“Look! It’s Dino Merlin,” whispers the man beside me.
A well groomed white man in his early 50s wanders into Sarajevo’s Gazi Huzrev Beg Mosque courtyard and half sits, half leans against a large stone block. He is wearing stylish sunglasses and regatta-chic clothes. Nobody bats an eyelid. People are too busy listening to the quranic recitation at the mukabalah (lit. coming together). Some mouth the words as they follow in the qurans they hold.
“He is the most famous singer in Bosnia … probably the most famous person in Bosnia,” continues the man who is about the same age as Dino and is wearing a black and white striped top and blue denim jeans. We are sat under a large tree in the courtyard, an hour before the asr prayer and already the mosque is nearly full – inside and out; men sit on the right and women on the left, huddled in groups wherever the late afternoon shade falls. Many families are also here. Dino, whose real name is, Edin Dervishalidovic is as transfixed by the words of the seven hafezi (qur’an reciters) as we are, staring intently at their images projected onto large screens either side of the veranda. Anywhere else in the world, and this chart-topping pop superstar may have felt out of place at a religious service in a mosque. But not here. Everyone is welcome here to spend time with God.
“I love Ramadan in Sarajevo. I love coming here for mukabalah, to listen to these amazing reciters from around the world. Today there are three from Saudi, Iran and Turkey. They recite quran everyday after fajr (sunrise prayer) and before asr (late afternoon prayer) so that we can sit, listen and benefit from the beauty of the recitation. Even if you are working and cannot come here, you can hear the recitation across town through the speakers. Mukabalah tells us Ramadan has arrived in Sarajevo,” explains my stripey companion, thumbing a tasbih in his right hand.
A western Muslim city
The medieval Ottoman city of Sarajevo is indeed a wonderful place to be in Ramadan. Sitting proudly at the crossroads of ‘east’ and ‘west’, Sarajevo embraces the Islamic festival as naturally as it embraces Christmas or Easter. It is a truly Western Muslim city. All around town signs read “Ramazan Mubarak” and every restaurant offers a festive iftar (the meal to break the fast) menu. Special concerts, film screenings and open iftars are held throughout the month. Yet tourists and non Muslim residents continue to eat al fresco and sip coffee served by fasting waiters. Shops and businesses open as normal – reducing hours as they see fit – but nothing stops. In fact, some businesses find they work harder in Ramadan.
“They work more now than at any other time of the year,” explains Elmedin Music, as we stop at a bakers, halfway up the steep hills of Sarajevo’s Jekovac district. Twenty five year old Elmedin is the manager of Hostel MAK in the centre of Sarajevo’s old town, and like many locals he alters his working day during Ramadan. Having spent the morning greeting his guests, he then napped for a few hours. Now with iftar time close, he has agreed to show us what makes Ramadan so special in his home town.
“The smell of cooked somun … that is the smell of Ramadan!”
The tiny bakers in Jekovac specialises in ‘somun’, the local flatbread – a Bosnian iftar staple. Inside, a huge man sweeps flattened circular dough into a wood-fired oven with a large baker’s paddle. As soon as the raw dough is set down, he sweeps out the cooked ones put in minutes earlier. He repeats this over and over again, stopping only to wipe the sweat from his brow using his white-ish apron. A young girl then stacks the somun neatly into large wicker baskets, ready for the hungry Muslims that will start queuing at the window shortly.
Elmedin is leading us up to a section of the 18th century Ottoman fort built above Sarajevo called the Yellow Bastion. From there, the view at sunset is breathtaking; a crimson glow shrouds the green mountains surrounding the ancient city like a bowl. But it is not to admire the view that our guide for the evening has brought us here. In a throwback to classical Muslim times, Sarajevo has reignited the tradition of firing a ‘cannon’ at sunset every day during Ramadan to signal the end of the fast. This event is part of the city’s annual Ramadan Festival – now in it’s third year – and uses a small mock cannon loaded with fireworks. It draws crowds of people from all over – muslim and non muslim. They come armed with picnic ‘iftars’ and sit with friends, family and strangers to break their fast in what has become Sarajevo’s most popular open iftar.
“You can see everyone is mixing so freely here to celebrate a Muslim festival, even if they are not Muslim or fasting themselves,” says Elmeddin.
All around us groups of young and old sit together; tupperware is opened and home cooked food is passed around. Some have bought iftar on the way up and flip open takeaway boxes. Toddlers chase each other between the legs of chatting adults and the smell of a myriad dishes fills the air. Behind the green hills, the final lingering rays of the setting sun disappear as fairy lights atop the bastion come on. The day is done, but not for Ramadan in Sarajevo. Soon the tarawih (Ramadan night prayer) recitation will be heard all over town, followed by the buzz of locals socialising into the early hours. Ramadan is a truly magical experience in Sarajevo, the European capital city like no other.