History reminds me of a river: on most days, sitting nearby a bridge, we could see it calmly flowing before our eyes. However, in times of storm and heavy rains, a bridge is where danger occurs.
Many years ago, I became very close to an adorable girl from a town named Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During one of our nocturne conversations, that often took place facing the Mediterranean while sitting on Nice old town pebbles beach, she told me the story of Mostar bridge.
Stari Most, “the old bridge” in English, was built in 1566 by Mimar Hayruddin, apprentice of famous architect Mimar Sinan and stood for 427 years. Croats deliberately destroyed it using mortar shell bombing on 9 November 1993, during the ethnic conflict that opposed them to Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Sinan disciple engineered its aerial pull to last forever and statics laws prescribed it could only be annihilated by an equal and opposite push of human hate. By shattering the old bridge, Croats intended to eradicate memories of pacific co-existence of Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic populations living on the banks of Neretva river.
Between 1991 and 2001, several conflicts tore the territory of the former Republic of Yugoslavia leading to the death of approximately 130000 persons. It all happened a few kilometers away from our borders: in Puglia we saw F104 taking off from Italian air force bases, ready to bomb Serbian positions during Kosovo war and rockets were deployed on our beaches in protection from retaliation.
I did not understand such slaughter: Yugoslavia was a developed and prosperous country that colonel Tito managed to steer firmly for almost forty years after the end of World War II, navigating through cold war perils while maintaining peace among many different ethnic populations living within its borders.
Flashback to the sixteenth century, when great Mimar Sinan, Hayruddin master, disseminated Ottoman Empire of remarkable landmarks. One of the most accomplished displays of his craftsmanship was the bridge on Drina river in Višegrad, built in 1577 and named after Mehmed Paša Sokolović, that became four centuries later the splendid scenery where the epic plot narrated by Ivo Andrić in The Bridge on the Drina unfolds.
Artillery had been silenced for a while at the time when I read the novel. I found there answers to all my questions about wars in ex-Yugoslavia: stories of the generations living near Višegrad bridge were the best illustration of how Bosnia-Herzegovina was cursed by both history and geography, condemned to be one of the sharpest friction points between Arab and European civilizations, “impersonated” in that region by Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. My Bosnian ex-girlfriend mom used to say that in Balkans every generation has to live through three wars; according to this rule current generations are safe, what about the future ones?
Few writers reached Ivo Andrić heights in representing events that shaped Western world history and among them I surely count Ernest Hemingway, one of my youth literary heroes. Talking about bridges, “Old man at the bridge”, first published in May 1938 and later included in “The first forty-nine short stories“, is a little shining literary gem where, in purest Hemingway style, no word is redundant. Bridges are a great writers affair.
Old man at the bridge
An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road. There was a pontoon bridge across the river and carts, trucks, and men, women and children were crossing it. The mule-drawn carts staggered up the steep bank from the bridge with soldiers helping push against the spokes of the wheels. The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther.
It was my business to cross the bridge, explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge. There were not so many carts now and very few people on foot, but the old man was still there.
“Where do you come from?” I asked him.
“From San Carlos,” he said, and smiled.
That was his native town and so it gave him pleasure to mention it and he smiled.
“I was taking care of animals,” he explained. “Oh,” I said, not quite understanding.
“Yes,” he said, “I stayed, you see, taking care of animals. I was the last one to leave the town of San Carlos.”
He did not look like a shepherd nor a herdsman and I looked at his black dusty clothes and his gray dusty face and his steel rimmed spectacles and said, “What animals were they?”
“Various animals,” he said, and shook his head. “I had to leave them.”
I was watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact, and the old man still sat there.
“What animals were they?” I asked.
“There were three animals altogether,” he explained. “There were two goats and a cat and then there were four pairs of pigeons.”
“And you had to leave them?” I asked.
“Yes. Because of the artillery. The captain told me to go because of the artillery.”
“And you have no family?” I asked, watching the far end of the bridge where a few last carts were hurrying down the slope of the bank.
“No,” he said, “only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others.”
“What politics have you?” I asked.
“I am without politics,” he said. “I am seventy-six years old. I have come twelve kilometers now and I think now I can go no further.” “This is not a good place to stop,” I said. “If you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa.”
“I will wait a while,” he said, “and then I will go. Where do the trucks go?”
“Towards Barcelona,” I told him.
“I know no one in that direction,” he said, “but thank you very much. Thank you again very much.”
He looked at me very blankly and tiredly, then said, having to share his worry with some one, “The cat will be all right, I am sure. There is no need to be unquiet about the cat. But the others. Now what do you think about the others?”
“Why they’ll probably come through it all right.” “You think so?”
“Why not,” I said, watching the far bank where now there were no carts.
“But what will they do under the artillery when I was told to leave because of the artillery?”
“Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?” I asked. “Yes.”
“Then they’ll fly.”
“Yes, certainly they’ll fly. But the others. It’s better not to think about the others,” he said.
“If you are rested I would go,” I urged. “Get up and try to walk now.”
“Thank you,” he said and got to his feet, swayed from side to side and then sat down backwards in the dust.
“I was taking care of animals,” he said dully, but no longer to me. “I was only taking care of animals.”
There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.
Ernest Hemingway had a passion for Spain and a long time ago inspired me for a 5000 Kilometers drive through Andalusia and Algarve, two regions that, despite being in the heart of Christian Europe, were ruled for centuries by Moors and went under the name of Al-Andalus. Spanish Catholic kings finally conquered back Al-Andalus but for long the lower part of Iberic Peninsula, likewise Balkans, was a perilous bridge between civilizations. During my road trip, I walked across the bridge that joins the two parts of Ronda and was impressed by its daring architecture. This story started flowing under the stones of the old bridge in Mostar and comes to its end on Puente Nuevo in Ronda; The great Sinan would have loved it.
(Ulaanbataar, 23 of April 2017)