To Overcome That Which Would Destroy – Miss Sarajevo: Running Toward The Transcendent Power Of Art

One of my goals while visiting Sarajevo was to go on a run through the city streets while listening to Miss Sarajevo. This ethereal and mysterious song was a collaborative work from the band members of U2, their longtime producer Brian Eno and world famous tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. The song is named after an event that took place during the Siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990’s when an underground beauty pageant was held in the city. The pageant was an act of defiance in response to the shelling and destruction of Sarajevo. The contestants wore sashes during the contest that said “Are they really going to kill us?” One haunting image shows the women on stage holding a banner that says “Don’t let them kill us.” This image was used as the cover for the single of Miss Sarajevo. It is a remarkable statement that needs little explanation, a surreal act of artistic defiance made in response to modern war.

Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant

Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant

“What are you going do?” – A Question Without An Answer
The Sarajevo beauty pageant became the subject of a documentary by an American filmmaker, Bill Carter. Carter brought the situation in the city to U2’s attention while they were on the Zooropa tour in Italy. He believed that the international news media was ignoring the prolonged siege. The lead singer of U2, Bono, got a wild idea that the band should travel to Sarajevo and play a concert. This would have been dangerous and perhaps deadly. That idea was quickly nixed. Instead the band decided to have a live feed from Sarajevo broadcast during their concerts. Citizens of the city would speak to the audience.

This turned out to be just as surreal as a beauty pageant in the besieged city. No one in the band or the audience knew who would show up on the feed or what they might say. It was a bizarre setup that led to moments of dramatic honesty that sometimes called out the band and its audience. The most wrenching of such scenes occurred during a show at Wembley. A woman came on the screen and pointedly asked “What are you going do?” She did not give the band time to answer. Next saying, “I know what you’re going do, you’re not going do anything.” In that moment she was correct, but later the band would prove her wrong.

Man pushing his bicycle while ducking potential sniper fire in Sarajevo

Man pushing his bicycle while ducking potential sniper fire in Sarajevo (Credit: Bill Carter – Miss Sarajevo)

To Turn Your Eyes Away – Citizens Besieged
Bono helped fund and produce Bill Carter’s Miss Sarajevo documentary. The 33 minute long film followed the young men and women of Sarajevo as they not only fought for their survival during the siege, but managed to create art, music and movies while maintaining a modicum of normalcy. The film’s name was also the name given to the song Miss Sarajevo, which was released along with the film in 1995. Lyrically the song describes what Bono felt the people of Sarajevo were going through during the siege.

“Is there a time for keeping your distance
A time to turn your eyes away
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day”

These opening verses of the song hint at the day to day reality of life during the siege. “Keeping your distance”, turning “eyes away” and “keeping your head down” were as necessary for survival and sanity as the endless search for food and water. The surreal nature of “getting on with your day” while modern war rages in the city is insinuated with such verses as:

“Is there a time to run for cover
A time for kiss and tell”

And so the song goes accompanied by a languid, relaxed melody until Pavarotti sings a gorgeous Italian libretto. Roughly translated it means:

“You say that like a river finds its way to the sea
You will find your way back to me
You say that will find a way
But love I’m not a praying man
And in love I can’t wait any more.”

There is no song quite like it, just as there is no city quite like Sarajevo. The song has a dreamy, atmospheric quality, as if it inhabits a world all its own. The song arrives unexpectedly, shimmering with surrealism, emotionally ambient, a beautiful and remarkable statement of trying to proceed with daily life during wartime.

Man running through the streets of Sarajevo - scene from Miss Sarajevo

Man running through the streets of Sarajevo – scene from Miss Sarajevo (Credit: Bill Carter – Miss Sarajevo)

Finding Its Way Inside Of Me – A City & Song Speak
The song captured my heart when I woke up one morning twenty years ago to find the video for Miss Sarajevo on television. I watched it while half asleep, becoming entranced by the black and white images of Sarajevo’s citizenry making their way through blast holes in walls and tunnels beneath the smoldering city. One man runs for his life past burned out buses, another pushes a bicycle down the street while ducking potential sniper fire. Such scenes were interposed by super slow motion footage of the beauty pageant run through a blue filter. The last minute of the video contains footage of explosions, gunfire and buildings in flames followed by more images of the beauty pageant contestants, offering a poignantly tragic counterpoint. None of it seemed real and yet it was all too real. The song and video did more to advance my understanding of the siege than a thousand news reports.

And so I found myself on a morning jog around Sarajevo while the song played on my IPod. Under a cloudless sky on a sunny day I felt none of the visceral emotion that I had two decades before. Sarajevo, at least superficially, was a changed city, peaceful to the point of tranquility. Miss Sarajevo provided an eloquent sonic backdrop, but little more than that. It was not until my final morning in the city that I sensed something different. Before leaving on a morning train to Hungary, I awoke very early to go for one final run. Darkness still consumed the city as I set out from my accommodation in the Vraca neighborhood. I made my way down a residential street that hung on a hillside. As the sweeping ambience of Miss Sarajevo began to play over my headphones the song found its way inside of me once again. Maybe it was the darkness or my foggy state of mind, whatever the case I felt like I was running through a dream. The city and the song suddenly spoke to me in unison, of a deeply troubled past, darker than the early morning sky at that very moment. Yet it also somehow communicated to me an unmatched resiliency. Sarajevo was still standing and I was standing inside of it, listening to Miss Sarajevo, a song about the transcendent power of art to overcome that which would destroy.

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