Surprised by Sarajevo

  1. American music.

Dino, one of the guys helping out with the War Art Reporting and Memory (WARM) Festival this week (he’s not an intern, but he knows my supervisor, Safet, and has provided some much needed assistance in administrative tasks), asked me how I like the Bosnian music. I thought he was kidding, and retorted, “What Bosnian music?”

It seems as though every pub or café plays Top 40 American music, just delayed by a few years. At the Meeting Point, where I have been working all week for the WARM Festival, American hits blasts all day accompanied by a few TVs screening music videos. I anticipated the cigarette smoke in these venues, and it is truly everywhere. I have been sitting in this café for the last few hours for my internship, and the back of my throat is starting to feel chaffed and scratchy – like the start of a cold – except it’s just burning from the second-hand smoke that is charring my lungs.

Drama aside, the smoke is not even the most bothersome part of the café! The American music simply will. not. stop. That is, until the Euros come on – such an incredible reprieve from the shallow, repetitive, catchy music that triggers a flashback to my high school and college days.

I recently met a fellow contributor to Balkan Diskurs who is currently researching the role of music in reconciliation in Mostar. He introduced me to the Jazz bars, Rock, and Bosnian pop music that are aimed at healing the divided city. I am encouraged to learn the culture of music in Bosnia is robust and influential in shaping the recovery of the country – I guess I can look forward to my firsthand experience of it!

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  1. Graffiti

Graffiti is everywhere in Sarajevo, and I am now realizing why I felt so unsettled during the first few days of my time here. In Denver, and throughout the States in general, the presence of graffiti insinuates low-income neighborhoods, “the ghetto,” or gang-related activity. I recognize this overgeneralization and stigmatization of street art and graffiti artists – who, I believe, can offer tremendously impactful social criticisms. However, street art is criminalized in my community, and convicts are often sentenced to “clean up the city” by painting over graffiti.

For the first few days in Sarajevo, I wondered why people continued to note the safety of the city. I honestly felt anxious walking the streets – a subconscious insecurity in which I could not pinpoint a reason. As I was contemplating surprises from Sarajevo, I started discussing the ubiquity of the graffiti and connected this with my unease of the streets.

In a conversation with a couple locals who attended undergrad in the US, I learned that tagging buildings is an outlet for high schoolers to rebelliously express themselves. By the time graffiti artists develop their skills beyond their names or a confession of their most recent crush, they are late teenagers or early 20-somethings and need to find a job. Although graffiti is technically illegal in Bosnia, the dearth of enforcement leaves the law essentially obsolete and the city covered in colors of hardly-discernible markings.

Thankfully, Sarajevo is not rampant with gang activity, as my initial anxiety seemed to suggest. I already feel safer, more settled, and intrigued by this city. But, I wonder what it would look like to harness graffiti as a mechanism of change. Unfortunately, government funds will not support such initiatives, but I have already met numerous activists exploring creative platforms to engage in restorative justice, reconciliation, and political restructuring.

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