Sarajevo – City in Europe!

 

Under this motto we propose a ‘diptych’ of two cultural events, structurally autonomous and independent, but coherent and complementary conceptually and content-wise:

1.       ‘Sarajevo – Rotterdam – Sarajevo’ (in short: SRS): an international, interdisciplinary artists’ research workshop with fringe activities (exhibition, films and concerts, lectures and debates, and/or small workshops) in Rotterdam (late summer of 2006), to be organized in collaboration with individual artists, artists’ initiatives and third parties, both from Rotterdam/The Netherlands and from Sarajevo/Bosnia & Herzegovina;

2.       ‘Artists Work in Sarajevo’ (working title): an international, interdisciplinary research-workshop for young architects, artists and designers convening in Sarajevo (date yet to be fixed)

 

On us

‘We’ are Willem Besselink and Guus Vreeburg. Willem Besselink (1980) is a student of Visual Arts, now in his graduation year. For the past three years, he has been a participant and co-organiser of annual summer-studios for young artists from across Europe, including Bosnia & Herzegovina and from the rest of the world (SICE – Sarajevo International Cultural Exchange). Guus Vreeburg (1954) is an art-historian, experienced in lecturing and organizing workshops on a variety of topics; he was present at the Sarajevo summer-studios of 2004 and 2005. We both live and work in Rotterdam, and both of us have fallen in love with Sarajevo.

‘Sarajevo – City in Europe’ will be the first project of ‘stichting C foundation’, a non-profit foundation that we are setting up to organize cultural activities to stimulate cultures / contributions / communication / cooperation / creation / currents / communities / cohesion / contacts / connections / continuity / circuits / and other c-issues. General ambition of ‘stichting C foundation’ is to stimulate young people’s active involvement in contemporary cultural issues in today’s Europe-of-many-cultures and to generate their contributions to it.

 

Sarajevo and Europe and Sarajevo

Talking about Sarajevo with people in The Netherlands – our home country – always triggers strange reactions. The cliché images of ‘a city at war’ – even though that’s been over for 10 years now – are still the most common. The last things people heard here were about the siege of the city in 1992-1995, but after that was over, not much attention was paid to Sarajevo and Bosnia & Herzegovina – of which it has always been the capital – in the general media anymore; most reports that are there still focus on the aftermaths of war. And, of course, there’s the Dutch ‘Srebrenica’-trauma – most people are ashamed to face up to what happened and tend to ‘look the other way’…

 

Hardly ever there’s media-coverage on the ‘other side’ of things: Sarajevo’s rich cultural history, and its present-day efforts to pull itself together again; hardly ever our media report on the role of contemporary cultures in Sarajevo that are being developed there to help revitalize the city. When you don't go there – ‘why would you’, many people tell us, that can’t see Sarajevo or Bosnia & Herzegovina an appealing spot to go – and when you don't find your own ways to information about the city, or happen to know people who live there, came from there or went there, there is absolutely no way of getting proper and balanced information. So it isn't all that strange that people around us have this cliché image.

 

All this makes Sarajevo, and Bosnia & Herzegovina, and for all that: the Balkans as a region, seem very remote to many people in The Netherlands (and the rest of ‘Europe’…) – almost like a different continent… and hardly a part of ‘Europe’… Although Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and the Balkans in general are closer to Western Europe than Turkey or Greece, they ‘feel’ more remote than the US or Japan… And yet, whoever does take the courage to start out for Sarajevo, taking the Eurolines(!)-bus from Rotterdam’s Central Station – there’s no direct air- or rail link… – immediately finds himself right there: while still travelling along Boompjes-boulevard you ARE in Bosnia & Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, these buses being full of people that were once refugees from the war but that have now settled (often quite successfully!) in The Netherlands, and now on their way to visit relatives back home.

 

After visiting Sarajevo over the last few years on several occasions for several reasons, we found that Sarajevo is, on the contrary, one of Europe’s most interesting cities!


Sarajevo – some background

Historically, Sarajevo and Bosnia & Herzegovina have always been right on the edge of things, right on the border between ‘East’ and ‘West’. Around 300 AD, the split of the Roman Empire into a Western half (Rome) and an Eastern part (Constantinople) cut across the region; later on (1463-1878), the territory of present-day Bosnia & Herzegovina formed the north-westernmost part of the Ottoman Empire, and later still (1878-1918) it was the south-easternmost part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire; in the Interbellum it was a part of the Yugoslav kingdom, and in modern times of Tito’s Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At present, Bosnia & Herzegovina is an independent country on the south-eastern flank of Europe.

 

Always ‘at the edge’, Sarajevo boosts a long history of cultural diversity: it is one of the few cities in which four religions (Islam, Roman and Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism have been living together for centuries. Thus, unlike most other cities in Europe, Sarajevo a long experience as a multicultural society. In 2001, when Rotterdam as a ‘Cultural Capital of Europe’ tried to re-define itself as ‘many cities’, Sarajevans courageously and symbolically dubbed their city ‘the European Jerusalem’… Cultural diversity sometimes brought them frustration, and even tragedy, but also a rich cultural heritage from several eras, empires and religions. Sometimes walls were erected, but mostly bridges. As a matter of fact: not only do bridges across the local river Miljaæka – legacies of ever new generations of rulers – dominate the city’s urban fabric; a ‘bridge’ also features prominently in the city’s official coat of arms, and rightly so: Sarajevo IS a bridge!

 

Whoever visits Sarajevo today comes into a relatively small but cosmopolitan and vibrant city. Sarajevo, host to the 1984 Winter Olympics, it is still recovering from the 1992-1995 siege. It suffered great material damage  - not only were infrastructures and buildings destroyed, but foremost its social structure. The fragile equilibrium between the various cultures was brutally shaken. Sarajevo is now in a phase of ‘reconstruction’, and Sarajevans need all their energy and their wit and  humour – they have a great sense for self-mockery! – to do it. ‘Culture’ – apart from material basics – plays a vital role in this process. Cities in this phase of development are always interesting sites for cultural activities. In this respect, Sarajevo today resembles post-WWII Rotterdam: just as our city employed architects, artists and designers in its ‘Wederopbouw’ (‘Reconstruction’), organizing events like ‘Rotterdam Ahoy’ in 1950,  E’55 in 1955 and the Floriade in 1960 to boost public morale and the cultural life, at present the same happens in Sarajevo: the ‘Sarajevo International Film Festival’ – first organized when grenades were exploding everywhere and electricity was hardly available – this year enjoyed its 11th edition,  while ‘Ars Aevi’ (an anagram of ‘saraiev[o]’) – originally set up by artists and curators abroad to morally support their colleagues in war-stricken Sarajevo – has almost succeeded in establishing a new museum of the ‘art of the (20th) century [ars aevi]’ in the city. Apart from this, many more initiatives and activities – often on a more informal basis – are being set up by young people in Sarajevo, for whom ‘the war’ is ‘far away and long over’ and that want to look forward instead. They come not only from Sarajevo itself and the rest of Bosnia & Herzegovina, but from all other new republics of the “former Yugoslavia” and from the rest of Europe and even further away – rediscovering and revitalizing Sarajevo’s former reputation as an open, liberal city. Thus, culture helps people face up to fresh changes and new realities and to bridge cultural gaps that were, until recently, considered mortal ravines. ‘Sarajevo’ as a bridge!

 

Seen this way Sarajevo, and Bosnia & Herzegovina as a whole, may serve as a source of inspiration to many cities in Europe, Rotterdam included, that have become culturally diverse only relatively recently. The Sarajevo experience shows that, apart from great threats, ‘many-culturalism’ (as we personally like to dub and identify the contemporary situation in many Western societies, including the Dutch) may offer great cultural potential as well. We regret that ‘9/11’, ‘Madrid’, the events in London of last July, and the cold blooded murder on Dutch cineast Theo van Gogh in November 2004 by a self-proclaimed Dutch Islam fundamentalist seem only to have deepened the gaps in Dutch cultural, social and political life. The very concept of cultural diversity has become an issue of fierce political and public debate, and meets increasing scepticism… Natives’ already critical attitudes towards ‘Islam’ tend to develop into a fear for and hatred of anything and anybody that represents ‘Islam’ as a religion and as a culture – the very concepts of it increasingly being considered as ‘non-Western’ and/or ‘non-European’ – while simultaneously, even consequentially, many young people here of Muslim descent, sons and daughters of former immigrants here, feeling ignored and despised, turn to ‘fundamentalist’ interpretations of Islamic law. No new bridges – essential for any ‘many cultural’ society - are being built; any existing bridges are in danger of being blasted…!

 

Sarajevo – Rotterdam

For Rotterdam, as for other Dutch civic societies, the Sarajevo experience over the past centuries may be both a frightening example of what might happen here too, as well as a source of inspiration for positive alternatives… A recently published study on Bosnian Islam (see: Bosnische Moslims zijn geen Bin Ladens’; de Volkskrant, 19 September 2005) may help create more understanding. Meeting young artists, architects, designers and others from Sarajevo and Bosnia at large, and seeing and hearing their interpretation of ‘culture’ might be inspirational to young people here, including young people of Bosnian descent whose parents fled here. It may help to understand that, notwithstanding prevailing prejudices about what is ‘European’ culture or the ‘culture’ of ‘Europe’, ‘Islam’ in its Sarajevo cq Bosnian version ís a constituent part of the European heritage.

On the other hand, people in Sarajevo cq Bosnia & Herzegovina may learn to appreciate that they, too, are a part of ‘Europe’. Their experiences during the 1992-1995 siege has not particularly strengthened them in that feeling: they still bitterly remember how ‘Europe’ failed to help them in their darkest hours… Even though at present EU-membership for B&H is still a very long term option, with many of their relatives living in ‘Europe’ (by which many people in the Balkans identify ‘Western Europe’ specifically (cfr Slavenka Draculiæ’s essay ‘Café Europe’ of 1997) they may certainly consider themselves part of the political and cultural history of this continent: Sarajevo – City in Europe!

 

Through the diptych ‘Sarajevo – City in Europe!’ (we consciously add the exclamation-mark) we want to focus on the experiences and activities of young people primarily, bringing them together and offering them podia where they may meet, exchange ideas and opinions, and collaborate in developing enticing and inspiring views and visions, and where wide audiences may gather to see and hear and wonder. We hope to attract the attention and active participation of (young) people in Sarajevo and Bosnia & Herzegovina (and possibly from the other republics of the “former Yugoslavia”, of (young) people originating from there now living in Rotterdam and/or The Netherlands, and of any (young) people from elsewhere that feel that all this concerns them as well. The debate may include various issues: what is ‘Europe’?, and: who are ‘Europe’?; the role of cultural activities in shaping and redefining personal and group identities in open, ‘many-cultural’ societies; the ways (young) people can play roles in building bridges across society, across cultures and across continents. We hope to distribute further details on content and set-up of both parts of our proposed ‘diptych’ soon.

 

Sarajevo – City in Europe’ – you too?

In organizing ‘Sarajevo – City in Europe’ in Sarajevo and abroad, we hope to show how interesting, how essential and how inspirational the city of Sarajevo is. We feel supported by a wide group of friends, both at home and abroad. We hope to win your support and enthousiasm as well.

 

 

Willem Besselink

&

Guus Vreeburg

 

Rotterdam/NL; December 2005

willem@willembesselink.nl
guus@guusvreeburg.nl