Bojan Fürst

Disappearing Arts

In Photography, Print on May 22, 2008 at 8:52 pm

A man walks by a traditional coppersmith shop in Sarajevo's old Turkish quarter.

A man walks by a traditional coppersmith shop in Sarajevo's old Turkish quarter.

(Published in Toronto Star)

Hazim Numanagić exudes a calmness that permeates his entire studio and slowly spreads to those who step inside. Just around the corner, the bustle and noise of Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s old Turkish quarter is as it always was.

Hazim’s unassuming shop, located in a side street, is completely silent. A small tea pot and two small, narrow glasses are the only indications that he was indeed expecting a visitor. The smell of tobacco spreads throughout the studio as Hazim lights a cigarette and selects a particular piece of reddish reed. On his desk, there is a thick copy of Jalaluddin Rumi’s The Mathnawi and a small Qur’an. Both books are worn, yet cared for – a source of pleasure as much as inspiration.

Hazim Numanagić is the last remaining traditional calligrapher in Bosnia. He is proficient in several scripts and many styles and today he teaches an elective course in calligraphy at Sarajevo Academy of Visual Arts.

Hazim Numanagić is the last remaining traditional calligrapher in Bosnia. He is proficient in several scripts and many styles and today he teaches an elective course in calligraphy at Sarajevo Academy of Visual Arts.

“In Islamic tradition, calligraphy is the most important visual art,” Hazim begins as his hand moves a reed lightly over a sheet of paper. At that point, I realize that I am about to have the most exquisite conversation during my entire stay in Bosnia. I have Anisa Omeragić from the Old Crafts Association to thank for that.

Anisa’s office, unlike Hazim’s shop, is located in the old Turkish quarter. We spoke over the banging of tinsmiths’ hammers and the languorous lilt of an accordion beneath the window.

“There is a lot of interest in the old crafts. We just came back from a show in Mostar (western Bosnia and Herzegovina). We ran out of the brochures,” she explained while rummaging through the mountain of papers on her desk.

Mitar is a jewelry maker working in the old Turkish Quarter in Sarajevo.

Mitar is a jewelry maker working in the old Turkish Quarter in Sarajevo.

Eventually, Anisa gave up, dictating a list of the craftsman still working in Sarajevo from memory. Once in a while, she would shake her head after mentioning a name and say things like: “He is the last one who does it,” or “Master so and so is old and he does not have an apprentice.” Hazim, the calligrapher, is one of those names. “He is the last in Bosnia,” Anisa says. “Not in Sarajevo, in Bosnia.” She is adamant.

Naturally, Hazim’s workshop is the first I visit.

“The basic tool of the trade is the reed,” Hazim explains while taking a long puff on a cigarette. The flowing, captivating lines of beauty and harmony he creates are easily appreciated even by those not versed in Arabic script. “There is always an underlying message that the text itself conveys and there is a strict form depending on the style you are working in. Where you have freedom is composition,” he says.

Time is essential to his craft. Yet, these days nobody has time. “Everybody thinks that they can simply do anything with minimum effort put into it. It does not work that way. It takes time.”

Hazim still researches the old ink recipes jealously guarded by masters of old. These inks usually contain fine sooth, honey, salt, pepper and gum arabic. There are a myriad of other ingredients which impact viscosity, colour or permanency of an ink. On Hazim’s shelfs there are papers that have been maturing for over six months. He uses an egg white and starch based mixture to change the texture and colour of the paper and soften the contrast between the ink and the paper surface.

As his large hands move in fluid motions across the paper, he laments the future of Sarajevo’s Turkish quarter and its craft masters. “The entire quarter is in danger of disappearing. The West managed to preserve its heritage to some extent. It managed to keep the value of crafts alive. The East is slowly starting to develop that. We just had an international competition in traditional calligraphy in Cairo. That was unthinkable just 20 years ago.”

He agrees with Anisa that apprenticeships are crucial to survival of the crafts. “Traditional crafts have always been passed on from a master to an apprentice,” he says.

The tradition of crafts in Sarajevo dates back to the establishment of the city as a center of Turkish administration in fifteenth century. The first craftsmen concentrated on satisfying the need of the Turkish extensive military operations in the region. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were over 70 different crafts represented in the city.

The craftsmen were organized into a guild system run by independent boards and an elected guild master. The guilds and the boards had multi-ethnic character and were comprised of Muslims, Catholic and Orthodox Christians and Jews. The rules, however, stipulated that only a Muslim could be elected a guild master. The system was based on solidarity among the guild members and it provided education to young apprentices. The introduction of cheap, manufactured goods eventually eroded the guild system that left a vacuum today’s generation of master craftsmen is finding difficult to fill.

Ahmed Huseinović is a third-generation coppersmith in Sarajevo.

Ahmed Huseinović is a third-generation coppersmith in Sarajevo.

Ahmed Huseinović, a fourth generation coppersmith with a shop on the opposite side of the quarter, is dismayed by the decline of the crafts in the city. “I think there are four of us left who actually make this stuff, everybody else is selling old stock or cheap Thai imports,” he laments. There was a Coppersmith Street in the old quarter with nothing but shops and studios. Today, you can hear a lone hammer or two as you walk its length. “My father put a hammer in my hand when I was so little that I actually don’t remember it. It takes a long time to master a craft. You have to mature as a craftsman. You have to mature as a person.”

A coppersmith’s shop is noisy by definition. The banging of hammers, the sounds of polishing and sanding fill these small rooms and ricochet among the coffee pots, trays, tea pots and water ewers. Ahmed waves his hand, calling the waiter from a coffee shop across the street and orders two turkish coffees. They come on one of his own trays with two small, steaming coffee pots with long handles and tiny cups in copper holders. Coffee is served with sugar and turkish delight on the side and a glass of water.

Coffee drinking is an important part of Bosnian social fabric. Long, gossipy conversations over a cup of coffee are as much part of Bosnian cultural heritage as are the stubby minarets of its mosques. As we sip our coffees, Ahmed tells me of his back injury from the war and the challenges facing his business.

“Every year it gets harder,” he says. He is pleased to participate in as many fairs and exhibits as possible and spread the word about the work he and his fellow craftsmen do. Yet, he acknowledges that it is nearly impossible for him to compete with the cheap goods made in Southeast Asia. “You can today buy a coffee pot for 10 marks, but I cannot even buy the necessary material for that money, never mind charge for the work I put into it,” he says with resignation.

After another sip of coffee he looks somewhere beyond the busy street and asks himself why is he still doing this. “It’s my love for this work, for this beautiful craft,” he says looking straight at me and then his eyes drop down as he continues to polish a small coffee pot that will soon join others on the shelf.

Anisa from the Old Crafts Association explained that some of the craftsmen are adapting and starting to make different products using their skills. Some are also starting to market themselves on-line and association itself has a fairly complex web site (www.starizanati.co.ba). However, the anger towards those selling cheap Asian products in the old quarter is palatable almost everywhere you go. “The Chinese imports are destroying the market. If a bag grew in my garden, I would not be able to sell it so cheaply,” says Mehmet Užičanin, a 72 years old saddle maker. He is visibly angry at the situation. The fact that he is making leather bags for parking commissioners and businessmen is a testament to his adaptability – he is actually a horse gear maker. “I made my last saddle three years ago,” he scoffs. “It’s right there behind me,” he points at the mass of bags, belts and strips of leather with a saddle buried beneath it all. Under all the anger, there is still a bit of hope. As the tourism slowly develops, he hopes that horseback tours will become popular and there might yet be hope for traditional Bosnian saddle makers.

Mehmet Užičanin, 72, is a saddle maker, but today he makes just about anything else except saddles. He hopes that tourism will revive the need for traditional saddles as the tour companies are starting to offer horseback riding adventure trips within Bosnia.

Mehmet Užičanin, 72, is a saddle maker, but today he makes just about anything else except saddles. He hopes that tourism will revive the need for traditional saddles as the tour companies are starting to offer horseback riding adventure trips within Bosnia.

Hazim, the calligrapher, is even more concerned with the educational opportunities for those interested in the old crafts. He does have hope. “There is an interest in crafts because people are trying to figure out what is that they lost,” he explains. As a former student at the Sarajevo Academy for Visual Arts, Hazim is trying to introduce traditional calligraphy to the current crop of students. He is teaching an introductory course at the academy. The course is elective, but he hopes that it will generate enough interest to maintain and further develop the art in Bosnia. And when he talks about his students that’s where you hear hope in his voice – hope that Bosnian crafts and the old Turkish Quarter may yet remain a part of Sarajevo experience.

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