Thought I heard the faded call to prayer of the few early mosques that rise at half past five every day.
Now I am sitting at the kitchen table, gazing towards the windows, watching the dark blue blanket slowly lighten at its corners. There are a few stars left in the sky but they are quickly fading. I awoke from nightmares, out of breath, but watching the colors in the sky is calming the nerves. In fact, I realize, I really don’t look at the stars enough…
Last night, Mirjem had offered to teach me how to make Bosnian pita so, despite my exhaustion, I headed over to her and Eli’s apartment in the middle of Old Town. It’s a 100-year-old building, that Eli lived in as a child, I learned. We washed and cooked the spinach and mixed it with an egg and a good cup of both mladi and travnički sir before spreading the mixture over sheets of phyllo dough to bake. Then she served a large pot of Bosnian coffee and little buttery trapezoids filled with apple and nuts.
But back to the present and why I’m awake at this hour of first light:
I was in the middle of several dreams. The first, nonchalantly telling Mirjem, who – in the dream – also happened to be in a bed next to mine, that I was having trouble sleeping because of the strong coffee, when suddenly the dream shifted to an airplane being steered by my two cousins. Ben and Jodi were going over emergency procedures, which involved jumping from the plane with essentially a gym bag when the pictures shifted again and then I was on the downed German Wings flight, as some sort of bizarre omnipresent observer, watching, moments before their death, the flight attendants scurry and struggle to open an Emergency Exit when suddenly, in a single second, their lives and dreams and souls dispersed.
Then again, maybe in the few minutes of sheer panic, perhaps there was a conscious thought that the lesser of two evils would be ceasing to exist in a flash rather than try to out-starve or out-freeze a mountain with nothing on your person but a parachute. In the bizarreness that is restless sleep, I suddenly resumed my place again in the dream with my cousins who had been freeze-framed in the middle of a brother/sisterly argument about the gym bag rescue procedure as we hovered effortlessly in midair.
When I came home last night there was some serious smoke curling out of the dumpster just outside the apartment building. I tried, in my best Bosnian, to explain the scenario to the owner of the small neighboring hotel, which also shares the dumpster. The owner, a tall, gaunt Bosnian man, greeted me with a friendly “Dobro veče” (good evening). I cleared my throat. “Mislim… vatru… smeče” (I think [pause] fire [pause] trash”) while trying to convey concern through my facial muscles, to which he seemed not at all troubled. He replied with something which sounded like “No, no… something…gas” which, unfortunately, was no more of a comfort. He smiled, and so I smiled, and politely left.
I realized a few minutes after, as I was trudging up the stairs in the apartment, my nose increasingly attentive as I ascended, that perhaps he had said “vatro-gas-ac” which means firefighter and would also explain why I heard the word ‘gas.’ Although it was after 10, I rang my neighbor’s bell. A sweet Slovenian violinist, she is fluent in both English and Bosnian. She stepped into the hall and gave it a good whiff, before her eyebrows wrinkled and she said, “Smells like gas.” I nodded. We headed down the two flights of stairs to the landlord’s sister, who answered the door in a boxy white pajama set. A quick conversation ensued between my neighbor and the sister, and when the door was closed, the neighbor turned to me, “It’s only the trash. She doesn’t seem concerned,” so we trudged back up the stairs to our flats. A few minutes later, my bell rang loudly several times in a row. I answered it to a breathless man spewing a rush of words. As anyone who has experienced a language barrier knows, a great deal of information is communicated through affect and body language. The man was out of breath and in his body language I couldn’t tell if we needed to leave the building immediately or if he was just excited that something interesting was happening. The verbal communication was not much better since the phrases I caught were, “I don’t know!” and several times the word, “Up!” My neighbor then heard the commotion and peeked her head out the door. She smiled and nodded in my direction, “He says, he doesn’t know where the smell is coming from but it’s not gas.” Upon hearing English he looked at both of us, and began descending the stairs, grinning and pronouncing “Sve je Ok!” which I wished had been shared at the beginning of his expose rather than at the end, but nevermind... So we said goodnight again, and closed our doors, trusting the honest goodness of people here to take care of us foreigners (I’ve never had a reason to doubt). I, unknowingly, headed off to a restless night sleep.
It’s not that my own or others’ mortality has been on my mind any more than normal really, (I have to laugh at myself a little when I think that someone who readily admits to a history of neuroses knowingly chose to spend the year in a post-war/genocide context) but I’m definitely a bit more vulnerable here, and when traumatic events happen, here or elsewhere, I tend to put myself through the emotional wringer. A lot of things have been on my mind of late, not the smallest of which is my own future, but last weekend my good friend Eli was singled out and attacked whilst sitting with a group of people in the middle of a café in the neighborhood where both he and I live. Yesterday, in talking with my friend Safet, he affirmed the motive is still unclear, although I know from talking to him earlier, he vaguely knew the person who did it (although, in Sarajevo, a small city, this is not uncommon). The press reacted as if they’d won the lottery (one of Sarajevo’s few Jews -- attacked!!), so much so, that despite having a head injury (the person tried to hit him on the head with a metal chain, which broke, but Eli still needed several stitches next to his eye and on his hand) he decided to address the hundreds of phone calls he was receiving from press all over Bosnia - and neighboring countries - with a press conference at the synagogue less than a week after the incident. Over dinner my friend inquired about the choice of location. Why align it with religion by holding the press conference at the Synagogue? Why not have the press conference at his home, the hospital, or a public space? I struggled with this, since I agreed, but yet… didn’t. I think it lies somewhere at the nexus of history, of trauma, of victimhood, of a space that feels safe... where he has ownership, and control, which as a minority, doesn't happen in majority owned spaces... I don't know... it's hard to articulate but I never questioned it.
. . .
Waiting for the oven to finish preheating, I stood hunched over the counter, watching Mirjem as she prepared her special topping for the pita (sour cream, two more eggs, little oil and salt). She explained with unrelenting enthusiasm and nostalgia for what was ‘the time of Tito and Yugoslavia.’ “We celebrated everything! Christmas! Bajram! Eid! … Your religion was your business!” I pushed her with questions.
“You didn’t get in trouble if you went to the synagogue?”
“No!!” She exclaimed.
“No one was hurt if they wanted to go to the mosque?”
“No!!” This time making a face at me.
“And did you invite your neighbors over for Shabbat dinner?”
“Of course! But it’s my business!” she sternly spoke before continuing, “You can’t go around in the public saying ‘you need to be Christian or you need to be Muslim…Ohhh Tito! … He was a very good man, you know? Very good… leader!“ She said this last part with extra emphasis by prodding me with the spoon.
. . .
The sun, now fully ascended, is shining unrelentingly through my kitchen windows And with the mosques now at rest, the nearby cathedral bells are awaking to the day. But, perhaps I will try a little more sleep.