If Senegal catapulted me outside my comfort zone, you somehow cradled me back into my comfort zone. I was comfortable to a point that at times I became sidetracked from this project’s goals and enjoyed myself. My time with you was marked by the serenity of Ramadan, the welcoming hospitality of your warm people, and the bitterness of the war’s lasting remnants.
I can try to describe your people, but I won’t do a better job than the words of your own writer, Meša Selimović, when he said:
These are smart people;
They receive a mess from the east, and a good life from the west;
They never rush because only life rushes;
They are not interested in what awaits after tomorrow;
What is meant to be will come, and little of it depends on them;
When they are together they are in trouble, for this they do not like to be together often;
They rarely trust anyone, but it’s easiest to fool them with nice words;
They do not resemble heroes, but they are not easily scared with threats;
They pay attention to nothing, they care not of what happens around them;
And then out of nowhere suddenly everything interests them, they flip everything and look around;
Then they become sleepers again and do not like to remember what came to pass;
They are scared of change because it often brings evil;
They are easily fed up with a man, even if he does them good;
They talk bad about you but love you, kiss you on the cheek but hate you;
Laugh at noble deeds but remember them;
They spend most of their life on spite and goodness;
And don’t know which is stronger when;
Evil, good, gentle, raw, unable to move on, stormy, open, hidden;
They are all this and everything in between;
And most importantly they are mine, and I am theirs;
And everything I’m saying; I’m saying about myself.
Below are some of the amazing Bosnians I met.
When Sedin was young, he had questions about justice. He thought socialism was the answer. But after living in socialist society he realized it does not work out the way he had hoped. That is when he asked his parents for permission to enroll in a makab, the equivalent of “Sunday School” at the mosque. After the first few weeks, Sedin decided that he didn’t like it at all because all the teacher did was give him things to memorize. His parents, who were neither very religious nor strictly practicing, wouldn’t let him to drop out of the program. “You made a decision, you have to stick it for a year,” they told him. Of course, he started skipping anyways. The word got out and eventually reached Sedin’s grandfather. His grandfather took him to a bed-ridden old imam. Sedin began going there regularly and from him he learned about the principles of Islam and its description of justice. He found in Islam a deeper meaning for his life that aligned with Sedin’s values for justice.
During the war, Sedin relocated with his family to Zagreb. His family was accepted for immigration to the US, but Sedin claimed that he wanted to visit Sarajevo one last time before departing the country and it was then that he signed up for university and decided to stay there. Consequently, his family stayed in Europe to remain close to his brother and him.
Sedin loves Sarajevo. He loves how peaceful and relaxed it feels there, even during the war. His favorite verse of the Qur’an is from the surah
, or chapter, Ar-Rahman
. In it is a line that is repeated over and over that translates to, “So which of your Lord’s marvels will you deny?” As a mountain guide, Sedin is always mesmerized by nature and mountains, which he sees as an embodiment of God’s marvels.
After meeting Farooq, he invited me into his home. He and his wife look after his mother and paternal grandmother. This means that his wife lives with her mother-in-law, who, in-turn, lives with her mother-in-law… and Farooq lives in the middle of that! He is very proud of his Bosnian culture. Bosnians are proud of their work and they will go out of their way to prove that they can do something, especially if they are told they can’t do it. For that reason, his wife tells him that, “yes, you can marry a second wife if you want.” (He knows better though.) He believes that Bosnians won’t ever turn away from someone who needs help, and he loves that. His favorite thing about Islam is that wherever he goes and it is time for prayer, he lines up next to other Muslims and they pray the same way, anywhere.
Dr. Zilka and her husband, Emir
Dr. Zilka sees Islam as a way of life that provides a set of principles that guides how she behaves everywhere. She likes that they are the same principles for her private, family, or professional life. This way of life is under the main idea of “taqwa” which is constant prayer to God and consciousness of God’s presence.
She finds being a Bosnian Muslim is an advantage and challenge. It is a challenge because it means living at the cultural crossroads with so many opposites, conflicts and turmoil. But it is an advantage, because it is in such a diverse environment where one learns, changes, and grows. In addition, Dr. Zilka believes that having a secular state means more freedom for Muslims. For example, she has the freedom to wear a hijab or not, to be a Muslim or not. She has the freedom to be her own ‘sheikh‘. This is possible because, in her opinion, there is no clash in Bosnia between secularism and religion, like Turkey for example, which provides a lot of space for spiritual freedom.
Dr. Zilka spoke in an expressive and animated way. She also sang along when music was too loud in the restaurant. It is no surprise then when she told me that Bosnian music is her favorite aspect of Bosnian culture.
When I asked her about her favorite verse of the Qur’an, she answered me without hesitation. “The believing men and believing women are friends of one another. They advocate virtue, forbid evil, perform the prayers, practice charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. These – Allah will have mercy on them. Allah is Noble and Wise.” She finds gender equality to be an overarching principle in Islam, a dimension that is generally ignored.
For Dr. Zilka’s husband Emir, Islam is love! (Dr. Zilka made sure to quickly insert “for your wife!” in the conversation.) His favorite aspect of Bosnian culture is the degree of hygiene in private homes. He found standards of cleanliness in the US to be sub-par compared to those in Bosnia. Surat Al-Asr is Emir’s favorite chapter of the Qur’an because it summarizes the connection between life and God. It is simple, one has to believe in God and do good.
Kemal (right) is a graduate of the medresa
Kemal is a graduate of the medresa. He’s now working on his Master’s thesis, while also holding a full-time job. He’s hoping to find employment in management after finishing his Masters. For him, Bosnian culture is rife with opposites. His friends are proud to be Muslim, yet they can out-drink any German. He believes that since Bosnia is secular, it makes the practicing Muslim community a small one. For this reason he thinks that being a practicing Bosnian Muslim is hard. It is not easy, but at the same time, Bosnian culture is rooted in Islam.
His favorite thing about Bosnian is the “chill” Bosnian factor. Although Sarajevo is economically struggling, Kemal does not want to leave because he does not think he will find same “chill” factor anywhere else.
Kemal’s favorite verse from the Qur’an is, “Abraham said, ‘My Lord, indeed my bones have weakened, and my head has filled with white, and never have I been in my supplication to You, my Lord, unhappy.” He explains that the endless hope imbued in these words is deeply meaningful to him.
Yasmin was probably the hardest to converse with during this whole trip. He tried in every possible way to avoid answering all of my questions!
Yasmin is a software engineer. He works in Bosnia for an American-based start-up. Of course, as is the case with all start-ups, he couldn’t tell me what it was about. For Yasmin, Islam is a way of life that is a very personal thing to him. To be a Bosnian Muslim is to not be accepted as white, even though as a Bosnian he feels at home when he is in Turkey and Austria. Yasmin’s favorite thing about Bosnian culture is the contrasting ways of life. There is the oriental influence of being open, less private, and extroverted. From the west, he gets a personal space and overly, and almost superficial, politeness. His favorite teaching from Islam is that what remains from this life in the after-life is what you give during this life.
Amar took me to Belgaj, which houses the largest water spring in Europe by volume of water produced
I met Ammar in Mostar, although he was he was working on his Masters in Management in Sarajevo. After an hour of discussion, he invited me over to his house for suhoor. The next morning we drove to a nearby site in his family car. For him, Islam offers guidance. “It gives us a canvas with boundaries, and the picture is up to us.” To be a Bosnian Muslim is pretty difficult because of the tension with the “others” everyday. He agrees that Bosnians have their freedoms but feels he is not free enough to, for example, pray in the park without someone pointing it out and finding it weird.
His favorite thing about Bosnian culture is the politeness and the Bosnian food. And, I don’t blame him. I ate at his home, and experienced the deliciousness that his mom cooks. He loves the story of Prophet Joseph in the Qur’an because he is a role model for young men.
Nermin had a lot more to say than the language barrier allowed us to communicate
Nermin is working on his Masters in Accounting – something he (very uncommonly) actually likes! Islam for Nermin is a pragmatic way to reach heaven in the after-life. When I asked him about being a Bosnian Muslim, he said that the Bosnian mother is the best representative of Bosnian-Muslims. He thinks Bosnian mothers single-handedly saved Islam in Bosnia during the socialist ruling of Yugoslavia. His favorite thing about Bosnian culture is the food and, well, Bosnian women. But, really, he likes the diversity and tolerant nature of the culture. Yes, tolerance, even though Bosniaks behaved naively during the war which will not happen again because they will not forget the war. His favorite chapter of the Qur’an is Al-Duha. It was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad when he was sad. And so Nermin also likes to read this chapter for comfort whenever he is feeling sad.
Islam to Jani is a way of life that is a middle way. He thinks that best way to describe a modern Muslim is a gentleman. To be a Bosnian Muslim means difficulty in explaining oneself, given all the opposite factors in being a Bosnian Muslim. His favorite chapter in the Qur’an is Al-Ihklas because it simply describes the essence of Islam: the monotheism and belief in God.
Elma does not find it easy to be a Bosnian Muslim. She feels there is so much prejudice against Muslims. Moreover, she really fears for her safety if she wears the hijab and happens to go through a non-Muslim area. Ironically, what Elma loves about Bosnian culture is the open-mindedness and the mix of cultures from the east and west. And, yes, she believes Bosnians are open-minded even though she lives in Mostar, which is a city that is split in half culturally.
I got in a taxi to go to the bus station. It was a short drive, and I somehow forgot to ask him his name.
When I asked this taxi driver if he was Muslim, he said “yes, of course!” I then asked if he was fasting, “Noo, it is too difficult!” Years ago, he was a soccer player who played in the UAE, Saudi, and Egypt. His number was 21. Now, he has four taxis. He doesn’t drive all the time, only when one of the drivers is taking a day off. But, he enjoys it because he gets to meet and talk to many different people.
Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.
For more information, visit our page about this journey.