Sarajevo is the capital and largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hugged by its hills, the metropolitan area is home to about 643,000 people. The Dinaric Alps surround the city, and has the Miljacka River running through it. Often called the ‘heart-shaped land,’ Bosnia lies in the heart of Southeastern Europe, and the Balkans.
Many people still associate Sarajevo with the war in the early ‘90s, but it’s a modern city, and hosts the premier and largest film festival in Southeast Europe—The Sarajevo Film Festival. It’s also the leading political, social, and cultural center of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is the only major European city to have a mosque, Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and Synagogue within the same neighbourhood (Baščaršija). Because of its long and rich history of cultural diversity, one of its nicknames is ‘The Jerusalem of the Balkans.’
I first heard it whispered about in the cozy kitchen of The Doctor’s House hostel in Sarajevo. Čajdžinica Džirlo, or ‘the hippie tea shop’ as the girls at the hostel put it. It was my second day in Bosnia and I was having breakfast with some other guests at the hostel, girls from Spain and Britain. We got to talking about when they told me I had to visit this place, near the Ottoman fountain in Baščaršija, the old town market.
One girl grabbed a map and the place was pointed out and circled. “It’s awesome,” she said, “You have to go.” I did go, and it was awesome.
When I first told people I was going to Bosnia for a month, there were a lot of raised eyebrows. “Bosnia? Why Bosnia?”, “Isn’t it dangerous?”, “Wasn’t there a war there?” and “I hear there are land mines.” I got that a lot. Read More
It’s late morning when we pass a huddle of sheep by the side of the road and turn the last rocky corner into Lukomir, Bosnia’s highest-altitude and most remote village. It’s tucked into the side of the Bjelašnica Mountain, home to semi-nomadic Bosniak sheep herders. It’s accessible via a ten-mile hike or by truck on crumbling switchbacks—except in the winter, when the only way to access it is on skis. It’s a cluster of small stone houses: short, squat, and steep to protect from snow.Read More
If traveling through Bosnia, there will come a time when you’ll be pulled into a street café or someone’s kitchen, seated, and offered a thimble-sized cup of what looks, smells and tastes like hot, sweet, thick bitter mud.
This is bosanska kafa. Bosnian coffee. Hot, thick and strong, it’s a staple in the region and brings people together every day and has the miraculous power of drawing conversations out of people.
Meals, entire afternoons and evenings can slip away over the table as you sip with family, friends, strangers and those you’ve only just begun to know. In Sarajevo especially, you are never out of sight of a coffee shop.
People will sit for hours, chatting or arguing. Everything and anything in a person’s life can be raked over a cup of coffee. I had a lot of Bosnians tell me their high unemployment rate is also why so much time is spent in coffee shops, so it’s both a social and economic imperative.
In modern Bosnian cities of course you can find espresso and drip coffee, but the heart of the culture really lies with this brew that matches their sometimes-dark sense of humour.
I drank more coffee during the four weeks I was in Bosnia than I had the entire year before.
The coffee arrives on a tray — often made of etched or imprinted copper, one of the country’s traditional crafts. Bosnia’s mines provide the metal and people here have been working with copper it since before the Ottoman era, although it was the Ottomans that advanced copper
Bosnians also have a delightful tradition of serving their coffee with a glass of water. You don’t have to ask for it, it just comes on the tray, de facto. This is perfect, because your mouth often feels dry after the astringent bitterness. I wish all coffees came with water.
When you take the coffee, don’t drink the last sip. You’ll get nothing but a mouth full of thick sludge.
Because of their shared Ottoman history, it’s understandably similar to Turkish coffee (some would call it the exact same) and Greek coffee, for that matter.
No matter what you do, do not — I repeat: Do NOT, call it Turkish coffee in front of a Bosnian person.
Bosnian names for coffee things
On the tray you have your džezva (‘jezz-va’), the larger pot with a flared base. This is what your coffee comes in.
Then there’s the fildžan (‘phil-john’), the tiny ceramic cup without a handle, into which you pour your Bosnian coffee.
Rahat lokum is the name for the sweet we’d call a Turkish delight, and the lump of sugar is called grumen šećera.
How to make Bosnian coffee
Add the hot water along with a few spoonfuls of fine-ground coffee into your džezva.**
Stir it around, like you would a hot chocolate.
Put the džezva on the stove and turn it up medium-high. We want to heat it up so that a thick foam called the crema forms on top of the coffee, but we don’t want it to boil.
When the crema forms, take it off the stove and spoon a bit of crema off the top and put it into your cup. This is the good stuff. If you’re drinking with more than one person, each one should get a bit in their cup.
Then pour from the džezva to finish filling each cup.
Sip slowly and smile.
** This is actually what distinguishes it from Turkish coffee, where the grounds are mixed with cold water.
So that’s the spiel on Bosnian coffee. Even for a tea drinker like myself, a small but mighty cup of bosanska kafa in the morning just felt like the right way to say hello to the day in Bosnia.
Have you tried Bosnian coffee? Have you been to Bosnia? Did I get anything wrong? Let me know in the comments below!
Sarajevo is a city unlike my own. The language is Bosnian. Islam is the majority religion. The coolest place to hang out is an old Ottoman market. There’s a thick nostalgia for communism. The youth unemployment rate is 60%. Downtown buildings are riddled with bullet holes. There are scars in the sidewalk painted red where people were killed by mortar shells during the 1992–1995 siege.
Despite these differences, I never felt uncomfortable here until I saw a man spitting and swearing without restraint at people in a LGBTQI advocacy march. That’s when I started to realize the scope of the homophobia in Bosnia.
IDAHOT Silent Protest
On the morning of May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (“IDAHOT”), I and some Project 1948 colleagues walked to the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s a modern building near the city centre along the banks of the Miljacka river.
A teenage participant in Project 1948’s photo-voice project told us the about the silent protest taking place, organized by the Sarajevo Open Centre (“SOC”), an advocacy group in the city that gives a voice to LGBTI and women’s rights issues.
When we arrived, we met volunteers outside, handing out copies of the SOC’s annual ‘Pink Report on the State of Human Rights of LGBTI People in Bosnia and Herzegovina.’
The Pink Report calls for the legal recognition of same-sex couples as well as protection against discrimination based on your sexual orientation or gender presentation.
Naida Kučukalić is a program coordinator with the SOC. She says the silent protest is about reminding their allies inside as well as the rest of the parliament that, “we are here.”
Reading The Pink Report will give you a more comprehensive overview of the situation in Bosnia, where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1996, but in a nutshell:
Where their human rights stand
Same-sex partnerships are not legally recognized, homophobia is common, as are attacks and harassment of LGBTQI people. Hate speech based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not illegal.
Attackers often face no repercussions, like the March attacks at the Art Kriterion Cinema, one of the few LGBTQI-friendly bars in Sarajevo. Earlier in the year, Kriterion hosted the Merlinka Festival, one of the country’s few regular LGBTQI events. Those who can often travel to neighbouring Serbia or Croatia, where the LGBTQI situation is not great, but many find better than Bosnia.
It’s not safe to be gay in Bosnia
One young woman I met through Project 1948 told me she stopped being active in the LGBTQI community because she was worried about losing her job. Another teenage boy told me if he held hands with another boy in public, he would expect to be beaten.
With Sunday’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it has once again become painfully and tragically obvious that hatred is putting LGBTQI youth at risk globally.
In Bosnia, being any kind of minority can cause you trouble. The Bosnian constitution segregates its citizens by ethnicities. Officially, you can be bosniak, serb, croat or “other”.
The country has three presidents: one bosniak, one serb, one croat. People in the “other” category are unrepresented in the government. They include roma, jews, Montenegrins, Albanians and anyone else who doesn’t fall into one of the three main ethnic groups.
Minorities won’t stand together
Kučukalić says that while there are people in the city who are willing to come out and stand up for equal rights for the “others,” they’re much less willing to come out and defend LGBTQI rights.
“It’s frustrating,” she says, “It’s all intersectional. You have gay Roma.”
Their first ‘unofficial’ gay pride parade
After their hour is over, the group decides to walk with their rainbow flags a few blocks along the river towards one of the few queer-friendly cafes in the city, Kino Meeting Point.
“It’s like our first gay pride parade,” says one girl.
People on the streets stopped and stared.
I ran ahead to take photos, and as I’m waiting for the crowd to come towards me, a man steps out of a cafe. He points to the group marching with flags and asks me what is going on.
“Gay pride parade,” I say.
His response is immediate and vehement. “Gays? Fuck gays.”
He starts spitting at the people in the parade as they pass by. For the most part they just ignore him.
After I take his photo, he turns to me, “What the fuck are you doing?” He starts yelling, “Fuck you. Fuck you,” then takes a step forward, puts both hands on my shoulders and shoves me hard enough that I take a few steps back. I left him and joined the parade.
No one was hurt, but I was frustrated by the interaction and haunted by the image of a young boy who was peering around the man’s leg as he shoved and spat at strangers in the street.
What bothered me most afterward was how normal this person was, and how no one person on the busy street intervened. Meeting him under different circumstances, he might have even invited me for a Bosnian coffee.
For a couple days afterward I would look at people on the street and wonder, “are you secretly filled with hate?”
Luckily, through Project 948 I met and interviewed so many amazing Bosnians fighting for better human rights in their country that those feelings quickly dispersed. Nonetheless, it only takes one person to ruin it for everyone. Imagine if that spitting man was the only person I met in Bosnia.
After the march, we sit down with the activists at Kino Meeting Point to have a coffee and cigarettes, a Bosnian ritual. If you come to Bosnia, expect to drink a lot of coffee.
The atmosphere amongst the activists in the cafe is one of jubilation. Kučukalić is smiling but pragmatic, “wait until we see what happens on social media.”
One young woman, Nera Civonisem, was also protesting. She’s wearing a huge grin over the rim of her coffee cup, “Come on, man. Today we marched with flags.”
Elsewhere in Sarajevo, intersections were covered with rainbows, and there’s a cautious, hopeful feeling that change could be on the horizon.
I was on assignment in Bosnia for Project 1948, an NGO that encourages Bosnian youth to pursue policy change and tackle problems in their society through inter-ethnic photo-voice projects, interviews and community building activities.
I hope you’re having a good day. I’m coming to you today from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The city is nestled along a river in a mountain valley and has been described by at least one person other than myself as ‘the world’s largest village’.
In fact, Sarajevo (pronounced ‘Sarah-hey-vo’) is a city of about 500,000. That’s about the same population as Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Canadians reading this.
One example of my incredible luck during this past 48 days of travel is how I got from the Sarajevo airport to my hostel. I landed in Sarajevo at around 11pm, after being delayed in Zagreb, Croatia for several hours. As I stood in the airport trying to use my 15-minute allocation of free airport wifi to contact my AirBnB hostel host in order to arrange a taxi, airport security started turning the lights off – the airport was shutting down.
There were two people left working at the airport – a guy in a rental car agency trying to sort things out with a frustrated tourist and a girl just shutting down her Enterprise rent-a-car booth and getting ready to leave. I went over to her and asked her awkwardly if I could call a cab (my phone had NO SERVICE, ack).
“Where are you going?” she asked, “city centre?”
“Yeah.” I replied.
“If you don’t mind waiting five minutes, I can take you.” she said.
“Really? Thank you! That would be awesome.”
Not that taking cabs are expensive here, but I was so tired and it meant I wouldn’t have to wait, plus I’d get to chat with this girl. My first friend in Bosnia!
As if getting offered a ride wasn’t great enough, when I showed her on Google Maps where I needed to go, she knew my hostel right away. She lives around the corner from it and her brother is buddies with the owner.
Yes. In a city of half a million people the first person I met was basically the perfect person. It was like landing in a foreign country and being greeted by a family member. She was so nice and was telling me all about Sarajevo. She was born in the city when it was under siege during the Bosnian War. Her and her boyfriend drove me right to the door of the hostel, helped me get my luggage out and then wished me a good evening. If they’re reading this: You are the best! Thank you!
So, a better introduction to this country I couldn’t imagine.
Also, I highly recommend The Doctor’s House hostel. If you want this view, book the 6-person dorm. It has a balcony where you can sip a beer and watch the sun go down over the valley while listening to evening prayers echo in the valley. In short, paradise.
There was a great group of travellers at the hostel while I was there (I just moved today to an apartment arranged by Project 1948 for the rest of the month). A lot of solo women travellers, which was great as we all teamed up to explore the city together.
With that update, here are some great things on the Internet this week:
Finally, get some great advice from Canadian writer Lisa Moore, “Trust everyone. Everyone behaves better when they feel they’re trusted. Nobody wins a fight; the trick is to behave decently no matter what. The trick is to make love a lot. And think of it as making love. Always be making love.”
So that’s my song for this week. As for your week, I hope it’s a good one.
p.s. Okay like 30 minutes after posting it I realized CBC had published my story about FGM education in London! It’s the last piece I did as a part of my CBC London internship and I’m pretty happy about it! I pitched, researched, interviewed and photographed it. Thanks to everyone who helped! Either with letting me talk to them or helping me edit it afterward. ❤️