I’m a sucker for a bargain and free is as good as it gets. But if my Kindle experience had taught me anything it’s that books are free for a reason. Unless the copyright has expired and they’re classics, I think I’m better off not even going to the trouble of downloading them. There is a lot of rubbish out there, pasted between two covers and sold in the name of fiction.

That said, I’ve had a lot more luck with books in translation. I make a point of visiting bookshops when I travel and doing my best to get hold of local authors in translation.

sarajevoWhen I was in Istanbul last year, I happened across  Ayşe Kulin – a Turkish novellist who has four books in English translation. I picked up a copy of Sevdalinka, which carries the English title of Sarajevo of Love and War. Google translate doesn’t recognise the word but a little digging reveals that sevdalinka is either  a woman’s song or a genre of music for women. [Any Turkish speakers out there?]

It tells the story of a love affair during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1996, an era still very much in living memory. Both the lead characters are journalists – she’s married, he isn’t. I know very little about what happened during that time and my paltry effort to understand it all while I visited Sarajevo a couple of year ago was drowned in the realisation that greater minds than mine have yet to make any sense of what happened.

While I prefer my love stories not to be so blatantly branded, I have a thing about Sarajevo – it’s a city that left an indelible impression on me, one I’d like to spend more time in. That said, the book has languished amidst many other not-yet-reads for months and it’s only lately that I finally got around to reading it.

It ticks all the irritants I find with translated text. Sentence structure isn’t great at times; phrasing is off; colloquialisms don’t quite work as well as they might; and the proofreader seems to have thrown in the towel about half-way in. mmmmm… that goes for a lot of English originals, too. And yet I was sucked in from the start.

The graphic depiction of the atrocities on all sides, situated as they are in everyday relationships, is unreal. If only 1% of it is true, or even based on something approaching fact, that’s too much. I had some idea of what went on but could never have imagined it so bad. And yes, I know it’s a work of fiction, but even fiction has its base in something. It’s clear which side the author was on but even that didn’t take from the story. The reviews on Goodreads suggest that Kulin’s depiction of the politics of the day was well researched and accurate (if a little biased at times but I wouldn’t know). If you’re travelling to the region and are interested in its all too recent history, it’s worth a read.

Kulin’s book is a stark reminder for me of how cosy my own world is; of how blessed I am to have had the upbringing I’ve had; and how little I know of what happens outside my immediate environment. From my current vantage point, I can’t begin to imagine what I’d have done were I born into that region, and lived through that war – but then again, I may well have done what everyone did – tried my damnedest to survive.


View from Park Princeva restaurant Sarajevo

I doubt there’s a village, town, or city in the world that doesn’t look good when the lights come on. There’s something magical about dusk – that corridor of time between daylight and darkness, when streetlamps come to light and buildings morph into manmade stars. Sarajevo is no exception.

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Alifakovac Cemetery Sarajevo

Some people are good at spotting celebrities; others are good at spotting bargains. Me? I can spot a cemetery from miles away. And in a city I’ve never been to, wandering through a local cemetery is high of my list of things to do. Walking alongside the Miljacka River in Sarajevo, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, I happened to glance up and spot the Alifakovac Cemetery high on the hillside, nestled amidst the houses of Stari Grad. When I tried to find out more about it, I discovered that the neighbouring houses, built long after the cemetery itself first opened its grounds,  were built in a way that wouldn’t block each other’s view and sunlight.  Those city planners should clone themselves and outsource their talent to the rest of the world. Read more

Coffee in sarajevo

A mate of mine once told me that you know when you hit the Balkans: the coffee gets good. Finding myself in the old town market in Sarajevo, I sat down beside this old woman at a table outside a café. I asked the lady of the house for a coffee with milk. She shook her head. I asked for a Nescafé – I knew I wasn’t in Serbia but I was close enough to hope that the Nescafé concept might have leaked over the border. She shook her head again. Wine? Shake. Beer? Shake. She said something and at a complete loss for a reply, I nodded. This was a one-item menu.

I got a traditional Turkish coffee served with two cubes of sugar and a square of Turkish Delight. The coffee looked like mud. Something that reminded me of pond scum floated on the top. It poured like treacle, and the word ‘oleaginous’  came to mind. I don’t take sugar – and I never have coffee without milk. But when in Rome – or Sarajevo – I did as the locals do. And, as years of conditioning condensed and melted away, I found myself enjoying the experience.

Perhaps it was the market though – the ambiance? But no. The next day and the day after, I tried it again, both at the hotel and at the conference room. I was in danger of becoming addicted – not to the coffee, but to that rush I got when the caffeine hit my veins and shocked me awake. And to the leisurely pace at which each tiny cup is sipped. I could live this life…

Coffee in sarajevo

Sunday night. Sarajevo. Dinner. The restaurant was already booked by our hosts – we had an address and a taxi and assurances that our table would have full view of the TV. Yes, our hosts were Italian and Euro2012 was being its usual pervasive self.  As we wound our way up the hill, the city fell behind us and the air became noticeably cooler. I had no idea what to expect – no concept of what a posh Sarajevo restaurant might look like or even what the menu might offer.

Four rooms

4 Sobe Gospode Safije is what’s called a fusion restaurant. Situated on three floors of an original 1910 Austro-Hungarian house set just outside the centre, the Sarajevo restaurant is based on a love-story between the Bosnian Safija and Johan, her Austrian lover during the transition from Turkish to Austro-Hungarian rule.

Safija, a woman of remarkable beauty, was the only daughter of Ahmed-Bey Magbulija. She dressed to embolden her beauty and loved to walk the old streets of the city. Some approved; others didn’t. Safija understood that times were changing but many in the city were not ready to let go of the past.

She dreamed of a man with golden hair – an Austrian – who helped her to her feet when she fell. It was 1914. The city was agog with activity in preparation for the visit of the Archduke Ferdinand. Safija went to watch.

New carriages had appeared in the town, beautifully painted and carrying ladies in long light colored dresses and jeweled headbands garlanded with flowers … Safija had never seen anything like it in her life. The ladies were accompanied by gentlemen dressed in black, without belts or waistcoats. Their white shirts were fastened at the neck in a strange way and they had polished shoes. On their heads they wore a different kind of fez Safija knew that it was called a hat. She knew too that the ladies’ headbands were called tiaras.

And then she saw him. The man in her dream. Baron Von Herberstein. He later came to call on her parents, along with his two sisters. A friendship ensued and the Baron fell in love. But Safija ignored his entreaties. They came from two different worlds and she couldn’t  cross that divide. He arranged with his sisters to invite Safija on a walk to the Old Town and to wait for him to join them. It all went to plan. One minute the sisters were there, the next they’d been replaced by the Baron. He professed his love and asked her to run away with him.

I have been looking at you for a month; I have followed your shadow; you have burned my heart more deeply than the sun. I have called to you in my dreams; I have called you my own. You are not destined to live or die here. We will run away … far away from everything. I will give my life if need be to fulfill your desires. I will build you a paradise … a house with four rooms and each one of I will sprinkle with silver and gold. Everyone will know that you are my queen … a bird of paradise.But Safija didn’t know what to do. How could she tell her parents that she was in love with a Christian. If her father knew they were alone, he would have them killed. But when the Baron took her in his arms and kissed her, she knew that she was prepared to  shame her religion, lose her reputation, destroy her father; she was prepared to die. She knew she was guilty, and yet not guilty. She loved … not an Omer-Bey or an Adem-Bey or anyone she had been meant to marry. She knew she loved Johan Von Herberstein.

She asked him to dig their graves. She said she would rather have him hang her than her father.

It was a story that passed among imams and among travelers and among the people of the town. Before God and the whole world the foreigner and the Bey’s young daughter had become one and then taken shelter in the otherworld. And those who heard the story did not know whether to cry or to pray. .. Twenty generations have passed since then. Sarajevo has suffered much and changed much … But there on the corner, in all its beauty stood the house of gold. It had four rooms, rooms that still glisten, rooms that are still talked about … Stories about Miss Safija are still being told … [Read the full story]

As we sat in the garden of the Sarajevo restaurant, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the love story. The menus showed old photos of Safija and Johan. The food was excellent. The wine superb. A beautiful atmosphere. If you’re ever in Sarajevo, make sure you drop by.  Čekaluša 61, 71000 Sarajevo, BiH. It’s open from 9am to midnight.

Sarajevo window box

I met a woman once who had survived the concentration camps. I was in awe of her. She was old and frail, but feisty. It was hard for me to imagine such atrocities, just as it is hard for me to imagine what it was like living in Belgrade during the NATO bombings or in Sarajevo during the siege. And yet I now know people who did live in these places and they’re my age, give or take a few years.They talk of playing basketball while the bombs fell. They talk of making sure their families were safe in the shelters and then going to sit with friends in a café, determined not to give in. They talk of doing their damnedest to continue to live life as usual.

And while all this was going on, I was in Ireland, or America, living in blissful ignorance. TEM went to Bosnia with the UN so the war touched me briefly. He is remarkably reticent about his time there yet I know the friendships he formed are deeper than most. A shared experience will do that for you. He tells a story about the Irish lads being particular about how their meat was cut. One of them, the son of a butcher, showed one of the locals how to cut steaks to satisfy the Irish and their peculiarities. A friendship of sorts ensued and some time later, when their barracks was blown up, the Irish boys had been forewarned.


I didn’t know what to expect in Sarajevo and yet somehow all those unspoken expectations were met. The road into town from the airport, known to many back in the day as Sniper Alley, is bordered by tall block towers showing the scars of war. It was sobering. I don’t for one minute pretend to understand what went on or why it all had to happen. Much as I love the Balkans and enjoy the people, they remain unfathomable and all the more wonderful for that. I was in Sarajevo for a workshop where the concept of all-inclusiveness is something yet to be realised. The Balkans might be a region, but the players in the region still find it hard to sit at the same table. Growing up in Ireland, in a predominantly white, Catholic environment, I can’t begin to understand it all. Somehow, the IRA and the troubles in Northern Ireland seem quite different.


In the centre of the city, there are visible sides of the efforts being made to put the past behind. Buildings are being renovated. Bullet holes are filled in and plastered over, waiting for a new coat of paint. If only it were as easy to renovate people and their attitudes. There are large numbers of Muslim Turks studying at the three universities, opting to live in a country where as women they can openly wear signs of their religion. There is a Serbian quarter, too, complete with Cyrillic signs. But there are no Bosnians.  ‘Under the post-war Constitution, constituent people citizens are identified as Bosniaks (known during the war as Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs. There is no space for Bosnia’s minorities’, or so says a Refworld report published in April 2012.

On another forage through the web in a vain attempt to sort out the mess that Sarajevo has left in my mind, I came across this quote by an American painter LG Hornby (Balkan Sketches: An Artist’s Wanderings in the Kingdom of the Serbs (Boston, 1927), p. 153) who arrived in Sarajevo in 1925.

Tolerance marks the respect with which these peoples of varying faiths mingle their common lot. Here one sees the Bosnian peasant of orthodox faith drop his contribution into the cup of a blind Mussulman who squats, playing his goussle, at the entrance of a mosque. Glancing at the peaceful little stalls where Christians, Mussulmans, and Jews mingle in business, while each goes his own way to cathedral, mosque or synagogue, I wondered if tolerance is not one of the greatest of virtues.

And again I wonder at the price of progress.

There is a beauty to Sarajevo that is found in the mix of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires. Despite its scars, it is has an innate beauty  that speaks of tenacity and perseverance. In just two days, it burrowed its way into my heart and left a lasting impression on my soul. I’ll be going back – this time for longer.