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Feature 19 Jun 17

Waiting for the Ramadan ‘Bang’ in Sarajevo

As the sun slowly approaches the top of the Zuc hill overlooking Sarajevo, the city’s Muslims stir their lemonades, preparing for the loud bang that means they can finally break their fast.

Igor Spaic
People waiting for Iftar dinner at the Yellow Bastion in Sarajevo. Photo: Igor Spaic

Tonight’s guests, relatives or friends, have already arrived, bringing dishes for the rich dinner with which they conclude their fast day, as everyone does when invited to an “iftar” feast.

Outside, the last rays of the sunshine still reflect off of a handful of windows in the highest parts of the city. All eyes in the valley below are on a large yellowish wall, still captured by the light, and on the several hundred tennis shoes hanging off it. A sea of people sits there, waiting for the darkness to swallow the wall in a matter of minutes.

This will happen with a bang.

The wall is a leftover of the Yellow Bastion, built as a defensive structure during the centuries of Ottoman rule in the 18th century. Ever since, a cannon is fired from there during Ramadan, marking the end of the day’s fast for the city’s Muslims.

Young Sarajevans sit underneath on a grassy patch on blankets. Some have fasted, some have not, but all have gathered at this picnic spot to wait for the loud announcement.

“It’s great because you can see a lot of familiar people you otherwise never see anymore. We are all so busy now,” Lana, a 19-year-old, said.

“For me it's more of a Sarajevo thing than a religious thing,” she added.

Although it may not seem that way when at the top, reaching the Bastion is only a 10-minute walk away from the heart of the Old Town, Bascarsija.

The stone-paved streets in this oldest part of the town were built centuries ago by architects who never anticipated motor vehicle traffic. They are narrow, and during this month, are full of the smell of “somun” - a certain type of bread served during “iftar”.

Lines of people stand in front of overcrowded bakeries, waiting for fresh “somun” each Ramadan evening. As they join the line, one by one, they greet their neighbors and exchange a few words with them. Many bakeries offer their “somun” for free for the poor.

“Bang!” - off it goes. Gunner Smajil Krivic, wearing a traditional Bosnian fez, fires the Ramadan cannon. He has done so since 1997.

The sound echoes down the valley as a small firework illuminates the sky. Those standing around are startled for a split second, but joy breaks out immediately after the smoke clears.

Then, one after the other, the lights on the city’s minarets light up, replacing the sun that sunk beneath the hills seconds ago.

The calls for prayer from each mosque do not start exactly at the same time, overlapping with a slight delay, which makes it sound as if a choir has not practiced enough.

“The cannon has fired, the cannon has fired,” the children yell as they run down the steep streets.

Before the small cloud from the cannon has even cleared up in the sky, the family breaks up the “somun”.

With a “Bismillah”, those who fasted bring a glass of lemonade to their dry mouths. Many say this moment alone is worth it for them, after not drinking anything throughout the hot June day.

As for food, custom is to start off with a date – the food that, according to the Koran, Maryam [Mary] ate when she gave birth to Isa [Jesus].

“Fasting is not difficult for me, not even for a second. The feeling of togetherness inspires you, and then every dinner feels like a holiday,” says Alma, 56.

“It always starts with the hostesses excusing why the dish may be too salty or not salty at all, because she could not taste it while cooking. Then everybody starts to praise it and ask for recipes,” her friend, Samira, 54, jumps in.

Children usually dig in first, although they probably ate all day. Many practice fasting, but eventually fail. Those who do make it boast about it in school the next day.

Haris, a 33-year old from Cazin, remembers those days well. Although he says he grew up in a family that does not follow religious rules “all the way”, today he fasts each day of Ramadan.

“A lot of people around me would fast, so I would also try as a boy. Somewhere around noon I would give up,” he remembers.

Later, fasting became more and more serious. Haris would fast for four days, then five, and, gradually, by the time he was 20, he would fast through the whole month.

“It is about discipline, but not only when it comes to food. We refrain from bad words and vices, like cigarettes. We also do our best to refrain from bad thoughts and avoid any nervousness,” he says.

“I feel like everything and everyone is much calmer during Ramadan,“ he adds.

Haris sometimes has moments when he misses his family in Cazin.

“There are all these memories of us sitting together at iftar. Lots of laughter,” Haris recalls.

“However, a lot of beautiful memories bind me to Sarajevo, because I studied here. When I went back to Cazin after college, I actually missed Sarajevo during Ramadan,“ he says.

After “iftar”, many people stay out throughout the night until “sehur”, – the meal Muslims eat before the sunrise and the next round of fasting begins.

“Often I would drink coffee and eat sweets all night with my friends, and then go home in the early hours to have sehur. So many people stay out through the night, as if it was day,” Haris says with a smile.

Although many Bosniak Muslims take a very relaxed attitude towards alcohol, Ramadan is the one month when most of them usually refrain from it. But this does not mean the bars are empty, and those who do drink often sit together with those who do not.

The “ezan”, the Islamic prayer call, echoes through the streets again sometime between 10 and 11pm, and Muslims head to their neighborhood mosque to attend the “tarrawih” prayer.

Tired but satisfied faces exit the mosque after some 45 minutes, and the day ends in a calm walk back home with neighbors.

“I think no other city experiences Ramadan like Sarajevo does,” Haris concludes.

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