Sarajevo meant a lot to me, means a lot to me still, my time there has shaped me, in fact. Everything I took for granted, every dream I was realizing; all painful laborious struggles. The warmth of every hearth I was drawn beside, every silently proffered plate of food; a realization of some eternal purities. Sacred hleb slung stale on the corners of dustbins in a gesture of community, goodwill; at once caring and cruel, loved and shunned. Sarajevo is a bohemian rhapsody; tragic and mournful and yet a deep electric vitality runs through the people and the landscape, so that the mountains visibly heave with it.
I arrived in BiH in September of 2011. I had planned to stay only six weeks until the end of the tourist season. I was working for my room and board at a Guesthouse in Mostar. But once I had returned to Sarajevo ‘on my way out’, I found it hard to leave.
I sat with the pigeons, by the fountain that used to be a meeting place for lovers, in the square across the road from where my hostel stood, narrow and worn in the late summer’s sun; obstructed occasionally by a thunderous tram. I could feel the presence of the mountains on all sides of me, it created a static in the air, a heavy stillness. I was conscious of history pressing down upon me and the city penetrating my gaze in the eyes of curiously not so strangers, brooding over their wares or their bar counters in my direction. Another traveller from the hostel was with me; Mathias, he’d walked from Berlin to Sarajevo so far and intended to carry on to the end of the earth in his ethereally lonesome quest. He was saying that he feared if he stayed too long in one place he would miss what he was looking for in another. I disagreed. I believed a love unexamined is the deepest regret of all. And I felt that we should be together then, Sarajevo and I. I felt a spark, a deep rumbling of the heart when I spoke my decision out loud.
Mathias left and I lost touch with him after a few months. I know that he found a stray companion and carried the pup over many mountains to the ends of Europe and Asia. I don’t know what happened after that. I stayed in Sarajevo and made a long term deal with my hostel, they gave me a private ‘apartment’ (a haunted, freezing box of a room with camp bed and dodgy oven, reached by a shear slanted zig-zagging road; I had terrible nightmares there) where I lived for the next couple of months.
I unexpectedly found work as a konobarica in the first week of my stay. After a long day of naively handing out CV’s to incredulous shopkeepers and managers, who all informed me of the dire percentage of unemployment in Bosnia i Hercegovina and laughed at the idea of hiring me, I slumped into an ornate chair in the fashionable kafana Zlatna Ribica with a friend, also from Scotland that I’d made the previous day. I was asked to speak to the owner, our conversation had to be interpreted but what came of it was a job for me in The Goldfish Bar.
The Goldfish Bar was an absurd, elegant, otherworldly place that could have been from a David Lynch movie; in fact it came to be known between myself and my Scottish friend as the ‘David Lynch Bar’. I listened to jazz standards all day in the amber glow of a thousand precarious light fixtures with a thin layer of dust over everything, causing the place to be always on the verge of combustion. Somehow it never caught fire, through all the years of the war and the many it had seen after. It remains as it has always been under the tyrannical perfection of the proprietor, Slobodan. I was to work six days a week and earn 20KM a day. The café was busy, during winter especially when people sought what was cosy and warm; I struggled to follow all the orders and insults that were hurled at me. On my days off I would lay comatose on the couch of my new apartment across the river, courtesy of my boss. This situation quickly revealed itself to be entirely less innocent than I thought, I moved in with an American who worked nights at Ribica. I continued working at the kafana until I had picked up enough Bosnian to understand what my boss meant each time he yelled kurva at me. I then politely thanked him for the opportunity but I would not be working for him any longer. He was furious. Any time I came to the bar after that he would pretend not to know who I was, he also refused to serve my friends when they went there without me.
I was glad to be free from the torments of a crazy old man and his back-stabbing, inconceivably loyal waitresses, but I appreciated my time at Zlatna Ribica. It opened up the heart of Sarajevo to me and I learned about all the characters that daily circulated through those Baroque doors. The artists, the philosophers, the drinkers; the actor who returned from America after a lifetime and saw his city changed irretrievably. He had been extensively famous in his youth. He was living in Los Angeles when the war was raging on in the Balkans. He had just arrived home, that first night I saw him at Zlatna Ribica. I bumped into him a few times after that; we always had the same conversation. He would tell me about how he loves Scottish girls, reminisce about the time he worked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival then he would lament about the fate of his homeland. The last time I saw him he was drinking alone on a bench outside Galerija Smoja. My friend Adela, an artist and film maker, invited him to join us for a drink and loudly scolded the others in the bar for mocking one of their nation’s great icons. He was tragic, a melancholic figure, with always a smile on his face. He was a character from Meša Selemović’s Fortress personified. It was the melancholic romance of Sarajevo I had fallen in love with, each character deepened its intensity and made more intricate its tapestry.
Through my roommate, the American, I was introduced to Fatimah Ashgar. She needed help in organising writing workshops that she had been running previously with another girl who’d left Sarajevo. Over coffee in the art house cinema, Criterion, we hatched a plan for the new Refleks writing group. We met once a week with a group of writers, some foreign some local, some amateur some professional and the workshops have continued since both myself and Fatimah have left with great success. I made many friends through these workshops and some have remained so years after leaving the city, including Matea Šimić for whom I am writing this essay. In the space of a few months I watched a group of girls, so shy they could barely read to each other, emerge from within themselves. I watched them stride onto the stage at The Sarajevo War Theatre and belt their souls into the darkness, the darkness erupted and we fell about ourselves in the dressing room with euphoria. It was that day, that feeling, that group of inspiring women that secured the wish to perform in my heart. Since then I have hosted my own weekly poetry events in Cape Town that have been fairly well attended and appreciated, I suppose I have Refleks to thank for that.
Through Fatimah and the workshops I was put in touch with the young artistic community of Sarajevo. I found there such a wealth of originality and freedom of expression in the music, the art and discussion that was exciting. I met with so many like-minded individuals that were passionate, inquisitive, open minded and full of kindness. Some of them became my friends but as in any community there are cliques and quarrels, which I hate to get in the middle of. I came to understand that Sarajevo could be a particularly unfriendly place to those who were not in favour. It is the kind of place that, if you are walking in the street and see someone you know, you are obliged to stop for a few minutes and it will take you all day to get anywhere. It is a great place to be if you have friends, or, as I tend to do, if you try to remain aloof from what people say of each other. In this way I floated between the many different scenes of Sarajevo. It was a thrilling time for me as a young wandering poet, exposed to such rich culture and intoxicating characters.
My Scottish friend, Jon Blackwood, eventually made the move to Sarajevo. He lectured as an Art Historian and intended to stay as long as it took him to write his book on the History of Modern Art in the Balkans. He introduced me to Jusuf Hadževezović at his Galerija Čarlama, in the basement of a nearly abandoned Communist era shopping mall. All was silence and eeriness in the empty hallway, suited for a zombie horror, until we reached the end and there was the gallery. Light and mirth spilled into the passage and there was a raucous crowd gathered around a table bent under the strain of booze bottles and pounding gesticulations. I was welcomed into Sarajevo’s elite collection of painters, sculptors, photographers and film makers. I spent many afternoons and evenings at Čarlama hanging on the edge of conversations. I made connections with a few of them and it was where Jon and I met our third roommate Marija, the anarchist, who became like a sister to me. She came from Mostar, which I knew quite well already. We watched the Serbian grunge band Goribor perform there in the middle of summer. They performed at midnight, when the weather was at its coolest of about thirty degrees. The singer, profile to the audience, gravelling voice serenading the stars, will remain with me forever.
Čarlama Galerija is also where I met Emir. He was one of a group of artists attending an annual artist colony gathering in the mountains at Vranuk, near Zenica. He invited Jon and myself to go with them. That was a particularly magical weekend and I only felt out of place as a poet for a moment. We all had created canvases by the end of the stay that were to be hung in the museum in Zenica, mine was a collective cut-up collage of poetry. I’d shredded a few of my poems into words and lines and phrases then asked each of the artists to arrange something on the canvas. The outcome was pretty interesting, but it was the process that was important.
Most of what I remember from this trip and all my time in BiH is eating, drinking, smoking and then recovering for the next course; strolling along riverbanks and through forests or on the tops of mountains. At every step I was enthralled, I was enchanted. The whole year I spent there still seems unreal to me so existential was my experience. I came to love the people, who had accepted me as if I were a cousin long lost. Each time I drove back into Sarajevo on bus or train, I felt a swell in my heart like I was really returning home. Perhaps it was this feeling of belonging that motivated my departure. I have a restless heart. Sarajevo inspired great emotion in me, it still does so today. I cherish the memories I have, the friends I made and the lessons I learned there, until I may once again return.
Miss Kiki (aka Kirsten Mackie) is a Cape Town-based poet, born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. She writes a free form, lyrical exploration of life, love and travel. She has performed on stages across the globe; from The Sarajevo War Theatre in Bosnia i Hercegovina, to The Jazz Bar in her hometown. She moved to Cape Town in 2013 and since has performed poetry as part of the Swing Café Variety Show on such stages as Pieter Toerien’s Theatre on the Bay in Camps Bay. Follow her on facebook.com/MissKikiPoet , Twitter @MissKikiPoetry or www.quillinkandrecord.tumblr.com.
Photo: Clark and Kim Kays