Musings on diversity from Vienna, Sarajevo, and New York, by Maja Šoštarić

On a sunny morning in August 2013, as I exited the peaceful Parc des Bastions in Geneva, Switzerland and passed by the oversized chess figures near the park gate, I was astonished to see some familiar faces, a real blast from the past, on coming out into Place de Neuve. There they were again: four bronze sculptures by the contemporary German artist Thomas Schütte, entitled Vier große Geister. I had seen them before in 2011, earlier in their tour of European cities, on Vienna’s Graben Street. One is pointing to the skies; another looks defiant, with arms crossed; the third is stretching his arms combatively; and the fourth looks as if he is preparing to embrace someone. What do these four figures really represent? Faith, pride, persistence and hospitality? Or perhaps fundamentalism, segregation, fighting, and indoctrination?

FoD 1 b sostaric photos 3 - cropThe original German title of the sculptures can mean both Four large ghosts and Four great spirits. This ambiguity is probably intentional, as the odd foursome can be interpreted either as terrifying, voracious manifestations of one’s own past coming for its prey, or as dignified, lofty symbols of civilization and humanity. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. Be it as it may, the majority of observers will probably be captivated by something inherently paradoxical: the static dynamism and motionless interaction of the figures.

Back in 2011, while walking past the Vier große Geister in Vienna in the midst of the crowded Graben, replete with tourists, occasional horse carriages, and one very persistent cello player, I caught myself thinking, “Are these four sculptures in some sort of conflict? Or are they independent of each other?” And then, since I always find a way to connect my thoughts with my immediate locations, I concluded that, viewed through my Vienna lens, the four could stand only for faith, pride, persistence and hospitality, and that their interaction could be seen only as togetherness.

Indeed, as I was returning from an eventful soiree with some old friends in Vienna’s 16th district, also popularly known as the Balkanstrasse (Balkan Street), I thought how welcoming this place was toward the citizens of the former Yugoslavia. In Balkanstrasse cafés almost no one speaks German. In the subway or the street, you’re more likely to hear Croatian, Serbian, or Bosnian than German, to the point where you might forget you’re in the Austrian capital. When I was a student here, those of us from the “former state” used to hang out in a large area of the main university aula. But no matter how difficult it was for us—financially, culturally or socially—to adapt to Vienna, all my “ex-Yu” friends and I achieved our goals while respecting Austrian norms and culture and at the same time preserving our respective identities. Many Asians, Mexicans, or Turks in Vienna have embraced a similar lifestyle, in what may be a textbook example of togetherness resulting in diversity.

But Vienna was just a temporary shelter for my restless spirit. When I arrived in Sarajevo more than three years ago, I was handed a city map along with the names of the most important sights. Only several weeks after my arrival, having walked the webs of narrow streets and climbed all the neighboring hills, did I discover a still widely unknown Old Town souvenir: the Sarajevo cube. I stumbled upon it in the tiny streets of the central Baščaršija neighborhood. A simple wooden cube encapsulates the four symbols of Sarajevo: the Beg mosque, the Roman Catholic cathedral, the Old Synagogue, and the Old Orthodox church. This is also why Sarajevo is sometimes compared to Jerusalem: in a small circle of a few hundred meters, four important religions are represented. Indeed, on my short bike ride from the Old Town to my house, I travel through centuries of continuous religious and ethnic coexistence.

Yet I think coexistence has found its absolute pinnacle in the majestic New York City, where I see myself at some point in the future. Walking down endless Broadway late at night, blinded by the colorful lights of Times Square, I witnessed the city’s burgeoning night life, a sweet tyranny of everything, and an overwhelming power of contrast: luxuriously dressed-up people and half-naked people, dancing people and crawling people, people publicly denouncing religion and people publicly worshiping their gods. The avenue resounded with a Babel of different languages. “So this is what diversity is really all about,” I thought, slightly tired, somewhere amidst all those people. But I was not entirely right. The day after, I visited the impressive 9/11 memorial and the neighboring St. Paul’s Chapel, which hosted numerous volunteers who cleaned up the ruins of the destroyed World Trade Center in the months following the attacks. The church houses dozens of objects, photographs, and prayers recalling that period from throughout the United States and the world. That, in fact, is what diversity is all about.

Vienna by night is not nearly as alive as New York, but there are certain nights when everybody is out and about. One such example is Lange Nacht der Kirchen (Long Night of the Churches). All Christian churches keep their doors open for visitors, whoever they may be. I remember the abundant scent of wax candles in a Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, and the elevated voice singing an Old Slavic mass in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church of St. Barbara. Although the Muslim and Jewish communities are (still) not part of the initiative, their believers have expressed great interest in it. Indeed, if they were to participate, Vienna would have much more to offer; its first and second districts contain numerous synagogues, while the 10th, 16th, and 17th districts are replete with mosques and places of Islamic worship.

Given the presence of different religions in Sarajevo, there are also many occasions to celebrate. During the month of Ramadan preceding the Eid-al-Fitr holiday (also known in Bosnia as ramazanski Bajram, the Ramadan Bayram), observant Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Come sunset, however, it is time to enjoy iftar, an evening feast. Many non-Muslims, myself included, are regularly invited to iftars and blessed by the hospitality of our Muslim friends. The small Jewish community in Sarajevo also prepares celebrations, and I was fortunate enough to attend a seder (festive Passover dinner) with prayers recited in Hebrew, Bosnian, and—interestingly—old Spanish (because the first Jews who came to Sarajevo were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century). Likewise, on Christmas Eve, many Muslims and other non-Catholics gather in front of the Sarajevo Cathedral in order to wish their Catholic friends merry Christmas. All this is to say that the above-mentioned four sculptures, as viewed through my Sarajevo lens, are doing nothing less than emanating optimism—in spite of the war and annihilation of the city’s recent history.

New York, too, saw destruction not that long ago. Nevertheless, it is nothing but a splendid, relentless motion, resulting from the interplay of faith, pride, persistence and hospitality. I stayed in the exciting area bordering fancy SoHo on one side and colorful Chinatown and Little Italy on the other. In other words, a typical American cupcake bakery is just minutes away from countless Chinese restaurants or delectable Sicilian specialties— a microcosm of people and opportunities. New York really is “all that jazz.” After having enjoyed the magnificent revival of the Harlem Renaissance in the Apollo Theater, the African Poetry Theatre of Queens, and the Japanese-looking Botanical Garden of Brooklyn, completely by accident I found myself in front of Norman Mailer’s beautiful Brooklyn house. My guidebook quoted a sentence from one of his novels: “I don’t think life is absurd. I think we are all here for a huge purpose. I think we shrink from the immensity of the purpose we are here for.” Considering my second chance encounter with the Four great spirits in Geneva, I could only mumble to myself, “How appropriate, how wonderfully appropriate”.

Maja Šoštarić (2012 ISSRPL) works at the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2 responses on “Musings on diversity from Vienna, Sarajevo, and New York, by Maja Šoštarić

  1. David N. Tshimba

    What an insight-filled reflection on diversity! Living in my part of the world (African Great Lakes region) one oftentimes miss making any meaningful sense of historical places/events connected to locales, but even that ‘our diversity is expressed in a way my staunch Protestant father, putting up with her conservative Catholic wife, both attending a religiously colourful wedding of their Muslim uncle/in-law accompanied by my Animist grandpa. Only a culture of embrace can hold all these different (and sometimes differing) views together.

    1. Rahel Wasserfall

      Interesting story, thanks for sharing this. Your description of your African family ties can actually fit very well into the hypermodern reality that Maja is describing, fantastic!

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