This morning, I was treated to a good cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts. Good coffee always reminds me of my friend. We called him “Effendi.” He and I used to drink endless cups of amazingly good coffee together, the best I have ever had, when I lived in Opatija, Croatia.
It makes sense. Due to its location at the northern end of the Adriatic, at one time or another, Opatija (pronouced o-‘pot-i-ya) has been ruled by Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Blend these with the local Slavic influence and you’ve got way more than your typical cup of joe.
While I lived there, it was less than an hour drive to Trieste, Italy (most of that going through 2 border crossings) and right around two hours to Venice. The architecture in Opatija shows the blend of these great cultures. So does the food, and especially the fantastic coffee. I have never had a macchiato (here’s a recipe) anything like those I had in Opatija.
The Balkans is one of the world’s great melting pots of culture. Slavic culture’s western-most reach ends here in Serbia. Austro-Hungarian culture dips into Croatia. Ottoman influence is still alive in Bosnia.
Over the centuries, the human exchange between these three major cultures has led to both a flourishing social climate, and on occasion, tragically explosive and lethal politics.
For the year I lived there, I ran a refugee relief program funded by USAID. The war in the Balkans had just ended after the worst part of the Rigid Identities of the politicians of the area played up fear and extremism between these rich cultures instead of building on the amazing strengths they offer each other. If you’re old enough, you surely remember the genocidal results that followed in the horrific war that raged in the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s near the heart of central Europe.
My main work was to develop trauma response programs to help Croatians who had been forced from their homes to find a way back home. I had the even more difficult task of helping the far larger number of Bosnians return to their homes across the border. (Here’s a map of the region.)
These were people forced from their homes at gun-point. Women, children and men alike were all raped and brutalized, the men often killed in the process to try to break the spirits of the population so that they would never want to return. These cruel methods went along with a brutal military offensive to drive Bosnian Muslims and Croatians from their homes so that ethnic Serbs could claim land they felt was theirs. The result was a horrific genocide.
In our meetings, Effendi and I would drink endless cups of coffee together. It only dawned on me months after I arrived that the reason I never seemed to get any sleep was because business in the region is conducted over coffee. When I went to someone’s office, coffee was served, many cups. Or, as is the custom, we would meet in cafes to do business and drink more. By the end of the typical day, I would have had 12-15 cups of coffee. I usually can’t sleep after 2.
So, Effendi, who was the recognized leader of the Bosnian Muslim refugee community, and I would meet often to try to figure out how to help the tens of thousands of people forced from their homes to return to Bosnia. We usually met over coffee and chivapchichi (here’s the recipe).
I loved this man, but the endless, (and delicious) coffee and “chivap” were killing me.
Effendi and I puzzled over how to send people back to homes they had been forced from at gun-point. One day, while we met at the refugee community center, a ramshackle building the refugees rented, I put the question to Effendi. “How do we send people home without rekindling conflict all over again? Some will want to seek revenge. How do we prevent the people in the houses from getting violent? What can we do to make a difference?”
“Are you free Saturday morning?” Effendi asked.
“Then, come here at 7:00 for the children’s class. I want to show you something.”
A few days later, I arrived bright and early with Neli, my translator, to see what Effendi had in store for me. We climbed the stairs of the old building to the large public room that held about 200 kids. They were all threadbare having lost everything in the war, but immaculate and well pressed. They were sitting on the floor in neat rows facing Effendi who was already well into that week’s lesson to help prepare the children to return to their homes in Bosnia.
I was greeted with great respect and formality by the kids. Neli and I took our places. Effendi continued,
“Children, what is the first obligation of a Muslim when we return to our homes in Bosnia?”
In unison 200 strong, the children replied, “The first obligation of a Muslim, when we return to our homes in Bosnia, is to forgive the people living in our houses.”
“Children, what is the second obligation of a Muslim when we return to our homes in Bosnia?”
“The second obligation of a Muslim, when we return to our homes in Bosnia, is to ask the people living in our houses if we can help them.”
Shocked, and knowing full well what these kids had been through, I asked Neli to confirm what we had just heard. “Yes, that’s what he said.”
So, it was possible to return to Bosnia without violence. Effendi knew it could work. It wouldn’t be accomplished by a top-down administrative plan. This was the way. It would be done by many people making a very personal choice.
In fact, there has been no violence to speak of in Bosnia since the war ended.
Here is an example of the best of Islam and the power it can exert for peace. We need to reinforce these examples in a time of religious extremism of every sort. We are all prey to the worst in human nature. The best in every religion is capable of protecting us from the worst in us.
I think of Effendi, those kids and my choices every time I think I am entitled to be angry or hurt. Or, when I have a good cup of coffee.
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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD, copyright, 2011.