[This is the second piece in an ongoing series about the Bosnian community in Chicago. The first piece discussed inaccuracies by the U.S. Census Bureau in describing the language and birth country of people from the former Yugoslovia. I write this series as a reporter and Bosnian immigrant. If you have any questions or comments on this, past or upcoming articles by me, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome your feedback.]
The night before going to a new year’s celebration at the Islamic Cultural Center (ICC) in Northbrook, Illinois, I wasn’t praying at the local mosque or reading devoutly from the Qur’an.
Instead I was digging through my scarf drawer and entering the search term “how to wrap a hijab,” or headscarf, into YouTube. I had no idea how to do this, having grown up secularly but observing holidays here and there. Fortunately, I had thousands of tutorials to watch to ensure my hijab would stay on all night and look chic.
Once out the door, scarf comfortably secured in place with pins, I was picked up by a religious leader in the Bosnian Muslim community. After driving with his wife and two wailing kids for half an hour, I chuckled as we pulled into the fanciest parking spot I’d ever seen. The sign was a forest green — a color that has long represented Islam — with white and gold ornamentation around letters that read “Imam only.”
I was obviously riding with exclusive company.
Hafiz Muriz ef Mesic, the imam of the Dzemata Mosque in Chicago, stepped out of the minivan and walked toward the ICC with his wife Amina and two children. I followed suit, adjusting my hijab, still self-conscious about whether I had done it right.
We were there for Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, and a holy month at that. Thursday marked the start of a new year, 1434. Worshipers flooded into the mosque for prayer, celebration and a feast. Some 300 people were in the room, many from Chicago. Others had responded to invitations from sister mosques in St. Louis, Missouri and Grand Rapids, Michigan, cities with significant Bosnian populations.
As Mesic departed to tend to his duties, his family and I removed our shoes and entered the prayer quarters, a large, circular room. Taqiyah caps checkered the front half of the room, where men sat and talked. Behind them ran a narrow stream of walking space, periodically clogged by children scurrying to friends still removing their coats or wrestling over a toy.
We walked toward the back, where veiled women sat, tending to their children and chatting with neighbors. The back wall was lined with elderly women in chairs, legs elevated on chairs and pillows, and prayer beads clinking between their fingers.
Cameramen entered to skirt the room and set up equipment for live streaming to cities across the United States and to Bosnia. Four men followed in dark robes and tall, red and white hats. The imams, the equivalent of a Muslim priest, sat at the front of the room to lead prayer.
I can count on one hand the number of times I had prayed before Saturday. I know some traditions and holidays, but I was raised secularly. I started worrying I’d offend someone if I did something wrong, so relied on my neighbors, whom I’d peak at and copy. For two hours, we stood, bent and knelt in prayer. Occasionally, a woman with a dark complexion on my left would take my hand and squeeze it gently. Relief.
The imams took turns elaborating on lessons from the Qur’an, all of which were projected on PowerPoint or accompanied by video skits. They even provided Arabic and English translations. One of the video lessons that evening was about honesty and selflessness. It featured a Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak, who forgets his wallet shopping; the vender deliberated what action to take but returned the wallet, acting honorably and earning the client’s trust and friendship.
Groups of young women entered and sat in a circle in front of their imam. Each group wore traditional Bosnian folklore attire of silk dresses, vests and veils. They were singers, ready to perform sets of ilahije — Muslim songs of devotion unique to Bosnia, sung in the vernacular and often a capella. The girls took turns singing, and were followed by men from the congregation who gave impromptu solo performances.
“Mashallah,” recited the woman to my left, looking at me. “So beautiful the music of your country.”
She was from India, but has been coming to the ICC mosque for years with one of her daughters and Turkish husband.
“We love it here,” she said, seizing my hand and bringing it to her mouth upon learning I have the same name as one of her daughters. “Your people are so nice.”
I felt proud hearing how she not only knew of Bosnia and its history, but reveled being among its people — people with whom I still affiliate, even as an Americanized immigrant. She addressed me as if I were her own daughter, one of whom was sitting at her side and embraced me as a sister.
Unfortunately, I lost my new friends in the sea of hungry families weaving to the basement for a celebratory feast of traditional Bosnian food, including burek (minced meat pie in phyllo dough), sirnica (its cheese equivalent) and an entire table full of homemade desserts.
“No burek, please,” I told one of the servers, a rotund middle-aged woman about to serve me portions of different meat dishes.
What was wrong with me, she asked, raising her eyebrows and scoffing. I laughed at the all-too-familiar reaction, which I fully expected the moment I stepped into the food line.
“Sorry, I’m vegetarian,” I said, aware of how personally many Bosnians take it when you bypass food — and meat, of all things!
This was yet another way I was less Bosnian than everyone else in the room — or at least Bosniak.
But that didn’t stop me from sitting across a group of ilahije singers. I got to chatting with Aida Hamzagic of Grand Rapids, Mich. about ilahije.
“For young Bosnian-Americans, ilahije give us a sense of peace and love,” said Hamzagic, who described the songs as a poetic means of expressing thanks to God and the path of righteousness. “It gives us a name and background. We’re not just Bosnian, but Muslim.”
That’s exactly what I’ve been hearing from people in Chicago’s Bosniak community, who want to distinguish themselves from their former-Yugoslav neighbors. After all, one one can be a Bosnian Serb.
As we dove into our food together, she looked around the room and stretched out her arms.
“I see a big family,” said Hamzagic. “It doesn’t matter what your hair or eye color are, we’re all the same.”
I agreed, even though in many ways I felt like a foreigner, both new to Chicago and new to the religious rituals in which I was partaking, albeit happily. In Balkan history, religion has often been a source of conflict. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, it has also been a way of finding identity, perhaps forcefully at times. But that night of Muharram, the start of a new year, it was peace — something Bosnians at home and abroad are still seeking to attain.
Seated among people who spoke my language, ate the food with which we all grew up, had the same humor and values, it was a cultural celebration as well as a religious one — and that made me feel at home.