November 28

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Mosque & Memory

Published on Tanqeed.org

The Imaam’s voice came over the mosque speaker system: “Some of us came to the United States with just two bags.”

It was the first Friday of the Islamic New Year and the Khutba (the Friday sermon) at the Bosnian Islamic Center in the Queens borough of New York was about the Prophet’s migration along with his followers from Makkah to Medina—the journey marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. At the entrance of the mosque, I had met a man who had just parked his cab across the street. The location of the mosque, he explained in Punjabi, was convenient for a lot of cab drivers whose daily commute brought them to the area. Another man, originally from Bangladesh, who worked in a restaurant nearby, came only on Fridays to offer Jummah prayers. The crowd was much larger and much more diverse than when I had visited the Bosnian mosque a few years ago. Then, it had been in a different neighborhood, inside what looked like a small storefront.  The new location was a squat single-story brick structure formerly an Episcopalian church, on Crescent Street.  Before, it had been mostly Bosnians and the Imaam had delivered the Khutba in Bosnian. Now, the Imaam Mehdi Demrovic traversed different languages in order to convey meaning: he said a few duas in Arabic, and after delivering a short message in Bosnian he switched to English.

“We came from Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, Bosnia or Albania. But here in America,” he continued, “We are all American Muhajirs.”

Bosnian children attending weekend classes at the Bosnian Islamic Center

Bosnian children attending weekend classes at the Bosnian Islamic Center

The migration of the Prophet and his believers has a special significance in the Muslim memory, both for the grand narrative of the journey and the many stories of individual acts of selflessness. The people who left behind their homes and livelihoods were called the Muhajirs, an Arabic word meaning migrant. The people of Medina who received them in their homes were called Ansaar, the Arabic word for helper.

Growing up, stories of the migration were told and retold by elders in my family. For my father’s side of the family, the event evoked memories of his own migration from India. My father had arrived with his parents and siblings as refugees during partition, among millions seeking a Muslim homeland on the other side of the border. In Karachi, where we lived, the first generation of immigrant families were referred to as Muhajirs. A whole political movement was borne of this migrant identity.

Moving to the United States, my life began to resemble my father’s in some ways. Like him, I too had arrived with not much more than a box of photographs.  Of course his journey had been fraught with danger.  And this was the case for many of the Bosnians I was with now, who had faced near certain annihilation.  But I felt a strong connection to the second part of their journey: the arrival in a foreign, unknown city.

Inside the confines of the mosque, we were all migrants. Each person had taken their place on the Jaaye Namaaz (prayer mat).  Facing in the direction of the Kaa’bah together, we traced our individual paths in the Prophet’s passage — undulating skeins of memory, becoming one when seen from an angle, and with a slight tilt separating into countless threads that flowed forever.

The life of the immigrant is an exercise in remembrance— a city carried inside the heart. Every act of remembering becomes a walk down a never-ending fractal of cities within cities, forever colored in sepia tones of longing. Somewhere inside the mosque was the Carpet of Remembrance, with names of victims of the genocide in Bosnia. The mosque served as a house of memory, a place where lost time was remembered and artifacts were passed on. The carpet bore twenty names, weaved by the hands of the women who had lost their loved ones.

The mosque is open to everyone throughout the week — but Saturdays and Sundays the place takes on a particularly communal vibe, with mostly Bosnians in attendance. On a warm Sunday in November, I joined them in a feast to celebrate the Islamic New Year. There were traditional Bosnian items like Burek and Krompir— and more quotidian fare like mac and cheese. The men sat in one part of the hall and the women at the other end behind a screen partition, listening to the Imaam who sat cross-legged behind a low podium and spoke in soft tones in Bosnian. Young women in identical abayas with cotton thread embroidery, their hair covered with black silk scarves, recited hymns. Then it was time for Ishaa prayers.

“Make a straight line please brothers,” the Imaam said before saying the azaan. “Shoulder to shoulder. Brother to brother.”

The Bosnians in New York number between twelve and fifteen thousand— most of them having arrived as refugees from the war in the Balkans. The migrant memory of the Bosnians is intermingled with painful echoes of genocide. Just like many of the first generation Pakistanis referred to events as taking place before or after partition, every Bosnian I spoke to referred to the time before or after the war. Compared to 1947, 1995 was all too recent— still fresh in the memories and the faces of the survivors. In the small room that served as the office for the mosque, Senahid Halilovic sat across from me. The 42-year old Bosnian had been living in New York for the past twelve years now, and taught chemistry at a college in the city. He had piercing blue eyes and deep lines of anguish imprinted in his skin.

Senahid Halilovic holding the book he has written about surviving the genocide in Bosnia

Senahid Halilovic holding the book he has written about surviving the genocide in Bosnia

Halilovic was among the thousands of men trying to escape from the invading Serbian forces— marching in a long column through the forest to get to safety. He was among the lucky ones who managed to make it to the other side. Overall more than 8,000 people were slaughtered in the worst genocide since World War 2. In Srebrenica, several thousand men marching through the forest were killed— either executed on the spot or taken to “detention centers” in trucks. At the UN camps that were supposed to provide protection for the Bosnians, the Serbian soldiers applied the same methods. Men were made to stand in line and shot or taken away. Halilovic’s father and three brothers were among those who were killed. Only his wife and mother survived.

After spending time as a refugee in the Tuzla Canton, an area north of Sarajevo, Halilovic decided to move to the United States.   “When I arrived in America, I said to myself: a person without English here is a dead person,” he said, “You are not living, you are only existing.” For two years he worked odd jobs earning $900 dollars a month. “Three weeks of work paid the rent and I had one week to pay for food, clothing and my English lessons.”  After working for two years he learnt enough to go to college again and get a degree and start teaching. But his wife never learnt English.

“She thought we will go back, there is no life over here,” he said.

Halilovic has dreams to pursue his doctorate in chemistry. He has three children now, two daughters and a son. But even as he planned for the future, the memories of the past never left. He had written a book about his experience that he now held in his hands as he spoke to me.

In 2011, Halilovic walked again. This time the Peace March took him in the opposite direction from his painful exodus.  He journeyed back to his town, now part of Republika Srpska or Serb Republic.

“I just went to see my land because my soul was asking for it,” he took a deep breath. “I knew that my house had burned down and I knew there was nobody there and that everything smells of blood, but I went so my soul could finally rest.”

Halilovic took his ten-year old son with him. He did not like to discuss the past very much with the children, but he wanted to show his son where his home used to be. The place had been uninhabited since the incident and the forest had reclaimed it.

“I said to my son, look I was born there.  But he didn’t understand, he asked if I had been born in a forest.  I cannot explain to my children.”         

We live in the borderland between two worlds
On the border between nations, within
everyone’s reach, always someone’s scapegoat.
Against us the waves of history break, as if
Against a cliff.

–Mesa Sclimova, Dervish and Death.1

Damir Huremovic moved to New York from Sarajevo seven years after the war. Where most people had come with the tide of war, he followed after. A physician by profession, he came in search of better career opportunities. Once established in New York, he sought connections among the Bosnian community through his professional contacts, and many of his new Bosnian friends now came from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

“In Sarajevo, there was a mosque at every corner,” explained Huremovic, who served as the vice-president of the board of the Bosnian Islamic Center “People could go pray there five times a day, but other cultural and social needs were fulfilled elsewhere. By comparison, there are fewer mosques here in New York.  But the mosque here is also playing many more roles in the social cultural context and some of those roles are sometimes somewhat difficult to reconcile.”

Huremovic believed a more neutral environment would bring the community closer and serve to reflect more the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic makeup of Bosnia.  The mosque brought together the Muslim community, but, he told me, this meant that many of his newfound friends were not included.

“Bosnia is a multi-ethnic society.  The classes we offer here in Bosnian are open to anyone who would be interested in sending their kids.  But I would assume that Bosnians of Orthodox provenance, or Bosnian Serbs or Croats, or those who are in mixed marriages, would be a little more reluctant to send their children here.”

I asked Huremovic how he would define his identity— whether being Bosnian or being Muslim were one and the same or distinct.

“It’s a question of how your Muslim identity is different from your Pakistani identity and many people, particularly those had to move in 1947 would venture that it’s actually their faith that defines them as Pakistanis to begin with” he replied.

Class in session at the Bosnian Islamic Center

Class in session at the Bosnian Islamic Center

Ljela Huremovic, Damir’s wife, taught Bosnian language classes on weekends at the mosque. On a Saturday I decided to attend a session. Sitting in the back of the class, I watched as Huremovic went through the alphabets, asking the students to come with Bosnian words for each letter. There were about 25 students ranging in age from two to sixteen sitting on the carpet before her.

Huremovic wrote the letter L on the white board and asked the students to come up with Bosnian word starting with l. “Lud” said a small girl. “Very good, that means angry,” said Ljela. “Lepak” said a boy. “Glue, very good,” she said. When the class moved to p, a student said “Pizza”.  She laughed.

After the lesson, as per my request, she asked the students what came to mind when they thought of Bosnia.  Many hands went up, answers coming forth one after the other. “When I think of Bosnia, I think of home,” said a teenage girl. “I think of a little country with a little population with big hearts,” said another girl. “I think of my grandmother,” said a boy in a striped blue and white shirt. “I think about soccer,” said a girl in lavender headscarf; she looked seven. “I think of my friends and family who live there,” said another.

The teacher called on a little boy not more than five. He spoke in a very low voice. “I feel weird there because I don’t understand Bosnian,” he said, his eyes downcast.

Walking out of the mosque, I passed what looked like a power grid for the neighborhood. The sound of birds coming from within startled me. Peering in through the fence, among neat rows of transformer towers, their silhouettes became visible. There were hundreds of them. At some point, the power grid had become a bird sanctuary, the transformer towers trees, the wires like branches.

Just then, a flock rose up in the air—a black mass against the gray sky.  I watched them disappear over the buildings. For migratory birds home is sometimes an ephemeral entity, but it can be found again as long as one remembers.

Being Muslim The Bosnian Way, Tone Bringa[1995] [↩] 

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