Travel Stories

First Maglaj

The bus ride from Sarajevo to Maglaj is wonderful.  The new road hugs the Bosna River, crossing from side to side over a series of bridges and winding its way through tunnels, small towns, and smaller villages.  The hillsides are lush and green.  The fertile Bosna River valley floor is cultivated in carefully tended gardens, small orchards, and smaller vineyards.  Great care has been and is being given to these plots where rows of green vegetables are emerging, the river itself rushing northward, away from its source and the sea, the water churning and brown, buffeting the river's banks with the urgency of hundreds of mountain tops filled with winter's melting snow. 

And then there is Maglaj, the old town, its mosque and fort and village square much as I remember them.  And the new town, communist realism on the western bank … public housing, a thirty room hotel built in the seventies that I turn out to be only one of two guests at, broad boulevards, "modern" stores from the 1980s, dogs sleeping in packs in parks, men gathered together yelling, gesturing, and smoking, clutches of women, young children, baby carriages, one or two sidewalk cafes, the sounds of church bells, the call of the muezzin from the mosque.  There is not much to do in Maglaj.  The name translates to fog.  Cars beep to pedestrians and wave.  The pedestrians wave back.  It is a small town.  It is spring.

I walk across the bridge into the old town.  Men sitting at a small tavern wave me over, ply me with questions in Serbo-Croatian and German, questions I do not understand the meaning of.  But I laugh.  And they laugh.  And I repeat that I do not speak or understand Serbo-Croatian and they laugh and tell me they are no longer speaking Serbo-Croatian, that they are speaking Bosnian.  Then they take out their cell phones to show me photographs.  And I take out my cell phone and show them photographs.  And I finally remember not to finish my cup of Turkish coffee, which they insist must now be called Bosnian coffee, so that they do not refill it.  And I resist the plum brandy, and the meats, and the sweets.  But when they suggest that they drive me to a good restaurant down the river, the "best" restaurant, at least I think that's what they are saying, I take the opportunity to go, though not before attempting to pay my bill, which is refused, because one of my companions has already taken care of it.

The restaurant, named Riva, is straight out of a Hollywood movie set; an outdoor terrace right on the river, a covered open air terrace above that, and a dark cavernous indoor dining area, complete with bar and music I now know to call Bosnian.  The waiter who speaks a smattering of English recommends I have the specialty of the house, a thin piece of beef wrapped around some cheese and smoked meat served with what are clearly garden fresh broiled potatoes and fantastic grilled mushrooms.  I order a beer.  Halfway through my drink a huge hornet decides to take a bath inside the glass and once soaked and not a little drunk swims desperately in circles unable to extricate herself from her drink or climb up the long steep smooth glass walls of her liquid prison.  So I pour the beer out onto the terrace floor and watch the hornet doing headstands in an apparent effort to dry off or show off.  Then somersaults.  Then chasing her tail.  Followed by more headstands.  Next time I'm cutting her off earlier.  Somersaults?  I believe somewhere in the Talmud we are told that one who saves a life saves the world and I am inordinately happy when after 15 or so minutes of these gymnastics the hornet flies away and even happier still when the waiter introduces his friend who speaks decent English and offers to be my guide, which I gratefully accept. 

His name is Armin, we agree on a price, and we establish that we shall meet at the hotel at 10 A.M. the next day unless his wife is delivering their first born, in which case he will understandably have to go with her to the hospital, which is indeed what happens.  I like it, my eager expectation of revisiting Lijesnica a source of real anticipatory excitement, which then reminds me of a story my Uncle Sol told of his time as the commanding general's driver and aide in World War II.  They were travelled up out of Africa through the boot of Italy toward Rome when in one small Italian village they left a few pairs of new shoes for the children in a one room schoolhouse.  And when they drove back down through the same town about a week later they found the shoes still sitting brand new and unused on the floor inside the schoolhouse.
Why hadn't the children worn the new shoes, the general asked.  Well, because they were still appreciating the feeling of anticipation of wearing new shoes, the general was told, and once worn the pleasure of the anticipation would be over. 
It's how I feel about Lijesnica and the fact I will not see it for another day.  That it will still be there tomorrow.  That I will get to continue to enjoy my anticipation.

So a few words about Lijesnica in 1964 when I spent three months there and it had a population of about 1500, very few houses with electricity and none with running water or indoor plumbing.  The socio-cultural categorization of the residents at the time was that of rural "peasantry."  It had been so since the middle ages.  Their livelihood was subsistence level agriculture … a small garden, a cow, some sheep, a few chickens.  No one was an employee or a wage earner.  Yet it was clear, even in 1964, even to my relatively untrained eye, that this way of life was nearing an inevitable end.  That the extended family (zadruga) lands which passed by equal division to each son, who then divided the land further among their sons, was no longer capable of sustainable subdivision.  That the demands and desires for more modern, comfortable, expanded lives, for electricity, television, plumbing, perhaps a small old car, could not be realized by subsistence agricultural peasants.  That women and children could no longer be kept down on the farm.

And into that milieu the Tito government and the social planners therein constructed a pulp and paper mill, right across the River Bosna, a source of employment, wages, electricity, and the steady stench of sulfur. And it was there in Lijesnica, in the neighborhood of Sehici, in the house of the universally disliked Party apparatchik who profited from the modest rent I paid, that I lived and which I intended to revisit.  Just when, however, is another story.  Here's why. 

On the next morning right at our appointed meeting time Armin calls to say his wife is in labor and he must drive her to the hospital in Zenica.  Fair enough.  I can entertain myself in Maglaj for a day, I'm not in any hurry.  I sleep a lot.  I do yoga.  I meditate.  I visit two cafes, literally right next door to one another, two bakeries, literally right next door to one another, two groceries, literally right next door to each other.  I don't get it.  And there must be a reason.  Perhaps related to inheritance.  Call an anthropologist.  But alas no anthropologist of even remote competence is to be found.  I will say this, however, the bakeries are each fantastic, no really, fantastic, and I quickly determine my favorite, as apparently everyone in Maglaj has a favorite, and both appear to be prospering.

As for Armin, he calls the next morning, his wife has still not delivered, he is back on his way to Zenica to be with her.  Yes, wonderful, I say.  I too am waiting for a baby.  Does he know the sex?  Yes, it is a girl, which Armin says is "okay for the first child."  And does she have a name?  Yes, the one his wife picked.  And why did she alone pick the name, I ask? To be sure it was not the name of one of his exes, he says.  We laugh.  Ach, men!

I climb to the old fort. 

I watch an impressively large group of people gather for a funeral at the mosque in the square where the old weekly market was held.

I am reminded of an event that unfolded here in the Maglaj market on a market day in 1964 amidst cows, gypsies, musicians, Catholic peasants in their familiar costumes, and lamb roasting on a spit at what was the big social event of the week.  I noticed a Catholic man from a hill village wearing a very unusual back pack which I asked if I could examine and he took off to show me.  What it was was a complete furry skin/hide of a calf which had been separated in one piece from all of the calf's meat and bones and preserved to a remarkable degree of softness and pliability as a united one-piece entity.  The deboned de-fleshed skin of the rear legs had been sown to the skin of the forelegs to create the shoulder straps.  The hide of the neck and head had been separated from the skull and was the waterproof top covering for the back pack, complete with a bone button and a button hole to secure it to the bag.  The bag itself was a complete entire one-piece sack made of calf hide with beautiful markings.  I had never seen anything like it and never have since.  I asked if I could buy it. The man asked for a ridiculously low amount, maybe seven dollars.  A man from Lijesnica came over to tell the Catholic peasant that he could keep the bag for seven dollars.  A crowd gathered.  The bag owner said, okay six.  The man from Lijesnica said something about how his teeth weren't worth six dollars.  The crowd grew larger, the bargaining fiercer.  The young American anthropologist saying "it's okay, it's okay" just a voice lost in the babble.  The man from Lijesnica proud to be my agent.  The anthropologist from America mortified that he was to own the bag for under six dollars.  (I think the final price was five.)  I took the bag to the village.  I wore it.  I proudly showed off what I had purchased, the skill involved in its creation, the effort, the folksy artistic mastery.  No less than four of the villagers asked me to sell them the bag.  They'd give me more than I'd paid for it.  And why did they want it I asked.  Because they didn't want me to take it back to America and embarrass them, because people in America would think they were backwards and unsophisticated.  Needless to say I took the bag home.  I showed it off.  I wore it proudly.  When my then wife and I had a trial separation in NYC in 1967 where I was teaching at my alma matter I left the bag hanging in a closet.  My then wife took a lover.  The lover took the bag.

I am drinking more coffees at more kafanas, eating more bakery products, telling more and more people I can't understand a word they are saying, feeling a bit more a sense of the flow of life here.  Also no sense of the flow of life here.  There are those who are proud and happy to be Bosnians.  And there are those who long to belong to a larger county.  "Who cares what we call it," I understand one man to say, "I'd be happy to call it Serbia if I could have my father back."