How, By Force of Circumstances, We Became Magicians
by Antonije Nino Zalica
During that summer of 1992, as the evening approached, I would go every day to the Academy of the Performing Arts to bake bread. It was extremely dangerous to go out of doors at all; it was dangerous to be in the open (it was not particularly safe indoors either, but in comparison this was always somehow forgotten). But there were a thousand reasons for going out and pretty much all of us spent several hours each day in the streets. But this was not at all easy. One had to invent one’s own rules for something that was entirely unpredictable, that had no rationality or regularity, which most often went by the official name of “non-selective bombardment of the city,” and was actually more or less continuous. When there was some sort of pause, when “the guns fell silent” as the saying goes, the possibility that all would start up again was present at every moment. Particularly the mortars—their shells could fall unheralded from the sky just anywhere, at any time. Anytime, anywhere—this was the only real rule of all that killing and destruction. The snipers would shoot all day long from all the surrounding hills; anti-aircraft machine guns would pepper any part of the city they saw fit, again without rationality or regularity; there was always the occasional bullet or tank shell, sometimes a rain of projectiles from some multiple rocket launcher.
But little by little, some sort of pattern tends to emerge even in the most unpredictable of situations; people would discover regularities for themselves, and each would construct his own, private, eccentric, defence mechanism. Later, as the war progressed and that first summer passed, as initial confusion gave way to a general familiarity with the situation, you could sometimes see a person on the street who, regardless of what was happening around him, would stroll at ease, as though promenading, calmly and collectedly—even across those bridges of crossroads, which were deemed the most “open,” the most “dangerous places,” in that illusory gradation of risk. “The Sarajevo people have reconciled themselves to dying,” was the interpretation of some, meaning that certain citizens had voluntarily accepted the possibility of death, that it was all the same to them whether they were killed or continued to walk. But I don’t think that this was quite accurate; reconciliation to something doesn’t necessarily mean its acceptance; rather it was a matter of understanding. You can only be reconciled to something or someone you know very well, like a friend or a former lover.
People simply found rules for themselves in this situation, which cannot be expressed in words or described in any way, yet, which were understood. I remember one old man who went out every morning and walked at the slowest, feeblest pace, to the market or the park. On one occasion shots began ringing out all around him; a youth began to run, and the old man sneered at him: “Run, run, you young fool. Do you think you’re faster than a bullet?” Yes, a person learns to distinguish the scarcely perceptible dividing line between existence and that which represents something “other,” to discover the secret map of safe ways though his native city, according to which the shortest is not necessarily the quickest. A person learns to sense death in the air, sometimes long before it actually arrives; he learns the strange metaphysics involved in recognizing the right moment to cross an open space—since, in fact, there is no point in waiting, you just have to choose the right moment.
One learns to read the hidden omens in apparently the most ordinary things (the order in which a few pebbles lie upon the ground, the angle at which a door stands open, the direction from which a pigeon flies and its choice of which branch to alight upon). Put simply, many learned to see (as Castaneda puts it), or entered deeply into the art of what the ancient Greeks called entelechy, or acquired knowledge of a secret science (in Rudolph Steiner’s phrase)—although, of course they had no idea that they had done this, and when they spoke of it at all, would call it luck (“Imagine—I stopped to tie my shoelace, and a mortar fell and killed three people right where I would have been”), or fate (“I was literally two paces ahead of my own death”), or impulse (“on an impulse I turned the corner by the department store, though I was actually headed for Marijin Dvor”), or instinct (“I simply knew that something was going to happen, so I ran outside and brought my kid in”). In this way, many Sarajevans became metaphysicians (even though many of them had probably never even heard the word), or more simply, wizards—magicians trained in that subtlest of all arts, that balancing on the narrow tightrope between life and death. Naturally, without intending or desiring to do so—by force of circumstance, as some like to say. And what was in question were not merely necessary (and sometimes “unnecessary”) venturings out into the open, and the presence of Death, which breathed down our necks constantly, but the many other things which were in agreement with the ancient disciplines of occult practices: isolation, as in some Tibetan monastery, a reduction of intake as in the strictest ascetic tradition. There was no electricity, so night after night we kept vigil in total darkness, looking only “into” ourselves. All life was reduced to the four basic elements (fire, water, earth and air) in which the material word lost all meaning. Time lost all indicators of change (in Sarajevo only the seasons changed) and was reduced to a single, totally empty moment that simply lasted.
But a count was kept in Sarajevo, every day: three, five, ten, twenty-five…. The news gave us the horrendous count every evening in bulletins to which, sad to say, we all became habituated and indifferent, despite the fact that people are certainly not numbers. And while we are on the subject of numbers—they hurled so many shells at us, so much ordnance, it was enough to kill every one of us a hundred times over. They should have killed us all, but they didn’t.
And me? I had an angel on my shoulder.
God in the Sky above Sarajevo
He wasn’t exactly sitting on my shoulder, but he was there, right behind my ear, on the nape of my neck where I couldn’t see him. When I needed to, I heard his voice, my sense of security gave me the idea that he was always there and was looking after me. Sometimes, too, I would try to speak directly to the Almighty, but on the whole it was easier to communicate with his deputy.
It was around Whitsuntide in Sarajevo in 1992 and, just as with occurrence of the yellow snow—many didn’t even notice it (why did the Almighty manifest Himself at precisely the moment when everyone had to take shelter in the cellars?) and those who did notice, did not ascribe the least significance to it. People in the main gave credence to their radios, they would press their ears to their sets praying that they would at last hear a bit of good news. There was no good news, every fresh bulletin was worse and more terrible than the last, until finally the bulletins began to repeat themselves, as though going in a circle.
My child needed milk, so in the midst of all uproar, I had to run upstairs to the flat. Hurriedly I poured the milk into the pan, heated it, and drained it off into the bottle. I was drawn to the window, and I thrust aside the curtain. The building was high up, and most of City was visible. Strange and dismaying was that scene of bombardment from above (almost as though on a cinema screen), it looked magical and marvelous—the red-lit night sky, the glare of fires, the flashes of exploding shells, the light of illuminated bullets like comets, the rockets leaving traces of themselves behind them, bursting into a thousand colours, the marker shells descending on parachutes shedding a warm-yellow light. Fuck it, I could even have enjoyed the beauty of it all were it not my city that was burning, were those houses not ours, were people not burning inside them, were they not breathing their last seeing their own arms and legs lopped off and thrown about their rooms, were those not our children in the cellar, was that not my own child’s fear that I saw in his eyes. I thought of that general up there in the mountain, fucking bastard, in charge of all this—sitting in some folding chair and gleefully directing the fire. Like a film director, fuck him, who has realized all his dreams—may his own film fuck him, may he be hoisted with his own petard. Yes, the Devil himself was manifesting his magnificent and magnetic beauty. Yes, fuck it, and maybe I too could succumb to the ghastly fascination of the evil that was taking place all about me; and maybe I would deliriously have continued with my pornographic-aesthetics “fuckings” had I not, God be thanked, raised my eyes—much higher than the paths of the rockets and shells straight up, to the stars (it was May, and the heaven was absolutely clear), where, despite everything, the universe still survived. I saw the moon, full of light, radiant; and right beside it, high above Hum hill and all Sarajevo, a tiny solitary cloud, a cloud in the shape of Heavenly Personage holding out a hand palm-upwards. I could hear that Tija had also come upstairs, he was stirring some pap for his daughter, and my aunt was searching around for a possible cigarette. I called them to come quickly to the window, held back the curtain.
“Look! It’s God Himself!”
“Uhuh,” said Tija, and made off downstairs while the pap was still warm.
The Angel on my Shoulder, “The Tower of Babel,” and C2H5OH
As I hurried down the stairs, I would recite the Lord’s Prayer to myself, and then a Hail Mary (these exactly fitted the time it took me to run from the fifth floor down to the ground floor), and when I got to the bottom and only a few metres of lobby floor separated me from the street, I would stop, usually on the third or second step, holding the banister (if someone else were to appear, it would look as though I had forgotten something upstairs in my flat, and was remembering it). Then I would wait for my Angel’s voice and, no matter how urgent my business, or that something “had to” be done, or that I had promised that I would meet someone somewhere, or the impulse to simply go out, if I just sensed that he was saying “no,” or that he was hesitant, I would return upstairs. And if I already found myself in the street, I would leave it to my Angel to choose which way I went, and sometimes he would take me a very long way about, through courtyards and passageways, but I always obeyed his directions. Was he always right in his choices? I don’t know; I never tried to test him—but here I am, in space and time, and this must mean something.
It was only when I went to the Academy of Theatre Arts to bake bread that I never asked Angel about anything. I did not pause on the third or second step; I would only ask him to take care of me, and would rush straight out, across the street, over the bridge, around the yard, and straight into the Academy. I had a two-year-old son and a pregnant wife at home, and they had to eat.
At the Academy, they had an oven and were using stage sets as fuel. The first to go had been The Bald Primadonna, and currently we were sawing up the props and properties of a production called The Tower of Babel. At this time a lot of people were living at the Academy. The Obala gallery was also on our premises, and there were the director of the gallery and his painter wife, a number of young men in hiding from army call-up, one old woman, some refugees from Grbavica and a student-director. They had organized themselves efficiently, and the life they lived was certainly not dull. Every day they were visited by a number of us who came to bake bread or to cook rice. Besides myself, an actress called Milijana with her boyfriend or husband, I can no longer remember which, would come, also an architect and a rock guitarist. From time to time many more people would gather and, in spite of everything, sometimes great parties would happen. The Teaching Academy was situated on the floor above, and included a deserted chemistry lab. Once I told them how we at the Television Centre had drunk all the alcohol used to clean the heads of video equipment, and that it was actually only methyl alcohol, CH4OH, that was dangerous (since it could blind you), what you could drink was C2H5OH, and how we had not been sure whether what was in the bottle was the one or the other, but had mixed it with water and drunk it anyway, and that afterwards no one had gone blind.
“What was that again?” a stagehand asked, chuckling.
He got up and left the room, repeating the formula out loud to himself.
He returned with a large white plastic bottle on which C2H5OH was written in large letters.
“Fuck it, if only I’d known, I would have studied harder,” he winked at me.
“So, what shall we do with this?”
“We’ll mix it with water.”
But he insisted that I drink first, then waited a bit, then got going himself.
And while we sipped our C2H5OH + H2O it finally became my turn to use the stove, and I put my bread into it, while on top of the stove some pepper-sprinkled rice simmered, and music played from a transistor plugged into a car battery. The bombardment started up again outside, but who cared? Then Glava, the student-director, approached me—he who during the first months of the war had worked as a volunteer in the surgery department of the hospital where, after amputations had been performed, it had been his job to carry human body parts to the crematorium. He seemed angry, moody and nervous. He began to scold me and to demand that next time I brought some firewood with me. How could I explain to him that had already used up all my furniture, and that I did not know how to (and in a case would not) cut down trees in the parks, that…? I couldn’t say anything, and he went off into a corner, sat down on the floor and stared miserably into space.
“What’s the matter with him?” I asked Miro, who was sort of in charge of the group. “Do I really need to bring fuel?”
“Ah, don’t worry about it,” said Miro. “He’s upset. He’s been telling everyone they should start bringing wood. We’ve just about finished the sets of The Tower of Babel, and now it’s the turn of Woyzeck. I knew that there was no point that Glava would never again put on that production of Woyzeck that he had directed just before the war. But before the next time I went there, I did collect a few dry branches. It was only right.
As a reward for my “scientific discovery,” I was given two decilitres of pure alcohol. I used one half of it immediately in our spirit stove in order to make some tea for the little one, but my wife and I fought quite a bit over the other half, because she wanted to use it to make coffee. Dear God, where in the world do you use liquor to make coffee!
And something else. When I returned that evening from the Academy, I was a bit unsteady on my feet. Some sort of false joy possessed me, and I forgot about my Angel. Just as I got to the entrance of my block of flats, a shell exploded directly behind me and the force of it threw me—just as if someone had suddenly pushed me—straight through the doors into the hallway.
I was lucky—the shrapnel flew heavenwards.