Artistic celebrations defy the little Titos: Robert Fisk met the organiser of Sarajevo's winter arts festival, a job that mixes philosophy and politics in unique and equal measure

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'OPEN the window,' I told Hasan as we drove to the town hall. 'It's a Beirut rule. Always drive with the window open when there is shelling - otherwise you don't hear what you're driving into.' But Hasan would not hear of it. He preferred warmth to safety. 'I don't want to hear. I don't want to know about danger.' His derelict Golf skidded on the ice and came to rest in front of Sarajevo's municipality building, an Austro-Hungarian pile with a smallpox of shrapnel holes across the facade.

You can't blame Hasan. It is a weird mixture of fatalism and courage that drives the citizens of Sarajevo, a characteristic that is shared not just by Hasan - an out-of-work car mechanic in a torn bomber jacket - but the trim figure sitting in Room 151 of the Sarajevo town hall. Ibrahim Spahic, after all, is running the Sarajevo winter arts festival; and anyone arranging a programme of symphony concerts, art exhibitions, film matinees, operas and musicals in this particular Balkan Golgotha has got to combine philosophy and politics in unique as well as equal measure.

Mr Spahic, a thin, balding Muslim who runs the diminutive opposition Democratic Socialist Party, talks about painting, Vivaldi, architecture and war criminals in the same breath. His presidency of the Sarajevo peace movement betrays one of the keys to his mind but the monologue which greets any foreign visitor provides a vivid - and exhausting - demonstration of his energy. Here, for those readers who might admire his Joycean stream of consciousness, is what it is like to meet Mr Spahic:

'Welcome to Sarajevo. Look, here is a very famous Bosnian artist, Mr Salim Obralic and another very famous artist, Mr Mustafa Skopjak, standing next to you. Look what they have brought us, a series of graphics on French paper to celebrate our festival. See these hands that reach out towards the sun, a symbol of our everlasting life. The hands are the symbols of the Bugomils (10th-century heretics who thought the Devil created the world) and the graphics now represent our festival.

'Italian children sent paintings. Yes, Serbs as well as Muslims and Croats perform in this festival. Why, our Mr Teodor Romanic, conductor of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Television Chamber Orchestra, is a Serb . . . everyone wants peace but we must preserve our heritage in Sarajevo, not like those who wish to destroy our heritage like the war criminal Mrs Plavsic who went around collecting Second World War Serbian skeletons to divide the people.

'Our artists have died in this war, you know. Alia Kucukalic, a sculptor, was killed here in the street on the way home by a shell. Peta Valdek, our very famous artist, was wounded by shrapnel.'

Directing the Sarajevo winter festival obviously requires a degree of mild insanity as well as a preparedness for martyrdom. Even Mr Spahic, it transpires, received five shell splinters in his head when a shell blew a car into a tree outside the town hall when he was leaving the building, his temporary abode since an earlier shell blew his own office apart. But few would deny his victory.

The arts festival opened less than a week ago with a concert of Mozart and Vivaldi and an exhibition of historic Sarajevo photographs. The work of Bosnian playwrights has been intermingled with the Sarajevo Chamber Theatre's production of Macbeth in Serbo-Croat.

The only casualty of the war has been the festival's production of Hair - cancelled when the city's electricity supply was cut and the theatre's generator failed - although a performance was due to go ahead in the city that night. Still scheduled are lectures on architecture, exhibitions of calligraphy, a discussion of 'art and war' - the festival's two posters show the City Library on fire and a cellist weeping in the gutted ruins afterwards - and a presentation on Jewish- Spanish literature in Bosnia-Herzegovina by a member of the Jewish community.

'Our festival began during the 1983 Winter Olympics and it is proof of our cosmopolitanism, our international character, our refusal to be reduced to tribes and ethnic groups,' the irrepressible Mr Spahic insists. He sounded like Tito, whose portrait - the famous drawing of the grand old man as a gaunt-faced partisan - adorns his office wall. 'Yes, Tito has space on my wall as he has space in this country. He understood the Balkans and he understood Europe. He had a real feel for equality. Even after his death, you could see his face everywhere in Yugoslavia. The trouble was that after he died, we found he had created lots of little Titos.'

Sarajevans show contempt for little Titos. That is why I wanted the car window open on the way back to the hotel. And why Hasan kept it closed.

(Photograph omitted)