Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hopeful Sounds

"The politicians make the rules here.” He takes another sip from his bottle of Lav, looks down the street, and shakes his head as if he is thoroughly disgusted.  I assume the disgust is toward the politicians, but it could have been the beer.  It was awful.

Mirsad is a physical therapist from Sarajevo and a member of the Pontanima interfaith choir.  I’m with him and the rest of the choir on a tour of Belgrade, the capital of neighboring Serbia.  Mirsad loves to tell me jokes in Bosnian.  These create raucous response from any Bosnian within earshot and a look of confusion from this American who understood about every third word.  Once the laughter cools, some kindhearted soul slaps him on the back and tells him to fill me in, and he happily obliges.  

An Orthodox priest scurrying through downtown Belgrade.
As we sit at this street-side café on a busy Belgrade boulevard, Mirsad fills me in on a different kind of insider knowledge.  He thinks back on Pontanima's various tours across the politically-carved carcass that once was Yugoslavia, and tells me that these trips fill him with a great emptiness. 

A native Sarajevan, Mirsad was raised in a religiously mixed house with one Serb and one Muslim parent.  His very existence is a testament to Bosnian pluralism!  “And yet, when the choir went to Mostar, for example, you can see that the Catholics live on one side of the bridge, the Muslims on the other.”  This kind of segregation tears at the heart of who Mirsad is, what Sarajevo is, and what Bosnia has been.  And so Mirsad and Bosnians like him are left empty while the politicians whose careers depend on segregation fill their coffers to the brim.

“The politicians make the rules here.”

“But what about Pontanima?  Don’t they play by different rules?”

“Pontanima is an illusion.”  Surprised and not quite sure that I understand where he’s going, I reach for my notebook and ask him what he means.  “It is an illusion because it is not the way things are here, where politicians make the rules.” 

He pauses. 

“But it is the way it could be.”

Earlier that day, I sipped coffee with other members of the choir around a picnic table at our dormitory.  Some Muslim, some Christian, some agnostic/atheist, all Bosnian, the group greeted each other as they wiped the sleep out of their eyes over Bosnian coffee and cigarettes. 

On Skadarlija Street with Mirsad.

Through the barrage of conversation in rapid Bosnian, I heard the word “success.”  My interviewer ears perked up, and I asked them “What does success look like for Pontanima?”

The director of the choir replied quickly in Bosnian; there were a few chuckles and a lot of nodding of heads.  Someone finally translated for me:

“That we exist – that is success.”

Yesterday, July 11th, marked the 16th anniversary of Srebrenica where over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by people who professed to be Christians.  For Sarajvans who lived through the brutal four-year long siege of Ratko Mladic and who witnessed their dream of a pluralistic Bosnia disappear in the dark fog of genocide, a statement like “that we exist” means something.

Another member helped put this in context for me.  Pontanima gives people hope,” she adds, “hope that we can live together and build something beautiful.  We have to exist to keep that possibility alive.”

After a day full of blessing from conversations like these, I was blessed to witness this “illusion”, this “possibility,” for myself.  Below is Pontanima performing the medieval Sephardic Jewish piece “Cuando el Rey Nimrod”.

Maybe Pontanima is an illusion.  One interfaith choir amidst the multitude of ethnically segregated choirs is certainly a minority.  And in a land where political corruption and fear-mongering nationalists make the rules and control the media, the voice for pluralism and peace is by no means the loudest.

But this illusion is a real one; it is an important and powerful one.  Illusions don't play by the rules that the politicians or anyone else creates; in fact, they break them.
Like the parables of Jesus, these modern illusions give everyday people a small taste of things to come, a whisper in their ear that the way things are is not necessarily the way they have to be.  By the grace of God, these blessed illusions boldly resist the majority opinion and hold open the possibility for something new and better to come.

To my ears, that sounds like hope.

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