Diplomacy at the Table (Vol. 4) – Bosnia in Buzara Sauce…

…Cheney with “briefly please,” and Paddy with a napkin

“Hey, you like to cook. You’re always spinning some recipes”, said Ico.

He came unexpectedly and sounded like he couldn’t wait to see me. Ico, Ismet, a good man, my landlord in Sarajevo, one of those people in Bosnia who remained nice and kind even after all the suffering they went through.

“Okay, but why did he start by mentioning cooking and recipes?”, I wondered. Usually, we would drink brandy or beer, and it hardly took five sips to get to politics. But, indeed, we never got into much details or comments over food and recipes. That’s why he surprised me. And indeed, he did not waste time. “You know that recipe about Bosnian lamb with octopus?” he asked, laughing out loud.

“Lamb with octopus? You must be kidding,” I waved it off.

But he insisted… listen, I’ll tell you how it is prepared, just be patient, listen. And he got down to teach me…. you see, you start by cleaning the octopus, and put it to boil, for at least two hours, whilst you also boil peeled potatoes, cut into large pieces, separately. Meanwhile, in another bowl, you cook the lamb with all the vegetables and spices you could think of. As he was talking, he kept laughing whilst I couldn’t help thinking that he was up to some trick, a trap. But he went on… when the octopus is done, take it off the heat, take out the potatoes, put the octopus aside, discard the water, take out the lamb, and serve it with boiled vegetables and potatoes at the large table in the corner of the garden, under the shade…

“Okay, but what with the octopus?”, I jumped into the trap.

Ah, octopus…yes, you chop the octopus into pieces, then throw it to the corner of the yard, to cats, dogs, and, most important, to the flies…so you can enjoy your lamb in peace, without the flies’ attacks. And, of course, don’t forget rakija and cold beer!

Stupid me, a fool!

Nice man from Bosnia, wasn’t he? Bosnian lamb with octopus!

After we had a few rounds of laughs, Ico left. And I was left with a strange feeling that there was so much of a broader metaphor about Bosnia in that impossible recipe. You add this or that, let it simmer, take away, mix, combine the incompatible, discard anything that disturbs or interferes, learn to deal with the nagging flies, don’t get annoyed if you want to survive, manage the contradictions…Ico, you devil, where did you come up with this one?

Ico went, with his recipe comment of the then ongoing peace negotiations and I immediately remembered another dish that, in its way, also told the story of this country.

It’s a simple one – mussels in Dalmatian buzara sauce. On that occasion we tasted it in Dubrovnik, hosting the US and Vice President Cheney. It was the first major American visit ahead of the crucial decisions on our NATO membership, a kind of fact-finding visit and direct personal assessment ahead of the invitation to the White House, which would follow a little later. Cheney was sitting, a bowl of mussels in buzara sauce in front of him, the smell reaching the sky, the walls of Dubrovnik under the night lights as if in the palm of your hand…idyll, pure idyll! Except that Cheney was interested in Bosnia, that inexplicable country. He leaned on his elbows, stuck his head over half of the table that was narrow anyway, looked at us over that large buzara bowl, and then focused right on the Prime Minister: “Come on, please, could you briefly explain that Bosnia?”. Jesus, briefly?

In his right hand, Chaney unwraps and stirs the served mussels, they fall and turn over, over each other, they mix and separate, the membranes crackle, a colorful mosaic of black, white, smooth, rough shells formed a messy pile…Bosnia, the metaphor again. But Cheney was waiting, persisting…Bosnia, briefly, please! In no time it seemed that it would be enough to simply point to that bowl, to that messy pile…what maps, what history, what analyses! Dear Dick, there is Bosnia, right on your plate.

The Prime Minister starts simply, in basic terms. He knows that Cheney watches the entire globe from satellite heights, the entire world is his battlefield, the entire globe, so how would he ever know the details of situations in Zenica or Mostar or Bihac. But, alas, Bosnia is not an easy geometry, Bosnia is not something that you will master in three minutes, it is not a plate of clear soup, it is a bowl of mussels in buzara sauce, Mr. Vice President, it is a labyrinth, the deeper you go, the more you get lost. The more our Prime Minister tried, the less it becomes clear to the American Vice President. Then, suddenly, as if he remembered that he is standing on top of the world, he doesn’t need to know all these riddles and puzzles of Bosnia, his head is in Iraq anyway, and some Shias and Sunnis are fighting against each other, so Chaney, suddenly, unexpectedly asked, in a somewhat mild tone, as if apologizing: “And tell me, these Bosnian Muslims, are they Shia or Sunni?”

Dear God, whichever! There was the Prime Minister, struggling to explain all the layers and dimensions, all the nooks and crannies of Bosnia, and there was this Vice President, as if sitting on the flying carpet over the entire Islamic world, thinking that this Shia and Sunni distinction is the most important thing in Bosnia!

On both sides of the table, heads turn to each other, in complete silence. How and why, I don’t remember, but all of a sudden, I heard my voice: “Mr. Vice President, most of them are Sunnis … but, until the war broke out, until they were attacked, they hardly knew they were Muslims!”. The laughter relieves. President Bush’s foreign policy adviser, Tom, taps my knee under the table: “Listen, for this answer you have free seven days on my ranch in Texas, whenever you’d want! This clarified everything!”. I should have told him that I’ll bring Bosnian lamb with an octopus with me to that Texas ranch!

Not much later after that Dubrovnik night, on another occasion, I remembered that “final solution” formula that never solved anything, but prolonged conflicts or stagnant agonies – it was the time when all the media in Europe were recycling the story made public by Paddy Ashdown, the then High Commissioner in Bosnia, whereby he allegedly witnessed that President Tudjman, at one of their lunches, draw a line through the center of Bosnia and allegedly proclaimed that this kind of division could be a final solution. The affair became known as “Tudjman’s napkin”. I never believed in this story, although I knew that there were indeed dividing lines, from the Baltic to the Adriatic, dividing lines among peoples and religions, dividing lines between identities, cultures, etc., etc. But, drawing on napkins, drawing the lines of division…. that would be far below the level of Tudjman’s skills.

Anyway, Ashdown called to seek a meeting in Zagreb. After the conversation in the Ministry, we went for lunch. I asked him how things really are in Bosnia, he is now the High Commissioner, and he is now at the very source of “things” … Paddy starts to explain, from the broad, overall picture to the details, and there he was, within minutes, in the labyrinth and gaps, like then the Prime Minister with Cheney. Good God, if Cheney would have listened to Paddy…well, he surely would have fired him!

And, when he had already sunk into Bosnia’s buzara, I chose to “suddenly” ask Paddy how he would organize Bosnia?! Directly. And Paddy grabs the bait…well, it could be this way, and it could be that way, and this entity, and the cantons and districts, he draws with the edge of the knife on the table cloth, the patterns go one over the other. At that moment, I noticed that they were bringing a bowl of mussels in buzara sauce, a warm appetizer, and I noticed two waiters approaching me and Paddy from behind, with a large white napkin, to save our shirts from buzara sauce accidents.

But Paddy is in Bosnia, and he doesn’t notice the chin napkins, he is still drawing “the final solution” patterns with the edge of his knife. I suddenly said, loudly: “Paddy, I’m sorry, but we have nothing to do with this provocation. Look, please, see what these waiters tried to do, they read newspapers obviously, and they want to set you up…see, you started with Tudjman and that alleged small napkin and his alleged drawings and now they have given you a huge napkin, half a square, it must be some kind of provocation, I’ll have to look into it later!”.

The High Representative suddenly became agitated, stiffened, and then burst into laughter. “No one has ever turned me on like this,” he admitted in the end. Just like Ico turned me on with his comment about the peace process.

Bosnian lamb with an octopus! Mussels in Bosnia’s buzara sauce! Oh, come on!


This serial is based on the intriguing book “Diplomacy at the Table,” written by the Croatian diplomat Hidajet Biščević, who reviewed and edited the original manuscript and selected the most interesting records, especially for our magazine. His Excellency, Mr. Biščević, is the ambassador of the Republic of Croatia to Serbia. He lives with his family in Belgrade.  

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