Amb. Muhamed "BigMo' Sacirbeymorefreedombetterthanless.com
Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam were still in the dressing room underneath the rapidly filling Kosevo stadium stands. Paul McGuiness and I were standing behind the stage as the young women and men of the Islamic choir of the GhaziHusretbegSchool gracefully strode to the stage.
Paul's bulldog cheeks cloaked the gentleman of a giant he is. His normal calm though was at risk. An Islamic choir would be sharing the stage with U2 for the first time ever, anywhere. In fact, it was the first time that a rock band would share a stage with an Islamic choir. It was a risk, for both, but U2 is an industry. Bono, Paul and the rest of the U2 management were being told that this would not be a good thing, by some of my fellow Bosnians.
In Paul's thinking, this could be a big risk for a big band. In my mind, Sarajevo back then was a much bigger town.
Small Obstacles on the Road to "Big" Visions
We had done well in preparing the (big) event. Mirsad Purivatra, Sarajevo Film Festival, was in charge of the marketing and sales. "Bega" was handling security. U2 had committed to absorb any financial risk. Ticket cost would be set to break even while any extra income would de donated to a local charity. U2's enormous traveling caravan had arrived a couple of days earlier. Each day on the road cost close to a million dollars. My informal role was promoter or organizer, but that was really U2 logistics, one Austrian and our capable local Bosnian team. My job was to make certain that Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam make it to Sarajevo.
Even as late as July of that summer, U2 was being pressed by an offer to use the slot scheduled for Sarajevo to instead perform for pay in Basel, Switzerland. The fee would be maybe $4million or more. Plenty of rumors that Bosnia & Herzegovina was still too dangerous or just unprepared. I made myself a more frequent guest at U2's preceeding show locations. It was neither a normal job of an ambassador nor obviously a bad job, but I must admit feeling that if U2 did not show up in Sarajevo that it would be one (big) disappointment for a country and city already feeling a stream of forgotten promises and reneged commitments. In my mind, the end of war was not to be the return to a non-assuming life for Bosnia & Herzegovina, but Sarajevo embracing its role of global symbol for pluralism and a new tide of tolerance overcoming hate. It was the small city with (big) love.
We waited at Nice airport in France that morning for U2's private plane to receive permission from NATO, in Aviano, Italy HQ to enter BiH airspace and land in Sarajevo. We should have left Nice at , but it was already past . I'm certain that there was a VIP lounge waiting somewhere for us in the building, but we were sprawled on the airport floor in some private terminal. I was getting nervous that the clock would run out before the game started. Bono and Paul were committed but unaccustomed to such an unwelcoming reception. The pilots had no luck in receiving clearance despite pre-approval days earlier.
Paul nudged. We had to make a decision to fly then to make the concert and preparations in time, or cancel. For U2, it was about their professionalism, as well. There had to be microphone checks and adjustments before taking the stage for real. Besides local television, the BBC would be televising the concert live to the UK and the world. I took Paul's or maybe it was Bono's mobile phone. At Southern Command, NATO HQ, a female, American voice answered with the title of captain or something. She was friendly and certainly neither obstructionist or dedicated to extended formality.
Perhaps it was coincidence, or maybe my Cowboy accent, but probably not the rank of "ambassador." Anyway, we were off to Sarajevo in 20 minutes.
Islamic Choir & Whistles
The Islamic choir started gradually, rhythmic drum with inspired voices overtaking the buzz of the crowd. In America, a spiritual choir from church or synagogue would not be such an unexpected guest on a (big) stadium stage, rock concert or not. Here though, it startled the crowd into a moment of ushered quiet. The slight but distinct fragrance of pot reached out from the crowd of kids jamming up to the stage.
A few whistles, maybe jeers, came down at the stage from the almost 10,000 IFOR, mostly NATO, troops that were guests in BiH and the concert. Paul's face gathered into an even more worried glance. For that moment, doubt caught up with me. Reis Ulema Mustafa Ceric had also trusted and endorsed my selection of the Islamic choir as one of the 3 opening performers to U2.
Suddenly the kids upfront, the audience core, rose to the defense of a choir with a rhythmic clap. It soon also became an arm sway from this core which sets the tone for any rock performance. They were there for U2 and Bono, but this was also theirs. Bascarcija and the Islamic choir were also part of their city, culture regardless if they ever stepped into a mosque. (It was in the spirit of the Catholic choir of Sarajevo which is joined by many Bosnian & Herzegovinian muslims for Christmas Midnight Mass).
The whistles died out as if confused by the counter trend set by the concert's mode core. The clapping got a little louder as it caught the choir's rhythm. Paul again glanced, but this time face muscles relaxed. He smiled, big, and then a couple of tears flowed. I think he got it. We were absorbing the tone that was being set. A high collectively lifted the crowd.
Soon, a local band followed, and then a second. It was more punk rock than roll. No matter, the crowd was an open connoisseur. As I walked back to the dressing room, I searched out the crowd. There were girls in Hidjab and those wearing shorts, swaying to a shared moment in tune.
When U2 came on stage, the crowd had swelled to capacity in the stands and on the field. Paul, Miro, Bega, Bono and I had made the decision to open the gates for those who could not afford or did not buy tickets in time. Another 10,000, that had been milling outside poured in like sparkling water, effervescent but without spills. Only 24 hours earlier, there were more than 15,000 tickets still unsold. Some had still not believed that U2 was coming.
Even Bono was not expecting the (big) reception. We had been absorbed with some guests. Bill Roedy, President of MTV, a great friend to this day was there to add his luster. Bono was caught in talking mode after CNN's Christian Amanpour. We had planned this day over dinners and drinks back to when he and his wife, Ali, had been my guests in Sarajevo right after the war on New Years in 1996. We talked about them coming for a special concert in 1996, but it was logistically and by U2's schedule not possible. They were recording a new album and a single performance too costly.
Bono and Paul asked me to be host. I was asked to select the 3 opening acts. Besides the Islamic Choir, and one multiethnic band that I personally chose, we also organized a voting contest over radio who would be the third act.
A stop in Sarajevo during U2's regular schedule in the summer of 1997 would be preferable and make Sarajevo not an exception but part of the tour with London, New York, Amsterdam, Vienna, Athens, and Tokyo. Sarajevo was to fit into this lineup, not by size or pity, but the (big) opportunity it offered the world in what we all hoped was a revitalized era of peace, openness and pluralism. A globe and country, Bosnia & Herzegovina seeing the benefit of One.
"Sing For Me"
By the third or fourth song Bono was losing his voice. The Sarajevo fall air was taking a toll on Bono's voice already softened by a persistent cold. Brian Eno and I went from the sound platform, with the VIPs, in front of to behind the stage. Brian was prepared to replace Bono or join him with his voice. (Brian was performer as well as frequent producer for U2 songs.) Bono took cover in a small tent on stage. He received a brandy rubdown as his wardrobe was changed. I told him, "ask the crowd to sing for you."
"How? What do I say?"
"Pjevajte za mene." I wrote on a note and then repeated in my best Bosnian pronunciation.
Bono looked at me and took a (big) swig of the brandy. I thought I heard the Rocky theme as Bono staggered back on stage like the (big) cowboy ready for another ride on the (big) untamed horse.
Bono called out to the audience, "Pjevajte za mene." Not sure if the (big) crowd heard his voice, but they understood his message. The audience followed then led in singing Bono's lyrics and complimenting The Edge's, Larry's and Adam's harmony.
That night Sarajevo helped lead when the voice to follow was overcome. Bosnia & Herzegovina had a big opportunity to show how Islam and the western world can share the stage, and complement a shared message. This is the (big) idea of today.
Don't like most things "big:" (Big) power is corrupting. (Big) politics is for small men. (Big) ideas are good, but too often they're nothing more than promotions of the wrong big head. (Big) Love is good, but not if only for you or that which you claim as exclusively your own.
My teammates on the American football team used to call me "BigMo," although most of them were much bigger than me, a not so clever gag.
True friends are more than (Big) friends. Many people confuse or abuse statements regarding (big) love for God to instill hate toward the other. I'm a believer in the Big One, but I don't care for (big) monuments to religion. Respect for our small earth is the first monument we must foster to the One that created it all.
But, that was truly a Big night for Sarajevo.
After the concert, the "lads," as they are called by their managers, Paul and I walked the streets of Sarajevo, before settling at the basement Café Jez. It was already maybe . A teenager ran up to The Edge and me, and excitedly offered: "I'm from Podgorica, (Montenegro)!"
There were kids that night from Banja Luka and Mostar, Zagreb and London, Istanbul and Amsterdam. The tens of buses went back to Banja Luka full of the young confident that the future was more big things for Bosnia & Herzegovina. The only trouble that Bega had to deal was a fight between 2 teenage boys over one girl, for each on that night, the (big) love.
There was a "big" summit of Bill, Jacques, Tony, and Kofi to come a couple of years later. But U2 in Sarajevo was the big night when we were not just audience but also drivers of a new vision. We were all Sufi's on that night, those of us in the audience or performing, including the Sarajevo rocker who took his pants down on stage and mooned the audience with his behind.
Unfortunately that mooning has been a reflection of fortune to come for Bosnia & Herzegovina and the broader world. There's been much big bad, with big talk, and the fertilizing of big hate. The globe is pushed toward a clash of civilizations by those who underestimate the meaning of both terms. We are ever more divided into smaller "us" and "thems." The same, of course, seems to have been the trend in Bosnia & Herzegovina, when the world more than ever needs the Bosnia & Herzegovina with the big example. "Big" is not always good, but better than small that devalue Sarajevo and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Big Love is what the world needs now.
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