My mom visited me for two weeks (originally a ten day trip) that became longer when the “winter storm of the century” blew Boston off the grid. I can’t say I did a great job of showing her the sights, but she did fully experience my life here, including meeting all of these special people. This felt really good. And now I will attempt to share a little about them with you here.
Amina and Amira
Suddenly startled and confused, I sat up in my chair.
"Wait...sorry, you said PMS?"
"He has problems in his head, from the war..." she trailed off.
"PTSD?" I said, desperately trying to stifle a laugh in the context.
She stared at me blankly and I began to explain slowly, "I think you probably mean PTSD. PMS stands for Pre-Menstrual Syndrome."
She looked up and then a looking embarrassed, a wide smile spread across her face. "Oh no, no, no!" She said starting to laugh. T"hat's not what I meant!"
Amina, who is the full-time English lecturer, is essentially my supervisor, but I am treated like a guest and I think we have a strong relationship. She never hesitates to help and despite me insisting I can come back later, she will drop whatever task she's in the middle of to help me with what are undoubtedly to her the most basic tasks of everyday living. Amina has guided me through public transportation (calling the bus station for me), helped me arrange for taxis, purchase cough medicine, taken me to pick up my mail, and instructed me on where to buy the freshest dates or best baklava. She's some sort of combination between a really cool older sister and a boss.
Amina has shared some of her story with me. The other week we were grading papers and she unexpectedly shared how her aunt was shot dead in front of their home by a sniper. It was after this event that Amina's father moved her and her sister out of Goražde and then to first Germany, and then Sweden. Goražde, as a mostly Bosnian Muslim town that was completely surrounded by nationalist Serbian forces during the war has been profiled by Joe Sacco in one of his impressive socio-political comic books.
It's a pattern I've noticed, this slight mention of horrific events in the midst of extremely mundane moments. Sitting, grading, reading the paper, drinking coffee, and then suddenly, effortlessly, and matter-of-factly, the conversation slips into something nightmarish, and most imperceptible twinge of emotion might only be detectable in a long surrendering sigh. I was with my friend Safet and his friends from Austria a few weeks ago when the same thing happened. In the same tone that he had used a moment earlier to describe the beer he was drinking, he shared some about what it was like growing up in a city at war. He spoke slowly and evenly, his voice low. “You just got used to it. It became normal. You could walk here, but you knew on the next corner you had to run.”
Amira and Amina wanted to take me and my mom to a cafe close to the faculty, Kuća Sevdaha, and so a rainy day around 4 we followed them down one of the many narrow cobblestone streets, ducking into one of the 16th century stone buildings off of an alleyway.
Turns out Kuća Sevdaha is also a museum. It's interesting to me that locals patronize many of the same cafes that I formerly assumed to be "tourist traps." But it really isn't the case here, maybe because there really aren't enough tourists but also the coffee, cakes, tea, and salep (traditional Turkish drink made with hot milk, sugar, cinnamon, and orchid root) are kept affordable. It is not uncommon to see families, groups of people young and old, gathered at the cafes outside of the 16th century mosque, sipping their espressos, often in a cloud of cigarette smoke, talking about the weather, or futbol, or politics, as they would at any other cafe in the world. To me and other foreigners the location is an ancient site, a destination, where important events happened, but to the locals I see every day, who bring coffee to each other's shops on little silver trays, who ask about each other's children, who hug each other and tell jokes, this is just their home, where they've always lived. And there is nothing particularly extraordinary about it because they live here.
We sat sipping coffee and salep, and me nibbling my Rahtlook lokum, looking at pictures of Amina's kids, hearing about Amira's garden at the house she and her husband have in a nearby village and soon several hours passed (a three hour coffee date is in no way, out of the ordinary in Bosnia). In traditional Ottoman style the cafe is filled with plants (there is an actual tree in the middle of the cafe) and couches to enhance the luxurious coffee experience. It was a pleasurable and leisurely late afternoon.
Tanja and tako Škola
Tanja and I have had some good conversations too - about relationships and love, her expectant baby, childbirth in Bosnia (epidurals are very rare; husbands not expected to be present), and nostalgia for her religiously mixed and peaceful early childhood in Sarajevo. When I come in every week (late) she greets me with a warm smile, a friendly ‘Ćao!’ and we attempt a conversation in Bosnian which usually ends a bit awkwardly when I have to confess that actually only understood about a quarter of what she said.
Even though I’ve paid for my pottery lessons, it still feels like a privilege to be included in the tiny little studio, privy to the small, quiet, sometimes conversations that happen in the room (even if I can’t understood much of what is being said). I am present and regarded so; the other women (most a decade or more older) greet me with warm smiles, ćaos, and vidimo ses and sometimes I hear them inquire about me. “Da li je Rebecca vidjela svoju šolju?” (Did Rebecca see her cup?) It feels like a teeny pottery loving community, and I'm just privileged to be passing through.
Alma and mirza
“Rebecca?? Šta si ti?”
It was sheer coincidence running into my Bosnian-English exchange tutor (more friend, I teach her English and she teaches me Bosnian but we never get much work done) and her husband on the street. Alma has also become someone dear to my heart – warm and kind, quick to giggle, she emanates light and lightness of spirit.
Alma and her husband Mirza were headed home to their apartment. An apartment I’d heard much about- since they’d been waiting to move in since the first of January. The apartment building is brand new and located a block from the tram stop (much more convenient for both of their jobs – Mirza works at the University of Sarajevo and Alma for my faculty at the highly regarded Gazi Husrev Beg medresa (Islamic school).
After exchanging hellos, and laughing about recognizing each other in the dark, and in the rain, it was decided we should come up to their apartment for coffee… no wait… dinner… ok, and dessert… and probably some more coffee… My mom looked a bit worried. We were headed to a restaurant (it was already late for dinner) but I’d had Alma’s mother’s food before (Alma’s mother lives in the nearby town of Visoko but pays regular visits and brings culinary treats like homemade pita and fresh squeezed cherry juice); I knew this was not something to pass up.
We took the elevator up to the 8th floor, and took off our shoes and layers of warm clothing at the entrance of the new apartment (taking off your shoes before entering the house is an Islamic custom but nearly all Sarajevans, regardless of religious identity do this). Alma and Mirza had not even been in their apartment a week but insisted we come in. Alma quickly set the table and put plates of pita and burek in front of us while Mirza filled our glasses with the homemade cherry syrup mixed with water (‘from garden!’ Alma exclaimed with a wide smile). Post food-coma we sipped coffee and the conversation wove its way into the attacks in Paris, anti-Islamic caricatures, then genocide in Bosnia, until the sadness and food-coma mixed and settled into a heavy but forgiving silence. We rose to our feet, exchanged full and generous hugs, and Mirza took us down to the street on the elevator... only to go back up, and then down again a moment later after mom discovered she'd left the umbrella in the apartment.
Sadly, we forgot to capture any of this part of the evening on film (Can you imagine? We were fully present? Our phones nowhere to be seen?) Here's a photo of Alma and me in November.
Eli and Mirjem
Although I rarely see them for an extended period of time, I do see Eli and Mirjem fairly regularly. Eli, usually at Friday šabat šlužbe (shabbat services) and Mirjem, whenever I can catch her selling her paintings, jewelry, lamps, and other craftwork at various locations around town. I liken Mirjem to "my Bosnian mom;" she's always happy to see me and exudes warmth and concern for my well-being. I think she knows I care for her as well given the number of times I've stopped by the various locations where she sells her art. It's a friendship that feels truly inexplicable given how little we know about each other and because sometimes the language barrier makes our exchange more energetic than it is conversational.
Eli is also a role model. He works for Institute for Research of Crimes Against Humanity, based out of the University of Sarajevo. And he is a historian and an author, having published a book a few years ago titled When Neighbors were Real Human Beings, which profiles stories of Bosnian Jews who were protected by their Muslim friends and neighbors during WWII.
I met Eli and Mirjem separately, and both coincidentally. I recall watching closely the passengers who filed onto the small airplane with me when I first traveled to Sarajevo last September. One, who ended up with the seat next to mine, turned out to be Eli Tauber, a short, dark, curly-haired man with a thick mustache. I remember thinking that he was one of the few people on the plane of what I perceived to be "normal height" (under 6 feet) and I remember wondering if he was from Sarajevo or from Munich. We didn't speak until the plane started to descend. I inquired about his work and when he said told me he was involved in interfaith work. I immediately was excited and told him more about myself, that I was also interested in interfaith work. I think it was Eli first who mentioned his own identity - he was very involved with the Jewish community in Sarajevo. I was floored. I knew the population of Jews in Sarajevo was small, the impressive community of 14,000 was decimated during to 3,000 during the second World War, and then most of these families left again when war broke out in the 90s. Records now say there are about 700 Sarajevan Jews but there it is unusual to have enough for a minyan (10 men) at Friday night services. Even if they counted women, it still wouldn't be many more but I digress.
I think Eli was equally shocked when I quickly replied that I too was Jewish, and in fact, my entire interest in Bosnia, the war, the diaspora community, and Sarajevo was strongly rooted in the teachings of both suffering and inclusivity I learned from my own childhood Jewish teachings and family history. We quickly exchanged cards before shuffling out of the plane.
I think Eli was surprised when I showed up at the synagogue on Friday, and that I have continued to come regularly on Friday nights. When my mom and I met Eli and Mirjem for coffee I finally had the opportunity to learn more about Eli's work. The last few days (thanks also to my mom's coaching) my mind has been really full of what kind of work I should be doing and what, if anything, can come from these connections and experiences both in and between Muslim and Jewish communities perhaps here, elsewhere in Europe, and in the U.S.
Safet, a local painter, has become a good friend of mine, and since he lives close to the airport. I was planning to visit him after taking my mother. I called him and told him the flight had been canceled.
"Come over! Both of you! I would like to invite you to my house for a coffee" I was told, and felt relaxed.
Miraculously, I was able to successfully help the taxi driver at the airport navigate to Safet's home, on a street the driver didn't know. When we got out of the cab, Safet had just come down the stairs to greet us and help us carry the luggage.
Safet lives with his mother but we bonded because he grew up in a house that is across the street from where I live in Old Town. In fact, we initially connected because he said to me (and this is a direct quote), "Hey, why is my house in your Facebook cover photo? Are you stalking me?" "Uhh... wha?" I asked in confusion. We've been friends ever since.
Like the other people I have gotten to know on a more personal basis, Safet's quiet, unassuming generosity is something unique and rare by American standards. It doesn't matter the time of day or night, but people here make time for friends. And make time to be with each other in their homes. Although he was not expecting us, Safet brought out coffee, and then homemade bread and soup (his mom's cooking), homemade smrek, tea with leaves hand picked in Goražde, and pekmes, an old recipe of apples boiled into a thick, dark, syrup then served with a dollop of cream.
"Why do you always thank me so much?" Safet said to me after I again made some whining remark about his generosity. "This is just normal."