The Balkans: rich Muslim tradition, lax observance

Welcome to the Balkans, a region with a rich cultural history, lax religious observance, and fervid nationalism. Noam Ivri brings us the story.

Breathtaking sceneries and a rich culture; the Mostar bridge.

The Balkan Peninsula features prominently on many a flight to Israel. Sabras returning to Ben Gurion from London or New York may notice on the in-flight map that their plane passes over the rugged mountains of coastal Montenegro or the agricultural breadbasket of central Macedonia. Yet far fewer Israelis will touch down in this fellow Mediterranean region nestled in the corner of Southeastern Europe, less than three hours by plane.

In my six years since as an oleh in Israel, I had heard plenty of adventures set in far-away Thailand or South America, or about weekend getaways to Amsterdam or London, but scarcely a tale about a visit to much-closer Albania or Bosnia. Thus, it came as no surprise that when sharing my summer travel plans with local colleagues, the consensual reply amounted to either, “interesting choice,” or “why there?” Indeed, only on the twentieth day into my twenty-six day trip through five Balkan countries would I encounter the first and only group of Israeli travelers, a mother and twin daughters from the Haifa area.

Fresh off of the first year of a master’s program in Middle East history, the Balkans called my name for a summer vacation. Less than a week after completing a final exam on the history of Ottoman Empire, I was especially eager to trek through a region possessed for half a millennium by the Turkish sultans – which they conquered before Constantinople and the Arab Middle East. As a student of international relations and contemporary affairs, I anticipated observing a region still tarnished with the image of 1990s ethnic strife, two decades after the guns fell silent. Besides these academic impetuses, the aesthetics of the Balkans proved tempting enough on their own: stunning natural beauty, a warm and sunny summer climate, and mouthwatering cuisine—in particular, burek (bourekas) that were rumored to put Israeli versions to shame—all to be enjoyed for considerably cheaper prices than mostly else in Europe.

Beginning with a day-stopover in Greece and continuing onward for several days each through Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia, I traversed rugged terrain and historic cities and towns by means of aged service taxis, modern buses, and the occasional hitchhike, sleeping in guest houses or apartments rented from local families. Joining me for the first two weeks and three countries was my youngest brother, Judah, himself a new oleh and awaiting enlistment in the fall. The following twelve days and three countries were to be a solo affair.

The nearly month-long odyssey offered innumerable insights into a multi-ethnic morass of post-Communist, post-conflict states. A glimpse into the region of Europe arguably least on Israeli radar. Hikes over through towering mountain passes, drives through lush green forests, swims in azure blue waters, strolls through big cities with a small-town feel. Frequent encounters with talkative locals over coffee and rakija (the Balkans’ favorite spirit) and less frequently during moderately extreme outdoor activities, revealing a generation yearning to overcome the ghosts of past wars and reclaim their place as modern Europeans.

The Balkan Realm: Naturally beautiful, culturally secular and care-free

Each country offered its localized versions of burek, kebabs, baked vegetables with herbs, and thickly brewed Turkish coffee, along with a myriad of other unique sights, smells, and sounds. If any commonality stood out above all, it would be the overwhelmingly mountainous terrain. Whether hugging the Adriatic coastline or inland glacial lakes, imposing forested mountains– often rising above 2,000 meters and almost never falling below 1,000—are an omnipresent sight.

Indeed the word balkan translates to “mountains” in both Bulgarian and Turkish. The mountains offer both blessings and curses: blessings in the form of providing fresh and cool air (particularly relieving from the merciless summer sun) and contributing to an abundance of waterfalls, rivers, and forests; curses, in the form of greatly slowing down overland journeys from one point to the next, as they compel the roads to zigzag and switchback in a seemingly endless maze of twists and turns. Thus, the travel between cities and countries would be slowed-down to a snail’s pace, but conversely allowed for paying closer attention to the scenery and cultural topography.

The second facet uniting the entire region is the presence of grandiose religious shrines, mosques and cathedrals alike. Whether in the mountainous villages of northwestern Kosovo, industrial towns of central Bosnia, or the hilly countryside of southern Macedonia, I spotted these tall and slender Ottoman-style minarets and colorful, multi-domed Byzantine-style churches almost anytime I glanced at the scenery outside. Church bells, and the ezan (the local languages’ rendering of the Arabic adhan, the call to prayer) could be heard in any place with a permanent population. They attest to a legacy of great empires and civilizations that have left their indelible mark on the Balkans landscape.

Is there a Balkan Islam?

Having studied Islam as a religion minor at university in the United States, and lived in two overwhelmingly Muslim countries for half a year apiece (Turkey and Jordan), I was initially hoping to note the similarities and differences between Balkan Islam and Muslim lands in which I previously visited. Over the course of the trip, I couldn’t help but notice that the differences began to pile up, greatly outnumbering the similarities. While the basic guiding question I asked myself before the trip was “what role does Islam play in the lives of Balkan Muslims?” the answer at the trip’s conclusion was the qualification to that question, “if at all?”

האלכוהול חופשי; תצוגת יינות ביקב מקומי
Alcohol is drunk freely; local wine exhibit.

While mosques were omnipresent in areas with Muslims, widespread religious observance was decidedly lacking. It seemed that the feel-good, relaxed tempo of Balkan life had delegated religion largely to folklore, heritage, and a cultural-historical pride. Ritual observance, or lack thereof, became largely a private matter, not meant to shine too bright in the public space. The Balkans, I was to learn, is a bastion of secularism for all religions.

That brings me to the third and final common aspect in the region. In the Balkans, a carefree worldview of good times, good company, and good food, dominates the psyche. Or what I term the “haide mentality.” The word haide, known by some Israelis in the Yafo area from its use by Bulgarian olim in football chants, roughly translates to the Hebrew yalla, or “come on, let’s go!”

I observed the phrase loudly proclaimed by speakers of several Balkan languages in all five countries, always in good spirits and on the verge of starting something enjoyable. It would be uttered by a father leading a family hike, couples before toasting over wine, city dwellers telling their buddies to hurry up and get to the club already, an elderly chess player telling his opponent that it was his turn. In a region where unemployment is still a persistent challenge and the standard of living might not equal that of Scandinavia, the haide mentality urges locals not to despair or get too worried about the twists and turns of life, to still enjoy that cup of coffee or that glass of cold beer, to see the glass as half-full.

Albania proper: diet Islam

“Soon we won’t have to worry about pork on the menu.” So I told my brother during our eight-hour camp-out outside the coach station in the western Macedonian transit town Struga, waiting for an Albania-bound night bus that almost never came. We had kashrut red lines, pork consumption being one of them. In five days of sightseeing and people-watching in the Eastern Orthodox-dominated republic with a name disputed by Greece, we had feistily questioned waiters at every restaurant in super-rudimentary Macedonian on whether the skara (grilled meats) contained pork or beef; if not understood, we asked if the meat was hallal or made the animal noise associated with the respective type of meat.

The Communist-era bus arrived well past midnight, saving us from the chilly air of high-elevation Struga. As we boarded the mostly full bus, we observed several female passengers wearing colorful headscarves and speaking Albanian. Their hijabs are just like those in Turkey…another Muslim country, here I come. So I thought to myself. Little did I know that I after parting ways with those half-dozen hijab-clad natives at dawn in the Albanian capital Tirana, I would see cumulatively see less women in headscarves in my nine days throughout the country. To my brother’s chagrin, finding pig-free grilled meats in Muslim-majority Albania would prove much harder than in Christian Macedonia.

Albania proper represents the extreme pole of Balkan secularism. While nominally 60%-70% of its three million souls are Muslims, its mainstream culture and societal symbols are anything but. Three key factors have been frequently cited by those analyzing the issue: Fifty years of Communist rule that harshly outlawed all religion and shut down centers of prayer (Albania became the first country to declare “atheism” its official religion in 1967), being introduced to Islam by Ottoman bureaucrats rather than invading Arab armies, and the success of the heterodox Shi’ite and mystical Sufi-like Bekhtashi movement in spreading its doctrines. And then of course, there is the permeation of the “haide mentality.”

On our first domestic journey, a one-hour taxi ride driven by a reckless middle-aged cabbie to the northern city Shkoder, a young Muslim woman sharing our ride lectured me over the silliness of the Judaic-Islamic prohibition against pork consumption, insisting that lamb and its reportedly foul odor is the true meat to be avoided. She set the tone for Albanian religiosity in our north-to-south traversing of the 28,000 square kilometer nation. In nine days of travel, a clear trend was present: Islam-centric worldviews and references were nearly entirely absent in locals’ dialogue, Islamic dress was rarely applied, pork and alcohol were overwhelmingly abundant. “Albanians are just like other Europeans,” we were frequently told.

The Albanian capital Tirana bears little resemblance to a Muslim metropolis farther east or south across the Mediterranean. Numerous trendy cafes, packed to capacity in the summer months, dot the city, blurting out contemporary Albanian and Western pop hits. Customers indulge in sipping their espresso macchiatos, people-watching towards the flow of pedestrians along the busy streets. Men in designer clothing and women in fashionably chic attire stroll about, with couples often hand-in-hand and almost as frequently kissing in public without reservations. Add in the lively sunset scene of old men playing checkers on benches and kids kicking a football in the spacious, leafy parks—with the generation in-between sipping their evening coffees at adjoining cafes—set to a backdrop of large concrete slabs of apartment blocks, and one could mistake the city for a Warsaw Pact capital such as Budapest or Bucharest. Only a scattering of mosques throughout the metropolis reminds one of the capital’s mildly Islamic influences.

Along with many smaller Albanian cities, Tirana features one large mosque in the historic center, rebuilt in the post-Communist era and meant to add aesthetic beauty to the cityscape. The mosques are there to relate the country’s partially Islamic heritage; in none of the cities were significant numbers of prayer-goers at the shrines observed. In line with Albania’s embrace of its multi-religion heritage, most cities also feature a Christian counterpart building of equal size. In Tirana, there are two grand churches, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, supported by state coffers, and featuring prominently on the daily free city tours.

אסלאם מתון וסובלני; המסגד המרכזי בשקודר
Moderate and tolerant Islam; Shkoder central mosque.

National pride trumps religious fervor

If Albanians do have a dominant religion, like other Balkan peoples it is nationalism. The common Albanian language and sense of a shared historical experience that begins with the ancient Illyrian civilizations are the glue that holds Albanian nationhood together. In my encounters with locals, I noted the frequency of a mixed Muslim-Christian marriage, with the children being reared in a smattering of both religions or just in Albanian culture and folklore. Albanian Muslims would yawn at the mention of anything related to the Qur’an or Muslim Turkey, but eagerly converse on the subject of Albanian minority rights in Macedonia or the status of diaspora communities in France and Michigan.

Ask Albanians in Albania proper or the surrounding countries who their nation’s greatest hero is, and you will receive one of two answers, regardless of religious background: Skanderbeg, the 15th century Albanian commander who resisted Ottoman encroachment into their territory; or, the Skopje-born Catholic nun Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, better known internationally as Mother Teresa. Tirana’s hulking main square is named after the former, while the country’s sole international airport is named after the latter.

Ask Albanians as to which country most inspires them, and you are also likely to receive one of two answers, and also irrespective of religion: Italy, based on Italian control of the country during its Fascist period, and the beaming of soap operas across the Adriatic ever since World War II; or, the United States of America. The admiration for the USA is rooted in Washington’s assistance to Kosovar Albanians in the 1999 campaign against Serbia and subsequent advocacy for their independence, along with influence harnessed to admit Albania into NATO in 2008 and ongoing support for its EU candidacy.

The visit of President George W. Bush in 2007, the first by an American leader while in office, was greeted by tens of thousands of residents and culminated in the naming of a street after the 43rd president (Kosovars more fondly remember Bill Clinton for his defense of their land in 1999, and named the main boulevard in their capital after the 42nd president). Pro-Americanism was on display in the flying of the Stars and Stripes in nearly every corner of Albania and Kosovo, from the balconies of private homes, the rooftops of restaurants, and in front of public buildings.

Along with love of the Land of the Free, the Promised Land is also viewed favorably. Answering honestly Albanians’ questions about where I came from usually brought a wide smile and an increasingly pleasant atmosphere into our conversation. More often than not, I was told that Israel serves as a model for Albania: a fellow small country, located in a tough neighborhood that has succeeded against all odds economically.

When Albanian nationalism clashes with the “Other”: religion added to the identity salad

Albanian identity becomes more closely linked to Islam and Muslim symbols in areas where Albanians are in conflict with other ethnic groups, namely in Kosovo and Macedonia. When contrasted with the Orthodox Christian characters of Macedonians and Serbians, “Albanianness” tends to appear more Islamic.

Among Macedonia’s two million citizens, a still-unsettled debate rages over the country’s fundamental identity between the two-thirds and Christian Macedonian majority, and roughly one-fourth Albanian and mostly Muslim minority (smaller communities of Bosnians, Serbs, and Turks also exist, but are much less vocal on the subject). In 2001, Albanian insurgents in favor of broader autonomy from the central government in Skopje launched a nine-month armed struggle. The fighting ended with the internationally-mediated Ohrid Agreement, granting the minority community equal language rights at the municipal level in regards to public services, document submission, and signposting, applicable to cities where Albanian speakers constitute at least 20% of the population, a status, one should note, considerably weaker than that of Arabic as a nationwide second official language in Israel. The conflict has remained a stalemate, as a 2011 census was indefinitely postponed by the government over accusations that the Albanian minority was falsely inflating its numbers in an effort to win more concessions.

Although the debate primarily centers on ethnicity and accompanying language status, religious imagery and symbolism has entered into the arena as means of re-asserting one’s claims and rights to power. In 2002, the Macedonian government decided to fund the construction of the 30-meter high Millennium Cross on the peak of Mount Vodno— clearly visible from all parts of Skopje, as we would comprehend—to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia. Albanians vociferously protested the measure, perceiving it as aesthetic cementing of majority hegemony, an attack on their minority rights in an essentially multi-religion, bi-national nation.

Conversely, when my brother and I passed through Albanian neighborhoods or fully Albanian towns, we would observe signs written solely in the Latin Albanian script, the Cyrillic Macedonian suspiciously absent from storefronts, schools, and markets—again spurring comparison with Israel, where Hebrew is near-universally featured on all signposting in Arab towns, even if as a secondary language to Arabic. The all-Latin script setting, along with a cluster of Ottoman-style mosques, conveyed a rejection of the current ethno-religious character of the Macedonia state, a visual statement that they don’t feel a sense of belonging.

החיים מתנהלים על מי מנוחות; בית קפה בפריסטיניה
Taking life in stride; Pristina coffee house.

The unresolved Kosovo conflict

Kosovo demonstrated this phenomenon to an even more extreme degree, wherein religious buildings are deemed to be symbols of political legitimacy and the means for asserting sovereignty. Approximately 90% of Kosovo’s 1.8 million residents are Albanian, and among them over 95% are Muslim. The non-Albanians hail from the Serb community, nominally practicing Orthodox Christianity, and have mostly lived in four municipalities in northern Kosovo since the 1999 conflict – in a world largely separate from the majority population.

I arrived to the capital Pristina by bus from Tirana as a solo traveler—my brother having returned to Israel from Albania to begin his enlistment process—quickly noticing the upgrade in road infrastructure as the bus crossed from Albania proper into the de facto independent, EU-subsidized republic to the northeast. Over the course of three days in the small country, I would encounter only one Serb, a university graduate on my bus to Montenegro to visit his Serbian girlfriend residing there.

As a near-absolute separation between the two ethnic groups, at least in terms of living, has become an accepted norm, the religion-ethnicity identity system has been exacerbated: Islam constitutes a central component of Kosovar Albanian self-image, even if only in the cultural and folklore sense, juxtaposed with the hostile Christian-Serb “other.” In practical terms, this translates to historic Serbian Orthodox churches boarded up and guarded by barbed wire, a representation of an unwanted Serbian presence and possibly the basis for claims to ownership of the disputed territory. In stark contrast, Ottoman-era mosques are promoted by state authorities ­­­­­­­as integral treasures of Albanian Kosovar heritage, with many now undergoing Turkish-funded restoration.

Yet this is not to say that in either territory Albanians are significantly more religious than Albania proper. In the Albanian-inhabited Old Bazaar of Skopje, bars and pubs were still plenty in abundance, while in Kosovo’s traditionalist second city Prizren the number of women without headscarves outnumbered the number of those with by a 50-to-1 ratio. Not once in the eight cumulative days in those two lands did I witness any Albanian-language poster advocate for Shari’ah as means of empowering the community in their struggle, nor did I ever hear an Albanian deem the Slavic-speaking peoples “infidels.” Words such as Allah, kufaar, jihad, and da’esh were entirely absent from the discourse.

The Kosovars bitter at Serbs emphasized horrific actions that members of that opposing community committed two decades ago, while the Macedonian Albanians cited discrimination and condescension by the Slavic majority. Ironically, it was my Kosovar host in Pristina, a physician with strong anti-Serb opinions based on his experience as a prisoner of war in the 1999 conflict, who reprimanded me for using the Islamic term ma shallah in our chat. “I don’t want any da’awa in this house, we speak Albanian here, not Arabic,” Doctor Ilir clarified.

Bosnia: the Pearl of the Balkans

10,000 square kilometers of Christian-majority, ethnically Slavic Montenegro, or 140 kilometers lengthwise, separates the Albanian Muslim sphere from the Balkans’ second epicenter of Muslim heritage, Bosnia. I traveled through highly mountainous and spectacularly beautiful Montenegro over three days, indulging in outdoor activities such as rafting and zip-lining more than cultural-religious visits to churches and monasteries. Once the shuttle bus provided by my hostel from Kotor Bay reached Bosnian passport control at a lesser-used border crossing, though, I reactivated my ethnological thinking cap, awakened to the gradual reappearance of Ottoman grandeur.

Beginning with their mastery over the Balkan Peninsula in the 15th century, Bosnia served as the Ottoman Empire’s most coveted possession in the Balkan Peninsula, as significant to Anatolia as India was to Great Britain. The regional capital Sarajevo, a Slavic rendition of the Turkish words for “the plains around the palace,” was the empire’s second most-populous city for two centuries after Istanbul itself, and possessed some of the largest mosques in the Balkans. In Mostar, the Stari Most Bridge was built in the 16th century to span the city’s fast-moving Neretva River, becoming synonymous with Ottoman architectural splendor and engineering wizardry.

Under Ottoman influence, large segments of the Bosnian population converted to Islam; unlike Albania, few embraced the radically liberal Bektashi sect, preferring the more conservative and Sunni Sufi orders of Naqshibandi and Qadirriya. In further opposition to Albanians, a unique Bosniak identity was formed over several centuries that was rooted in belonging to the Islamic religion, mirroring its Southern Slavic neighbors’ fusing of religion to sub-ethnic identities: the Orthodox Christians became “Serbs” and the Catholics “Croats.” While Albanian Christians and Muslims alike could identify with a shared historical narrative, Bosnians developed a set of symbols and motifs that diverged from its fellow Southern Slav ethnic brethren that adhered to streams of Christianity.

The well-known conflict of the 1990s in Bosnia resulted in more religiously-homogeneous regions. The lesser-known document that ended the fighting, the Dayton Accord, enshrined the de facto separation through the creation of two entities: the Srpska Republic for the 33% Serbian population, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Bosniak Muslims and Croats, constituting 48% and 15% of the population respectively.

לאומיות חזקה המתעלה על הדת; פסלו של סקנדרברג, הגיבור הלאומי.
Strong religion trumps religion; statue of Skanderbeg, Albanian national hero.

Thus, it was not surprising to witness a notably stronger Islamic vibe in Mostar and Sarajevo than anywhere in the Albanian homeland. A larger percentage of women wore headscarves, Islamic bookstores sold Bosnian-language Qur’ans and tafsir commentaries, advertisements for the September hadz (hajj) season in Mecca featured prominently next to mosques— which drew substantial crowds for prayers. For the first time on my trip, I heard a great deal of Arabic spoken in the tourist centers. Large numbers of holidaymakers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, consisting mostly of large and wealthy families dressed in traditional attire, were undoubtedly attracted to the rich Islamic lore of the Ottoman regional jewel, also enjoying the numerous hallal restaurants and souvenir stands offering Islamic relics.

While Bosnia constitutes the more religious and traditional of the Muslim epicenters in the Balkans, it is still a secular society. European civil law is the binding legal code, while no political party anywhere close to mainstream advocates for shari’a to be introduced in any capacity. None of the titles at the Islamic bookstores were devoted to Muslim “causes” such Palestine, Chechnya, or Iraq (nor, for that matter were Mein Kampf or Protocols of the Elders of Zion on sale), nor were the issues ever brought up in conversation with locals, even after my origins were revealed.

While louder than its counterpart in Albania, the call to prayer in Bosnian cities was still noticeably fainter than Amman or Cairo. Much like in Kosovo, I noticed 50 women without a headscarf for every lady donning one; piously dressed Muslim men seemed to be exclusive to the Arab tourists. In sum, the influence of Islam in the public sphere still paled in comparison to Turkey or any Arab state I had visited. Islam was utilized by Bosniaks in varying doses, with everyone free to choose how little or how much he wants it in his personal life.

Sarajevo, the closing city on the trip, served as the titular example for secular-religious, European-Middle Eastern fusion. Narrow streets in the historic Ottoman bazaar district of Baščaršija that could pass for Istanbul gave way to grand boulevards in the Hapsburg-built city center that evoked Vienna. Trendy nightclubs sat meters away from centuries-old and still-functioning Islamic schools.

The city’s main Sarajevska Pivara Brewery featured prominently on the map of tourist attractions, only a block away from another must-see site, the Sultan’s Mosque. Gothic Croatian churches competed with office towers for dominance in the rejuvenated city’s skyline, while an Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogue added to the mosaic of religious structures. Families picnicked in the spacious and shady city parks, often with one sibling wearing a headscarf and another sleeveless and uncovered.

For all the Bahrainis and Kuwaitis I saw in Baščaršija, I estimated I saw double the amount in the brand-new shopping malls and upscale eateries, sharing the same space with scantily-clad local women. The coexistence was nicely epitomized in the words of Adnan, my guide for a tour of sites related to the 1990s civil war: “My mother prays five times a day, my father drinks whiskey five times a day. Somehow they made it work.”

I set aside one of my last nights on the Balkan adventure to hit the Sarajevo nightlife scene. My Airbnb host Amila, an attractive, olive-skinned language instructor of 25, offered to show me an evening on the town, a dive into the average evening of a Bosniak. I left her parents’ apartment in the western foothills of Sarajevo, first noticing the Bosnian-language Qur’an sitting next to secular titles on the bookshelf.  Catching  the ageless trolley-bus off the main thoroughfare just as it arrived, I disembarked a few meters from the bridge where the heir to the Hapsburg throne was assassinated in 1914, an event that dramatically set the course of history. Amila greeted me in traditional Balkan-Mediterranean style, kisses on both cheeks, and directed me to follow her towards her favorite city bar.

As we settled on a couch and ordered the beer on tap, Amila told me how she found it odd Jews placed such an emphasis on marrying within their tribe. “Why must you marry another Jew? I’m dating this great Croatian guy, from Croatia. My family and his family are both totally cool with it.” A female friend of hers, sporting a fashionable head-covering resembling those worn by married Israeli Modern Orthodox women came over to say hello. When I pointed this out to her, the unnamed friend replied, “Then I guess I’m Jewish!” Amila instinctively followed through in laughter: “Hey Noam, you can marry her now!”

צלב המילניום שעורר את חמת המיעוט המוסלמי בקוסובו
The Millenium Cross which raised the ire of the (largely Muslim) Albanian minority in Macedonia

Amila then redirected the topic to Bosnian affairs, explaining the differences between the three ethno-religious groups, which in her opinion amounted to nearly nothing. She summarized it the way that nearly every other Bosnian I met in my five days there told it: an adherent of one of the faiths uses his respective community for life-cycle events—birth, marriage, death, and some holiday celebrations. But in between, there is a mutual love of hiking, drinking, partying, dancing, and other age-old pastimes. A language essentially the same, save for some cultural phrases unique to each religious sect.

Marriages between the groups are still common, even if occurring less frequently than in the days of Yugoslavia. I asked her about the civil war. Her summary: it was incredibly tragic, atrocities committed on all sides against all sides; that’s what her parents told her, as she was too young to have remembered it. Like the hostel owner in Mostar, Amila emphasized it as a 20th century problem—not her conflict—and that her 21st century generation is not interested in dwelling on a traumatic past but moving forward.

Amila told me a bit about the Islam in her world. Some of her co-religionist friends will fast during Ramadan and refrain from drinking alcohol, while some won’t observe the conventions at all. Many of the former are pious souls only temporarily, taking the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the holy’s month conclusion to become intoxicated and party wildly. Some won’t be so patient and include rakija at the nightly iftar. ISIS and its Balkan Muslim participants came up in conversation at some point. Amila’s response was much like Adnan’s, and that of every Albanian who touched on the subject: “What a bunch of losers. Crazy people who take religion too seriously and probably have some psychological, sadistic love of violence and inflicting harm on other humans. Perhaps they believe they are following a form of Islam, but it is warped, certainly not our type of Islam.”

It became increasingly difficult to listen to her as our bar filled up with well-dressed guys and gals, and the neighborhood band tuned their instruments as they took the makeshift, mini-stage. The mostly young adults in the audience sported many types of tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair.  All with a beer or glass of wine in hand, most of them smoking. “As I was telling you Noam, we are all Bosnians. These people in here could be Serbs, Croats, or Bosniaks. No one knows, no one thinks about it, and really, no one cares,” she conveyed me in her loudest possible voice.

Then I could only see her moving her lips but couldn’t hear her. It was a Saturday night in Sarajevo, the band was on, and patrons were getting the party started. Haide. Living for the moment. Like any Balkan people true to their roots.

Noam Ivri studies Modern Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University and recently began work at a global strategic communications and consulting firm.  A native of Boca Raton, FL, Noam immigrated to Israel six years ago and currently resides in Yafo. All pictures courtesy of the author.

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  1. Very interesting story. I have not yet visited any other part of the Balkans except Serbia…on. 3 occasions. It is also a fascinating beautiful country of 12 million people of whom only 7 million are ethnic Serbs…there is no ethnic conflict in Serbia itself nor has there ever been.I have lovely Serbian friends who escaped Milosevic and who still visit and live their country if birth. The Serb bourek is fantastic as are the cherry pastries. Volim te Serbija.