This week the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar, Eid, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan, was celebrated.
During Ramadan Sarajevo had a very particular atmosphere, pleasant in a different way. During the day the city was a bit quieter than usual. Many people were fasting, and other who didn’t, nevertheless restrained themselves from sitting in the cafés and restaurants. But as the night came it regained its buzz, as the Sarajevans went out to enjoy the cool Summer nights. Indeed, after a hot day, usually with temperatures above 30ºC, which makes fasting particularly challenging, in Sarajevo the night always comes as a liberation, as the fresh air from the mountains descends into the city. Many restaurants had special menus for Iftar, which compensated for the lower movement during lunch time, and in the streets ice cream parlours and vendors of grilled and boiled corn had more costumers than ever.
There are many misunderstandings among non-Muslims in the West about the meaning and experience of fasting during Ramadan. Many people believe it to be something equivalent to the Lent period for the Christians, while others consider that the Iftar meal, in which people break the fast, to be a proof of the hypocrisy of the Islamic values, as it is often believed that Muslims stuff themselves with food as soon as the sun disappears from the horizon, as if Iftar was some kind of potlatch (in the pejorative sense of the word).
Both of these beliefs are ill-conceived.
Fasting during Ramadan is above all an act of discipline, through which believers strengthen their will for submission to God, but it is not perceived by the Muslims as an act of sacrifice as we Christians conceive Lent. This is because while Islam focuses basically in self-discipline and acceptance of the community values, Christianity focuses on sacrifice and punishment, with the Catholics placing a particular emphasis on sin and repentance. So misunderstandings about Islam are not only a consequence of ignorance, but also of the fact that we tend to look at different cultures with the lenses of our own.
As for the Iftar, it is a meal richer than a normal dinner, but anyone who has experienced spending a whole day without eating or drinking knows that one cannot stuff itself with food when the night comes, simply because the body cannot tolerate it. Iftar is the occasion to compensate the body from the daily fasting, and to prepare it to endure another day of fasting, but it is also an important social event. The whole day is in a way lived as an anticipation of these happy encounters in the evening, which reinforce the feeling of community. Families get together and friends are invited over, and the hosts make their best to honour their presence.
As I spent part of Ramadan in Sarajevo, I had the opportunity to join some friends for Iftar. In this period, although I was not fasting, which would not make sense being myself a Christian, I realized soon that I should to eat as little as possible during the day, just a glass of milk and a slice of bread at breakfast, and some fruit at lunch time, to be in condition to adequately enjoy the experience of Iftar.
Just like Ramadan isn’t Lent, so Bajram isn’t Christmas, although some similarities do exist. The first day of Bajram is celebrated especially among family, and relatives visit each other, paying tribute in particular to their older members. The sense of accomplishment for the fasting creates a particularly pleasant feeling, as people indulge themselves with their first morning coffee over one month. House wives prepare their best specialities, home made pita, traditional sweets like baklava, hurmasica, kadajf, etc. The second day of Bajram is dedicated to the Shehidi, the martirs, which in Bosnia makes particular sense bearing in mind the death toll of the last war. And the last day provides a final opportunity to celebrate with friends, before normal life resumes its course.
Any religion is practised differently in different places by different peoples, and it is common to highlight that Islam in Bosnia has a very particular brand. That is truth, but it is an argument that places the emphasis on Bosnian Islam in a way gives the idea that there is a homogeneous way to live one’s religion. I remember how my old friend Emir criticized the title of Tone Bringa’s book “Being Muslim the Bosnian way”, stating that it was not the Bosnian way but the particular way of a particular village. In Sarajevo alone I’ve came across very different ways to be Muslim, and became particularly fascinated by the stories of religion sincretism that I heard from older women in the mahala of Vratnik, who over Iftar, upon knowing that I am a Catholic, told me that they used to visit the Catholic church of Sveti Ante, in Bistrik, and light candles there, a habit that they never felt to be in contradiction to their attachment to Islam. Such habits seem to have died out with the changes of generations, as nationalism increasingly came to influence the expression of religiosity, and the women spoke of those times with nostalgia for a Sarajevo that still exists, but mostly in their hearts.
Still, the generosity of the Sarajevan Muslims keeps that old Sarajevo alive and allows us, outsiders, to get a glimpse of it when they invite us to share their celebration.