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  • “What’s It Like There?”: Desultory Notes on the Representation of Sarajevo
  • Jim Hicks

In the prologue to his influential, now perhaps infamous, Balkan Ghosts, Robert D. Kaplan asks, and answers, the following question: "What does the earth look like in the places where people commit atrocities?" A similar inquiry seems implicit in my own titular question and probably lurks behind the readerly glance of almost anyone who chooses to write, or peruse, an essay like mine. Part autobiography, part photographic essay, part critique, part anecdote, parable, and comedy of errors, my text offers, more than anything else, a note of caution. What is it we see, if we see? After the original, oral presentation of this essay, one audience member described it as an attempt to walk the line between a necessary silence and the obligation to witness. My own sense of it is that the essay wanders around more than most and isn't all that certain of what it finds. Doing so is an attempt to do justice to the Benjaminian sense of experience--events for which categories are lacking--and thus to counteract, in some small fashion, our all-too-common, post-Eliot sense of ourselves as born-again Tiresians (we've seen it all, and can do nothing). If such an excursion can be said to have a purpose, it is to induce at least a suspicion of something that, for several years now, has been my own answer to the Kaplans of this earth. All appearances asides, what Sarajevo most feels like is home.--jh

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Figure 1.

“What does the earth look like in the places where people commit atrocities?”

— Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts

In order to begin, I’ll have to confess: what follows here will be an essay in the early sense of the term (in other words, I have no idea whatsoever how it’s going to come out).1 I’ve decided, nonetheless, to make an effort to address—or at least avoid in a somewhat more professional manner—an issue which for me, in the five or so years that I’ve been visiting Sarajevo, just won’t go away. The problem is that I continue to have no real answer to the question that my title poses, the question that, for understandable reasons, I’m asked on almost every occasion when someone finds out I’ve been spending time in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina.

To some extent, my lack of a well-considered response may be personal. I also have a great deal of trouble with word association games (“What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ‘Bosnia’?”); invariably, what comes to my mind—no matter what the word is—is nothing. Faced with such questions, rather than “associate freely” (as if such a thing were possible!), I become increasingly embarrassed at not having a response, more or less in the way that insomniacs lie awake obsessed with their inability to sleep. On the other hand, such a reaction may be situational as well. Hannah Arendt long ago argued that there is essentially nothing to say about events which require our compassion. For Arendt, the problem with compassion is precisely that: it puts an end to all discussion, and hence, to any possibility for political remedy (53–110).2 (There are, of course, other opinions about the relation between compassion and expression: Clarissa, La nouvelle Héloïse, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are all very long novels.)

In any case, in conversations with friends, I found out quick enough that my problem couldn’t easily be finessed through intellectualization. Like some character from a Woody Allen film, I tried to begin my (non)responses by describing my inability to describe, cleverly attributing this inability to my complete lack of adequate representational categories. My experience, in short, was “like” nothing in the least. And without adequate categories, some would argue, we may not even have the experience at all—“a blooming, buzzing confusion” is the phrase usually evoked in such contexts. Yet, for Walter Benjamin, experience itself—at least its truest, and increasingly rarest form...

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