Feisal Naqvi

Our Sarajevo of the soul

In Uncategorized on January 18, 2011 at 6:11 am

History buffs know Sarajevo as the city where on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a 20-year-old member of a Serbian secret society known as the Black Hand, shot and killed Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. That one shot precipitated World War I, a war which lasted for more than four years and led to the deaths of more than 16 million.

In more recent times, Sarajevo became famous for hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics. But barely a decade later, the facilities which had hosted athletes from all over the world, were now hiding places for snipers as the ethnic melange of Yugoslavia dissolved into chaos.

Sarajevo was now the capital of a new country by the name of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The citizens of Bosnia were an eclectic mix of Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics and adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church. For that reason, among others, Sarajevo had often been called the “Jerusalem of Europe.”

The dissolution of Yugoslavia led to a series of wars. First the Croats and Serbians fought each other to a standstill. Then the Serbs concentrated on trying to wipe out Bosnia by supporting the ethnic Serb population. By April 5, 1992, Serbian forces had surrounded Sarajevo and life for those left behind had become a nightmare.

The Siege of Sarajevo, as it later became known, lasted for almost four years, ending eventually on February 29, 1996. During those bitter years, the embattled Sarajevans withstood everything that the Serbian army could throw at them, even when on one particularly tragic day, a Serbian mortar shell exploded just above a market, killing 68 people. It is estimated that over the four years of the siege, more than 15,000 people were killed, of which 1500 were children.

One of the most well known symbols of Sarajevo’s defiance was its symphony orchestra. Founded in 1923, the orchestra refused to stop practising or playing during the siege. Instead, the players found ways to practice in the direst of conditions, continuing even though seven members were killed. During the siege, the orchestra performed 60 concerts and rehearsed in basements, sometimes in a room lit only by candles.

During the siege, musical supplies were obviously in short supply but the orchestra struggled on, often with the help of outsiders. One of those outsiders was Charles Ansbacher, an American musician who was in Vienna as the husband of the then US Ambassador to Austria. In a recent article, he recalled that “At first, we wondered if it was strange to be bringing gifts of cellos and violins to a place that didn’t have food or water.” But, in the end, they decided that they had to help the orchestra because it was integral to Sarajevo’s soul.

As we huddle along in our own besieged Land of the Pure, it is important to realise a few facts. The first is that there may not be a solution round the corner, that it may in fact be years or decades before the carefree Pakistan of our parents is restored to us. There is no magic bullet which will solve our problems and we need to stop wishing for it. Even if Jinnah were to return from the dead tomorrow, we would not be restored to sanity. Instead, we will win – if ever we do – once we decide as a nation to grow up. And nations mature but slowly.

The second is that we cannot succeed in this fight without saving what remains of our souls. I cannot speak for the other people who make up this benighted country, but as a Punjabi by choice, I have learnt that there is poetry in our hearts and music in our soul. We are also a brutally foul-mouthed and blunt people but I leave that facet of our character for another time.

The point though is that we are what we are. And while we are one nation, we are also many peoples. Each one of us has a song in our collective souls, songs which we are these days too scared to sing. But if we remain cowed by the demons we fear, there will be nothing left to save of our souls.

In the end, the demons we face are not new. There may be new answers, but mine at least comes from Baba Bulleh Shah:

Ae ishq ni dar da maut kolon
Paawe suli chadhna paiy jaave
Nach nach ke yaar manaa layiye
Paawen kanjri banna pay jaave
Saanu nachna manaa na kare koi
Asaa sikhya karma pyaar nach ke
Saadde nachan di saar o ki jaane

I am no poet but my reading of that stanza is as follows:

Love does not fear death
Even if one has to hang for it
Let us dance for love
Even if we have to become whores
Let no one tell us not to dance
I have learnt the blessings of love through dance
What would they know of my ecstasy?


This column first appeared in Pakistan Today on 18 January 2001

  1. WOW!!!

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