The Vienna of the Balkans

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It’s hard to imagine all of this– the former Yugoslavia– being one single country not so long ago. Belgrade, with its communist blocks and gritty, graffiti-marked streets; Sarajevo, as much Catholic and Orthodox as Muslim and Turkish; and now Zagreb, all old Austrian buildings and Viennese cafes. In an area no larger than today’s Germany or France, all of these varied cities, religions, and cultures were held together within one single set of borders. Even knowing well the ultimate collapse of that country, I still find it incredible.

I came to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, just after sunrise on a Thursday in mid-September, stiff and cramped from eight hours of travel on an overnight bus. Ever since returning to the Balkans, I had wanted to come to this country, in part because I felt that it was the missing “third part” of the Western Balkans that I had not yet seen, as important to the story of Yugoslavia as Serbia or the Bosnian War.

Most of all, though, I came to Zagreb to see the Austrian side of the Balkans. In Bosnia, you get a glimpse of this while walking along the river towards the old town, and even Belgrade has its own parts leftover from when the Empire controlled much of Southeastern Europe. But Zagreb…well, it more than owns up to its title: “Little Vienna” or “The Vienna of the Balkans”.

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Everywhere you go in this city, it feels as though you are as much in Central Europe as the Balkans. The buildings, with their 1800s Germanic facades, the Austrian cafes and bistros, the hipster bars and restaurants that wouldn’t be out of place in Budapest or Prague.

In many ways, it was all a breath of fresh air from my usual day-to-day life in the heart of Bosnia, and as much as I love Sarajevo and Belgrade I found it refreshing change of pace to be in a city that is more, well, familiarly European.

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All of this does, however, create a strange kind of paradox in this city. Croatia, and Zagreb in particular, seems to be divided between two worlds: on one hand, Central Europe, the European Union, Austria and Germany, on the other, Yugoslavia, Southeastern Europe, and Titoist Communism. You can see this subtly simply by walking through the capital’s streets: as many EU flags wave from buildings as those with the historic crest of the Balkan Croatian kingdom, and every Austrian-style building sports the same orange-shingled roofs that are so prevalent in Southeastern Europe.

You can, unfortunately, see this divide as well it in the politics of the day , with Croatia striving to join the Eurozone and the Schengen area while still clinging to the nationalist rhetoric of the 90s, labeling the expulsion of Serbs from Kraijina a triumph against Serb aggression and denying many war crimes committed during the fascist Ustashe state during World War 2.

This is a country that seem to desperately want to be seen as Western European in a way Slovenia or Poland have themselves managed to do since the fall of communism, but at the same time can’t seem to completely let go of its nationalism-tinged past. In the end, this has created a strange kind of identity crisis that I’m not sure the country has quite yet managed to resolve.

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But that’s the thing about the Balkans, that very contrast. This part of the world– by the chance of geography more than anything else– has been so characterized by the empires who fought over it that’s its almost impossible to completely separate the “Balkan” part of these countries from the influences of the empires that ruled over them. The German-influenced Slovenia and the Venetian Dalmatian coast. Austrian Zagreb, Hungarian Vojdovina, Ottoman Sarajevo and Kosovo. Even Serbia, which clings so tightly to its sense of national culture, has itself been influenced by the likes of other eastern Orthodox countries, such as Russia.

That’s not to say that the cultures of these countries are not their own; rather, the nations of the Balkans have taken the cultures of these occupying empires and created a unique, “Balkan” version of them, combining Austrian, Turkish, and Orthodox culture with uniquely Balkan traditions and ways of life. Instead of completely loosing their own identity to the influence of greater powers, they have instead changed Ottoman and Austrian ways to be unique to the Balkans, and in doing so have crafted a part of the world unlike anywhere else.

Zagreb is no different, and while it may feel more “European” or “Austrian” than the rest of the Balkans, it’s still unique in its own Balkan, Yugoslav, Croatian way. The same goes for Sarajevo, Belgrade, Mostar and others across the former Yugoslavia.

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Slowly, slowly I find myself seeing more and more of the Balkans, and am discovering that I am falling in love with these countries increasingly more with each passing day. I hope as well that I have come to better understand this region as time goes on– even while fully knowing that I will never truly understand it in its entirety. I can only offer my thoughts, and hope that my thoughts and my writings can do justice to this part of the world, and that they try to know this part of Europe for what it really is.

I’m not always successful in that of course, but the intent is at least there. I think that matters.

Off to Belgrade soon for the next two months, then back- for a brief time– to Sarajevo before I return to the States. Will keep the blog updated.

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Photo Credits: Sydne Mass @syd_mass

September: Journalism, Writing, and the Hidden Secrets of Sarajevo

I caught the first scent of autumn a few days ago, while walking past a little yellow tree on my way home from work that had just begun to lose its leaves. Since then, the mornings have grown progressively colder, the days noticeably shorter, the breeze cool and smelling of falling leaves.

This summer– from Jordan to France to the OCCRP newsroom, here in Sarajevo– has been a chaotic shuffle from one part of the world to another, one way of life to the next, so much so that the season seemed to have gone by without me even noticing it.

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Coffee at my favorite cafe by the river

But, even though I’m embarking on less traveling than I thought I would, and spending most evenings watching the sun dip below the mountains instead of enjoying a round of drinks at a bar, I’ve come to enjoy this quiet life, especially when compared to the rigors of school. Most of all, I’ve come to love the work I’m doing here at the OCCRP, and wanted to share some of the writing I’ve been doing with the rest of you.

A note, first: at the OCCRP, I’m part of the daily news team, and not as much involved in the writing of the more investigative pieces that appear on our site. Because of that, my pieces are usually only four or five hundred words a piece, but I’ve started to enjoy writing them, and am proud of the work I’m doing:

Russia/Ukraine: Sanctions Hit Putin’s Crimea Bridge

France: Production Lines– Cocaine found at Coca-Cola Plant

Finland: Dark Web Drug Operation Exposed

Russia: US Court Convicts Son of Lawmaker for Credit Card Hacking

Israel: Police Bust Network Trafficking the Disabled

Ukraine: Larry King Paid Through “Black Ledger”

Russia: St. Petersburg “Night Governor” Gets 23 Years for Assassination Attempt

Italy: Authorities Done with Corleone’s Council

These aren’t all of the articles I’ve written, but they’re some of the most interesting stores I’ve covered so far. I’ve come to love this kind of writing– chasing down an interesting lead, finding local media and official reports, and then rolling out a story by early afternoon that others can read, and learn more about the world from.

I get a rush from it (one that is compounded by the copious amounts of instant coffee I chug every morning) and it’s by far my favorite part of every day. Although I don’t manage to get a story out every day, my productivity is becoming better and better each day, as is the clarity and potency of my writing. With each submission, my editor cuts less of my writing, points out fewer holes in my stories, and I find that my writing skills have improved drastically from where I’ve started.

I see myself as a writer first, and a political scientist second, so it’s strange to have to think, now, as a journalist– to analyze things not in a way as to look at its political consequences, but to instead see what is interesting in a story, what grabs a reader’s attention, and changing my approach to writing accordingly.

It’s a challenge, but one I think I’ve adapted to over the past few weeks.

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Downtown Sarajevo, near work
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Looking down Marijin Dvor

So too have I been trying to keep up with writing here, although that has come with its own fair share of difficulties. When I first came to Sarajevo, over a year ago now, I found that this city– with its orange haze sunsets, its mosques and churches and synagogues all jumbled together, the legacy of its horrible war– inspired me to write more than anywhere I had ever been to previously.

There’s a feeling this city has, a weight of history and a sadness of past conflicts, and above all a feeling of overlooked importance that I have always wanted to write about. Many nights, I’ve found myself sitting on my terrace with a notebook in hand, trying (and usually failing) to capture some of that in words.

Yet when I try to do so, I always feel as though my words fall flat. It is not a question of writer’s block– instead, I feel that my sentences can’t do justice to this city and country, between my own background and the little time I have lived here. Books and stories have been written by Bosnians, on the siege, the genocide, on older things like the First World War and the long Ottoman Years (Andric, Yugoslavia’s only Nobel laureate, in particular is fascinating to read).

With all of that, I feel that there is little a young American kid from Appalachia can write, little that can be written that hasn’t been written before, and by those who are more intimately connected to this land than I am.

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Bridge over the Miljacka

It’s something I struggle with not only here, in Bosnia, but also when trying to write about Jordan, or when thinking of writing of future travels and experiences. I’ve always felt that those who write about a place best are not those from the West, who can only understand a place so much, but those who have lived their lives and grown with a place’s culture, those who have experienced firsthand its struggles and conflicts.

There is still a place for American writers, for Western writers, but I don’t know where my own writing fits into all of that. For now, all I have are my thoughts, written down here or in the looseleafed pages of notebooks.

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There’s one last thing I want to share here. On a hill that overlooks the city center lies a little-known secret in Sarajevo: a vast Jewish cemetery, dating back to at least the 17th century and the second largest of its kind in Europe (the largest is in Prague). It’s a place I had heard about before but only just stumbled upon today. And standing amongst these centuries-old tombstones reminded me of one of the reasons why I love this city so much: its vast history, which can come to surprise you at the most unexpected moments.

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The synagogue at the entrance to the cemetary

While Sarajevo is usually seen as a Muslim city, there is an Orthodox history here too, a Catholic history, and yes, a storied Jewish tradition as well. When the Sephardic Jews were driven out of Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, it was the Muslim Ottoman Empire that opened its arms to the refugees when France and Italy turned them away.

Today’s Bosnia, what was then was a vassal of the Turks, was one of the foremost places where many of these Jewish refuges were resettled. They would go on to found a long-lasting and unique community within these Southern European hills, with this cemetery being a testament to that history.

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Walking through these graves, you come to realize why this city is called the Jerusalem of Europe. In the face of the current refugee crisis of Muslims from the Middle East coming to Europe, it’s important to realize that, not so long ago, Muslims had themselves opened their doors from those fleeing persecution in the West.

Bosnia is not the only testament to that, but in our current world of the Palestine-Isarel conflict, the Maghreb immigrants to France and Spain, the Turks and Syrians in Germany, we often forget that this so-called “Clash of Civilizations” used to be anything but.

Look to history, and you’ll find times where Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians all coexisted without conflict, and despite what right-wing figures may say today, that can very well happen again in the future.

That’s all of my thoughts for today, but I’ll be sure to post again later on this month. Only a few weeks left in this beautiful country and beautiful city, and then to Serbia and Belgrade.

 

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