Travels 2006-2009…Novi Pazar… March 2008…
Igor wants to take photos inside a mosque. We go to one of the several downtown mosques and secure permission from the imam to photograph the prayers from a balcony.
While we are there we run into Samir, Zukorlic’s secretary. He is on his way out, but having found out we interviewed Nokic and Imamovic, he agrees to let us interview Zukorlic the next day at eleven. We are only allowed to ask questions regarding Islam however. “The mufti is a man of religion not of politics,” Samir says.
Happy for the interview, I don’t argue this. Immanovitch, Tarike, Samir, everyone we have met in Novi Pazar, they don’t trust us. We are some of the first reporters to stay more than a few hours in Novi Pazar. They talk to us, playing politics and seeing where it might lead them, but look at us suspiciously, not sure if we are in fact young reporters looking for a story or if we have been sent by an intelligence agency. While sitting in one political party office, a man casually asks Igor if he has often seen me going to the US embassy. Igor responds, “No, never. In Belgrade he just works and parties a lot.” It is the Balkans and the people are well versed in the games of both spies and journalists and so while the people we meet move their mouths and tell us a certain level of information, what comes across is that everything we do is being watched, that while they will talk to us there are many different activities going on that we cannot see. Nor will we be allowed to. That they are speaking to us at all affords a measure of protection however. Igor says:
“I’m not worried about these politicians anymore. They’re too smart. It’s the young guys, their supporters…if they smell fear or think anything is going on they’ll grab onto it.”
In the mosque we meet exactly these kinds of people that Igor is worried about. I am standing by the back wall of the balcony. Igor is at the front of the balcony photographing the men praying below. The mosque is full and the men that cannot find space on the floor below come up into the balcony to pray. As the prayers are ending a man in his mid-twenties comes up, smiles, and asks me, “What are you doing?”
I smile. “I speak only a little Serbian.”
Igor comes over and explains that we are working on a story and have permission to be in the mosque. We walk outside followed by the man and three of his friends. They are not being directly threatening, but stand close and continue to ask questions. We tell them that we are interested in Islam in Serbia.
“Come with us for a drink,” one of them says.
“A non-alcoholic drink,” another says.
We go to a café and order tea.
“What do you think of Islam?” they ask.
The men are supporters of Zukorlic. They are dressed in sweaters and jeans, not the short pants and skull caps that many of the wahhabis wear. They are obviously very religious however and are concerned that the story we are doing will have a negative slant towards Muslims. That is not our intention, I explain. My view of religion and Islam satisfies them. They talk for awhile about Islam being the one true faith, about everything being constructed by Allah for a purpose.
“The Koran talked about such things as fingerprints and the division of oceans far before science did,” says a man with curly hair and glasses. He launches into a twenty minute overview of Islam, from Mohammed and the five pillars to the current global wave of Islamophobia. His friends listen, rapt.
Ethnically these men and the majority of people in Novi Pazar are Bosniak. Muslim Slavs. Like the Albanians many scholars consider them to be descendants of Illyerian tribes. Most Serbs see them as Serbs whose bloodline became mixed with the Turks. During the time of Yugoslavia “Bosniak” was a banned term. Bosniaks were then allowed to refer to themselves only as “Muslims by nationality.” The word differs from “Bosnian” as Bosnians are all people that live in the country of Bosnia, both Christian and Muslim. Bosnian Muslims are Bosniaks. As are most Serbian Muslims. Bosniak features tend to be darker than the Serbs that live in Serbia, though the physical differences becomes harder to see among Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs. Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs swear they can easily see the differences between themselves however.
Igor and I escape these men’s interrogation and lecture only by promising to meet them the next day so they can give us a copy of a speech by an Islamic lecturer that they say “proves that Islam is the one true religion.”
As we finally walk back to the hotel Igor says, “If we’d said no to that tea I can just see their faces changing. They’d say ‘What? You don’t want to have tea with us? Do you not like Islam?’”
We laugh. Then shiver.