Sarajevo: Love at First Sight

Bosnia was not easy to get to. From Dakar I flew direct to Paris. In Paris, I took a flight to Vienna and from Vienna another flight to Sarajevo. Prior to the trip, I had connected with Dr. Adnan Zubvoic, the director of the Bosnian Community Center for Resource Development (BCCRD) , who graciously offered for his family to host me in Sarajevo. He connected me with Dr. Haijurdin, his brother, who lives in Sarajevo.
Dr. Hajurdin Zubvoic, a charismatic man who, it felt like, Sarajevo is two halves: friends or patients.

Dr. Hajurdin Zubvoic, a charismatic man. He waved and said Hi to every other person on the street. They are either a friend or a patient.

 I was picked up at the airport by a friend of the Zubvoic family. As he drove and explained to me some of the locations here and there, I was quickly in total awe at the beauty of the hills as well as the complexity of the city.  The hills of Sarajevo hold the charm of a small village that grew too big but held onto its character. Its history of war and conflict between the many ethnic groups within the city created a unique complexity. Did you know that the assassination that started the first world war took place in Sarajevo? Yes, indeed. I didn’t know that.
The Orthodox church in the Old Town very close to the mosques, cathedral, and synagogues.

The Orthodox church in the Old Town – very close in proximity to the mosques, synagogues and cathedral.

“We are at the medresa. Hazim, your host, will be here in 15 minutes,” I was told as I unloaded my bags. “Okay. Great. And, I will go from here with him?” I asked. “No, no, you are staying here. At the medresa,” I was assured.
Hazim, my host. He didn't speak much English, which added an aura of mysticism to him. I eventually get to know him better through his 12 year old smart 5'9" daughter.

Hazim, my host. He didn’t speak much English, which added an aura of mysticism to him. I eventually got to know him better through his extremely intelligent 12-year-old daughter.

 Gazi Husrev-beg medresa is at the center of Old Town Sarajevo. The history of this medresa, in a nutshell, is the history of Sarajevo. Gazi Husrev-beg was born in what is now known as Seres, Greece. He was the outcome of a marriage between a Bosnian father, who was a governor in Serres, and the daughter of an Ottoman Sultan. Gazi grew up to be the Ottoman’s appointed governor of Sarajevo. Before his death he built up the center of Sarajevo by building a mosque, a hotel for travelers, a bazar, and the medresa amongst many other things. He then turned over all his wealth and estate to the common good in what is called waqf in Islam.
The original medresse building dating to the mid 1500's.

The original medresa building dating back to the mid 1500’s

Think of this as an endowment. He built a few public service buildings. Then he gave all his property (which included land, stores, properties, and business) to support these public services. His estate cannot be sold or bought and all revenue (from renting real estate or operating the businesses) is put towards the upkeep of the mosque, library, and medresa. To this day, despite the loss of some of his estate that extended beyond Bosnia, his waqf remains a provider for a majority of the funds needed for the upkeep of the mosque and the medresa.
The street just outside the medrese

The street right outside the medresa

And what is a medresa, you ask? It is a school. A high school that teaches the Bosnian high school curriculum in addition to Islamic curriculum. It is competitive and fairly small in student size; every year only around 50 students are accepted into the freshman class.
The mosques were very full and had an amazing atmosphere

The mosques were full and had an amazing atmosphere

I put down my bags, and I quickly met Dr. Hajurdin Zubvoic, who is Dr. Adnan’s brother. He was a very charismatic man. He asked me how my flight was. “Long and tiring, but I am excited to be here,” I said. He looked at me and said, “uhhh. nothing is long compared to the four years of siege, but thanks only to Allah.”
The Austrian-Hungarian influence is as prominent in the architecture as that of the Turkish influence

The Austrian-Hungarian influence is as prominent in the architecture as that of the Turkish

Dr. Hajurdin kindly and amazingly set me up at the medresa through his friend, Mr. Hazim, who was the finance director of the school. In less than an hour, I had become part of the school’s small community. In addition to myself, there were six full-time residents in the dorms over the summer. Five former students that were leading night prayers in mosques around town and one visiting Qur’an scholar from Turkey.
The dorm rooms were just that, dorm rooms. But, my room was on the fifth floor in the guests wing. And, I had this amazing view to wake up to everyday.

The dorm rooms were just that, dorm rooms. But, my room was on the fifth floor in the guests wing. And I had this amazing view to wake up to everyday.

While getting settled in the medresa, I met Sufjan and Adnan. Both were young, had full head of hair, and had the invincible aura of 18-year-olds. Given that their room was the only room in the school that had WiFi (that of a nearby hotel network), I found myself hanging in their room soon after my arrival.
Sufjan, he's definitely a hero in my story

Sufjan, he’s definitely a hero in my story, not a villain.

Do you have a girl?” Sufjan asks. “Oh, I am engaged,” I said proudly showing off the picture I carry of me being a goof next to Enas (my fiance). “Oooh. MashaAllah,” Sufjan responds with a giggle. This was quickly followed by an announcement that girls love Adnan, much to my curiosity and amusement.
The streets were alive till very late hours. This picture taken around 1am

The streets were alive until very late hours. This picture was taken around 1 am.

“Oh, yea?” I responded not exactly sure what direction this conversation should go. Adnan jokingly shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Of course, don’t hate the player, hate the game!” At that point, I was getting curious about the rigor and discipline of the school, but  quickly reminded myself that they were joking around. “Oh. Is this your first girl? Adnan had three or four girls,” Sufjan announced with a mixture of pride and sinister revelation. I walked away trying to make sense of what was real and what was teen exaggeration. Most importantly, I tried to do the math of when Adnan could have possibly started meeting girls (if the numbers were indeed accurate). Though, the complete reality of Adnan’s love adventures were never clear to me, I did learn of it’s relative innocence. As Dr. Zilka Siljack, whom I met over iftar a few days later, said “I tell my students. Ramadan is great for dating. You pray taraweeh, and then you walk out of the mosque, and ask her to get some coffee with you next to the mosque with half of the mosque. It is great.”
Adnan. May be something about that smile got him an early start? Mystery.

Adnan. Maybe something about that smile got him an early start? Or the full head of hair? Mystery.

The students of the medresa were a unique group, well-educated in the sciences of Islam and many were groomed to be imams. They were definitely not your average student.
Coffee culture in Bosnia is huge. Bosnian coffee, which is very similar to Turkish coffee, or espressos they are both abundantly available. Oh. And Turkish tea is pretty popular, too.

Coffee culture in Bosnia is huge. Bosnian coffee, which is very similar to Turkish coffee or espresso, is abundantly available. Oh. And Turkish tea is pretty popular, too.

Most importantly, on only my first day I was falling for Sarajevo very quickly. Whether it was the beauty of the hills around the old town, the small streets surrounding the mosque, the Qur’an recitations and call for prayers buzzing from the mosques throughout the day, or the smell of the famous Bosnian somun bread. It was all very beautiful.
But, as is the case with love at first sight, you commit before knowing all the quirks. The next morning I woke up to 50 degree weather and continuous rain that kept me inside all day, except for when I went to buy a jacket to keep me warm. Though it was a temporary thorn in the rose that is Sarajevo, it was not enough to dampen the love that had quickly blossomed (yes, pun intended).  There was more depth to explore and beauty to uncover in this charming Old Town, and that is exactly what I set out to do.

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.