The street where I grew up in Rijeka, Croatia, is called Hosti. The name is derived from an archaic Croatian word for guests.
Hosti’s non-indigenous population were allowed by medieval laws to settle in that particular part of town only. Most of them would have lived there only temporarily, although those who stayed over certain amount of time could get stripped of their “guest” status. This primarily meant paying less tax and some other privileges that “guests” did not enjoy.
Fast forward to the 1970s and my father, only newly arrived in Rijeka from neighbouring Bosnia, bought a piece of land in Hosti called “Pasture Behind the Hills”. In reality it was a typical Mediterranean macchia and rocks, which my father had to get cleared and evened out before any other building work could begin.
Of course, the ancient laws were by this time long replaced with the laws of Yugoslavia. Below the surface though, Rijeka remained a divided city. Many well-to-do old local families had their villas and roots in the eastern part of the city. They watched with horror as ships entered Rijeka’s port and buses arrived from inland, bringing people who were to become new citizens of Rijeka, working in its oil refinery, shipyards and other numerous factories. As per some silent agreement, the majority, if not all of the newcomers, sought to settle in the western part of town, where I also grew up.
Yes, we were ‘guests’. My mother often heard locals referring to her as furesta, foreign. This was just one of many words she could not even understand at first, as the local dialect was quite different to the language she was speaking in her native Bosnia. More and more people were buying plots of land neighbouring our “Pasture Behind the Hills”. They were all from Bosnia: Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats who helped each other build their homes.
I was the only Muslim child in my school.
Although religion was never openly discussed or practiced, I knew some of my classmates were attending religious classes in the nearby church. Every December I watched them quietly say Merry Christmas to each other. Not being part of it felt somewhat isolating. I knew I was different. My Grandmother and aunts in Bosnia covered their hair and wore “dimije” (chalvar). They never wore short sleeves, not even during the hottest months of the year. Their names were different to the ones I’d be accustomed to in Croatia. Their language was interwoven with Turkish and Arabic phrases I was yet to learn and understand.
I only memorised the first two lines of one of the surahs from the Quran. All I could do was stand beside my Grandmother and follow her movements during ritual prayers, standing up with my arms lifted up at the elbow, then kneeling down, my face touching the prayer mat, swaying back, turning my head left and right. I did not understand what my Grandmother was reciting so I was coming up with some specific things I wanted to whisper, as if Allah could hear me: “We now have a hot water tank in the bathroom, thank you!”
What IS my identity, I often wondered. As my parents were not overly religious, they never imposed Islam on my sister and I. My surname spoke loud and clear where my roots were supposed to be: in the country of minarets, chalvars and Ramadan, where people greeted each other with “Salam Alaikum”. The problem was that all these things that were supposed to be part of my culture and tradition were alien to me when I was a child, as much as my Mother was furesta to the local people of Rijeka.
I moved on and left the town I considered to be my true home. A new life in a new country and a culture that further shaped the person I have become. The move also brought homesickness with an intensity I did not foresee. To my genuine surprise, the things that did not matter to me as much before were increasingly on my mind. I felt regret for never having truly connected with the country of my ancestors. I began to further appreciate the religion I was born into, as well as the quiet wisdom, endless generosity and warm-heartedness of the Bosnian people.
Decades after I learned of them in school, I have re-read transcripts of epitaphs found on medieval tombstones which are scattered all over Bosnia and Herzegovina. These tombstones pre-date the Ottoman occupation period but still speak to us of universal truths that transcend time.
“Don’t step on my grave please. I was once the same as you are, and you will be the same as I am now.” A stone mason carved this plea, possibly some six centuries ago.
“I never had much. Never wanted for anything, though I kept sharing what little I had.” Doesn’t that sound like something we can still find in many self-help articles and books today? Sharing will always, somehow, result in the multiplying of goodness for the one who has shared. It is a fact of life now as much as it was for the people who lived in a small, remote Bosnian village some six centuries ago.
“The skies were within me. I have not realised that though until the moment I fell amidst stars,” another writing says. It gets even more philosophical and metaphorical with the next one I found: “In the room where I was there was a window, and beyond that window an eternity. I kept looking onto the floor though.”
No matter how many times I read them, the depth and imaginativeness of these ancient epitaphs never cease to amaze me. Much was written about their messages, symbolism and language. They were a well of inspiration for many modern Bosnian poets and for me personally.
Although the underlying theme of my life may be a sense of misplacement and not strictly belonging anywhere, that is fine. The unique blueness of the Adriatic sea, which I could recognise anywhere I see it, as well as the mosques of Bosnia, are all a part of me. After all, we are all “hosti” in this life, and our visit is only a fleeting one…
Sites That Link to this Post
- Featuring Women Writers on WWWB 2013 - Women Writers, Women Books | December 31, 2013
- Hijabi Monologues | rijecanka u dublinu | August 18, 2013