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Feature 29 Sep 17

Sarajevo's Metalworkers Revive their Craft

Practising traditional crafts used to be despised in Bosnia – but in times of high unemployment and stress, the contented craftsmen in Sarajevo’s Old Town feel they are the lucky ones.

Igor Spaic
Krasnic at his working place. Photo: Igor Spaic

The sound of hammering has echoed through Sarajevo’s Bas Carsija quarter for centuries and, according to the craftsmen here, is not about to stop soon.

Many streets in this area retain the names of the traditional crafts that were practised there for generations, ever since the Ottoman established the town in the 15th century.

Among them are the leatherworkers’ street, Saraci, the coppersmiths’ street, Kazandziluk, and the locksmiths’ street, Bravadziluk.

With Sarajevo increasingly popular as a tourist destination, business is back in this neighborhood, and so is the good mood.

In order to be absolutely certain a souvenir they are buying is genuinely handcrafted, tourists can visit the small shops in Kovaci, the blacksmiths’ street, right above the busy Old Town centre.

When not hammering away, a group of men sit there together on the steps in front of their shops, having coffee and chatting.

Not all of them are blacksmiths but they all work with metal and create similar jewelry and decorations. They do not see each other as competitors. They are friends.

Omar Krasnic, 38, began metalworking in 1999. “There were no jobs when I was done with the army and I started working at one of the stores downtown [selling copper souvenirs]. I started hammering when nobody was there,” he recalls.

“My boss saw I was interested, so he began teaching me,” he said, struggling to roll a cigarette with fingers damaged by the sulphuric solution he worked with earlier.

Krasnic spent four years learning the craft in Kazandziluk street before he quit the job and started crafting his own products at home.

For the next eight years he did things his own way, instead of using the techniques his teacher taught him. He invented his own style.

“The case before was that people who ‘didn’t have a lot in their head’ would learn the craft, so it began to stagnate,” he explained.

But with a little creativity and imagination, one can give the old skills a new lease of life, Krasnic believes.

“You just have to think a little bit; you can find better ways to do things on the internet,” he said.

The job that Krasnic and his neighbours do does not seem like menial work to them. They feel like artists.

Goro's piece of work. Photo: Igor Spaic

“Everybody here works with metal, but we all have our own personal touch,” he said. “We don’t actually see each other as rivals,” he added.

Krasnic’s shop is decorated to the brim with swords, jewelry and other items, covering nearly every inch of the walls.

He sits on a wooden stump with his legs crossed in a meditating position and hammers away as people pass by, occasionally stopping to look at his creations.

He recently ran a program together with a tourist agency from Dubrovnik, which involved tourists would spend a weekend in Sarajevo at his craft workshop.

“I would give lessons to groups of six. They could come here and craft a souvenir for themself,” he said.

Krasnic said his doors are open to anyone wishing to learn the trade. In fact, Sulejman Hrgic, from the shop across, learned the craft from him.

Hrgic, 31, an avid skater with long hair and a baseball cap, always liked to draw. When he was 14, his father introduced him to Krasnic, who then taught him the basics of metalworking.

The stylish young coppersmith said craftsmanship was in decline among young Bosnians who frequently viewed it as a menial job, and were unaware it can provide a decent livelihood in the unemployment-ridden country.

Stress, apathy and frustration with job insecurity have driven many young Bosnians to leave everything and seek a better future abroad.

The relaxed atmosphere and the friendship among the shop owners in the Kovaci street seems almost out of place.

“We always have coffee together,” Mirza Goro, 44, told BIRN. “If you are having coffee by yourself, that’s weird,” he explained, drawing a decorative image on a piece of tin foil.

The foil will later be mixed with a solution to harden it, and framed as a painting.

“Everyone here helps each other. When there is something you don’t know how to do, others are always there to help,” he added.

Kazaz's shop. Photo: Igor Spaic

The sign on Goro’s shop was made by his neighbour, Hrgic, from the shop down the street, for free.

“I just asked him to help me out and draw the design, and the two of us would hammer the sign the next day,” Goro said.

“But the next day I was late, and Sulejman couln’t wait for me, so he banged it out himself and gave it to me,” he recalled.

Goro works for Bosnia’s public broadcaster. He creates these decorations in his small shop as a side job.

His colleague from work, Edin Kazaz, introduced him to metalworking some five years ago, and Goro went on to take a course in engraving.

Kazaz’s coppersmith shop is right across the narrow street. This 43-year-old began the craft 19 years ago. He learned it from friends of his late grandfather, who was a coppersmith.

“I started doing this in my spare time to support the traditional craft,” he said.

“I first thought it would be a hassle, but when I started doing it, I realised it calmed my nerves. It’s therapeutic,” Kazaz said, as he melted metals with a blowtorch on the pavement in front of his shop for further processing.

For the younger metalworkers in the Kovaci street, taking up an old traditional craft has turned out to be a winning option, considering that unemployment among Bosnia’s youth runs at an estimated 57.5 percent.

“I see all of these people around me chasing university diplomas and trying to learn these modern skills on computers. But most of them can’t make a proper living with that,” Hrgic said.

“I am very happy that I am a craftsman,” he added.

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