Sarajevo completely surprised me. All I knew of it was the communist worker’s experiments I wanted to visit as a politically minded college student, and, certainly the civil war. I imagined bleak, decayed, gray, and as Phil suggested, of course it would be raining. There is some of that, sans the rain, but I didn’t expect the diversity, the vibrancy, and the beauty.
Our hotel was adjacent to the Baščaršija, or the old town. This was a bit like what I imagine Istanbul to looks like…very Turkish in feel, belying the Ottoman roots. Very present in the streets was the Muslim majority. Nearly half of Bosnians are Muslim (49 %), with the rest divided between Eastern Othodoxy (34%) and Catholic (14%).
For me, the most moving experience of the trip was our visit to the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. Built in 1532 in an Ottoman style, it is the center of the community. Though heavily targeted and damaged during the war, it’s sturdy stone walls held.
We were treated to an unexpected tour by Evid (?), an inspiring and humble young imam who was eager to show the traveling Americans the beauty of the mosque and of Islam.
Even more beautiful, however, were the words our guide shared with us. Twelve at the time of the war, he shared how horrific the experience was for him. He also shared the verses in the Koran that speak to peace: “to kill one innocent person is to kill all of humanity.” For him, being an imam means living every moment as a Muslim, including serving as a model for those around him. He spoke with great sadness of those who claim to be Muslims, but have never learned the teachings. They cannot, he said, be seen to represent his beliefs nor can they pray beside him. We talked about the importance of recognizing that the religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism are far more alike than are their radical expressions.
He ended the visit by singing a few verses, first translating for us. His voice was beautiful and clear, and it echoed in the stone structure and in our hearts.