All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

12 May 2016

A DAY IN BOSNIA



'Do you see the cloud?' asks the boy.

'Yes, I see it', says the man.

The man takes out the camera and makes a picture of the cloud. The man is me.


We landed in Sarajevo late at night. The airport looked nondescript and humourless, but that is what Eastern Europe does to you. It shows itself straight away, it does not beat about the bush. We shuffled along, mournfully, sleepily, barely noticing the guiding signs, and I kept imagining what it may have looked like during the war. Early May, 1992, when the president was kidnapped on his arrival from Portugal and held captive in this very airport. It must have been madness. However, it was not the Bosnia I was looking for.

'I think you'll find it', Sonja wrote to me. 'It's a new country'. She was full of ideas and she kept sending me these stylish, black and white pictures of modern-day Sarajevo. Some of them, I suspected, Sonja made herself. She kept telling me this could work. Bosnia had long managed to transcend its past and wash away the blood and the genocide from its memory. Still, every time I mentioned Sarajevo as the subject of my new exhibition, eyebrows were raised. And the conversations veered, quite inevitably, towards the murder of an Austrian archduke. It's like the whole country existed entirely in its past. So really – how do you do that?

'How do you do it?' 

I posed this question to the taxi driver who was taking me into the city.

'Well', he said, 'you'll have to figure it out yourself'.

I listened up, I almost heard him say it. But he didn't. His English only stretched as far as the taxi fare and the name of my hotel. He stared blankly into the road that was hissing and rolling under the wheels like a lazy lover. While I stared into the window gently cracked by a few blind streaks of rain. And as we were passing by the stooping procession of street lamps and gloomy blocks of flats, I was trying to forget everything I had read over the previous month. The history was all too vivid, if only in my memory.

'How did you like the hotel?'

I turned around and saw her standing over me. It was the first time I met her in person. Sonja was a Serbian girl of eighteen who wrote to me offering help. She actually said I could not do it without her. Normally I liked to work alone, but this was too much of a new world and I just loved the cheek. 'I work for free', she wrote.

Here, outside the fussy little cafe in the centre of the city, first thing you noticed about Sonja was the smell. She smelled like flowers. Not a rose or a chamomile. Not a lily. Sonja smelled like the whole flower shop. It was intense. She was wearing a loose-fitting green dress just the right side of scruffy, shiny white sneakers and beautiful red hair that was all over the place. She ordered apple cider, which seemed a bit odd so early in the day. I was drinking the famous Bosnian tea that was rather too bland to blow me away.

'It's good'.

'Bad, you mean'.

Well, let's see. I woke up with a terrible pain in the neck, and it's hard not to blame that on the hotel. The place itself was okay. In fact, it looked like any other five-star hotel you could find in that part of the world. Impeccably tidy, depressingly quiet, with not a shred of charisma. I took a shower and did my usual routine, which included standing at the window and making my first picture of the city. Empty street, still morning air, a boy on a bicycle. At that point I had no idea what this picture even meant and what role it would play in my trip to Sarajevo. I just liked the feel of it.

In the meantime, Sonja was telling me about our plan for the day.

'I've made a list'. She passed me a sheet of paper covered with the kind of anarchist handwriting that betrayed imagination. 'You see, it has stuff like Eternal Flame, Sebilj Fountain, Latin Bridge. These are the sights no one misses. Feel free to cross them out'.

'No', I said. 'Let's do them. They belong to the city'.

As my aunt once told me, you can't forget something without remembering it first. Even if it's something you have never truly experienced.

'Have you made any pictures yet?'

I scrolled it back for her: two pigeons fighting for a piece of chewing gum, an old woman pushing the pram, a baker enjoying the first rays of sun and the boy riding a bicycle. Sonja smiled furtively when she saw the last picture. 'Oh I know him'. She lit a cigarette and shrugged it off. I did not want to push her.

The girl was brilliant. She was this irresistible creature from an old computer game who walks through the dark labyrinth illuminating the space around her. I was not groping like a drunk. I was touching, twisting, turning. I was making the right shots. And as we plunged into the bustling noise of the Ottoman district, I suddenly realised I could not do it without her. Sonja was right. She knew the streets, she lived them. This hippy-like Serbian girl who could well be my daughter (Sonja was just three years older than Jenny). Her suggestions were smart and to the point, and the glowing top of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque looked like Manhattanhenge so beautifully described in the last novel by Don DeLillo.

The only downside was that Sonja walked way too fast for me, and I grew terribly short of breath going uphill to the Yellow Fortress. And then, when we came to the Latin Bridge, Sonja told me she had an idea. She approached a group of Bosnian teenagers standing nearby and talked to them for a couple of minutes. She pointed in my direction and they waved at me. Then something bizarre yet brilliant started to happen: they all put their headphones on and began to dance to the beat of music no one else could hear. I had never seen anything quite like that and I made twenty, maybe thirty pictures of them dancing on the Latin Bridge. 'It's like they are listening to that indie band', she explained as we walked away.

‘Who were they?’ I asked her.

‘I don’t know’, she said. ‘All kinds. Bosnians, Serbians, Croats’.   

The pictures were good. I had tons of material to sift through over the next couple of weeks – yet somehow, somewhere, I felt anxiety. It wasn’t right. I felt history seeping through the cracks in the mosques and the bridges. I could even see it in the hundreds of Bosnian faces that looked so tough and unforgiving beyond their famous playfulness.

The day went on and we never stopped talking. She was hopping from one subject to another, one moment discussing modern rock music (I surprised her by knowing who Franz Ferdinand were) and another moment asking me about my daughter. I told her she and Jenny had many things in common, not least in the way they dressed. Is she also into photography? 'Oh yes', I said, 'but she is more of a dancer'. I felt at ease in Sonja's company. Sonja was a girl you had known all your life.

And then, after the Tunnel of Hope and the obligatory Bosnian coffee pot I bought off a shy Muslim girl in Coppersmith street, we came to a small cafe off the National Library (I'd long figured out that national libraries were the pride and joy of most Eastern European countries). We were having traditional Bosnian pies with spinach and cheese, and you just felt it on your tongue: the taste of someone's home, of someone’s childhood.

'What about art?' she asked.

We were playing this post-Yugoslavian game of facts, which basically boiled down to how much I knew about Bosnia. Relatively little, as it transpired, mostly those bloody shenanigans in the mid-90s that proved so damaging to the whole region. 

'Well, I loved Underground'.

'Kusturica is a dick'.

I burst out laughing. There's nothing like a swearing eighteen year old girl, and there's certainly nothing like a Serbian girl telling you Kusturica was a dick.

'No, seriously'. She pushed away her pie and her tea. She was fuming. 'The man is a fucking idiot. He openly supports this Russian maniac'.

This wasn't news to me. Kusturica seemed like a man prone to a questionable choice, both in his professional career (Zavet was a hideous self-parody) and in his political views (Putin was the perfect post-modernist dictator). However, try as I might, I simply could not hold it against him. Back when I was eighteen, I may have called him a dick, but not anymore. Not in my late middle-age, millions of miles away from this part of the world.

'Sonja', I said. 'This might seem weird to you, but I recognize the taste. These pies… it's like I’ve tried them before'.

'Well', she said, 'I suppose New York has millions of cafes serving our food'.

I thought about Kusturica. I thought about Bosnian pies with spinach and cheese. New York? No, it wasn't that. This had nothing to do with New York.

'Are you getting what you want?' she asked, sensing that my thoughts were drifting in the wrong (dangerous?) direction.

'You know what, I'm not convinced. It's been one hell of a day and these pictures will make a fantastic exhibition, but…’ I did not quite know how to put it. ‘They are lacking something. Or maybe they have too much of it'.

'Of what?'

She was nervous. When Sonja was nervous, she smoked. When Sonja was nervous, the flowery smell went away. We were standing outside now as the darkness was tentatively looking down from the roofs and the top windows.

'Of history. It is still there. Even the trick with the band. Look, it was genius, a real masterstroke. But I feel it. I just feel it, Sonja. And I was wondering – can you take me deeper?'

'Deeper?'

'Like', and then it hit me, 'like can you take me to the place where that boy was going? The one I saw in the morning?'

So that was how we got on bus number 18 and Sonja told me that I had the same name as her boyfriend. No, it was hardly the most common name in Manhattan. Well, there was one basketball player from Oklahoma City, but other than that… Sonja met Enes in Belgrade last August. His aunt lived in Serbia, and he went to stay with her for most of his summer holidays. Oh God his aunt was unbearable. Sitting in that battered old armchair of hers, spitting out wisdom. She did not take to the sloppy, camera-wielding girlfriend and, having lost her own son in the Srebrenica massacre back in 1995, she was now all over Enes. ‘Enes dear she will break your heart’.

‘Where is he now?’ I asked her.

‘Enes? In Sarajevo. Getting high’.

She took a moment to check her phone, and I could not tell if she was serious or not.

‘So you’ve spoilt him’.

‘Well, I guess I have’, she looked confused, which made her even prettier than she already was. ‘No longer the good boy’.

‘That’s what girls do. Just one thing, Sonja – don’t break his heart’.

We were going to the outskirts of Sarajevo. This was the place, Sonja explained, where they liked to hang out. Sonja, Enes, the whole gang. It sounded like the right place to be, and if I indeed wanted to figure it out – this was my only chance. Tomorrow evening I was supposed to be back in Manhattan for Jenny's dancing performance.

This was late April, but outside it was already dark. I could not see anything beyond the vague outlines of houses and trees silently whooshing past the bus windows. We could be anywhere now, at any point in time.

A group of teenagers carrying musical instruments jumped inside and moved to the back of the bus. They began to play straight away, with no sign or warning. It was Balkan folk music, and it was coursing through my blood. In fact, I did not need to turn around to know that one of those boys was Sonja's boyfriend. In the back of the bus, Enes was playing the twelve-string guitar he had recently bought with all the money he had saved over the years. His playing was both charming and completely inept. He had no chance, this boy. Music did not pay, not in those ghastly times before the collapse. So that much later, say in mid-90s, he could maybe try to do something else. Something she had always wanted to do, before the bullet struck and ruined everything.

‘That’s a great song’, I suggested.

‘Yes, but they can’t play’.

And then, a little later:

'Who do you want to be, Sonja?'

I asked the question in perfect Serbian, which was a transition so smooth as to appear sinister. We both loved these serious questions that seemed so tough and abrupt and unforgiving despite our famous playfulness. Who do you want to be, Sonja? The question I asked her on this very bus, a million years ago. In April 1988, to be precise.

'Professional photographer. Like you'.

'You have the eye, Sonja, you certainly have the eye. That’s number one. And you love what you see. That’s number two'.

Looking at Sonja, breathing in her red hair that I so loved to kiss, I was thinking about my aunt and how later that day she told me everybody could handle pain until it really hurt. So mean, yet so painfully true. ‘I should have been with her, I should have been with her’. I kept sobbing into the phone, but my aunt never flinched. 'You would have been killed', she said, and it took me years to agree with that.

Sonja kissed me on the cheek and joined Enes in the back of the bus. I got out. 

I lost the smell. I was on my own now but I knew the place. It was two hundred metres ahead, then you had to turn left by the small dirty pool. The pool, we always imagined, was filled with dead rats. Well, I thought as I made my way through the bricks and the stones that were scattered under my feet (nothing ever changed), this was what I had come here for. Not an exhibition, not a one-day experiment I invented on the 24th of March when the Butcher of Bosnia was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment. I was 46 years of age now, and I had come for the answers.

Two hundred metres away, then left by the dirty pool. Abandoned parking lot, the place where we all hung out. Skateboards, roller-blades, bikes and the most beautiful girls in the whole world. And above, somewhere in the far distance, over a disused power station, there was a big black cloud only a small boy on a bike could see. With those big brown eyes that could strangle you. Everyone laughed it off, but he kept telling them it just grew bigger, darker, closer. 


This evening, he was alone, silently circling the old tires and the boulders we had once thrown around the parking lot. The boy noticed me. He knew what to do next, and seconds later he got off the bike and pointed at the sky.

'Do you see the cloud?'

I did. I finally did. And I made that picture, too. The boy smiled triumphantly and got back on his bike. While I was just standing there following him with my eyes. I loved watching him do those endless rounds, I always did. Though deep down I knew that he would never be doing them again. This filled me with sadness mixed with a peculiar sense of joy I could not yet comprehend.

Soon I will have to find my way back to the hotel and then early in the morning I will be on my way to New York. My day in Bosnia was coming to a close, and I just had to see Jenny's dancing performance. There are things you can never afford to lose. Not when you have already lost too much. My aunt said that.