Nobody Works on Mayday: War & Peace in Sarajevo

Marina Alagić-Bowder

Bosnia and Herzegovina

‘Ne moze ovako trajati’  

Nobody works on May Day, or Prvi Maj as we say here. It’s like Christmas and every bank holiday you ever heard of, rolled into one. The streets are peaceful and empty. At eight a.m., the start of a normal working day, even the tourists haven’t begun swarming. The cats, pigeons, crows and I have Sarajevo to ourselves.

I’m the only person waiting for the tram. I lean against a lamppost and watch the sun lighting up the green mountains. They’re background for the carved wooden fountain and the old stone mosque that will soon, given a week or two, be heaped with roses. Somewhere, somebody is roasting coffee. Somebody else is baking bread. The air is as balmy as paradise.

Danas ce biti lijepo,’ says an old lady who totters past, hunched over her battered handbag, half way through my vigil.

Taman za Prvi Maj,’ I answer.

Today will be lovely. Perfect for the First of May.

The tram, when it finally whistles and clatters into place, is the usual grubby-looking donation from a Scandinavian country circa 1974, but with less graffiti than usual. Somebody has decided to scrub the trams. The company that runs them is so many millions in debt that it’s no longer even a joke. But nobody, of all the superfluous staff employed Communist-style for the rest of their lives, could be asked to grab a bottle of detergent and a brush. Now, for the first time I can remember since I arrived in wartime twenty-three years ago, the ancient vehicles are clean-ish. Maybe the tourists complained.

I wonder what kind of May Day bean-feast the transport-company workers will enjoy today, ultimately at the expense of the International Monetary Fund, or MFF (Medjunarodni Monetarni Fond) as we say in this land of endless acronyms. All the international agencies and institutions propping up this dismembered zombie of Europe, this country divided by inter-ethnic warfare and the Dayton Peace Agreement into so many parts and peoples that it’s also no longer a joke.

Did you know that the only kind of person you can’t constitutionally be in the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a Bosnian? You can declare yourself a Serb, a Croat, a thing called a Bosniak, which has come to mean ‘ethnic Muslim,’ or an Other. But calling yourself a simple Bosanac, or if female, a Bosanka – not an option. Sorry.

The International Community representatives had – and rejected – the opportunity to make this choice constitutional, so that people could define themselves by a term neither religious nor ethnic.

‘I have a joke for you,’ my husband said, the previous day.

‘OK,’ I answered, somewhat warily. ‘Tell me.’

‘A foreigner walks into a coffee bar and starts talking to the barman. He says, “How can any of you tell the difference between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks? You all look the same to me?”

‘The barman wipes a glass.  He says, “Oh yes, you can tell the difference.”

‘ “How”?

‘ “Well,” the barman says, “Serbs are like vaske. They’re out for blood, but they can be crushed. Croats are like prepelice – they soar up high and ambitious, but they always drop right back down where they started from.” ’

‘A prepelica would be a skylark, I guess,’ I put in. I didn’t comment on the vaske, which means headlice.

‘ “And Bosniaks?” asks the foreigner.

‘ “Ah, they’re easy to find. They’re the ones who spend all their time in coffee bars saying, ‘Ne moze ovo ovako dovijeka.” ’

‘Meaning, “It can’t go on like this forever,” right?’ I asked.

‘That’s right,’ my husband said.

He waited for me to laugh. Twenty-three years ago, or even ten years ago, I would have got into a furious fight with him for telling a joke that compared an ethnic group to headlice. Now I’m tired.

‘It’s true,’ he said. ‘It’s what Bosniaks have been doing for hundreds of years. They’ll never do anything else.’

My husband would be called a Bosniak by any politically-minded Serb, Croat or Bosniak, since his surname means ‘Son of Ali Aga.’ He had a Communist-lite upbringing in pre-war Yugoslavia, in the happy days known as ‘lijepi socijalizam’. Lovely socialism. He grew up thinking that religion wasn’t important. So did his friends. They found themselves fighting for their lives in Europe’s longest siege, fighting for a country that wouldn’t be divided along ethnic and religious lines. They lost.

Religion in my husband’s family consists of visiting his parents for Bajram, the Islamic festival known elsewhere as Id. But his mother, the real Communist in the family, refuses to cook the celebratory dinner. Bajram is the day of a massive fight between his Communist mother and his vaguely traditionalist father. Plates no longer fly, though, because his parents are both tired too.

My husband, who grimly wrote ‘Bosanac’, or ‘Bosnian’ in the last census, prefers Christmas.

‘I’m going to the office tomorrow,’ I say.

He leaps up from his chair.

‘You can’t do that! Nobody works for Prvi Maj!’

‘I have to.’

‘What – are you going there to make the other staff miserable – to make them feel that they have to work too?’

‘They won’t be there.’

‘Then why are you going?’

‘I want to save my leave-days for August.’

‘Listen, this country used to be Communist. Nobody works for Prvi Maj!’

The tram-driver is working, though. He may have expected a happy holiday-maker or two. What he gets is a weary-looking foreigner (strankinja) who is headed for the office even though she’ll be spending the day by herself.

I sit in my favourite seat, the one by itself next to the ticket machine that almost nobody uses. Another reason why the transport company is so deeply in debt. The days of lijepi socijalizam are gone, but the mentality persists – whatever belongs to the state belongs to everybody. The state is in debt to half the population anyway – all those wartime wages that were never paid and now only exist as useless bonds.

I stare at the shuttered shops rattling past my nose and wonder if I translated my husband’s joke correctly. Ne moze ovo ovako dovijeka – you can take this two ways. It could mean – ‘It can’t go on like this,’ which at least has some sense of urgency. One day something will have to be done, and by somebody, even if that day is remote. Or it could mean, ‘It won’t always be like this.’ That has no sense of urgency at all. You can go on saying that, sitting in the coffee bars of Sarajevo, until the sky – or the Ottoman Empire, or the Austrian Empire, or the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, or the first Yugoslavia, or Marshal Tito’s Communist-lite Yugoslavia, or the International Monetary Fund – falls.

You can add another favourite – ‘Tako je.’ That’s just how it is.

The tram screeches and lurches to a halt. This stop is mine.

‘So you’re working on Prvi Maj?’ I ask the driver as I get to my feet.

Pa, tako je,’ he says.

Ne moze ovo ovako dovijeka,’ I say. Just an experiment.

Pa, ne moze,’ he agrees.

We nod to each other – a couple of old work-horses believing in their bones that it will go on like this forever – and I step into my lonely day.




Marina Alagić-Bowder is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.