What are the odds that, once the people of Bosnia, finally, take the streets to protest the pitiful state of the country’s governance (as it is happening these days), the symbol of the protest should be a Baby? It is not some ethnic, national(istic), political or similarly ugly thing, but beautiful children. Well, that’s Sarajevo, and in Sarajevo unpredictable things happen.
I am not a historian and I do not approach history books with an expectation to learn how and why certain events unfold; I surely do not expect to learn the truth, if there is such a thing. But I enjoy history books for the stories they tell. And Sarajevo, A Biography written by Robert J. Donia certainly tells an interesting story.
While the valley where Sarajevo is today was inhabited long before the arrival of the Ottomans, it was them who started the urbanization of the existing settlements in the 15th century. So, Sarajevo was founded. The story follows a few hundred years under the Ottoman Empire; followed by the rule of Austro-Hungarian Empire; then WWI which started when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo; then WWII followed and, at its end, new Yugoslavia emerged; 1984 Winter Olympics fulfilled the dreams; and, less than a decade later, between 1992-1995, came the siege of the city that crushed the very same dreams. Even though the book deals with all these grand subjects it brings to life people, individuals, and that’s what makes this history book a very engaging read.
What gives this book an edge over some other similar titles recently written by foreigners (Westerners) is that 50 years of socialist Yugoslavia is not just another footnote but a period that is rightfully studied as all other eventful times. I remember my feeling of unease after finishing Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia, A Short History. While the book was a great read I was left with a question: what happened to the country that defined both my parents’ generation and mine, did it ever exist? Malcolm, it seemed to me, didn’t give any importance (nor sympathy) to socialist Yugoslavia, and Socialist Bosnia. Robert J. Donia shows much more respect to this 50-year-long period.
It is all about storytelling; the city of Sarajevo offers a great story, and Robert J. Donia tells this story beautifully. The book includes interesting photographs and illustrations and that is sometimes a great treat, starting with a wonderful postcard from 1910 which graces its cover.
It would be premature, and perhaps naive, to expect that the current protest in the city would lead to the necessary change in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But one day it will, and that will certainly be a worthy subject, along the grand ones mentioned before, to detail in some future biography of this city.