“Where do you come from?” the young copper artists in Sarajevo asked.
My wife and I told them.
“But where in the United States?” they insisted.
We went into our typical patter that goes something like this: “A small state in the middle of the country called Iowa, it’s near Chicago, and a town in the middle of that state that you probably never heard of called Des Moines.”
The young copper artists of Sarajevo smiled as if we were all old friends.
Listen, I have not heard much English spoken all day, the other visiting tourists are clearly not from Western Europe or America, I just heard my first-ever call to prayer from the mosques, and our young copper artists are perched in a tiny shop on a narrow cobblestone street in the heart of the oldest old town I’ve ever visited. And they’re Bosnian.
Of course they know Slipknot, the iconic heavy metal group from Des Moines. Why not?
Earlier we had wandered up through the old town. Eyes wide, mouths open, amazed. “Bascarsija” the old town is called, a wonderful foreign name of hidden promises and intrigue, with narrow streets that curve and wind around shops and outdoor cafes and flow with people.
A bazaar of delights.
Here’s a jewelry street with fine silver and gold displayed in locked cases behind narrow windows, where you have to duck down to get through the shop owner’s door, only to find a secret cave of precious jewels.
And over there are shops selling hundreds of colorful rugs, draped on the floors and walls like the set of an old Hollywood movie about a Persian prince and a lonely American widow. I suggest to my wife that I am the Persian prince. She suggests that she is comfortable remaining the grieving widow.
And here’s a street full of the delicious smell of lamb and goat roasting over large pits of coal and wood. Head and legs still present. A salivating vegetarian’s losing dilemma.
And bakeries with circular Bosnian bread, miraculously airy and chewy and salty, stacked on shelfs like wood at a lumberyard. My idea of heaven.
Ah, and the copper shops.
Copper shops can be found all over Sarajevo. An ancient tradition that comes out of Persia. But the old town has an entire narrow street devoted to copper artists. And the most common item in these copper shops? A copper coffee container with a long handle that is used to hold the thick, dark, Bosnian coffee, a beverage that can give you a quick sense of purpose.
Our young copper artists, fans of Slipknot, just opened up shop on the side of a hill near this copper street. Admir and Suljaman are their names. Thirty-three and thirty years old. They have been copper artists for 15 years.
“We started 10 days ago in this spot. We are growing,” Suljaman says.
His partner, Admir, watches us talk with his soft, dark eyes that obviously know too much. Their narrow little shop is brand new. The young men decided it was time to make a go of it. They are both hard working and Suljaman is impatient with the many young people who are unemployed in Sarajevo.
“To live here is okay. If you want to work, you have a living. Most people want a salary immediately. Come on. Work. If you want to work, you have to work. If you don’t work, you don’t have nothing.”
Suljaman is tired of the complaints. But his voice changes midstream . . . .
“Most of the people are poor, really poor. Most of the people don’t have anything. They have no social help.”
How do they survive?
“I don’t know. Really, I don’t know.” He shakes his head sadly.
Admir is etching a plate during our conversation. Intent. Focused. Tourists trickle into the narrow shop. Suljaman works the crowd with a large smile and colorful language. Slang comes easily to his tongue. An aging skateboarder it turns out.
But the 1992-1995 war is never far.
“I had seven years when the war started. We both stayed in Sarajevo. I was in the worst part of town, Down near the airfields. It was weird. But at the same time for me as a kid it was a new thing. What the hell is going on? Now when I look back it is bizarre how we even survived. I think 10,000 children died in Bosnia.”
But Suljaman has no patience for the politics or the religious divides that were drawn by the war.
“Hey, Suljaman, are you Muslim?” He mimics a question from the crowd. “No, I’m a human!” he shouts back to himself.
Admir finishes his etching and gives us his work. With several gifts tucked in our purchases, and the last swallow of Bosnian coffee, we basketball-handshake our goodbye.
Down the valley that is Sarajevo we go, along the river that divides the city. The sun shines brightly as rain clouds skirt the ringing mountains. Families walk along the river. Children race ahead of mom and dad. Well-dressed grandparents stroll, arm in arm, with heads bent slightly forward. Lovers nudge each other with their open secret. Laughter and shouts and conversation drift down the banks of the shallow water and circle back up.
And in the distance I see a young man. Yellow and black sweatshirt. I approach his back, tap him on the shoulder, and introduce myself as from Iowa.
With a broad grin, Amar Karisik, resident of Sarajevo, cousin of Adi Feriz and Azra Feriz, residents of Urbandale, Iowa, says in a thick accent and a loud voice.
Mmmm . . . they are us.