Learning a new city, remembering the old.
In the spring of 1997, I flew from Chicago, where I was living, to Sarajevo, where I was born and grew up. This was my first return to Sarajevo since the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina had ended, a year and a half earlier. I’d left in 1992, a few months before the siege of the city began. I had no family there anymore (my parents and my sister now lived in Canada), except for Teta Jozefina, whom I considered to be my grandmother. When my parents had moved to Sarajevo after graduating from college in Belgrade, in 1963, they’d rented a room in an apartment that belonged to Jozefina and her husband, Martin, in the part of town called Marin Dvor. In that rented room I was conceived, and it was where I lived for the first two years of my life. Teta Jozefina and Čika Martin, who had two teen-age children at the time, treated me like their own grandchild—to this day, my mother believes that they spoiled me for life. For a couple of years after we moved out, to a different part of Sarajevo, I had to be taken back to Marin Dvor to visit them almost every day. And until the war shattered our common life we spent every Christmas at Teta Jozefina and Čika Martin’s, following the same ritual: the same elaborately caloric dishes crowding the big table, the same tongue-burning Herzegovinian wine, the same people telling the same jokes and stories, including the one that featured the toddler me running buck naked up and down the hallway before my nightly bath.
Čika Martin died of a stroke toward the end of the siege, so when I went back in 1997 Teta Jozefina was living alone. I stayed with her, in the room (and, possibly, the very bed) where I had commenced my messy existence. Its walls had been pockmarked by shrapnel and bullets—the apartment had been directly in the sight line of a Serb sniper across the river. Teta Jozefina was a devout Catholic, but she somehow managed to believe in essential human goodness, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary all around her. She felt that the sniper was essentially a good man, because during the siege, she said, he had often shot over her and her husband’s heads to warn them that he was watching and that they shouldn’t move so carelessly in their own apartment.
In my first few days back in Sarajevo, I did little but listen to my grandmother’s harrowing and humbling stories of the siege, which included a detailed rendition of her husband’s death (where he had sat, what he had said, how he had slumped), and wander around the city. I was trying to reconcile the new Sarajevo with the version I’d left behind in 1992. It was not easy for me to comprehend how the siege had transformed the city, because the transformation was not as simple as one thing becoming another. Everything was fantastically different from what I’d known and everything was fantastically the same as before. The buildings were in the same places; the bridges crossed the river at the same points; the streets followed the same obscure yet familiar logic; the layout of the city was unaltered. But the buildings had been mutilated by shells and shrapnel showers, or reduced to crumbling walls; some of the bridges had been destroyed and almost everything in their vicinity was levelled, because the river was the front line; the streets were pocked with mortar-shell marks—lines radiating from each little crater, which an art group had filled with a red substance and which the people of Sarajevo now, incredibly, called “roses.” The map of the city that I carried in my head had to be fundamentally emended.
I revisited all my favorite spots in the city center, then roamed the narrow streets high up in the hills, beyond which lay a verdant world of unmapped minefields. I randomly entered building hallways and basements, just to smell them: in addition to the familiar scent of leather suitcases, old magazines, and damp coal dust, there was the odor of hard life and sewage—during the siege, people had often taken shelter from the shelling in their basements. I idled in coffee shops, drinking coffee that tasted like burned corn, instead of the foamy pungency I remembered from before the war. Everything around me was both familiar to the point of pain and entirely uncanny and distant.
One day I was strolling, aimlessly and anxiously, down the street whose prewar name had been Ulica J.N.A. (the Yugoslav People’s Army Street) and now was Ulica Branilaca Sarajeva (the Defenders of Sarajevo Street). As I passed what had been called, in the times of socialism—which now seemed positively prehistoric—the Workers University, something made me turn and look over my shoulder into its cavernous entranceway. The turn was not of my own volition: it was my body that turned my head back, while my mind continued forward for a few steps. Impeding impatient pedestrian traffic, I stood there puzzled until I realized what had made me look back: the Workers University used to house a movie theatre (it had shut down a couple of years before the war), and whenever I’d walked by in those days I’d stopped to look at the display cases where the movie posters and showtimes were exhibited. From the lightless shafts of corporal memory, my body had recalled the action of turning to see what was playing. It had been trained to seek out stimulation in the form of a new movie poster, and it still remembered, the fucker, the way it remembered how to swim when thrown into deep water. Following that involuntary turn, my mind was flooded with a Proustian, if banal, memory: once upon a time in Sarajevo, at the Workers University, I had watched Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” and I recalled the acrid smell of the disinfectant that was used to clean the floors of the cinema; I recalled having to peel myself off the sticky fake-leather seats; I recalled the rattle of the parting curtain.