Every year when Ramadan comes around, I am teleported back home. Although it has been thirty years since I left Bosnia, my memories of the family gathering around the Iftar table, abundantly filled with aromatic foods and sticky cakes drenched in rose sugar water, are still so vividly alive.
Growing up as a child whose parents worshiped different deities, I was very lucky to celebrate more holidays than the other kids in the neighborhood. Christian maternal side of the family observed and celebrated Catholic and Serbian-Orthodox Christmas, while my paternal family, especially my Grandfather, fasted during the Ramadan month and celebrated Eid.
The most intriguing part of our East meets West family character was that it felt so natural and innate to us kids. My grandparents used to narrate stories describing our melting pot of a family as a perfectly blended product of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian love bonds crowned into marriages that by default intricately ended up being filtered through a Southern Slavonic lens.
Our household’s multi-religious concoction was even more prominent during the holiday season. Grandma would be up early before sunrise. Her wrinkled face was focused on the pages of the Quran she was reading; her mouth produced almost inaudible, undeciphered words in the Arabic language while the fingers of her left hand moved up along tespih beads silently counting them. Watching her daily praying ritual, as her frail body fulfilled the worship, I was in complete awe of her humble appearance. Kneeling, she lifted her hands in prayer, turning her head left and right then bowing down, letting her body rest on the soft rug for a brief second. The air in the room was heavy and almost electrifying. The presence of the divine vibrated throughout the room. I knew she was purifying her soul while expressing her gratitude to Allah for the blessings she had, and the blessings ones so often didn’t see.
The image of Eid Mubarak flashed in front of my eyes. As a kid, I was always looking forward to all the kitchen hustle that paternal grandma, both my Christian and Muslim aunts would be making together while preparing a feast for the family, guests, and neighbors. Grandpa, after his early visit and prayers at the mosque, would return home, dressed in a crisp, freshly pressed shirt, and extend his hand to us, his grandkids to kiss it, pat us on the head, and give us money and gifts. Eating the delicacies prepared for Eid and receiving the gifts were the highlight of the day for us.
But it is so much more today. It’s a time of self-reflection and being thankful. The Arabic students that attend the school I work at, remind me of Bosnia and home every day. Their respectful and humble attitude exhibited not only at the time of the holy month of Ramadan, brings back cognizance of old values and traditions instilled in me by my upbringing and colorful heritage. The country I was born in, tragically ended up bathed in the blood of division, ethnic cleansing, and hatred, and my heart and head will never reconcile with that. Bosnia was a place where mosques, churches, cathedrals, and synagogues peacefully coexisted, and where politics caused minor headaches. Until the day they caused bloodshed and separation.
Decades after the war, I pray and hope for Bosnia which was once known for its deep, unassuming human worth. In my dreams I still see Bosnia surrounded and decked by its beautiful mountains, medieval castle ruins, emerald green rivers, Olympic ski slopes, and bustling bazaars filled with traditional copper plates and coffee tea sets. The smell of Bosnian coffee fills my nostrils while the potent, dark almost muddy liquid is poured into fildzan and served with a sugar cube or Bosnian delight. That is the moment where the cultural element comes into play, not only for a Bosnian Muslim during Ramadan but for anyone brave enough to take a sip of it.
Oh, how I miss that feeling of freshly baked Ramadan bread in the evening when the cannon announces the break from fasting as the sun finally sets down. At the end of the day, Ramadan is like the days of December before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, like nights preceding Hannukah illuminated with Menora candles. It’s about strengthening our spiritual connections and faith, offering thanksgiving, remembering the blessings, and having a sense of identity and belonging.
Today, thousands of miles away from home, I can still recall the images of dear people in prayers, breaking bread, sharing the food at the table, happy children running around with faces smeared in chocolate, fingers sticky from baklava sweet juice, and feelings of love that glue us together.
Ramadan Kareem, peace be with you.