Opening Doors

These past three weeks have been a series of openings. On May 4, the first exhibit of the Sarajevo War Childhood Museum opened. For those of you who have somehow missed my Facebook posts about it, the WCM is a fantastic initiative that I am helping out very minimally with communications, English editing, feedback on exhibit design, and moral support. I’m not a super important part of the team, but we are very close, and it was amazing and surreal to be here for the opening and to see how our exhibit is helping others learn about what happened here or process their own experiences. The week and a half that followed–greeting guests, talking to them as they came out, and monitoring their reactions within the exhibit–was equally surreal. It was difficult for me, as I realized how much of a language barrier I am still facing (and how little progress I am making and how that is mostly my own fault), but I enjoyed working with English-speaking tourists and spending time with the team. In a way, it felt like a culmination of my entire experience here in Bosnia, and I am deeply sad that I will miss the opening of the actual museum in August. For the WCM itself, it was an excellent beginning, but for me, it almost seemed like a bittersweet ending.

On May 7, I joined some of the students at FIN on a road trip to another opening–the reopening of the Fehardija Dzamija (Mosque) in Banja Luka. This mosque was one of many religious structures that had been destroyed during the war, and its reopening was especially poignant because when they first attempted to rebuild it, in 2001, a group of nationalists attacked the cornerstone ceremony. I skipped a concert by my favorite local band to attend the reopening, and some of my friends (and my parents) were absolutely shocked that I chose to do so. When my friend Esma came into my room at literally 2:50 AM on Saturday to wake me up for the trip, I also had my regrets. However, once we made it to Banja Luka (folk music blasting the whole way–one of my students sent me an email later saying “I’d apologize for the music, but then again, we are Bosnian…”), I was glad that I went.

First, we visited the castle (a second trip for me) and ate cevapi at 9 AM (because college students). Then as we walked through the city center, the students wanted to visit Orthodox Cathedral, which I had only seen from the outside. Quite honestly, given the tensions of the day (there were more police officers than I had ever seen in my life stationed around the city), I didn’t want anything to do with anything associated with the Serbian Orthodox Church, but I also didn’t want to wait around by myself outside, so I went inside with them. The students immediately went to the front office, introduced themselves as theology students from FIN, and asked if somebody could show us around and explain the iconography. The priest who showed us around was very kind–he told us about how important it was that people in this post-war generation are still interested in learning in other religions, and told us how he wished everybody on both sides (not just students studying theology) would be interested in learning from the others. The students’ interest in learning about other religions has left me speechless on numerous occasions, and this was no exception. My own reluctance to enter the church shows how easily people can be divided by fear and false stereotypes about what lies on the other side. For the millionth time this year, it occurred to me how much I am learning from my students rather than teaching.

We then went to the ceremony, which was long and hot and difficult for me to follow with my pitiful Bosnian, but still very moving. Several of the professors at FIN made speeches or provided narration. I wasn’t crazy about all of the speeches (for example, the two ministers from Turkey kept talking about how great Sarajevo is, which was just uncomfortable to hear in Banja Luka), but I was glad that I was there when the muezzin performed the azan, or call to prayer, at the end of the ceremony. It was one of the slowest but most beautiful azans that I have ever heard (and trust me, I have heard a lot of azans at this point!) People knelt to pray on their jackets in the street; I am not a model Christian by any means, but even I murmured an “Our Father” and took a moment to thank whatever higher power gave me the path to be here in Banja Luka on this day–it felt like the right thing to do. 

All of these openings have made me think of my own sense of openness–to new experiences, to new friends–that I have worked on over the past year. I have always been a fairly open and honest person, but this year, I feel like I have worked even harder to meet people and open myself up to them, especially with my students and colleagues at FIN. It’s gotten me into a few awkward situations–friendships that I’ve tried too hard to make work–but for the most point, I feel such a strong connection with people that the thought of leaving is almost impossible. I feel like crying almost every day at tiny moments–seeing the roses outside my faculty, goodbye gifts from my students, after spending time in my favorite professors’ offices–because I know that these moments are so fleeting, and the world is moving so fast. I know if I didn’t spend so much time at FIN or if I didn’t try so hard to get to know my students, leaving would be easier. As much as it hurts, though, I am glad that I opened myself up to everything that happened this year. If I learned one thing this year, I think it is: “The more love that you make, the more love that you will take.” I feel like I have given so much to FIN and to Bosnia this year, and sometimes I felt unappreciated, but the return on this investment–the palpable sense of belonging, acceptance, and community that I feel whenever I walk into FIN–has been in many ways, even better than I ever imagined.

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