Ramadan has just begun this year—a time of restraint and self-reflection, a time where I intentionally build moments to return to myself amid the everyday chaos of living. Four years ago I was living in Sarajevo; my last month in the city coincided with the holy month. As a Muslim woman who grew up in America, I had never experienced this month with people who knew or celebrated Ramadan. Bosnia was the first, and only, time in my life that has happened. I was always alone in fasting, alone in prayer, alone in Iftar. If people accompanied me in the States, it was usually friends who were not-Muslim, but were fasting because they loved me, because they didn’t want me to be alone. Growing up, Muslim holidays were not known or observed in my city or school district. Everywhere I went I had to explain Eid and Ramadan. I never realized just how much this had worn me down until I was in Sarajevo for Ramadan; until I came to work before Eid and found a box of cured meats on my desk and a flower, a simple Eid Mubarak! scrawled on a piece of paper attached to the box. I carried it to my apartment, and once I was alone in my kitchen, I wept. The simple act of being seen by others, of not having to explain my culture or myself when I had spent so much of my life explaining, was too much for me.

 

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I arrived in Sarajevo in the fall of 2011, on a Fulbright, looking to study the impact that violence, particularly ethnic violence, had on art and memorialization. When I was there, I started a bilingual spoken word poetry group called “Refleks” with my friend Una Delic, culminating in multiple performances across the city. I had always known that poetry was important to me, but came to Bosnia burnt out, wondering if poetry could actually lead to anything useful or it was just self-indulgent. Bosnia was where I realized the a poem’s potential, where I saw people who had never considered themselves writers performing for the first time, stripping down to their most vulnerable selves, sharing their stories with strangers.  After our final performance at the Sarajevo War Theater, one of my friends gave me a hug. He told me, “I’ve heard you talk about poetry for so long. But I didn’t realize it until I saw you on that stage. This is what you are meant to do.” And he was right.

 

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How can I explain what Bosnia means to me? How I found myself in Sarajevo? The hills that I walked up, looking down at the sparkling lights of the city. The grueling hikes that I tried to do in flip-flops. The markets where I bought my vegetables and fresh fruits. How I learned to make a pumpkin pie with a real pumpkin; how all my European friends refused to eat it because it was too sweet. The first time I went skiing, and saw the top of a snow-covered mountain. How I carried the groceries of an older woman in my building home for her, and how, though neither of us could communicate to each other, I sat in her house all afternoon and felt like I could be her daughter. How I went through the worst snowstorm of my life, where my heat went off and I had to put on nearly every article of clothing I owned and pray I wouldn’t die in the middle of the night.

 

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I taught English at the Faculty of Islamic Sciences while I was in Sarajevo. One of my classes my colleagues and I fondly labeled “The Future Imams of Bosnia.” The title was as accurate as it sounds—every person who wished to be an Imam in Bosnia had to get a degree from the Faculty of Islamic Sciences, and they had to pass my English class. The first day I walked into the class, the only 22-year old woman in the entire department, and introduced myself. I asked them to say their names and where they were from. There were a few seconds of awkward silence, and then one of the students stood up and said “Hello, my name is Dzemal and I am 20 years old and I am single.” Slowly, one by one, they all went around the table and told me that they were single. They proceeded to do this every day for the rest of the year, as well as sneak into my other classes and act like I couldn’t see them, copy each other’s English homework, speak loudly in English as I walked near them to pretend that they were doing work before dropping their voices and speaking Bosnian, and barely do any of the reading that I assigned in class. Despite their buffoonery and general inability to speak English after a year with me, I loved The Future Imams of Bosnia. And I know they loved me: how I always slipped on the rocks outside of class, how I never had enough chalk and would send one of them to the main building to steal some from another class, how I would make them debate the pros and cons of online dating to get them interested in speaking English. I loved their silliness, how they would stay outside smoking until it was exactly time to come inside, the way every teacher in the department was nervous about their progress, how they begged me to go outside every class and the one time I said we could, it was a brutally cold week in October. We lasted outside for five minutes before running back in, and they never brought up going outside again.

 

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Often, while living in Sarajevo, I thought about forgiveness and reconciliation. What that meant. What justice looks like. Accountability. I heard countless stories of people who had been victims of the Bosnian War and ethnic violence, but who had the capacity to rebuild friendships across ethnic groups, nations, and histories of violence. People who refused to let history build hatred in their blood, but instead wanted to build towards reconciliation and a better future. This is what I remember most about Bosnia: people’s capacity to work tirelessly towards forgiveness. I saw so many people working to forgive and build with people who had slaughtered their family members, working to resolve the hurt that had divided and continued to divide the country. It seemed so trite then, to think of my own inability to forgive, to think of all the silly resentments that I held towards lovers who had wronged me.

 

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I still carry Sarajevo with me. It’s Ramadan again, I’m hungry and thirsty and trying to reflect as much as I can, fast as much as I can, and work towards being a better person. I find myself getting ready to leave another city that I’ve lived in for the last four years of my life—Chicago. After living in Sarajevo, I didn’t think that I would find another city that felt so much like home, but I have. Unlike Sarajevo, I don’t have a strong Muslim community around me; but I am still surrounded by love. My non-Muslim friends have been fasting with me to keep me company, I’ve been texting my Mulsim friends who live in other states and countries my Ramadan struggles. I didn’t fall in love with Chicago as easily as I did with Sarajevo, but I have grown into living here in a way I didn’t think possible. Chicago, like Sarajevo, is often reduced in the media to its legacy of violence, relegating these cities to the traumas they have witnessed. But this is an unfair understanding of what these cities are, or what has contributed to the climates of structural violence. It’s an unfair understanding of the people of these cities, their capacity for love, who they are as humans. Perhaps the better way to understand these cities is to see their insistence on joy despite the hardship, and their resilience and forgiveness. Both of Chicago and Sarajevo are places that I have found home and community, and have fundamentally shaped who I am as a person and artist.

 

Fatimah Ashgar

Photo: jaime.silva

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