An interpretation of the bread symbolism in Tony Harrison’s poem ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo.’

  • The Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) led to c5500 civilian deaths.
  • Harrison uses bread to symbolise life and the drive to survive.
  • The different names for bread are shibboleths that serve to identify ethnic groupings.
  • Attacks on a bread queue and the use of shibboleths have been in evidence in the 2022 war in Ukraine.

The Siege of Sarajevo

Tony Harrison’s poem ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo‘ (from the Pearson Edexcel International GCSE English Anthology for English Literature and English Language (Specification A), p30) was first published in a national newspaper on September 25th 1995. This was a month after the second Markale Massacre during which 43 people were killed by a mortar attack while shopping at a market in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Images and video of the shocking event were broadcast across the world leading to widespread anger and revulsion and to NATO intervention in the long-running Bosnian War. A peace was negotiated and the war finally came to an end in December 1995.

The Markale Massacre was not the first time ordinary shoppers had been targeted during the siege. In the poem, Harrison references a 1992 atrocity in which around 16 people queueing for bread were killed. In total, there were c5500 civilian deaths before the siege was lifted in February 1996. The poem pointedly ignores the lives of soldiers, presenting instead the lives, and deaths, of those ordinary people caught up in the war, trying to live ordinary lives “dodging snipers” in a besieged city under fire.

Harrison tries to find hope in the horror. He presents a young couple falling in love in a world of sandbags and shell craters. The image of “fragments of the splintered Pleiades” reflected in the water-filled holes caused by the exploding mortars, juxtaposes the horror of death falling from above with the beauty, hope and freedom suggested by the starry night sky.

This couple’s hope does not completely replace the horror, however. Even when presenting this beautiful image of reflected stars, Harrison reminds us of the cruel irony of such beauty. A clear night is dangerous; it is “ideally bright and clear for bomber’s eye.” Harrison weaves horror into the hope, suggesting that this young couple can escape the war for a moment, but only for a moment.

Bread of life, bread of death

An important symbol in ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo’ is bread. Bread is a staple food, vital everyday nourishment. Bread is an ancient food with rich cultural and religious meaning. Bread is shared across many cultures, all of which have developed myriad different styles of bread from Irish brown cake, to Indian chapati to Eastern European black bread.

The people waiting patiently in the “breadshop queue” for their daily bread, for the food that will enable them and their families to survive to the next day, represent life and the important duty of caring for loved ones. They are breadwinners who have worked hard to provide the resources needed to buy the all-important foodstuff. Though nameless in the poem, they stand as representatives of every human who has ever made food or provided food, who has put bread on the table. They stand for everyone.

Yet, they are killed and the grotesque image of “blood-dunked crusts of shredded bread” is the most potent moment in the poem. Again, Harrison employs jarring juxtaposition. These two elements do not go together. Bread of life is dunked in lifeblood, is dunked in death. The bread is wasted. The life flows into the gutters.

There is another interpretation of this moment, however. Bread and blood do come together as part of the Christian liturgy. The bread and wine, body and blood, taken at Holy Communion commemorate the torture and execution of Jesus Christ who, Christians profess, died to take away the sins of the world. Perhaps with this image of bread dipped into blood Harrison is hinting at some faint possibility of redemption? Perhaps there is a suggestion that after this pain and horror, peace and light will return to the world? It is another glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak poem.

The reference to Christianity, however, points to another horror presented by this poem – the role that religious, cultural and linguistic differences played in the Bosnian War.

Language and identity

In the second stanza of ‘The Bright Lights of Sarajevo,’ Harrison presents how night obscures ethnic differences:

The young go walking at stroller’s pace,
black shapes impossible to mark
as Muslim, Serb or Croat in such dark.
In unlit streets you can’t distinguish who
calls bread hjleb or hleb or calls it kruh.

The darkness hides any visible differences that might mark membership of one of the three groups battling for control of Bosnia: Bosniaks (also referred to as Bosnian Muslims), Serbs (also referred to as Bosnian Serbs, generally Orthodox Christian) and Croats (generally Roman Catholic).

Though visible differences are hidden in the Sarajevo night, Harrison refers to how language can signal which group the speaker belongs to. The subtle differences in pronunciation between the Bosnian word for bread and the Serb word for bread can be picked up by experienced ears. The Croat word for bread is completely different.

This makes the word for bread a shibboleth – a word chosen as a password precisely because the enemy says it differently. The origin of shibboleth is the Old Testament story (Judges 12:5-6) of Gileadites questioning people crossing the River Jordan in order to seek out any fleeing Ephraimite soldiers pretending to be Gileadites.

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. 

The fleeing Ephraimites are betrayed by their inability to pronounce shibboleth with the ‘sh’ sound. Shibboleth is usually translated as meaning the head of a cereal crop, for example the part of a stalk of wheat containing the grain. As for the Ephraimites, so for Bosniak, Serb and Croat: a word related to wheat can be used to tell apart friend from foe.

Harrison shows how language can divide but also suggests that, just as darkness can smooth over difference, so can language as, after all, the three languages quoted are mutually intelligible. The differences are subtle and outweighed by the many similarities.

Harrison perhaps suggests here that there is more that unites us than divides us. Under cover of darkness and silence, peace can drop over Sarajevo. Why not, the implication seems to be, in daylight too?

Never again?

Sadly, war poems need to be written in every generation as the same mistakes are made again and again and the same “ancient grudge[s]” lead to “new mutiny.”

Ukrainian and Russian are closely related languages and indeed many speakers of one language also speak the other. However, there are enough differences between the languages to allow for shibboleths to be chosen. Ukrainians have reported using palyanitsa, the word for a type of bread, to differentiate Ukrainian fighters from suspected undercover Russian saboteurs.

Similarly, as in Sarajevo in 1992, people waiting in a queue for bread have been killed:

History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

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