Bosnia’s invisible Saudi

Saudi man cutout

Meet the invisible Saudi, he resides at the King Fahd Bin AbdulAziz Alsaud cultural centre in Sarajevo, adjacent to the largest mosque on the Balkans, a gift from Saudi Arabia to the people of Bosnia after that country’s devastating war in the 1990’s. A prop used by the cultural centre during a book fair to get Bosnians better acquainted with Saudi society, the invisible Saudi and his equally invisible wife (but that is not uncommon in Saudi Arabia) could be a symbol for that country’s role in Bosnia. During the war, rumours were rife of Saudi funded foreign Jihadis joining the ranks of Bosnia’s besieged Muslim community in their fight with mainly the Orthodox Christian Serbs. Concern over these supposed Jihadis using Bosnia as a jumping board into Europe and the US kept cropping up periodically for more than a decade after the war and received new impetus after 9/11. But the story has since died a silent death. One local journalist and analyst in Sarajevo who wrote about it repeatedly, recently told me that it has become a non-issue. Steps that were taken to deal with it have proved adequate and the threat never panned out. With global concern over Jihadis in Syria reaching fever pitch, it may be a very small example of how worst-case scenarios are not always realistic.

Saudi Cutouts

Much more revealing about the present moment in the Middle East than the whole Jihadi question was an unprompted remark by the Saudi cultural representative in Sarajevo concerning Iran. Asked about Turkey’s unquestionable cultural influence in Bosnia, he said, “Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the same in Bosnia. Only some other countries are against us. Yes, Iran”. European Bosnia may not seem an obvious place for the raging sectarian tensions that plague the Middle East to surface but maybe the official had in mind the expulsion of four Iranian diplomats accused of spying that was rumoured to be taking place as he was speaking.

The Saudi-built King Fahd Bin AbdulAziz Alsaud mosque in the Alipasino Polje neighborhood of Sarajevo, the Balkan’s largest.

Many Bosniaks, the name for Bosnian Muslims, are not that charmed by either Iran or Saudi Arabia, which a group of youngsters having coffee on a Friday morning in the shade of the looming Saudi mosque in the Alipasino Polje neighborhood of Sarajevo lumped together as “the East”. Ignoring the call to Friday prayer, the law and business students at the café expressed their disapproval of “all that Wahhabi stuff, veils, religion in the street, that we never had before the war.” Yet they did not see a major Jihadist problem in Bosnia either. “We are European, not like those Muslims of the East.”

Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque
The invisible Saudi nipping out for prayer at the Ottoman era Gazi Husrev-bey Mosquein central Sarajevo

The Bosnians have plenty of their own problems to worry about without importing new ones from Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran. The sectarian and political mess that persists almost two decade after the war is leaving them behind in the former Yugoslav republics’ drive to join the EU. The corruption, bloody mindedness and astonishing obtuseness of their political leaders has led to such high-farce crises as the babies born in bureaucratic limbo and a national museum closed for lack of a national narrative. Even though a virtual EU protectorate and boosted by Islamic and European goodwill and aid, Bosnia is an object lesson in how civil war and sectarian divisions can screw a place up for years to come.

Bosnia National Museum closed

Creative Commons License
Bosnia’s invisible Saudi by Ferry Biedermann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Mid-East art in Venice dwells on conflicts present and past


Palestinian cardboard boxes taking over the garden of the Venice art school at the 55th Venice Biennale as part of Bashir Makhoul and Aissa Deebi’s Otherwise Occupied. Palestine is participating with a collateral event and not as a country. Deebi, whose film is showing inside the building said:

“The contemporary moment is a disaster but it’s exciting for creative practice”

Deebi’s work takes a deeper intellectual look at the conflict while Makhoul’s installations works on a more emotional level and is fun too: visitors can add to the jumble occupying the garden with a box of their own design. The work also reflects the idea that even the occupation is temporary, said Makhoul.

Iraq is very much preoccupied with its own recent past and with the effect that it is still having on the present. In May alone more than 1000 people were killed in renewed violence.


In Saddam is Here, Jamal Penjweny does the once unthinkable and places the image of the now executed dictator in a series of places where he would have been highly unlikely to appear. A reference possibly to the American hunt for Saddam. Or to the idea that Saddam is still very much present in Iraq, at least his violent spirit?

The rest of the pavilion is very much focused on daily life in Iraq and its hardships, a lot of materials re-purposed and ersatz rugs. Plus some very funny but very dark cartoons by Abdul Raheem Yassir.


To stay in the same neighbourhood, Iran’s cheap mullah’s are not funding a national pavilion but an Iranian curated the show Love me, Love me not, in which several Iranians participated. It’s not hard to see what’s on their mind:


But in case it is actually hard to see, this is oil streaming down a gold pyramid named ‘Mother of Nation’ by Iranian artist Mahmoud Bakhshi. I swear I saw a nuclear power sign glimmer through from the inside.

And then, purely for fun if you ask me, Farhad Moshiri’s magazine covers printed on mini rugs:


(Update: I overlooked the rugs with holes in, um, strategic places apparently referencing censorship. My bad.)

Getting back to the focus on the past, Lebanon’s Akram Zaatari deserves a prize for the greatest WTF? factor. Many a Lebanese did a double take upon walking into their country’s pavilion and hearing Hebrew. Relax, it was part of a documentary near the end of the very handsomely produced Letter to a Refusing Pilot. Here’s a screenshot of an explosion in the water, presumably off Sidon:


The idea harks back to Israel’s 1982 assault on Lebanon during which an Israeli pilot refused to target a school in Zaatari’s home town and dropped his bombs in the sea (another pilot did not have such qualms a bit later on). The pilot is oddly absent from most of the piece but Zaatari is not, he keeps reliving his and his country’s violent past.

Not much conflict or much of anything else really at the Egypt, UAE, and Kuwait pavilions. Syria’s was way too far to bother with (maybe isolated on purpose? containment?)(One more update: A, uhm, progressive British major newspaper source defined the Syrian pavilion as, and I paraphrase, Aaaaaaarggghhhh). And conflict was only conspicuous by its absence at the Bahrain effort. Instead we got a woman in Abaya with fish!


Finally, Saudi Arabian art was present as a collateral event organised by its Edge of Arabia promoters. There was conflict there, gangs, in its Takki Cinema of Arabia project. I could say something but will gracefully refrain.