the nasty, brutish and unnecessarily long wars in the former Yugoslavia. Now it is hosting MESS, the 45th International Theater Festival. There are several festivals here. The Sarajevo Winter Festival and a Sarajevo Jazz Festival are illustrious, as are Bascarsija Nights, a month-long showcase of local culture, music, and dance. Traditionally a multicultural city and still a place of diversity, this capital of some 500,000 inhabitants is undergoing a major transformation after the war. After the disastrous events of 1991-1995 – when more than 200,000 people were killed and countless more «ethnically cleansed» from land and homes they had lived in for generations – Sarajevo is rebuilding itself. The State Theater from the Austro-Hungarian era has been restored to its old gold-and-white glory, while schools and other facilities are being reconstructed, new trees planted, new street lights and new tram stops installed, and new billboards erected – some of them bragging about the Greek aid offered, as in the case of the Orthodox cathedral. The picturesque Turkish old town, also known as Bascarsija, is basically being rebuilt for the expected tourists. Only the imposing National Library is still in ruins from the bombs. The city’s old spirit of diversity and religious tolerance also appears to be rebounding. Once again, everything is on the verge of changing – for the better, one hopes. As the executive producer of the MESS festival, Nihad Kresevljakovic, noted, speaking metaphorically – and not exactly in jest – of UFOs flying above the National Theater: «Anything is possible! We grasp the width of human possibilities and are ready to talk with everyone, including, if necessary, the extraterrestrials. Our goal, from the very inception of the festival, is to celebrate diversity as the most beautiful feature of our planet and to share it with everyone – both those that are human and those that are inhuman.» There are theater groups from 13 countries, including Belgium, France, Iran, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Latvia, the Netherlands and even Serbia and Croatia. No, Greece is not in the mix. There were almost two King Lears – one from the National Theater of Kosovo and one from Belgrade. At least two were announced. Unfortunately, the Serb Lear got ill a couple of days before coming to Sarajevo and had to cancel. «The Britain of Lear’s time looks strangely like today’s Kosovo,» said Kosovar director Fadil Hysaj. «A Kosovo which is nobody’s land, where people who have lost the will to face the truth live.» Well, in all probability the 52-year-old Albanian director had lamented before the US undersecretary of state – we knew him as former US ambassador Nicholas Burns – announced in Pristina on October 13 that this is the year «Kosovo makes its choice to define its future, and the United States will be very actively engaged in this process.» Well, one should think that tact would require a certain forbearance when it comes to the politics of the host country. Since there is a jury awarding prizes here, I consider that this Kosovar Lear could easily win the schmaltz contest. It was a bad production with overly stylized forms and spent characters. One of the highlights of the festival was Dino Mustafic’s imaginative direction of Nick Wood’s «Warrior Square,» a play with two actors and no scenery. Mustafic, 36 – a genuine «Sarayliya,» as the proud and patriotic sons of this city are called – is also the director of MESS and a renowned film director. «We have seen better days» is one of the famous quotes from «Timon of Athens» by William Shakespeare, which will be performed next Wednesday as a co-production of the Bitola National Theater, the Turkish Theater in Skopje and the Italian Laboratorio Nova Firenza. It is a most appropriate quote for modern Bosnian politics. The Bosnians have certainly seen happier days – while they were citizens of Yugoslavia, before they were demonized. At the time, the republic had a population of 4.4 million – 44 percent Muslim, 31 percent Serb, and 17 percent Croat – and seemed like a model of peaceful coexistence, without any one ethnic group dominating another. But throughout decades of communist rule, the leader of the Yugoslav Federation, Marshal Tito, ruled with an iron fist, suppressing any nationalist movements arising from the different ethnic factions, and the long-simmering ethnic tensions appeared to fade. The population voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1992, and the republic gained international recognition for its independence – a move the Bosnian government hoped would avoid the bloodshed of Croatian secession a few months earlier. But the Bosnian war that followed poisoned the entire Atlantic alliance. Nowadays, the largest ethnic group in Sarajevo is the Bosniaks, followed by the Serbs and Croats. And today it seems that most of the domestic and international aid money going into this turbulent republic is used to keep its citizens from attacking each other. The remaining cash is shamelessly stolen through vast networks of patronage, crime, and money laundering. Corruption reigns in a country where, as the Sarajevo-based UN Independent Bureau for Human Issues noted, some 60 percent of people live below the poverty line. Even extraterrestrials «would be afraid of encountering us,» muses Nihad Kresevlakovic, the 32-year-old son of the ex-mayor of wartime Sarajevo and a member of the city’s younger intelligentsia, in the printed introduction of the festival’s catalog. But he adds: «We are ready to carry on our struggle for the right to be different. We still have faith in a better world and in us as a better and more open people.» If the foreseeable future is not nuclear, he might be right.