The first time I saw her was not the first time I encountered her.  She surprised me with her cheerful demeanor. Many years had passed. She was a part of my life and I knew that she existed. Her mountains provided a sense of safety and yet when the worst came to pass, they were the very feature that exposed her. Her residents were known as humorous and temperamental, with a soft toughness that made you feel at home no matter where home was.

Rumor had it that Walter was protecting her. Rewind 500 years, and you will find the origins of the Bogumils living as semi-nomads in the mountains. You might call them my spiritual and blood ancestors. Gnostic Christians who refused to submit to Vatican rule, whom they considered harbingers of darkness and impostors on the earthly throne of God. Some call them the first protestants. Their influence spread far and wide, eventually giving birth to Cathars in France.

When the Germans came, they did not know they were amid a people that had mastered the art of systemic rebellion centuries ago. They did not know that even when they came hunting for the Sarajevo Haggadah, a sacred book brought in many years ago by the Sephardic Jews, the residents of Sarajevo would hide these priceless gold-leaf leather pages in the underground vaults of mosques. Just like the Sarajevo Haggadah, the residents of Sarajevo have survived countless invasions, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman rule, two world wars and most recently a three year siege.

Rumor had it that Walter was a German double agent protecting the citizens of Sarajevo. Walter is real as much as he is imagined. He is the unspeakable layer of knowing that imbues the streets of this city and incubates in the hearts of her residents.

When her fog settled gently on the hills, as it did every night, I knew that it was not a heavy fog, but the kind that is soft, endearing, and almost imperceptible.

The smell of wood softened up the rain during fall. I am thrown back 25 years to my grandfather’s home. I remember him sculpting new art pieces in a garden suburb of Sarajevo, in front of the house he had built with his own hands. When I was born, he planted a pine tree, so it would grow with me. To this day I wonder what happened to that pine tree. Of course I would only later come to realize what the pine tree and its cone stands for. A symbol of initiation for those who are ready to hear the truth. Years later the dots would connect. My pine tree came to life with me; my initiation happened in the moment I was born to my parents.

The first time I saw Sarajevo was not the first time I laid eyes on her. It took two decades after leaving in order for me to really see her. Unencumbered by anyone and anything, anonymous in the crowd and sly as an undercover agent, I set foot in a place that was enchanted from north to south. This strangely longitudinal city had been calling me all along. What does it take for us to see without the lens of the past? Some say it’s just time, or a self-induced amnesia. For me it was none of that. It was the smell of wood that drew me in, the gentle light of an October afternoon, narrow uphill streets, a new generation of youngsters, free and unburdened, and the busy street below my apartment where cab drivers, mothers, bakers and swindlers mingled as if yesterday didn’t matter, today was a time to enjoy and tomorrow might not happen.

About a City