Back from Bosnia

I want to start by saying how much I appreciated my time in Bosnia. I gained a new level of insight into the culture and social problem facing the Bosnian people, and with that I have gained a new level of empathy. So, I found this experience to be deeply satisfying on both a personal and academic level. As part of this new insight, I developed a deep appreciation for the complexity of the language. Having not been exposed to the Bosnian/Serbo/Croatian language in any kind of formal setting, I had no idea how complex the language actually is. The Structure is such that it makes use of 7 cases, and the endings on of adjectives, verbs, and nouns must all transform depending on the case. Having no equivalent in English, this was a concept that remains very difficult for me to grasp. It also means that though you may understand every word in its infinitive, the act of transforming the constituent parts of the sentence renders its final form unintelligible. The net result is that, while I believe I have made mch more progress than would have been possible without an immersion program, I did not achieve the level of proficiency that I had hoped. That said, I do believe that I know have a foundation that will enable future study and that will equip me with the necessary skills to continue my studies without access to formal classes.

In terms of personal development, the summer was a profoundly eye-opening experience for me. Although it have spent a few months in Bosnia as part of a non-linguistically focused study abroad program the structure of that program prohibited me from engaging with the culture in a deep way. I was there with other American students, being taught in English, and we would hang out together then go back to our hotel at night This meant that though we were in Bosnia, I never as though I were actually experiencing the culture. This summer, in addition to daily intensive language classes, I also received peer tutoring and lived with a host family. This enabled me to truly understand the critical role that family plays in this culture. Nearly everything is centered around familial experiences and children generally live with their parents until they marry. After marriage some even live on a different floor of a family house or in close proximity to their family. This type of communal mentality emphasizes the collective rather than the individual, and provides a very different understanding of the role and important of the personal. While this can undoubtedly be a beautiful thing, there were also many times that I found this dynamic challenging. A primary reason is that this norm of community is accompanied by very strong gender norms that can be difficult to accept. As a result I came away from this experience with a renewed sense of gratitude for the relative progress that has been made around gender equality in the US.

The experience of chaffing against gender norms provides that basis for the most important piece of advice that was given to be before I left: be flexible. While that can be a hard ideal to maintain in a foreign context, I have found it essential to remember that what makes foreign travel so compelling that you learn a great deal about yourself when outside of your normal comfort zone.

It is hard for me to overstate the benefits that I have derived from the SLA grant. Without it I would not have been able to spend a prolong amount of time in the region, and as a site for future research this will be critical to the long-term acquisition of my PhD. My dissertation question focuses on the way states use monuments to craft narratives of conflict in the absence of total victory. My experience this summer has given me greater insight into the location and function of monuments in Bosnia. It has also ensured that, while nowhere near fluent, I possess enough knowledge of the language to be able to read many of the inscription prominent on the monuments. This is critical because the function of monuments is often emblazed on the material structure. This program has therefore been critical to development as a scholar and human being. Thank you for this incredible opportunity!

Monuments & Memory

I have saved this post for the end because I would like to use it to talk about what I am studying, why I am studying it, and why I have chosen Bosnia. It may seem odd to have left this for last, instead of leading with it, but I wanted to make sure I was able to speak about the future direction of my research.

As a PhD student at the Kroc Institute, I am pursuing a joint degree in Sociology and Peace Studies. I am entering my second year, and have decided to focus my research on the following question: How do states use monuments and public commemoration ceremonies to craft narratives on conflict? I am particularly interested in studying cases in which conflict termination is the result of negotiated settlement rather than on-sided victory. In these contexts, the lack of a clear “winner” means that no side is able to unilaterally impose their narrative conflict on the other. Often, the result is that in ensuing years formerly warring parties vie for the status of “victim.” I contend that these contested narratives are embodied in memorials, and that they simultaneously reflect and perpetuate these contested narratives.

Most adults living in America today know little about Bosnia beyond what happened there in the 1990’s; for a very brief overview of this conflict please see my post entitled Bosnian Bridges. And I hope that from the description of my research interests, it will now be clear why Bosnia provides a compelling context in which to explore questions related to my dissertation question. I would like to further reinforce this point by providing one brief example from my experiences this summer.

The following picture is of a plaque that can be found immediately to the right of the entrance to the national Library. It is about 6 ft high, and anyone wishing to enter the library can’t help but see it as they walk through the doors. For those who do not speak English, the same plaque can be found in Croat/Bosnian, on the left:

Though technically an accurate account of who set the fire, it contains highly inflammatory language. Many in the Serb community would contest the label of criminals, instead referring to themselves as combatants. These people would also be offended by the implication that the destruction of the library was an attempt to eradicate Bosnian culture. They would argue that the Serbian army has legitimate reasons to believe that the library was being used by enemy combatants as a strategic resource. For they reason, they would argue that it represented a legitimate military target. Thus, this monument represents just one example of the ways that monuments are used to strategically communicate messages about who should be given the label aggressor, who should be considered a victim, and how specific events should be remembered.

Because of the SLAP program I have been given the opportunity to study abroad in the place that I will be conducting dissertation research. I now possess rudimentary language skills that will at least ensure that I don’t starve during my year of research. I have also been able to make valuable contacts, and will continue to stay in touch with both my language professor Asmira, and my peer tutor Aziz. Thank you to the University of Notre Dame, and to the generous donors that made this possible.

Ćevapi & Copper

I thought it only right that I follow my blog entry about the Bosnian drink of choice, with a post about the Bosnian food of choice: ćevapi. It is hard to describe it, so I will start by providing a picture:

This picture was taken at a restaurant in old town named Želo. While very few would dispute the fact that this restaurant provides the best ćevapi, some in the city refuse to eat here because the name is a reference to one of the local football clubs. Želo’s inter-city rivals are called Sarajevo, and their official restaurant is one street over. So if you ever find yourself in Sarajevo, do yourself a favor and eat at the restaurant with the blue football logo above the entrance. When the waiter arrives say “monge ćevapi pet sa kaymak i Keiselya (or češe voda).” You are ordering a small portion of ćevapi— I promise it will be enough— with cream and  sparkling water (or still if you prefer).

To be 100% honest, I am not actually sure what all of the constituent parts of this dish are. But, everyone that I have asked has given me the same description, and for that reason I will pass it on to you. The bread is a special kind of circular bread, and it is freshly baked every day at the restaurant. This specific type of loaf is called “solmud,” and it particularly popular during the month of Ramadan. During that month it is served with special types of cheese dip at nearly every evening meal breaking the fast. No one has yet been able to tell me what kind of meat is served in the bread, though I have been told that it is minced meat. The cream looks like butter, but has neither its flavor nor consistency. When I asked how it was made, I was told that it is essentially the fat that is skimmed off the top of milk as it is being churned. Additional spices are added, though no one could tell me what they are. The dish is served with a side of raw onion.

A few street over from the restaurant, also in old town, you will find copper alley. It is a street names for artisans who work in its small shops. As a city between the Ottoman empire and western Europe, Sarajevo has represented an important link between east and west for centuries. One of the ways this significance has been expressed is by the number of local merchants and artisans. While increasing industrialization and modernization has dramatically reduced the number of skilled craftsman, in silver alley you can still find skill artisans practicing their craft in the traditional way. These artisans take copper, silver, and copper-plated materials and— using a small chisel— carve elaborate designs into them. In copper alley you can find everything from traditional coffee pots and cups, to jewelry, to elaborately engraved bullets. The following pictures shows an example of some of the copper war relics that can be purchased there.

No trip to Sarajevo would be complete without a meal at Želo and a stroll down copper alley.

Coffee Culture

How do you make the perfect cup of coffee? If you have never been to Bosnia then I am certain you don’t know. Prior to being in Bosnia I didn’t either. Like most American’s my Starbucks was never very far from my hand, and the thought of spending a couple of months in a country that the chain has not yet infiltrated was mortifying. I spent no small about of time fretting over the withdrawals and headaches that I was certain were coming. But thanks to the coffee culture that is an intimate part of life here in Bosnia, I have never experience such withdrawal.

So, how do you make the perfect cup of coffee? The first step is to grind the beans. But unlike the coarse grains you will find in America, these beans are ground so fine that they resemble powder. You do this by griding beans in a hand-cranked grinder, which can be bought from a merchant in Sarajevo. It is made of silver-plated copper, and it was designed by an artisan who spent hours tapping a small chisel into the plate. Similar pieces can be found in Saragevo’s silver alley and an example of this craftsmanship can be found below.

After the beans are ground, you scoop approximately three small spoonfuls of the powdered coffee into a small metal container called a dzezva. You boil a pot of water separately. Once the water is steaming you pour it over the grounds, and the unique shape of this container allows the majority of coffee powder to settle on the bottom, while the rest forms a thick foam at the top. Again, the picture below provides an example.

After allowing the water to sit for five minutes, you pour your first cup. But There is even an art to the pour. First, you must divide the foam on top between the cups. If there are four people you must take care to make sure that the foam is distributed relatively equally between all four people. Scooping the foam off the top simultaneously ensures that the coffee is smooth until the end, and that it remains strong. The picture of a perfect pour is provided below:

I have taken great pains to describe the process of preparation because coffee (Kafa in Bosnian) is a central part of the culture. Inviting someone for a coffee isn’t about coffee. It is a signal that someone considers you a friend and has taken a genuine interest in your life. While inviting someone for coffee in America is an indication that you are feeling them out, in Bosnia it is tantamount to offering to share a three course meal; It is only done on intimate occasion, and only with those who are friends. It has been my great pleasure to share this ritual with a few people in Bosnia, and I would like to extend a sincere thank you to the Owner of a small shop in old-town Sarajevo who has taught me everything I know about the perfect cup of coffee!

Bosnian Bridges

I was in Bosnia for the first time in 2015, and saw many of the same bridges then as I have this summer. But while I didn’t pay much attention to them them then, I have been struck this time by how critical bridges are to the history of the country. In the heart Sarajevo, in one of the most well-trafficked areas, lies the Third most famous bridge in Bosnia, the Latin Bridge. According to some accounts, it was on this bridge in 1914 that Archduke Ferdinand, his wife, and their unborn child were assassinated, setting in motion the First World War. In reality, this is an inaccurate account of events. They were actually shot about a block away near a bakery. But the myth persists, and for that reasons tour group after tour group spend the day walking over it.

Perhaps the second most famous bridge crosses the river Darina. As the subject of author Ivo Andrić’s Nobel Prize winning novel, this bridge attracts authors, tourists, and artists of every kind. If you have never had the opportunity to read ‘The Bridge on the Drina,’ I highly recommend it. I should warn you that it is not an easy read. The book is written from the perspective of the bridge, and thoroughly documents the long history of the region. It’s primary focus is on the atrocities that all who have ruled the region have committed, and it recounts these in an effort to enlighten the reader about the origins of mistrust that plague the 3 major ethnic groups to this day. It is a compelling piece of literature, but one that is heavy and difficult to read. I don’t recommend it for people under the age of 12.

The most famous bridge in Bosnia is found in Mostar, and it is simultaneously recognized as a symbol of war and peace. Originally ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the town has also fallen under the Rule of the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Serbia. As of the early 1990’s its population was largely divided between Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, though violence committed there was also perpetrated by Serb forces. The topography of the region contributes to its beauty, but it also ensured that it was a site of intense fighting during the war. The city straddles a river, and is bordered on either side by large mountains. The two sides of the town are connected by a bridge originally constructed by the Ottomans., Popular myth holds that Bosniaks live on one side of the river while Catholic inhabit the other. While that is certainly not the case now, the town was ethnically divided during the war. At the height of the violence both Croat and Bosniak forces placed snipers on opposing hillsides so that they could shoot down into the valley at the other sides civilians. In 1993 Croat artillery forces destroyed the original bridge which had stood for over 400 years.

In 2004 the bridge was rebuilt. Though magnificent, its beauty is not what attracts many to the site. What is remarkable about the bridge today is the way that it was financed. In an effort to make amends for what the Croatian President referred to as “Croatia’s shame,” the government of Croatia partially financed the bridges construction. Other donors included the World Bank, the European Union, and Turkey. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an embodiment of peace.

My Birthday in Bosnia

My first two weeks in Sarajevo, Bosnia have been nothing short of amazing. In addition to attending classing, and making a non-trivial amount of progress with the language, I have also had a few cultural experiences that have been deeply gratifying.

Last Thursday my fellow students and I were taken to a football match by one of the in-country American Councils staff members. She took us to see a local club— Željezničar— play a Montenegrin team. The club with the most point after two games advances to the league tournament. I don’t pretend to know all that much about European football, but the match was fun from the beginning. As hundreds of fans streamed into the stadium, they all started singing, banging chairs, and yelling at the opposing team’s players. During warmups we were seated behind the goal of the opposite team, and every time their goalie failed to stop a shot, or a player missed the net they would sarcastically applaud. The first half was largely uneventful, at least to my untrained eye. And because our team successfully kept the ball at the opposite end of the field for the vast majority of the half, I couldn’t really figure out what was happening. The second half, however, was electric. The first 10 minuets our team had at least three shots on goal. In the 12th minutes a corner kick was perfectly delivered and GOAL!!!! One of our strikers had headed it past an off-kilter goalie. The score was 1-0. But never once did the fans let up. There were at least three times in the second half when a thousand coaches from the stands thought that their players weren’t being aggressive enough. Inevitably, every single time they would yell, whistle, curse, and ultimately boo their own players. In minute 88 one of the Montenegrin players went over the back of our players while attempting to head a ball. Our player immediately crumpled, and was carted off the field after having a a bandage wrapped around his head. The fans spent a full two minutes whistling at the referees for not presenting the offender with a yellow card. The the final whistle drew the match to a close a joyous round of the team song rose up from the fans. As we streamed out of the stadium a guy took out his teeth and hoisted them in the air to celebrate. On Thursday, July 6th the team will head to Montenegro to play the final game regular season game, but with a win at home they are in a good position to make it to the playoffs. The following photos were taken by a friend, and show American Councils students at the match holding the flag of the local team:

On June 30th I turned twenty-nine in Sarajevo, Bosnia. It was one of the best birthdays I have ever had. I spent the first part of the day in classes, and the wonderful staff at American Councils brought me cake! In the afternoon a friend and I met for coffee, then took a taxi to the old Olympic bobsled and luge track in Trebević. We spent a good two hours walking down the abandoned track, looking at the graffiti painted on it. The following photos were taken by me as we walked: