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Searching for Hope? Look for Bridges with Kapias

For some time already, I have been thinking about the stimulating image ofaworld of civilitythat I foundin a novel written in the middle of the twentieth century by the Yugoslav writer Ivo Andric entitled The Bridge on the Drina. The bridge as envisioned by a 14th-century builder is not just a river overpass between Bosnia and Serbia, as it suddenly doubles in width in  the middle to allow for something more than just a crossing of the river on foot or on horse. It is not so much the bridge itself that interests me but this additional physical space in the middle of it, this square on the bridge called the kapia. The bridge’s social, cultural and political power lies in this neutral extra space, with its terraces and “sofas” on either side that can accommodate conversations and get-togethers — or the savoring of Turkish coffee served from a brass coffeemaker — by those who over the centuries used the bridge most: Muslim Bosnians and Turks, Orthodox Christian Serbs, and later on also Catholic Croats and Jews.

The kapia, this square on the bridge, was a place where those who would otherwise not meet could look at each other, sit together, and get to know each other. Not a market place, not a temple, not a court, not a school, the kapia was a place that people did not have to stop at, or come to, but they did. With its “sofas” on both sides, a stand with a brass coffeemaker, and a constant flow of people speaking different languages and worshiping different gods, the kapia was a space that people made really good use of. This neutral site, in the middle of the bridge, made it possible for people to get to feel at home with each other, to look through each other’s lenses, and to plant the seeds of trust. If we could lift the image of the kapia from the novel and look at it as our new modern agora, this richly textured space, inhabited by diverse voices and faces—what would be, if any, its new features and principles?

The very imagery of a bridge and the effort to “bridge” is frequently used in discussions on social capital, networking, and the need to bring people together in an increasingly divided world. But it is really kapia that makes a difference. Kapia, a place on a bridge, is a threshold, a turning point, a place of challenge and transformation. Kapia is about horizons, not borders, and in times of crisis it opens new prospects, new openings to the future. Kapia is a lookout, and I do not mean an outpost or a guard, but a place from which one can see much farther. Such lookouts used to be the harbor cities of Gdansk, Odessa, Lubeck, or Cape Town, full of different flavors and voices. This is where foreign sailors came, with their different languages, foods, costumes, and customs. A kapia, then, though a manmade construction, may indeed be called a “natural” site for dialogue. The kapia is not a ready-made possibility but rather something people have to work on, to envision, and then to build. The kapia is a “space of appearances” that makes performativity possible.New York is such a kapia.

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Elzbieta Matynia

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