Before we set out on our weeklong visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, our Croatian tour guide friend, Biljana, informed me that we would find the Bosnians to be among the warmest and kindest people we would ever meet. That was encouraging because I had no idea what to expect. Neither Florence nor I have spent time in strongly Muslim countries. It felt strange and exotic and we quickly felt at ease.
In the United States, we have a perception that Muslims do not like us. We hear words like The Great Satan and infidel attributed to people from nations we call enemies. This is the insidious tool of media that helps formulate public opinion. Our tour guide, Selmir, stated it best when he said, ‘The only thing real on television is Animal Planet.’ On our tour of beautiful sites, Selmir told me a marvelous story of how the true Muslim people accept all others.
When Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis Powers led by Hitler’s German forces, the Jews living in Mostar knew their synagogue was going to be destroyed. To preserve the building the Mostar Jews donated their synagogue to the City of Mostar to be used as a public theater which it remains to this day. Since World War II the Jews in Mostar have not had their own synagogue. In recognition of the sacrifice made by the Jews to preserve their holy site, the Muslims decided to build them a new synagogue. This story is remarkable when you take into account that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are generally poor.* I found this story all the more extraordinary when I was told that there are just 43 Jews still living in Mostar according to their most recent census. When was the last time we heard a story of such respect between Muslims and Jews?
Overlooking the City of Mostar is Hum Mountain. In 2000, the Catholic Diocese of Mostar had a 120 foot tall cross erected overlooking Mostar which is illuminated at night. While the cross is said to represent the devotion of Christians to their savior and serve as a symbol of peace to the world, it is also seen by some as a symbol of triumphalism in Mostar by the Catholic Church due in part to the destruction inflicted on Mostar by artillery fire from Hum Mountain by pro-Croatian forces. When I asked Selmir about the cross and what it might mean to non-Catholics in Mostar, he shared an anecdote:
A reporter asked a Muslim grandfather what he thought of the cross overlooking Mostar. The old man replied, ‘I think it is a big plus (+).’ The reporter asked a Muslim grandmother the same question. She replied, ‘It is nice, but the moon and stars are still higher.’ (The crescent moon and stars are symbols of Islam.) The reporter then asked a young Muslim guy what he thought of the cross. The young fellow replied, ‘There is a nice road leading to the top of the hill. It is a nice spot for a picnic and a good place to meet Catholic chicks.’
It is sort of a funny story and it also provides a glimpse into the hearts of the local Muslims. They are a loving and peaceful people. They are tolerant of the views of others. While young people will cross the river that divides Mostar mainly along Muslim and Catholic lines, the older generation will not cross the river. These are the people who are old enough to remember the war which ended less than 20 years ago. These people are also the victims of resentment by those who believed the media propaganda that originated with Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and his culture war against ‘The Turks’, his label for Muslims who have lived in Bosnia for 500 years.
I asked our well-educated young tour guide in Sarajevo what she foresaw for the future of Bosnia. She replied, ‘I don’t know. The future looks too foggy.’
*Note: Unemployment rate: 44.8%, Youth unemployment rate: 57%, Average income: ~$850/month (Source: tradingeconomics.com)