Every day, one way or another, I end up being asked about my identity, which I need to express in the way that will be the clearest to my interlocutor. I end up bringing up my national, professional, private, or whatever identity I am required to present at the time. However, the more I think about it (and I think a lot, about everything) I realise that there is one underlying identity that has given shape to all my other assumed ones. I do not identify myself with my homeland, or my family, or the schools and universities I’ve attended, or the countries I’ve visited, or anything or anybody else for that matter. I identify myself only and primarily with the city that I was born in, that I grew up in, and that I eventually had to leave – with Sarajevo. I grew up in the Old Town, in the valley, surrounded by hills, mountains, rivers, and all the relics of past conquests, wars, and regimes, which I have embraced and carried around with me wherever I have gone.
Spring break usually brings me back home at one of the most beautiful times of the year. From the very moment I start packing for the trip I also start spending an increasing amount of time in front of my bookshelves trying to decide which book to bring with me on the plane. I tend to choose something by authors that will bring me geographically closer to home, so this time I reached for Milan Kundera’s The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Love in time of Communism somehow abridges the gap from my present to Sarajevo, to the town which strives to push forward yet seems to be tangled somewhere in the past, thus ending up twisted and torn in-between.
Upon arrival, I spend the first couple of days going through the motions of visiting friends and relatives, talking almost incessantly, listening to more-or-less the same stories I listened to last time I was home, and then, after all the social courtesies have been satisfied, I end up where I wanted to – wandering the city streets with a book in my bag. I never had enough time to simply roam around Sarajevo when I lived here. I was constantly busy doing assignments and running errands. I did not have the time to enjoy the fresh air, filled with the scent of spring blossoms, grass, and recently melted snow, to lift my head and gaze at the faces of statues that observe us from the facades of Austro-Hungarian buildings, or to sit alone on a bench, listen to the River Miljacka and just read a book.
By the time I get here I’m already done with my Kundera and I turn to the bookshelves in my mother’s house rummaging for something to suit my rain-soaked mood. I always tend to reach for the classics such as Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina or Mesa Selimovic’s The Circle, which I had read a number of times looking for a way out of adolescence in Sarajevo by turning to the past. I strictly avoid books written by numerous contemporary authors reflecting back on the war in the early 1990s – I’ve been in Sarajevo throughout the entire war and I feel that I currently do not need yet another perspective on it. I hope Bosnian writers, artists, and directors would start focusing on the aspects of life in the Balkans that once united all of us, on the love of life, art, and music that used to pulsate in our veins rather than all the political differences that tend to veil our eyes and narrow our tunnel of vision as much as possible.
Thus, stuck in the no man’s land between the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Communists, and the war, I reach for Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man which traces a young man’s growing up in the 1980s Sarajevo and his subsequent emigration to the US, however, I ultimately opt for Miljenko Jergovic. This is a writer who grew up in Sarajevo, who breathes and writes Sarajevo, and in whose stories (Sarajevo Marlboro, Mama Leone) I most easily recognise the spirit of the city that breaks my heart every time I come and leave. In Jergovic’s recently published Sarajevo: Plan Grada (Sarajevo: City Plans) he does what I finally have time to do – he roams the city streets, revisiting some of the old places and reminiscing about people and events that marked them, thus rebuilding Sarajevo in all its glory before the reader’s very eyes. This will turn into one of the books that I keep rereading whenever I decide to return home, either in person or in mind since it soothes my sores and reminds me of who I am. What better book to read on your way back home?