The Bridge on the Neretva (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“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”.)

Stari Most (cc) National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, date unknown.

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.

1999 study by Prof.dr. Milan Gojkovic, Belgrade.

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.

Goat’s Bridge, Sarajevo. (cc) Julian Nyca

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 Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the Drina River, ca. 1900. Library of Congress

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.

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Working Titles (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“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.

My working volume published by Penguin in 1994.

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.

The 2007 Kindle edition with Christopher Hitchens’ emetic foreword

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.

Viking Press US 1st Edition 1941

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.

Canongate’s 2020 edition.

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Blogging ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’

“What is Kaimakshalan?  A mountain in Macedonia, but where is Macedonia since the Peace Treaty?  This part of it is called South Serbia.  And where is that, in Czechoslovakia, or in Bulgaria?  And what has happened there?  The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length.  Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

Rebecca West by Madame Yevonde (cc)

THIS YEAR MARKS the 80th anniversary of the publication of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Written over five years and totaling more than 1,100 pages, it was almost immediately and universally acclaimed as a masterwork of 20th Century English literature—luster dimmed slightly by aspersions cast during the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. After 2000, however, this extraordinary book fell not just from favor but from popular consciousness. So much so that nobody noticed when its 75th anniversary passed in 2016.

Nobody, it seems, but me.  In 2017 I wrote about this collective oversight in the Los Angeles Review of Books and defended West against the ludicrous accusation that her 1930s wayfaring prosopography fed Western inaction during the violent, genocidal breakup of the former Yugoslavia.  To my surprise, West’s literary estate flagged my article and ordered an 80th anniversary edition.  That edition is now available from Canongate with an introduction by Geoff Dyer.

This moment presents an opportunity to revisit the book in detail and in depth.  In the coming weeks and months I will write here about the book as I move through it, region by region.  The book is rich and dense with observation and moment so there will be plenty of material for digressions and diversions.  I have visited several of the locations covered in the book, including Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia in addition to Austria, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria.  My admiration of West and her work grew as I realized what she described in 1941 remained completely true to my own experiences.

I also believe reexamining this book will bring clarity to our own generational inflection point.  As several commentators have noted, during her travels in the mid-1930s West saw and anticipated the crest of fascism preparing to crash across Europe.  Black Lamb documented the damage of rank nationalism and the imperialism of centuries.  West plainly saw the antecedents and historical analogies.  “The difference between [Kosovo] in 1389 and England in 1939,” she wrote, “lay in time and place and not in the events experienced.”

Many thought 1989 was the last caesura with that legacy.  But history has no end.  The apex of post-Cold War democratic advance came in Tunis in 2011.  Since then, more than a dozen countries have rallied to the cynical column led by Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran.  Freedom House noted of 2020, “[D]emocracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.”  Western democracies themselves have not been immune to this retrogression, as 2021’s capitol insurrection surely demonstrated.

West saw the same thing coming 85 years ago and warned us.  We should listen.

I hope you’ll join me on this historiographical odyssey.  Please feel free to comment below or e-mail me directly at the address listed under “About James Thomas Snyder”.

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Bosnian Culture is World Culture: March 4 is Global Museum Solidarity Day

Outside the Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria. (CULTURESHUTDOWN)

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.

Museum of Contemporary Art, The Rocks, Australia - remembering Babylon #5

Museum of Contemporary Art, The Rocks, Australia (CULTURESHUTDOWN)

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.

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Day of Solidarity with the Cultural Institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina: March 4

Foto_RSE_ Midhat Poturović

Planks nailed to the main entrance of the National Museum in Sarajevo symbolically marked the closure of one of the most important cultural and historic institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, October 4, 2012. Foto: RSE / Midhat Poturović

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.

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