Luck in Sarajevo
by Izet Sarajlić
(translated by Charles Simic)
in the spring of 1992,
everything is possible:
you go to stand in a bread line
and end up in an emergency room
with your leg amputated.
Afterwards, you still maintain
that you were very lucky.
This was going to be an on-the-eve-of-war posting, but, well, here we are. My heart is broken for all the people of Ukraine and I pray for their safety.
Two days before the first bombs fell, I left Izet Sarajlić’s poem “Luck in Sarajevo” in the massive parking lot of a Costco warehouse. It’s always hard to fathom how pain and plenty exist seamlessly on the same timeline. As Auden puts it in “Musee de Beaux Arts,”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
While someone else. . . .that’s the kicker. While we shop, shop, shop, while we consume and consume. While we worry over minor details of our privileged lives, while we spend energy and resources burnishing our social media presence, while we indulge our rage in the latest culture war, while we indulge, period, full stop.
While others have bombs dropped on their cities and kindergartens.
The event in the poem refers to the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. In spring of 1992 Sarajevo was surrounded by 13,000 Serbian troops. Snipers and mortar shells threatened the city’s civilians, who courageously carried on for nearly four years of attacks. 5,434 of them were killed. It was the longest siege in modern history. You can read a short account here.
Speaking of short, “Luck in Sarajevo” is a mustard seed of a poem. In a mere eight lines we have the whole bleak picture of this moment in the war: starvation, bombing, brutality, bravery, and classic Eastern-European humor.
Yes, humor. Humor in the face of suffering is a marvel of the human spirit. At the end of the first stanza, the sentence everything is possible sets us up for something hopeful. It’s what we say to young people—Everything is possible! The joke is that everything in this poem really means everything: not just the most wonderful things that could happen, but the very worst as well.
The poem ends with another dark joke: Afterwards, you still maintain/that you were very lucky. Given the circumstances, still maintain has a dryness to it, a philosophical feel, as if the issue being discussed were a legal one. You can hear the wry delivery of this one-legged person: Well, at least I’m alive. You should all be so lucky.
Izet Sarajlić (1930-2002) was born in Doboj in the former Bosnian Serb Republic. In his teens, he and his mother moved to Sarajevo where he would live for the rest of his life. He started publishing poetry at age 19 while earning a degree in philosophy from the University of Sarajevo. After getting his doctorate, he became a professor there. He also worked as a political writer, editor, journalist and translator. He died at age 72.
Given the religious element in the Bosnian war, I wondered what religion Sarajlić was. This is what I found in an interview with the Unesco Courier in 1998:
I’m a Muslim. So what? I’ve never lived in a predominantly religious environment any more than any of my compatriots. I can’t see people as Orthodox or Muslim or whatever. Religion may be important to some, but it’s a personal matter.
I was in Strasbourg not long ago and I couldn’t understand why everyone kept insisting on the fact that I was Muslim. They told me that it was important to say so. I didn’t consider it to be important at all. In the same way, foreign journalists who came to Sarajevo would often ask me whether I thought that all these ethnic groups could live together. I would always answer by introducing my family to them and saying: “My wife is Catholic, her family came from Austria and our daughter married an Orthodox Christian. I hope that fifteen years from now, when the time comes for my grandson Vladimir to experience the same kind of sufferings as Goethe’s young Werther, he will put his hand on the shoulder of a Jew. That would complete the family portrait.”
Link here for the full interview.