Letter from Sarajevo

Tomorrow at 7.30 p.m., there will be lots of blood flowing in Sarajevo’s National Theater, a palatial building built in 1919 and still well-preserved. After the opening ceremony of Mess – an exceptional annual theater festival charged with staging some of the most noteworthy productions from across Europe – the outstanding ensemble of the Berlin-based Deutsches Theater will show its blood-soaked «Oresteia» by ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus as staged by the German avant-garde director Michael Thalheimer, aged 41. Having emerged completely from the shadow of a ruinous war, Sarajevo appears to have reclaimed its lost grandeur. One of the most historically interesting cities in Europe, it was the place where the western and eastern Roman Empire split. Sarajevo has always been a place of intersection, where caravans from the East met those of the West, sitting astride cultural tectonic plates. It was on a bridge in the center of Sarajevo that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by a Serbian assassin, the event that ignited World War I.  In 1992, the former Yugoslav army, headed mostly by Serbs, encircled Sarajevo with heavy weapons, inaugurating a siege that was longer even than the Battle of Stalingrad. For Serb nationalists trying to carve an ethnically pure country out of the former Yugoslavia, Sarajevo has always been an obstacle. It is estimated that more than 12,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded during the siege, 85 percent of them civilians. Today, nestled in a valley, Sarajevo is a lively city with a thriving arts scene and some 400,000 residents.   Although Bosnia-Herzegovina ranks next to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as the poorest republic in the old Yugoslav federation, it is one of the rare countries that considers culture worthy of investment. With some of the friendliest people – be they Bosnian, Serb or Croat – and having physically recovered from most of the damage caused by the Yugoslav wars of the early 90s, Sarajevo is now a cosmopolitan European capital with a unique Eastern twist that is a real delight to visit. Although one has the feeling that its war history is never completely buried, you can only be constantly amazed at the peaceful cultural activities that are staged here. And this is the case year-round. There is a most respected film festival in August, ranked among the top 10 film festivals in Europe. There is a jazz festival, the popular Bascarsija Nights Festival, every July, and the MESS International Theater Festival, known for celebrating a tradition of diversity and unconventionality in the spirited world of theater. So, aiming to rebel against the petit-bourgeoisie and conformity, this year’s festival will be inaugurated with the trilogy of ancient Greek plays by Aeschylus known as the «Oresteia.» It tells the tragic story of the house of Atreus and of revenge among generations. Having seen the play in Berlin, I am now looking forward to seeing it again tomorrow night. I wonder whether they will give the audience in the front rows pieces of plastic to shelter them from the blood flowing on the stage, as they did in Berlin. Other noteworthy productions in this festival are «Astapovo Station» from Bulgaria, «Andersen’s Dream» from Denmark’s renowned Odin Teatret, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s «Crime and Punishment» from Montenegro. There is also a «Lady Godiva» theater troupe from Ravenna, Italy. I wonder whether she will bring her white horse, too. A local Bosnian production of «Othello» is expected, as well as a «quasi-stellar» group with «The Beauty Series» by Apostolia Papadamaki, Greece’s contribution. I shall see and report on most of them. The program for the next few days looks pretty exhausting. It seems unbelievable that only 12 years after the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 ended the war (yes, I was here during the turmoil and I should know), this famously picturesque city has slowly begun to lure tourists and theater lovers back again. «Yes, there are people in the West for whom just the mention of Sarajevo recalls memories of terror and vengeance, blood and war,» says Nihad Kresevljakovic, a young man in his 30s, working for the festival. His father was one of the most celebrated mayors of the city, and a street plaque honors him today. «Sarajevo has come a long way. There are new buildings, new shops and even a new tram line which has been laid,» he said. Greece has helped here with some money donated by the Orthodox Church. If I fail to be culturally satisfied, I am already considering staying here until November 3 and attending a concert by the legendary hard rock and heavy metal band, Deep Purple, the band’s first gig in Herzegovina.