June issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

Maniza Naqvi was sent by the World Bank to Sarajevo, four years after the siege had ended, in an effort to mobilise people affected by the war, to rebuild a war-torn city, to provide for all those who had lost their jobs and help reform public institutions in order to introduce a more efficient market economy. It is in the introduction to the short stories that Naqvi openly states her feelings and emotions about the city. She writes how she read every possible book there was to read about its history, culture and the current situation — but nothing prepared her for the ground realities. As she continued to work with the locals who were “directly affected, emotionally, physically, politically and geographically,” she began to understand things in a completely different light.

Sarajevo Saturdays reads like pages out of Naqvi’s journal; observations about the people and their relationships, personal encounters with people from different countries and cultures, all this interspersed with poetry. It seems almost as if the short stories are set in chronological order since the narrative gains momentum and the narrator is able to tell the stories without the guilt of writing so freely about a city where she’s only lived for a few years.

“That Thing, That Something/Nasha” is a conversation between a writer and a local, Goran, who feels that everything written or discussed about Sarajevo is related to the war. He repeatedly encourages the writer to write something else — how they hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, their film festival that is held every August, the artists, jazz clubs, cobbled pathways, the tram cars and, finally, the resilience of the people and how they continued with certain, positiive aspects of their lives even as the war continued. Not because they lived in denial but because they needed to, for their own sanity and well being — something that eventually helped rebuild the morale of the region. Goran tells the writer, “And another thing you know, you are too hard on the international community, you make them sound like occupiers — this was not an occupation. They came to stop the war. Stop the genocide. We love the Americans here!”

It is evident from each of the stories that Naqvi tries her best to be impartial in describing events that occurred in the past as well as the current situation, for instance the thriving post-war tourism industry, but doesn’t quite succeed as her opinion is heavily influenced by the war and its consequences. “The Framing Shop” is about a couple, Edin and Tanya, who own an art gallery and a framing shop in the old town of Sarajevo. Edin is an artist who is known all over the city for painting harsh self-portraits, still life, portraits of people who visited his shop, and most importantly for not selling any of his work, which obviously made everyone want to buy it. As Naqvi puts it: “If nothing was for sale it was by implication made more precious … ” The story, though simple, touches upon a deep topic — art, like other things in life, is sometimes valued more for the hype that surrounds it rather than its actual worth.

In each of the stories, Naqvi’s keen eye for observation and her passion to differentiate between right and wrong invariably shines through. Through her narratives, the reader is transported to another country, another time. And it is through her eyes that we connect the dots that show us the bigger picture — she compares Sarajevo to a social experiment which was then implemented in Iraq:

“It was in Bosnia that she had first experienced it and it was in the Green Zone in Iraq that she understood what she had become. The whole enterprise had perfected itself in Bosnia and had moved to Iraq. As though this was all just the parade ground for maneuvers … all of them including she who had gone to Bosnia as part of the peace and reconstruction effort, as part of the big international rescue effort who were saved in their own minds as having done good who had been decorated for it, were in fact in reality deeply sullied.”

Naqvi’s characters are jaded and cynical, for the most part, often mocking the international community that played the role of peacekeepers, who loved the importance and asserted superiority over the locals, for lending a helping hand to the defenceless Bosnians. The characters ridicule the self-importance of these people in stories such as “The New Concept Dress Rehearsal-Exercise,” “In a Sniper’s Crosshairs,” “Paleontology of Occupation” and “The Framing Shop.”

Although the location and the characters are specific to Sarajevo, the theme is universal for people who have experienced war first-hand. Naqvi’s stories could easily be about the people in Iraq or Afghanistan, who too have suffered similar injustices.