The tea shop served sweet red hibiscus tea in tiny cups. Its windows faced the courtyard of the mosque. I wanted to see more but as an unescorted woman, I didn’t have that privilege. I took a photo, the peaks on the towers and the giant speakers that sang out the call to prayers stand out against a bright blue sky. I was young, stupid perhaps, naive at least. I drank tea each morning on my way to the market to buy the food for the day. I scribbled in a notebook and I thought about who I was.
During the war going to market meant risking your life, and the vendors told me about bargaining with someone over apples only to have a sniper kill their customer before the bargain finished. There was a park there, a place where old men played chess with giant pieces, moving them across the painted cement. Headstones dotted the grass. So many people died the cemeteries weren’t enough; every green space became a resting place. Children played between the markers. The dead were still with us in Sarajevo.
I met a Muslim man who invited me to tea. We sat in the backroom of his rug shop, the floors heaped with priceless carpets. He called me a lady, and later my translator told me the Muslim word for lady and wife were the same. He told me about coming home one day to find his house was no longer his, that it belonged to someone else. He told me about the war and the people he lost, how he would miss them. How hard it was to pass the places they had lived and see new people living there.
I have no idea if he was lying. I never bothered to check.
The woman who cut my hair was Christian Orthodox. My translator was Catholic. They all told me about the churches, about how no matter how bad the way got they never bombed a church, mosque, or temple in Sarajevo. Everyone said it with pride, puffing out their chest, the same way they asked if I’d seen the bridge where WWI started.
I haven’t thought about Sarajevo in years, haven’t gotten out the old scrapbooks, read those scribbles about who I was. Tonight I listened to a lecture about the war in Lebanon, the oppression of one group by another one, stories of people who disappeared only to be found dead in the trunk of a car, people who died for an idea or because they told a story.
I write. I sit at my keyboard and I let the words flow from my fingers. Someday someone might decide my stories are sacrilege. It scares me. I want to believe we live in a world where ideas are free and beliefs are sacred, even when they aren’t the same as the majority. A world like the Sarajevo I visited – where people know it’s hard to accept other beliefs and forget wrongs that have been done, but where they try anyway, a place where children learn to play even if there are gravestones in their park. I’d rather live there, with the bullet holes in the walls of the coffee shop, then live someplace where stories are enough to get someone killed.