January 26, 2022
The British-Bangladeshi author of ‘Minarets in the Mountains’ is both entranced and concerned about the prospects for the indigenous Muslims in Southeastern Europe.
Anewish book, Minarets in the Mountains a Journey into Muslim Europe, has a slightly misleading title. The UK publishers of British-Bangladeshi author Tharik Hussain’s travelogue don’t come right out and say that the book is, in fact, about the Western Balkans – the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and Albania. Evidently, the Balkans are not a sexy selling point in the book world at this moment.
Still, it has done well since its release last summer and has been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction as well as selected as a book of the year by the Times Literary Supplement. On Amazon it is a best-seller. So what’s the hook?
Minarets in the Mountains recounts a road trip Hussain and his family took in the summer of 2016 through the former Yugoslavia and Albania in search of Europe’s indigenous Muslim communities, their history and heritage.
Using as his guide the travel writings of the 17th-century Ottoman explorer, Evliya Çelebi, he compares the state of Muslim communities at the peak of Ottoman rule in the Balkans to their present situation, 30 years after the demise of communism, secularization and enforced atheism, and after the more recent Balkan wars, genocide and ethnic cleansing.
While Hussain doesn’t say that Islam is alive and well in the Balkans, he found surprisingly thriving pockets – and not always in the places one would expect.
The Balkans has been tackled by its fair share of adventurous Western European travel writers, most notably Edith Durham, an Edwardian-era British traveler who wrote about Albanians and Serbs in equal measure.
Later on, Rebecca West, another Briton, journeyed across Yugoslavia in 1937, gathering material for her vast thousand-page classic Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. The Nineties saw a whole slew of titles on the Balkans, mostly aiming at making sense of the latest Balkan conflagrations. However, little has emerged of late. Minarets in the Mountains fills a niche.
Exterior of the famous Bosnian mosque, in Sarajevo. Photo: EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR
What makes this book unique is that it is written from the perspective of a Muslim in England, writing about “what is generally seen as a white person’s territory”. Hussain’s book is the first account of the Balkans from a Western Muslim, maybe the first since Evilya Çelebi.
Hussain embarked on his trip in 2016, a trying time for Muslims in the West, as Donald Trump, “an openly Islamophobic candidate,” was running for president in the US. The UK was in the throes of an identity crisis stoked by the Brexit campaign “that was selling Britain the idea that Muslim refugees were overwhelming Europe”, Hussain says.
Seeking respite from the heated atmosphere, Hussain, his wife and two daughters embarked on a trip to the Balkans to uncover the heritage of their coreligionists.
The trip begins in Bosnia, extends into the Serbian Sandžak and Kosovo, proceeds to North Macedonia and Albania, before looping around and hitting Montenegro, and then ending up back again in Bosnia. Along the way, he conveys a great deal of the allure of the Muslim Balkans while also shedding light on the region’s painful history.
Much of the book has to do with descriptions of the architectural remnants of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, the centuries-old mosques, hamams and medresas of Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. Hussain brings in a human element, talking to imams and worshippers, while “bowing down to God beside Europe’s indigenous Muslims”.
The book describes some predictable tourist attractions, such as the Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s old bazaar, the famed Ottoman bridge of Mostar and the nearby Sufi tekke at Blagaj, which today is half a place of religious pilgrimage and half a tourist trap.
General view showing a minaret of the Husrev-beg Mosque during Ramadan in Sarajevo. Photo: EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR
However, Hussain finds the real allure of the Muslim Balkans off the beaten track and away from the usual Balkan tourist itineraries, in places like Novi Pazar in Serbia’s Sandžak and in Tetovo, a bustling mainly ethnic Albanian town in North Macedonia.
Minarets in the Mountains covers much of the ground I myself treaded in my many Balkan forays, by foot, bike, bus and train, beginning in 2003 and lasting till 2018. As with Hussain, the Balkans meant a lot to me, allowing me get over my prejudices, phobias and hangups, helping me to avoid the racist and nationalistic pitfalls; it also led me to Islam.
In the beginning, in 2003, I was a philo-Serbian slightly Islamophobic journalist, who wanted to see for himself Europe’s last pariah state, whose bad-boy status placed it in the same unenviable company as Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Cuba – countries that raised a collective middle finger to the US; a people, many of whom when America started bombing Iraq in 2003 cried: “Bravo Saddam!”
I wanted to experience one of the last pockets of resistance to globalized popular culture, a country that, while physically inside Europe, rejected the hegemony of the Eurozone.
Eager to see Europe’s last bastion of flag-waving ethnocentrism, I embarked on my trip to Serbia in 2003 with Peter Handke’s Justice for Serbia in my rucksack. However, besides meeting nationalist Serbs, I was blown away by Muslim Novi Pazar, the main town in the Serbian Sandžak, where I heard the ezan for the first time, floating over the clay-shingled roofs of the Turkish quarter at 5am.
Novi Pazar was also the unexpected highlight of Hussain’s Balkan trip. “Arriving in Novi Pazar, I had to check we hadn’t accidentally crossed a border somewhere and entered Turkey,” he writes. “When the guidebook had said that this was the most ‘Turkish’ town of all, it was not joking. Could this really be Serbia?”
Like Sarajevo, Hussain found Novi Pazar “very much a Muslim town with over 80 per cent of the urban population professing the faith, making the Serbian town more Muslim than some ‘Muslim’ countries. We were into only the second week of our journey and not only had we found a ‘hidden’ Sarajevo in Novi Pazar, but one that could legitimately claim to be its twin.”
An elderly man arrives for Eid al-Adha prayer at the Grand Mosque in Pristina. Photo: EPA-EFE/VALDRIN XHEMAJ
Hussain’s main, alarming, thesis, is that one ought to visit the Muslim Balkans while one can, as the heritage of the Muslim Balkans is in danger of being eradicated. While cities like Novi Pazar inspired him with their vitality, Hussain draws attention to the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Nineties, underpinning his conviction that the Muslim Balkans is under threat.
However – and Hussain merely touches upon this subject – one of the greatest threats to Muslim communities in the Balkans today is not islamophobia, but emigration and brain drain. In Novi Pazar alone, where every fourth person is unemployed, ten buses leave daily for Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. Some NGOs calculate that every Saturday between 500 to 1,000 people leave the Sandžak for Western Europe, many for good.
Minarets in the Mountains is not without a controversial element. To some, it has a pro-Ottoman slant, which Hussain justifies, arguing that Ottoman and Turkish culture in the Balkans have traditionally been given short-shrift by Western pundits.
The old bridge in Mostar, which defied the laws of physics for five centuries before it was blown up by Bosnian Croats in 1993, and was seen by Victorian travelers as being Roman (the inferior Turks, it was felt, could not possibly have engendered such masterful engineering), says Hussain, “belonged to the ‘other’ history I was told had nothing to do with Europe’s history, yet here I was travelling through Europe with my family, encountering places and people that tangibly connected me to the continent’s cultural landscape and its Muslim heritage, my Muslim heritage”.
Hussain asks why he was taught none of this in school in England. The Greek Empire under Alexander the Great had been gone into, as had the Roman Empire. But why did so many in Europe – and not just Europe – shy away from presenting the Ottoman Empire in the rightful way? Were the Ottomans held more guilty of the crime of colonialism than the Greeks and Romans?
Hussain says: “I wanted to present the human story. I wanted to point out that even though Albania was colonized by the Ottomans and were guilty of many atrocities, particularly at the end of their rule, it was the Ottomans who made sure that all of the Jews from Spain, that wanted protection, were brought to the Balkans and settled there and had their safety guaranteed …
“I wanted to show that the Ottomans did bad stuff, but they did good stuff, too. Just as in the way the Romans and the Greeks did. So if you can sit there as a non-Muslim white person, talking about the wonders of the great Alexander and Julius Caesar and Hadrian, then why the hell can’t I talk about Sultan Suleiman or Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic?”