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Performing the Remains of War in Sarajevo

In the spring of 1992, 40,000 citizens of Sarajevo–Catholic Croats, Christian Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks–peacefully protested against the political madness they saw unfolding around them. It was to no avail. Soon the city was surrounded by the Yugoslav People’s Army and radical Serb troops, save for a small thin line at the airport controlled by the UN. While Bosnia and Hertzegovina had declared their independence, Serb forces wanted Bosnian territory for a state of their own.

The siege of Sarajevo lasted from April 1992 through February 1996–significantly longer than World War II’s horrific siege of Stalingrad. In all, more than 11,500 people died, including 5,434 civilians. Today Sarajevo still shows visible scars from the war in the form of buildings with obvious damage and those with walls where the bullet holes have been patched. Once lined with trees, Sarajevo’s main boulevard–known as sniper’s alley during the war–is decidedly more barren as residents, desperate for warmth in the winter, cut them down during the war. Other wounds may be less visible. Both an Imam and a taxi driver we met had been 12 year old boys living in the heart of the city with their families when the war began. Like other children, they suffered many hardships, were often unable to attend school, and witnessed events that no child should have to see.

Dan, Shirley, Phil, and I took the opportunity yesterday to travel to a museum dedicated to the memory of Sarajevo’s lifeline during the war: a tunnel dug under a house south of Sarajevo that went beneath the airport and then into the city to deliver needed supplies.

As we traveled to the southern part of the tunnel that still exists, our kind and gentle driver affirmed what we had read about the start of the war. Serbian and Yugoslav troops had first bombed factories to damage infrastructure and then a telecommunications tower to isolate the city. Today, the tower is back, but most of the factories have not returned. Instead, war-torn buildings are giving way to hotels. Our driver noted that the split government, led by multiple officials with 1 from each ethnic group (interestingly, the men and their security detail were seated next to us at our hotel’s cafe) is cumbersome, corrupt, and expensive, which has contributed to high unemployment among citizens. Muslims from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are moving to affluent neighborhoods around Sarajevo, as well. The city’s physical, political, and demographic infrastructure is changing, but built on the remains of both the 1990s war and the region’s prior history.

Even as many of the city’s inhabitants move on, however, others long to remember. At the tunnel, we learned that the family under whose home the tunnel was built first began preserving tools and other items associated with the tunnel when the government showed no interest in such a memorial. The house is now a small museum where you can walk down the stairs that led to the tunnel and then duck your head to move through a small portion of the tunnel itself that has not yet collapsed. Outside, visitors can see fields, then the airport, and then the city itself that depended so heavily on the tunnel during the war. We peered into a small gift shop, closed when we were there, and saw that metal work traditional to this area had been fashioned into relics for sale that pay homage to the “tunnel of hope.”

Perhaps this tug between the past and present was best illustrated yesterday in a cafe on Sarajevo’s main boulevard where we stopped for a quick lunch. The decor was composed of facades decorated with bullet holes, a new “re-membering” of the war, an ironic wink that the city and its residents are still standing. Whether future generations will note and/or appreciate the reference remains to be seen.


The Beauty of Sarajevo

Sarajevo completely surprised me.  All I knew of it was the communist worker’s experiments I wanted to visit as a politically minded college student, and, certainly the civil war.  I imagined bleak, decayed, gray, and as Phil suggested, of course it would be raining.  There is some of that, sans the rain, but I didn’t expect the diversity, the vibrancy, and the beauty.

Our hotel was adjacent to the Baščaršija, or the old town.  This was a bit like what I imagine Istanbul to looks like…very Turkish in feel, belying the Ottoman roots.  Very present in the streets was the Muslim majority.  Nearly half of Bosnians are Muslim (49 %), with the rest divided between Eastern Othodoxy (34%) and Catholic (14%).

For me, the most moving experience of the trip was our visit to the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque.  Built in 1532 in an Ottoman style, it is the center of the community.  Though heavily targeted and damaged during the war, it’s sturdy stone walls held.

We were treated to an unexpected tour by Evid (?), an inspiring and humble young imam who was eager to show the traveling Americans the beauty of the mosque and of Islam.

The paintings in the building, redone after the bombings, are simply stunning.

Even more beautiful, however, were the words our guide shared with us.  Twelve at the time of the war, he shared how horrific the experience was for him.  He also shared the verses in the Koran that speak to peace: “to kill one innocent person is to kill all of humanity.”  For him, being an imam means living every moment as a Muslim, including serving as a model for those around him.  He spoke with great sadness of those who claim to be Muslims, but have never learned the teachings.  They cannot, he said, be seen to represent his beliefs nor can they pray beside him.  We talked about the importance of recognizing that the religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism are far more alike than are their radical expressions.

He ended the visit by singing a few verses, first translating for us.  His voice was beautiful and clear, and it echoed in the stone structure and in our hearts.


Stopping by What Seemed to Be a Construction Site on a Dusty Day in Athens

May 26, 2016

Thursday, our last day in Athens before heading north to the Balkans. Jimmy, Heather, Shirley and I were on a mission to  the Theater Dionysus on the other side of the Akropolis, winding our way up and down the steep and narrow streets in the hot afternoon sun. 

Then, as always happens when you’re on your way to some place else, you run into something that you didn’t even know existed. First I noticed a long span of not just the usual construction site fencing, but that the gray wire was covered with signage. Behind the wire, along with all sorts of mechanical contraptions meant for tearing some things down and building up others, was this tall marble octagon tower–the Horologion of Andronikos, otherwise known as The Tower of the Winds. Built in the first century p.c.e. by the astronomer Andronikos (who hailed from Kyrrhos up north in Macedonia), the temple originally featured eight different different types of winds on each of its marble sides, each one represented by a male figure depicting that wind’s attributes. But things change. Throughout the centuries the tower took on many lives. Early in the Christian period it had been turned into a church and part of the ground around it into a cemetery. In the 15th century, it had been identified by one early traveler appropriately enough as the former temple of Aeolos, the Greek God of the winds; but, in later years, under the Ottoman Empire, it was used as a Dervish monastery. In any case, here in 2016 the rejuvenation of its initial incarnation as The Tower of the Winds had apparently become the focus of all this activity, of all this noise and dust. And, at least for as long as our own lifetime, any visitor to this spot will know its original name.

I’m not meaning to be snide here, but both wary and in awe, in the manner of the caretakers of this site and its renovation. Indeed displayed in the corner of an informational placard bolted to the fence, were these words from the Ephorate of Antiquities of Athens, an agency under the direction of the General Directorate of Antiquities, which in turn is under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture and Sports:

The materiality of monuments includes individual and collective memories

of histories and everyday circumstances

connecting present people and places with their past.

Decay is unavoidable and drifts memory into oblivion.

Against ephemerality the conservators of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Athens

conserve and protect the ancient monuments of the city,

delay the consequences of time, 

defend the lifetime of the monuments and the memory of us all
                                               *Monument derives from monere, the Latin word for memory.

This was not your usual bureaucratic boilerplate. This manifesto even had line-breaks–like a poem. Seeming to speak not just for those engaged in this one attempt to preserve and visually “perform” the past world, but for others engaged in such enterprises as well, this “poem”also seemed to realize that it too was part of a world continually disappearing, no matter how hard we might fight against the temporary—the ephemeral. Here, before my eyes, I caught a glimpse of how the ongoing knowledge of the world—its recognition, restoration and even reinterpretation—was going on not just in words but through the manipulation of the physical materials of the world. And, likewise, I was thankful that I was able to witness this visual and tactile shepherding of the past by my own body rather than through the printed word or the growing power of the Internet.   


Ancient Olympia

Ancient Olympia, home of the Olympic Games, lies near the western coast of the Peloponnese region of Greece. Its most obvious feature–the one that drew busloads of other travelers to compete with our group for elbow room on our visit–is the story it tells about the development of sport in Ancient Greece. In the museum dedicated to sport at the site, you can encounter a layout of the reconstructed grounds, with precisely sized models, and information about the development of these from footraces to numerous other events, or you can walk out into the large grounds to view, say, the huge ruins of the Temple of Zeus, to whom the winners would give offerings of helmets and other implements:

 Or you can see the surprisingly unremarkable spot where the Olympic flame is lit:

One of the most fascinating features of the ancient site, however, is how, like other archaeological sites, it testifies to many layers of history. For example, you can find traces of the oldest excavated house on the site, about 2000 years old, with the knowledge that even older remains lie below:

 Or you can find the remaining columns of the Philippeion, a temple dedicated to Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great:

The structure is unusual not only because of its circular shape but also because it was only in 2003-04 reconstructed from remains that had been taken by the Germans and recently repatriated–unlike the Elgin marbles, housed in the British Museum, which have been a source of controversy between Greece and the U.K. for some time.
You cannot avoid the traces of the Romans, either, whose later contributions to the site are apparent to archaeologists in, for example, the use of brick construction rather than stone. The Romans are also memorialized in the archaeological museum, along with the spectacular marble pediment statues of the Temple of Zeus and the statue of Hermes by Praxiteles. Here you can also see the statue of a resplendent Roman emperor. Our guide, Roula, identified this figure as Hadrian, but also noted that the Romans constructed these statues with removable heads so the emperors could be swapped out readily, according to the tides of Roman politics:

 You might also stumble across rebuilding in the present moment, as in this column representing the Stoa Poikile along one edge of the grounds. A worker up near the top of the scaffold was using a noisy power tool as we walked by–history being reenvisioned and crafted in front of our eyes.

The goal of the walk through the grounds is to reach the stadium, which is really just a large, level oval–an unavoidable temptation to competitive colleagues, here seen on the starting blocks:

 And, finally, you find the sedimentation of history in the unlikeliest of places. Here’s what you might call the “computer console” of the restaurant in Patras where we had our lunch stop on the way from Olympia back to Athens:



Performing Nationalism

As we prepare our departure for Croatia, it seems fitting to reflect on our 5 days in Athens and particularly for me our interactions with the theaters in Epidaraus and Athens. While we were playful, as some photos will show, there was a clear sense for me of the ways in which those spaces remained not only sacred, but also performances in themselves, carrying with them a history of traditions both long forgotten and yet still maintained. As our guide Roula, explained the “Greek” historical elements of the space, as well as many other monuments we visited, I heard the Nationalistic voice of the country and became increasingly aware of the significance of my own cultural location. It will be exciting to share these experiences with my students and engage them in exploring their own Nationalistic sense of being.


Performing Grecian Remains, plus some Comedy and Tragedy

Our first day clearly demonstrated the meaning of our topic.  After a very long day during which Shirley’s luggage was lost (the tragedy), we visited the Acropolis museum.  More to come on the museum later, particularly the Elgin marbles, but it was fascinating to see the layering of history and storytelling represented in the museum.  The layers are literally present, visible through the glass floor.

The story of the Acropolis captures the story of Greece and its wars, invasions, and occupations.  The museum tells this story from the perspective of the Greeks.  The floors of the museum represent the Acropolis as it should ideally be, and stands in the shadow of the real building.

And for the comedy of the day, it has to be watching the theater faculty geeking out, and almost getting us in trouble, at the theater at Epidaurus.

…..posted by Heather