With many thanks to the Remembering Yugoslavia podcast and Peter Korchnak!
“To look at it is good; to stand on it is as good.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
THE COVER OF nearly every edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon prominently features the same extraordinary architectural, cultural, and pontine monument found in Mostar, Herzegovina (see page banner above). Rebecca West called it “one of the most beautiful bridges in the world,” which to me only suggests she hadn’t seen every bridge in the world. Elegant in its simplicity, its centrality on the Neretva river, dramatically emphasized by its towering height over the deep and narrow culvert, and its rustic setting, all contribute to the aesthetic effect of the bridge. It is virtually impossible to take a bad picture of the Stari Most (“Old Bridge”) and it is hard to imagine the city without its signature span. (Although the words Mostar and Stari Most are clearly related, they do not mean the same thing. Mostar is derived from mostari, “bridge-keeper”.)
It may have been this bridge on the cover, more than anything else, that drew my attention to the book initially and eventually to the tortured history of Yugoslavia. It appeared to me ancient, alien and alluring, staggeringly beautiful, unreachable. It was a goal for years to see it and stand on it myself.
Stari Most is a pedestrian bridge in both senses of the word: it simply joins the two sides of the city straddling the Neretva and was designed for foot traffic. Motor bridges came later. Walking it can be a challenge especially if you are, like me, prone to vertigo. (I had the same heart-pounding experience walking the Stari Most as I have driving the high, narrow Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland.) The Stari Most deck itself is graded at a steep 10 degrees, cobbled and ribbed. The walk feels precarious (at 6’4”, my center of gravity towers over the low parapet) but is worth the experience.
The bridge’s signature feature—what accentuates its height, position, and weightless feeling—is also its central structural element: the pointed arch. On first glance, the arch may appear to be a true semi-circle, a commonplace of Roman architecture. It is created, in fact, by the superimposition of a smaller circle at the top of the arc of a larger circle. As a result, the deviation of the curve from a true circle is extremely subtle.
While a familiar architectural feature today, the pointed arch – sometimes called an ogive arch – is an Islamic engineering innovation first exhibited at Qusayr ‘Amra in present-day Jordan in the early 8th Century CE and most famously known from the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The pointed arch distributes load more efficiently and allows for the construction of tall, lightweight, open structures. Although the precise means and time of transmission are unclear, there is no doubt that the European gothic arch, the hallmark of Christian medieval engineering, is derived directly from the pointed arch of Islamic provenance.
As unique as the Stari Most is, its basic elements are common throughout the former Ottoman lands. While visiting Sarajevo in 2010, I walked to the “Goat’s Bridge” upriver on the Miljacka: simple, utilitarian, sturdy (see above). The Mehmet Pasha Sokolovic bridge (below) in Visegrad, Bosnia – arguably more famous than the Stari Most as the centerpiece of Nobel Prize-winning Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina – exhibits the same feature over ten arches.
The history of the Stari Most is straightforward. Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent commissioned the bridge, attributed to Mimar Hayruddin, in 1557 CE. Replacing a wooden span, it was completed by 1567 CE. (Legend has it Hayruddin was so apprehensive of the arch’s structural integrity that he planned his own funeral in advance of what he was sure would be a complete collapse of the span.) There it remained a lovely architectural jewel to be encountered by adventurers from Evliya Çelebi and Joseph Hammer to Rebecca West.
During the wars of succession of the former Yugoslavia, Mostar became the battleground of two consecutive conflicts: the Croat/Bosnian war against Serb-dominated federal Yugoslavia and, following Croat gains from that battle, the siege of Mostar by Croatian national forces and local irregulars. As a symbol that also physically linked the Catholic Croatian right bank to the Muslim Bosnian left bank of the Neretva, the bridge became a primary target for Croatian gunners on November 8, 1993.
You can see its destruction here:
It is hard to watch something so beautiful destroyed. There is some satisfaction, to me at least, that something that looks so light and delicate withstood such pounding as long as it did.
The Croatian-Bosnian war ended with a ceasefire in 1994. Yugoslavia broke up into sovereign constituent republics and plans were immediately made to rebuild the bridge. A multinational and multilateral coalition raised the money and recovered original building materials from the riverbed for reconstruction that started in 2001. The new bridge was inaugurated on July 24, 2004. It was this span that I visited and crossed in 2010.
“I write books to find out about things.” (Paris Review, 1981)
FOR THIS PROJECT I have four individual editions of Black Lamb separated in publication by 80 years. More than 25 years ago I started reading the 1994 Penguin Books single-volume paperback. It was published without an introduction. I don’t recall purchasing this book, but I had likely read Balkan Ghosts (1993) around this time. This was author Robert Kaplan’s paean to “Dame Rebecca” and her life-defining tome, which he considered more valuable than his passport. That same year my first article for the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, was about European attempts to end the war in the former Yugoslavia.
I started reading this edition in 1997 with my coffee at five o’clock in the morning. I got about 300 pages into it (according to the book darts I left in the pages, I appear to have gotten as far as Sarajevo) before abandoning the effort. I really was not equipped to make sense of the book. A mere undergraduate education (more than what Dame Rebecca managed, which is all the more telling) and an undisciplined interest in Yugoslavia were insufficient. I knew none of the region’s histories, languages, or literature. I didn’t even know anyone from Yugoslavia. Consequently, each page I turned was an isometric effort: laborious but unproductive.
After graduate school – where I watched Allied aircraft pummel Serbia in 1999, televised havoc I would later see with my own eyes visiting Belgrade as a NATO official – I moved to Europe and eventually to Brussels and the North Atlantic Alliance itself. When I joined in 2005, Kosovo was NATO’s largest out-of-area deployment with about 15,000 troops. Catching up on this important Allied theater of operations, I schooled myself on the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia and began visiting the region as the new republics aligned themselves with NATO and the European Union. As a result, I met people across the region trying to build a new regional politics, liberal, internationalist, and Western-leaning.
My Penguin paperback with a homemade cardstock cover protecting it accompanied me during my trips. I found it easier to approach the book by sections that corresponded to where I was visiting. West described places and history I could visit and see and touch. The more I read, and the more I traveled, the more I could connect the parts of the books into a coherent regional narrative. It was a productive re-introduction to the book.
That led to criticism and commentary of West, including Geoff Dyer, Brian Hall, and Larry Wolff. Richard Holbrooke and Lord David Owen, policy-makers, followed. Holbrooke coined the pejorative “bad history, or the Rebecca West Factor” – a line Christopher Hitchens would parrot – and piled on Hall’s allegations that West was a pro-Serb crypto-nationalist and Islamophobe. That verdict perfectly but inaccurately explained what had just happened in Bosnia as Serb-dominated Yugoslav federal forces reinforcing Bosnian Serb irregulars “cleansed” Muslim-majority cities through siege and massacre. Never mind that West’s intended destination was Macedonia, not Serbia, and she visited Montenegro, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Herzegovina as part of her research. Only in retrospect – actually a narrative heuristic similar to post hoc fallacy – does Kaplan and, by extension, West appear to be prophetic. Robert Kaplan felt the need to defend himself and his West-derived “bad history” in later editions of Balkan Ghosts (in Yugoslavia, he visited only Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia and spent the other three-quarters of his book in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania). His main thesis was the best way to understand contemporary politics is through history, which Rebecca West well understood. The past is prologue to what follows but it is not necessarily the provocateur.
There began my initial intuition that these critics, writers and statesmen (they were all men), with the exception of Kaplan, had got something fundamentally wrong about Dame Rebecca. My sporadic reading of Black Lamb, while incomplete, did not fit the accusation of an ethnic polemic. Racist screeds usually burn themselves out well before 1,100 pages. So I returned to the book looking for bias with an eye toward writing an apologia in the old style.
That opportunity came in 2016 as the 75th anniversary of the publication approached. West originally serialized what became the book in The Atlantic and Harper’s Bazaar in early 1941. The first two-volume editions were published by The Viking Press in the United States and Macmillan in the United Kingdom later that same year. To my surprise nobody noted the anniversary date given how much-discussed the book had been just 20 years earlier. NATO was still on the ground in Kosovo and so was a European Union peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
Augmenting my research was a Kindle version of the Penguin 2007 edition published with Christopher Hitchens’ introduction, which he unsurprisingly handled like an dull mattock. Irritation aside, the Kindle edition features searchable text, bookmarking, highlighting, and a dictionary. This facilitated certain research. For example, the easy exenteration of Hitchens’ claim that “the most repeatedly pejorative word in [West’s] lexicon is ‘impotent’”—a word that appears just six times in the entire book. Likewise “Greater Serbia”—which, like Hall, Hitchens uses to bind West in a chain of causality leading to Serb ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina and specifically the Srebrenica genocide in 1995—West mentions twice. (More Hitchens gralloch in a future post.)
I published my article in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July 2017. It had an immediate and thoroughly unexpected result: the executor of West’s literary estate read my article and ordered up a new edition in time for the book’s 80th anniversary. Coincidentally, the global COVID19 pandemic gave claustrophobic adventurers reason to travel virtually the old-fashioned way. So Black Lamb has enjoyed a minor renaissance as more readers with more time rediscover it for an ambitious long read.
With this turn of events, I had to possess the alpha and the omega. Working with Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C., I bought the two-volume US first edition. These volumes include photographs and maps. The endleaves feature a visual log of West’s travels. The photos are not terribly good, not even qualifying as postcards. Occasionally, however, they provide insight, such as illustrating West’s astonished description of covered Muslim women’s dress in Mostar “consist[ing] of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it.” The photo confirms her power of description.
Finally, I ordered the new Canongate edition which at this time is only available for sale from the UK. It was delivered with the satisfaction of seeing my original LARB article prominently blurbed in the front leaf.
The past two weeks have been astounding to witness in Ukraine and Bosnia- Herzegovina. While I haven’t been able to follow quite as intimately what has happened in Ukraine, media reporting from that country has been very good. In Bosnia I have several friends, and I heard my colleague and friend Jasmin Mujanovic, a New York-based academic (and apparently inexhaustible tweeter), speak on a panel yesterday to a packed house at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs about the dynamic events in that country.
It’s been very interesting to note the similarities, as Jasmin’s co-panelist Janusz Bugajski did yesterday, between the two countries. In both countries, citizens took to the streets to protest a sclerotic and unresponsive political system, widespread and petty corruption, and a sluggish economy. In Ukraine and Bosnia, people want closer ties to Europe and the West (if not necessarily the European Union). I would note, as Gene Sharp has noted, that initial protests were sparked — or helped organizers to consolidate demonstrations — around a singular provocative event. In Ukraine, it was President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to proceed with closer ties with the European Union that brought thousands of people onto the street. In Bosnia, it was the federal parliament’s inability to issue identity papers and passports, effectively rendering a new generation of children identityless, that brought thousands of mothers out to demonstrate.
And critically, in both countries peaceful demonstrations were set upon by overreactive security services to which the protesters reacted violently. In Bosnia, protesters attacked municipal buildings in almost every major city in the country. In Ukraine, protesters stood their ground and fought back against the security services. In both cases, there were echoes of the first response against Egyptian security in Tahrir Square, when the people had just enough power to counter the force of the government to prevail. This is an important, if unsettling, development. Because in both cases, the government may still have the monopoly of force. It depends entirely on whether the military will side with the government or stay off the domestic battlefield.
But here the two countries diverge. In Bosnia, the initial violence almost immediately abated. It’s clear from those I’ve heard from that seeing the burning buildings reminded too many of the war from 20 years ago and peace was quickly restored. This is an extraordinary development. The Bosnian army or, for that matter, the small European Union force contingent in the country, was never called up.
In Ukraine, it appears that Western pressure — public calls by US civilian and military officials and their counterparts in the European Union and NATO, all of which have worked diligently during the past 20 years to build strong institutional and personal relationships with Ukraine’s military establishment — paid off by keeping the Ukrainian army (for now) out of the political power struggle. That kept bloodshed to a minimum, at least, and avoided the precedent we’ve seen in Egypt of making the military establishment a political kingmaker or outright ruler in the country.
Unfortunately, while the Ukrainians figured out a way to counter the initially violent response of the state, and in such a dramatic way, this essentially means there is no rulebook for the way forward in the country. The opposition, now in control of Kiev and, presumably, the western part of the country, could reach out to the Russian-leaning east and Crimea. But if divisions in the country become acute there is no precedent for the peaceful sharing of power across the entire country. If Crimea wants to join Russia or parts of the country want to break away or become autonomous, it may require the army to enforce union. And why not? Kiev was defended with force and won fairly the same way — that is to say, violently.
But in Bosnia something more astonishing took place and continues to take place. People have abandoned violence entirely to assemble spontaneously in municipal “plenums” and issue collective demands to their own local authorities. This has led to the resignation of at least five cantonal governments. Bosnia’s “federal” government structure, imposed by the Dayton peace accords, is Byzantine and bloated to an extreme. Exhausted and exasperated by this internationally imposed, ethnically dominated, and thoroughly corrupt system, Bosnians are now asserting their own, direct, democratic axis of power to demand that their government respond to them and their needs.
It is important to note, particularly in the context of the regional and linguistic divide in Ukraine, that the protests in Bosnia have asserted themselves as Bosnian rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic. This is a critical development. While limited to the Federation, Bosniaks and Croats have reached out to Serbs in the Republika Serpska and have been rewarded by several individuals and organizations rallying to them in reaction to a political system that helps none of them and punishes all of them equally. While I’m sure there are some who are trying to make the same argument in Ukraine, I think the dividing line is far more stark in that country.
While the concept of the assembly is as old as democracy, it is amazing that the Bosnian plenum is so fresh and new to this wave of popular uprisings against thuggish and sclerotic regimes. De Tocqueville wrote admiringly of American civil society and our town hall culture. Hannah Arendt wrote about citizens’ assemblies (she unfortunately wrote about the early “soviets”) as a unique expression of democratic power and direct governance. She also wrote about the concept of politics as an open space where people could gather to discuss issues of common concern — the more open, the more free and dynamic a political space is. That is exactly what we are witnessing in the Bosnian plenums.
What makes them more extraordinary is that the plenums themselves are opening a political space between the people and their own, nominally democratic and elected governments. The Dayton constitution, exacerbated by ethnic chauvinism and sheer political myopia, had simply closed off politics to most Bosnians. The plenums have very effectively crowbarred open the political space again. Where once we saw Solidarity seated on one side of the round table from the Communist Party in Warsaw — forcing the political space open between the people and their government — today we see the Bosnian plenums assembling down the street from the governments that purport to represent them in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica and elsewhere.
As a result, I am more optimistic about events in Bosnia than I am in Ukraine. I am not fatalistic about what will happen on the Black Sea, but I am concerned that the recourse to violence there will beget more violence. The protesters in Bosnia recognize their power in the plenum. That is an extraordinary, unique and genuine contribution to political and democratic development that, if successful, should be a model for us all to emulate.
Today more than 200 museums, galleries and libraries in nearly 40 countries on five continents symbolically closed exhibits in solidarity with seven closed and threatened cultural institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than 20 galleries and universities in North America, 50 in Croatia alone, two score across Western Europe, and more across the Middle East, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and beyond are demonstrating their support this month for their brother and sister institutions that survived the war of the 1990s only to confront ruin by political neglect in the Bosnian federal parliament.
You can hear my friend Jasmin Mujanovic speaking to the CBC’s As It Happens about the crisis in Bosnia threatening the cultural institutions (in English). You can watch my friend Prof. Azra Aksamija speaking to Al Jazeera here (in Bosnian).
Pour nos amis francophones, voici un blog Le Monde. C’est un peu court, mais je travail dur pour le changer. Ecrivez Le Monde, France24 ou les autres medias pour nous aider!
Of course, please visit our CULTURESHUTDOWN site to join the conversation about how we can change the circumstances in Sarajevo.
Imagine if Congress refused to fund the Smithsonian Institutions — the most visited museum complex in the world — not because of “sequestration” or spending cuts but because Democrats and Republicans in Congress could not agree on whether it should be supported as a federal body. That’s effectively what has happened to seven museums, galleries and libraries in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the past year. The fractured federal parliament in Sarajevo can’t agree to fund them, so one after another these institutions have been closed, shuttered and powered down, without staff to support or protect their collections.
The strange irony, of course, is that most of these cultural institutions — at the hands of their heroic curators and other devoted supporters — survived the war of the early 1990s and particularly the siege of Sarajevo. Now, the political dispute in the federal parliament deprives the institutions of the support they need to preserve some of the most important artifacts in the Balkans.
As I learned traveling and visiting not just some of Bosnia’s museums and galleries in 2010 but others as well, this is not just a matter of access, but of curation and preservation. Cultural institutions are not simply boxes in which paintings, ancient finds, and objets d’art are stored. The subjects of our cultural heritage require care and attention from professional staff properly equipped with tools of their trade. The failure of the Bosnian parliament to support its own national cultural institutions threatens their heritage with slow ruin after surviving centuries.
On March 4, cultural institutions around the world will symbolically “close” parts of their exhibits in a Day of Museum Solidarity with Bosnia to pressure the parliament to resolve this crisis. You can join them by visiting cultureshutdown.net to add your voice and take action.