Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Is Multiculturalism Really Worth Fighting For?

28. Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood by Barbara Demick

I'm on an upbeat kick lately, oppression in a closed religious community and a city under siege for refusing to cooperate with aggressive nationalism. Lots of laughs, no? All kidding aside, I feel privileged to have read such poignant appeals to humanity and a little amazed that I happened upon them so close together.

Barbara Demick is the author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and a groundbreaking look into lives shrouded in mystery, based solely on the testimony of refugees. Before that, Demick was a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and lived in Sarajevo from 1994-1995, chronicling the lives of neighbors on one street in besieged Sarajevo: Logavina Street, home to Serbs and Croats as well as Bosnian Muslims.

Logavina Street was first published in 1996, but it's been re-issued in 2012 with a new preface, final chapter, and epilogue. I received it through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. While I think the original material provides an in-depth look at the war and pierces one's heart for Logavina Street's residents, the perspective provided in the updated material is the most valuable part of the book. Now that we can look at the Bosnian War through the lens of the global economic upheaval that's happened afterward (that's exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions), it's both easier to understand what happened in Bosnia, and more frightening. It's clear that this was not an isolated incident, and it's not necessarily over-anywhere.

Demick's prose is straightforward and not overloaded with gory detail. The few graphic scenes she does include are chosen carefully for greater impact. Be warned, this is a hard read for the tender-hearted. I grew hungry reading about the lack of food and "war recipes" like wiener schnitzel made from stale bread and garlic. I ached for children who thought meat came out of cans and didn't believe water could flow from faucets. The shootings and shelling are aspects of everyday life, and even three-year-olds know to run to the basement at the first whistle. Families spend so many nights in bomb shelters that children become incapable of sleeping in beds. Ultimately, it's the little things that drive tolerant Sarajevans to accept peace at any cost, which was the partitioning of Bosnia into ethnic enclaves.

While a Serbian general fights in the Bosnian Army, and elderly Serbs rally around their Muslim and Croat neighbors, the fact remains that many Serbs at the least escaped and at the worst, let nationalist rhetoric convince them to open fire on their countrymen. On a street where everyone celebrated each others' holidays, there became a new awareness of who was who. Headscarves became more popular, a trend more liberal Bosnians still fear.

In 2011, Demick visits a country where employment is doled out via ethnic quotas. The children of mixed marriages must choose, or list themselves as "other." A young Muslim tour guide tells Demick that "Every Muslim has a dream to live in a united Muslim union," the very opposite of what Bosnians fought for-a multicultural nation.

"Could it happen again?," Demick asks and is asked. She and her subjects cannot give a definitive no. Ethnic divisions hover "like a miasma," over the iconic city of tolerance. And if this is the fate of Sarajevo, what can we hope for the rest of the world? The European Union? American cities? Sure, we got along when times were good. But as money's getting tight and tensions rise, well, isn't partition preferable to war?

The Bosnians think so.


Marie said...

I need to read that. I went through a phase where I was reading about Bosnia and Yugoslavia like crazy. this perspective would really help me understand more about it.

Space Station Mir said...

I would definitely recommend Logavina Street both for an understanding of the war while it was happening and the more global implications of it. I remember when the war was going on, but I was pretty young, so this book really helped clarify for me what the conflict was about as well as what actually happened.