Before Aida Musanovic spoke of the cloud of ashes that hung over Sarajevo for three days after the Serb army burned the National Library, she told another story. She had gone to the Oriental Institute, one of the central resources for the history and development of Bosnian culture. It was the day after the institute had been completely destroyed by Serb army gunners. She stood on the ground floor of what used to be a six-floor building and looked up at the open sky.
Bosnian culture has always resisted being reduced to a single religion or ethnicity. In pre-Ottoman times, Bosnia was the home of three churches: Orthodox, Catholic, and the independent Bosnian Church. Since Ottoman times, Islam, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism have made up the large pattern of Bosnian cultural heritage. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Sephardic Jews who had been offered refuge in the Ot-
toman Empire came to Bosnia; Ashkenazi Jews from northern and eastern Europe also settled in Bosnia. The Roma (Gypsy) population of Bosnia-Herzegovina is divided between adherents of Islam and Christianity.
The specific character of Bosnia's heritage is reflected in its tradition of love lyric, among the world's most sophisticated. The native love song is the sevdalinka , which can be composed in Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian and written in either the Latin alphabet, Cyrillic alphabet, or as Adzamijski (Slavic in the Arabic alphabet). The sevdalinka involves the timeless lyrics of unrequited love. It is called "the woman's song" because by convention it is sung by a woman to her male beloved. The woman poses as a male lover in the song, singing to his female beloved. This complex gender interplay is further enhanced when male singers sing the woman's song. There is one account of six Muslim ulema or religious scholars on their way to the pilgrimage in Mecca, singing sevdalinkas .
The love lyric is about love, but it is also about loss and exile. During the shelling of Sarajevo, one of the most popular lyrics, based on an ancient sevdalinka , concerned Mt. Trebevic, the mountain above Sarajevo from which Serb army gunners were shelling the city. In the old sevdalinka , Mt. Trebevic was the mountain of the love fairy. The love song took on new meaning during the siege of 1992-1995, when Sarajevans listened to a sevdalinka -based popular song and love lament in which the fairy atop Trebevic mountain calls out: "Is Sarajevo where it used to be?"
In addition to composing sevdalinkas in South Slavic, Bosnian poets composed them in the languages of the Ottoman empire: Ottoman Turkish, Persian, or Arabic. They also combined the
native sevdalinka themes with themes from the Ottoman Islamic world and from the Petrarchan sonnet. Many poets composed in all the languages of the region. Some of the more popular poems, composed in Persian or Ottoman Turkish (or in interlocking verses of Persian and Ottoman Turkish), were translated into South Slavic, and in some cases the South Slavic versions are now better known than the Persian and Ottoman Turkish originals. The manuscripts containing this intricate multilingual tradition of Bosnian love lyric were one part of the cultural treasure that went up in flames on May 17, 1992.
Bosnia has a culture rich in transitions and translations. Those looking for the essence of culture and language in ethnic, racial, or religious purity will find Bosnia incomprehensible. On the other hand, those who see culture as a creative process that by its very nature involves intermingling and creative tension among different elements will treasure Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Sarajevo was at the center of such a pluralistic culture. Its mosques, synagogues, Catholic and Orthodox churches stand side by side. Its people are skilled at languages and navigating the concourses of differing traditions—as many discovered when they visited the city for the Winter Olympics in 1984. Bosnia-Herzegovina could be a bridge between the increasingly polarized spheres of East and West and could play an important role in preventing a war between the majority Christian world and the majority Islamic world, a reversion to the Crusades. It is the polarized world of the Crusades that religious nationalists presuppose and desire and that the complex culture of Bosnia-Herzegovina contradicts.
The sounds of that polarized world are clear in the lyric sung by Radovan Karadzic's soldiers, accompanied by the gusle —the
stick fiddle used with classical South Slav epics—as they trained their guns down from the mountains above Sarajevo:
Oh, beautiful Turkish daughter Our monks will soon be baptizing you, Sarajevo, in the valley, The Serbs have you encircled.
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