2. Soundscapes of Sarajevo’s Built Environment 


The histories of the city of Sarajevo, as well as specific locations in the city, contribute significantly to the overall context that shapes listening experiences. Visually, Sarajevo is an assemblage of architectural styles developed over four hundred years of the Ottoman Empire and three decades of Austro-Hungarian rule, whose end was heralded by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, an event that catalyzed the First World War. After the Second World War and occupation by Axis powers, Sarajevo became the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the six republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), later in the text referred to as Yugoslavia. 


This architectural assemblage also affects the soundscape. In the oldest part of the city, there is a maze of Ottoman-inspired shops. Artisans make copper objects, repair shoes, and sell leather accessories. The cobblestone streets are narrow, and street level restaurants and cafés with their low ceilings welcome guests in outdoor spaces. Architect Mensur Demir describes how the street noise radically diminishes as one enters the courtyard of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. The water fountain conveys an impression of silence that intensifies the further one progresses inside the building:


So, upon leaving the crowd [of the pedestrianized street], we enter a polygonal space [of the courtyard]. There a “shoebox” or a square space within which sound reverberates uniformly. Everything disperses as you enter the area of silence. [...] For me, somehow, this transition from the street to the courtyard is often like an acoustic shower, like a mental shower, while the religious ritual requires, first, the washing of the extremities, followed by the face. So there is a physical cleansing before you enter the first vestibule, and then you enter the space for prayer, which for me is a resonant instrument, a niche for prayer towards which you speak. So, imagine that you are speaking into a niche in the wall that first shapes and then bounces that sound past you.


Above the people there is a dome in the form of a hemisphere resembling the archetype of a bell, which returns the sound with some delay. It is as if someone had given you a piece of stone and told you to carve a musical instrument out of it. (Demir 2016)


In this recollection I notice Demir’s intimate knowledge of architecture and the Muslim ritual of prayer. As he is a good friend, I also recognize that some of these sentences might have been composed for tours he used to give to architect colleagues visiting from abroad. I do not perceive the courtyard or interior of the mosque in this way, perhaps because I am less familiar with the religious ritual or because I lack training in architecture.


Although there are some traditional shops around the mosque, most of them seem to be commercialized, probably not even producing the coffee sets, carpets, or slippers themselves, although creating that impression. Genuine products are actually difficult to find. The performativity in which locals and visitors engage in places of intensified tourism are in play here. Hand-made products are mixed with imported goods that are produced so as to appear local.


The performativity of a narrative and the struggle in interpolating information arises from a complex relationship of locals with the city. In articulating a difference between visitors and resident perspectives, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan points out that a visitor and a local will focus on different aspects of the environment. 


We may say that only the visitor (and particularly the tourist) has a viewpoint; his perception is often a matter of using his eyes to compose pictures. The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment. (Tuan 1974: 63) 


Sound File 1 reveals the atmosphere of pedestrian areas and sidewalks in summer, especially during Ramadan, when public spaces are filled with family life. With the setting of the sun, the long fast that begins at sunrise ends with the sound of the cannon from the nearby hill.[8] Children play, bottles of soft drinks and water are opened, and food is served in restaurants and cafés that spread into every inch of available space, occupying public squares and sidewalks.


This scene of Sarajevo’s public spaces, within the context of Ramadan, resonates with LaBelle’s take on sidewalks, which he does not position geographically:


The sidewalk is a threshold between an interior and an exterior, between different sets of rhythms that come to orchestrate the dynamic passing of exchange each individual body instigates and remains susceptible to. (LaBelle 2019: 62)


In Bosnia and Herzegovina, pedestrian zones, squares, and sidewalks erupt in life during the long summer evenings: people stroll around to see and be seen by others, to exchange information, or to have a meal. The pace of walking is slower than on a typical sidewalk in a big city like London, a pace orchestrated by social and architectural factors. People navigate between tables on the streets, meeting and greeting, stopping and chatting. Small streams of people flowing from the old town converge on the wider sidewalks of the city center; their rhythm becomes more uniform and steadier, but still occasionally interrupted by meetings and greetings, street vendors, and tourists stopping to take photographs. Ottoman-era spaces give way to Austro-Hungarian design. The buildings are tall, some with ornate facades, and they house shops, cafés, and banks located along the flow of pedestrian traffic. The architecture and acoustic characteristics, together, create the sense of an expansive space. 


Toward the west, the tall high-rises of Yugoslav times have been joined by post-war architecture. The large residential areas of Otoka, Grbavica, and Čengic Vila were built after the Second World War, while Alipašino Polje, with its stacked high-rises, marks the peak of Yugoslav “Brutalism.” Later, the neighborhoods of Dobrinja, Vojničko and Aerodromsko were added, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics. The event was considered a celebration of socialist ideals of peace and unity in this city surrounded by four mountains, where the events of the Winter Olympic Games took place.[9] The soundscapes of these – now largely neglected – neighborhoods is revealed in part through the stories told by residents. The acoustics of high-rises, both inside and outside, are marked by reverberation and echo, the signature qualities of the soundscapes of these sites.


Indoors, one hears the sounds of walking in the stairwells and lifts rattling to a stop or perhaps the neighbor’s children dragging their bicycles down the stairs. These sounds evoke a sense of being part of a larger structure:


Collective residential buildings are like ships: there is always something splashing against them, something knocking. These buildings breathe. They should be thought of in terms of energy: before work in the morning, everyone turns on water, electricity, appliances. And when that structure reaches a peak, strained to the limit, everyone shuts it down and leaves the ship, disembarks for the city, transferring to some other ship where they are rowing, paddling, or whatever. (Demir 2016)


Neighbors often know each other well, visit each other and maintain and organize regular tenant meetings. Each tenant takes part in the custom of mutual overhearing and listening that establishes a sense of security. 


For example, my sister moved during the Covid pandemic, and, as I live abroad, I could not visit her for 18 months. When I first arrived in front of her tower block, I stopped to call her to ask her to open the main door because the intercom is faulty, and I did not have a key and was not sure which floor she lived on. Within seconds of my arrival, while I was trying to reach her by cellphone to come downstairs, a female elderly neighbor opened her window and asked me who I was looking for. Meanwhile, another neighbor held the door open for me to come in. It was impossible for me to stand outside the building for even three or four minutes without being noticed and asked about my motives. 


While this episode might illustrate for some a complete lack of “privacy,” in conversation with my sister I learn that she experiences a sense of security in these patterns of behavior. As a single woman who lives alone and travels a lot, she takes comfort in the fact that she has such alert and attentive neighbors.


In larger apartment blocks, tenants communicate through listening and producing noise. The neighbor of the couple playing music too loud bangs a wooden spatula against the pipes of the radiators in their flat. The central heating system connects all the apartments to the large heating facilities in the neighborhood. This allows sound to travel along the maze of pipes from one living room to another. Occasionally residents bang the walls that separate individual flats. In the case of radiators and walls, the disgruntled party bangs three to four times on the surfaces and then waits while listening for a response in the form of reduced noise. This sequence is repeated for as long as necessary.


Lecturer of popular music and media studies, Marie Thompson, explains that sensitivity to a neighbor’s noise resists generalization (2017: 23), suggesting that in Eurocentric cultures a 


growing intolerance towards bell peals also points towards the broader social shifts that influenced a rising demand to have control over one’s own sonic environment – the growing emphasis on the individual’s right to silence and the subsequent increase in noise complaints, as well as the right to make sound in one’s own home. (Thompson 2017: 22)


According to Thompson, these trends “corresponded with the nineteenth-century expansion of the bourgeoisie” (Thompson 2017: 22). The reasons why Sarajevans seem to have a greater tolerance for noise, and tend to resolve disagreements through the use of sonic cues, illustrates the importance of recognizing sonic diversities, including social and political contexts. Thompson foregrounds the idea that “noise requires a listener capable of processing, evaluating, and judging [noise]” (Thompson 2017: 23).


Tenants’ intimate relationship with their built environment is reflected in the nicknames of residential buildings, such as stometarka (the one that is a hundred meters long), šibica (matchbox), and papagajka (parrot-like). Large neighborhoods are organized by numbers, the logic of which often only residents and city planners comprehend. For instance, Dobrinja 4 and Dobrinja 5 are located the furthest apart within their area of the city.


Between these large Yugoslav-era buildings are children’s playgrounds and parks. Under the watchful eyes of parents and neighbors from the windows far above, the voices of children echo throughout the space. 


These are the sounds I miss the most in Scotland, as communal playgrounds are rare in Aberdeen, and children rarely play unsupervised.


In many Western countries, Mosquito devices are used to generate high-pitched noise to ‘dissuade loitering youth’ (LaBelle 2019:133) from hanging out in pedestrian zones and shopping centers. These technologies are not widely used in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 


Groups of teens gather and “take over” ownership of public spaces. My family home overlooks a large public playground that is occupied by youth at different times of the day, from preschoolers playing dolls and riding bicycles to teenagers in the evening. Their voices can be heard until midnight sometimes, and if the group is too loud, tenants complain from their windows and threaten to call the police. 


Thompson refers to a similar study conducted by Jaqueline Waldock in Liverpool, England. She points out that those in areas often “excluded from acoustic ecology’s praxis, due to its underlying ‘beauty bias’” (2017: 111) do not always react negatively to the noise from their neighbors, even in the UK.


Such a reaction might be understood as similar to residents’ reactions to the trolleybuses and trams that connect the Sarajevo neighborhoods. The sound of a tram rattling on poorly maintained rails while moving is a noteworthy soundmark.[10] Inside, one inhales the smell of the crowd and metal as the metallic parts and joints sway en route. Rides in trams offer multisensory experiences as one takes in and listens to high school students chatting, people travelling to work, and elderly passengers reading newspapers in their seats. 

Sound File 2: Street in Old Town at the Time of Iftar, the Breaking of the Fast, During Ramadan

Sound File 5: Tram in the City Center

Figure 2: Image of the Football and Basketball Playground

Sound File 3: Alipašino Neighborhood – Football Game

Sound File 4: Alipašino Neighborhood – Playground and Park

Figure 3: Sarajevo Tram