Vox Populi’s “Peace Be Upon You” at MESS 2017

 

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Bullet holes around windows on a building in Sarajevo, likely from attempts by snipers to kill civilian occupants hiding inside.

October hosts Sarajevo’s annual theater festival, MESS. We learned this through another person on our bus, a Swiss diver here in Sarajevo to meet watch her boyfriend perform as part of the theater group, Vox Populi. He meets us at the bus station and introduces himself as Syrian, though he now lives in Bulgaria. The two of them invite us to come see their play the following night. “It’s about the experiences of refugees,” they tell us, “it’s titled Mir Vama (Peace Be Upon You).”

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Sunset on the way to the theater.

It’s already packed when we arrive at the Sarajevo War Theater on the evening of the play, and we get tickets only from the kindness of someone who had two extra. The theater stage is set with little more than a line of tape up front and three vertical silk screens in the middle. As the lights dim two people walk onto the stage: Mila Bancheva and Ricardo Ibrahim, the man we met the day before. In what is part play and part documentary, the pair use videos of interviews with refugees projected onto the silk screens, symbolic scenes acted out in their minimalist set, and their own monologues to bring the stories of refugees to life.

Their interviewees are Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish, people’s children and parents and brothers and sisters. They speak about leaving their countries, what made them leave, what they left behind. They talk about a reluctance to go, and a story about people who left their homes thinking it was temporary and now decades later, they still wait to return. One man speaks of narrowly escaping death when a group of men fired several shots into his taxi. This wasn’t enough to force him to leave. Instead, it was the death of his infant daughter in an accidental raid on his house that prompted him to go. One of the actors speaks about the sensation of bombs being dropped on her city, first of fear, then of normalcy. Someone from the rafters drops a heavy box onto a stage, and it reverberates in the silence. The actors speak of hunger and starvation, as one of them desperately tears apart a pomegranate to eat, red-purple juice covering them. They speak of dodging mines, of the logistics of getting through porous borders, and then less porous borders. As refugees, they adjust to life as it is and as it must be.

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I didn’t take photos during the performance, but this post-performance shot gives an idea of the stage setup. The two actors, Diego and Mila, are front left in front of a silk screen.

Mir Vama reveals the refugees as painfully human, and our inability or unwillingness to help them palpable. Nowhere is that more evident than during a scene in the play where actress Mila cradles a mandolin she has been playing. She carries it to the front of the stage, and introduces it as her baby. And then she offers it to us, arms outstretched, but still lovingly cradling the object. “Will someone take my baby?” She pauses as seconds crawl by and we watch her. She offers it again, to the other side of the audience, “Please, will you take my baby?” Her face is solemn, imploring. I feel the urge to rise and take the mandolin from her, but I can’t tell if this is just part of the play. I can’t tell if this is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what is right to do. Mila asks us, again, “Will anyone take my baby?” The seconds crawl by as we all stare at her, actionless.

But no one stands up.

 

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The Sarajevo War Theater stage, post-performance.

 

Some short scenes are of Mir Vama are available on YouTube here, while the original playbill for Mir Vama is available here in Bosnian, and here in English.

Want to see what Vox Populi are up to currently? You can follow them on Facebook here (in Bulgarian, but Google Translate works alright)

The City of Sarajevo

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On the surface, Sarajevo should be like most other Eastern European cities – a mix of Turkish and Russian influence, torn up sidewalks, and crumbling facades. And it certainly does have some (or more) of all of those. Throw in the historical perception of a recent war, and you have a city that shouldn’t be great to visit. Yet it doesn’t feel like a Eastern European city – it feels different, somehow more modern. And as for the war, it’s not forgotten by any means and signs of it are everywhere, but the people are in the middle of moving on and building new lives and a new city. Sarajevo’s history is complicated and violent, and I’m not qualified to say how it got to where it is now, but as a visitor, I can with certainty say I would love to come back.

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Our first impression of Sarajevo was that the people here are very warm and welcoming.  We felt immediately at home and despite hosteling near the old city, did not feel any sense of being in a tourist trap. Our second impression was of the food. It’s delicious, it’s everywhere, and – at least as a tourist on a budget – it’s not very expensive. The historic section of the city is where we ate most of our meals, so everything was fairly traditional. Bosnian food has a huge helping of Turkish influence, lots of Mediterranean spices in their meat, and an appreciation for delicious dough. My favorite was sac – pronounced sach.

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It’s basically banitsa, or buyrek, or any other thin dough wrapped around a delicious filling then baked. But the ones we had – several times – were cooked so that despite being baked, the inner layers came out as though steamed. Absolutely delicious and oddly very reminiscent of the Siberian boozi.

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We also enjoyed a more traditional cafeteria-like restaurant in the old town, this one frequented by pensioners. Our meal there was varied but these dough-dumplings with meat were fantastic.

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There are also several bakeries in the marketplace. All the desserts seem like variations on Turkish traditional recipes, but we unfortunately didn’t try each different one to know. This is the syrup-soaked semolina cookie that I’ve been lucky enough to try in three different countries so far – the bakeries in Sarajevo are some of the best! After the food comes the city’s architecture. Despite being under siege for almost four years and suffering untold structural damage, many of the historical sites came away relatively unscathed.

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In the market place, the center of the old town, centuries old buildings and monuments still stand.

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Walk out towards the river for a view like this one. Lovely old houses, minarets, and the surrounding hills. The river itself is bridged in many places, and each one makes for a great view.

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There is of course more modern work as well.

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Sarajevo also has a whimsical side.

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Even away from the river and the old town, the architecture is interesting.

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This mall in the downtown gives no sign that it’s anything less than a fully modern shopping experience.

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Renovation is always underway.

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And there were lots of examples of really great murals all around the city.

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There’s even room for greenery!

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Like this lovely tree growing out of a wall.

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There’s no way to escape the reality that a war took place here, not long ago. Sarajevo was under siege from the hills – bullets riddled the buildings and mortars fired into the heart of the city. It is a difficult emotion to describe – awe, respect, maybe? Like being confronted something extremely distant and surreal made concrete. These scars are signs of what the people here endured.

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It is very eery to see those familiar soviet-style blocks with gunshots, instead of poor maintenance, damaging the facade.

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Alongside the bullet specked buildings are the mortar holes. Some time after the war, a citizen artist filled in some of them with red asphalt – these are the roses of Sarajevo. Only scars from mortars that killed one or more people. There are plenty of mortar holes in the city that aren’t filled in as well – after a little while walking around you can sort of tell what’s from a mortar versus what’s from regular disrepair.

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Some of the particularly notable roses, or ones near other famous landmarks, have been roped off to protect them. There were once a great many more around the city, but time and reconstruction has removed all but a few.

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The ones that are not ‘sanctioned’ tend to wear away after a while.

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To get a better understanding of what life was like during the war, there is a museum in the city with an entire room dedicated to preserving and showing artifacts, posters, and in this case, an entire apartment. It’s a sad and sobering place to visit – I highly recommend it, but maybe have a less heavy activity planned for the rest of the day.

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The city and its people seem to be moving on. The war is clearly not forgotten, but it is also not holding anyone back from creating a new life and bringing Sarajevo into modernity and prosperity.

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Bosnian Coffee

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There is an interesting story whenever something forgets where it was from and becomes from somewhere else. This story is about a cup of coffee.

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The city of Sarajevo and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina are each beautiful and complicated. Their histories are long, and storied, and often very bloody. Bosnian coffee comes from a time when the Ottoman Empire threatened and conquered the Balkan peninsula. Slavic through pre-history, converted to christianity in the middle ages, Bosnia faced yet another existential threat. The Ottoman Empire, when it finally conquered the region, wiped out the former ruling structure but allowed the country to keep its cultural identity and name. Because many Bosnians converted to Islam and the empire spread, enveloping Bosnia in even more outer provinces, it reached a point of great influence in culture, commerce, and architecture.  This period is when the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar were founded.

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Bosnians say that they in their province retained the true form of Turkish coffee. Because Bosnian coffee, regardless of what it is called today, was brought by the Ottomans. The turks favor a very thick, very strong brew – almost a sludge. Ordering a Turkish coffee anywhere in the world will get you a cup of thick sludge covered by the liquid coffee. Ordering a Turkish coffee in Bosnia will get you a quick correction – Bosnian coffee – and a tray complete with cups, a pot of coffee, a bowl of sugar, and a piece of lukum. The coffee is the same thick, sludgelike delight, but it comes in the pot that it was prepared in – a jezveh. Every Balkan country pronounces this differently, and the Bosnians spell it džezva.

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There is a ritual in serving coffee the Bosnian way. That’s really what differentiates it from the Turkish coffee, though locals might say otherwise. Bosnian coffee is served in its pot, on a tray. Turkish coffee comes in a cup. Both come with permission and opportunity for a long, luxurious, meandering chat. In Bosnia this holds even more strongly. Gaining its freedom from the Turks did not revert Bosnia’s newfound identity. It still stands out amongst its Balkan neighbors being a Muslim majority nation. It stands out even further for being the last major armed conflict (not counting Ukraine now) on the European continent.
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During the Bosnian war, the social ritual of Bosnian coffee became a touchstone, a point of grounding for the residents. With extremely limited supplies, the ritual remained as the coffee was washed away. Any boiled drink, preferably brownish, served in its place – a reason to get together, to talk, to try and experience normalcy in the face of siege and war. Now, the war past but not forgotten, coffee once again proliferates the country, though the full ritual of it is slowly dying out. Many places will serve espresso or nescafe, and the cafes where true Bosnian coffee are served a fewer than before. In busy tourist towns and central markets though, there will always be a place for the tray with its attendant pot, cups, and bowls. This is lucky, because it is some of the best coffee anywhere.

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Skopje to Sarajevo – a terrible bus ride

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Our few days in Skopje were over, and our next steps were to bus over to Bosnia. We had read that there were fairly frequent busses running between the cities so it shouldn’t have been a problem. The first sign that maybe we chose the wrong method of transit was the friendly lady manning the ticket counter at the station explained that the only buses out were on Wednesday and Sunday at 8 pm and would take about 10 hours. We bought our tickets for the Wednesday bus. Overnights aren’t usually a problem, and we’ve done our fair share of them so far.

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The streetlight lit walk back to the station – mercifully short with all of our gear.

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It seemed like a normal economy bus line. We were early to try and get a decent seat for my legs – the buses in eastern Europe are a bit cramped.

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Our bags below and the bus full, we take off. A man in front of us to the left was very friendly and told us all about his adventures hiking in Bulgaria, the mountains he’d climbed, and the state of the local soccer clubs. He was on his way to Sarajevo for a match – something he said he does fairly frequently.

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They gather up our passports in anticipation of the border crossing.

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At about this time I tried to use the bathroom. It was locked. Maybe it was just for the border crossing I thought. Someone told me something in Macedonian and I missed the nuance. After the border I would try again. Same result though, the man was telling me the bathroom was out of service. The bathroom is probably always out of service.

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Shortly thereafter, the conductor comes back to us and asks us to move. This we learn in loud tones and with help from our soccer fan friend. It’s not entirely clear why, and since we weren’t told anything when we got on, we stay in our seats. An explanation comes out – the conductor, who is also the alternate bus driver, needs to sleep. Ok, somewhat reasonable. We agree to move and the conductor, realizing that we’re together, asks another lady to please move from her seat so that we can sit together instead of separately. We didn’t feel great about this, but it was nice to at least keep sitting together. The lady definitely did not feel great about this.

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The scene that played out afterward could have been from any Three Stooges film. As everyone did their best to sleep, a noise started. A squeak that came in and out, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, never quite on any particular beat. It drove the sleeping conductor mad. Panels were pushed and examined, seats were raised, bags were shifted. The attempt to find the source of the noise was in vain. Finally, after several passengers helped in the search, someone stuffed a blanket between two roof panels near the back seat. It didn’t solve the noise, but everyone involved felt like something had been done, so it was time to try sleeping again.

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Dawn came, and whatever kind of rest we can get on a bus was gotten. All told not too bad. 20171005_081949

Our conductor and football friend slept on.

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Outside, the Bosnian landscape went by. We had passed through Serbia in the middle of the night. Oddly I don’t remember crossing the border into Bosnia, but Natalie does. She remembers it as being very, very cold, at around 4am.

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Several hours of sunrise follow. The landscape and scenery is really quite pretty.

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Finally, sometime early in the morning, we get let off at a restaurant/bus stop.

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Bathrooms are first priority. After that I go to browse the snacks and food available. It turns out they only accept Bosnian currency, and only in cash. As a point of interest it’s nearly impossible to get Bosnian currency anywhere except inside the country, and there are no ATMs nearby. We dig in to what’s left of our travel snacks.

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The bus ride at this point continues on. We had been pretty firmly told that it would be 10 hours. Well, actually 12 hours corrected the driver mid way. Actually, the trip ran on for more than 15 hours. The internet confirms this is about the time it takes, but nobody on the ground was giving that number.

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It’s time to get off the bus!

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Natalie took this picture at the moment of her escape. We would later discover that sadly, her crocheted orange owl had stayed on the bus, its loop snapped off when the bag was jammed under the seat during our seat change.

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One last look at our bus..

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Sweet freedom! The station had an ATM, and a bakery. Bosnia has amazing baked goods, and extremely nice people. The lady at the bakery very kindly took my 50 mark to pay for a 3 mark piece of pie. It’s like buying a stick of gum with a hundred dollar bill. Change and food in hand, we got on the metro system and headed to our hostel!

Can we recommend visiting Skopje? Yes. Can we recommend visiting Sarajevo? Absolutely! Can we recommend the bus between them? No. Fifteen hours on a bus with no bathroom is not great. Unless you’re on a tight budget, take the flight. It’s supposed to be much easier.