A Lesson From Sarajevo

Noah By :  Burton L. Visotzky Nathan and Janet Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies Emeritus Posted On Oct 9, 2010 / 5771 | Torah Commentary | Interreligious

It was raining when we visited Mostar, a city enshrined in memory by Christiane Amanpour reporting for CNN while standing in front of the ruins of the historic bridge that had united the city before the war devastated Yugoslavia. In 1993, that bridge was destroyed by shelling after standing for 427 years. On one side lived Christians, and on the other, Muslims. Before the war, Christians and Muslims freely crossed the bridge. They did business together, rejoiced together, married one another. Families had extensive ties on both sides of the Neretva River (see photo below). As the Bible might say, they shared “the same language and the same words.”

When the bridge was brought down, it was as though their “speech was confounded” and they were “scattered over the face of the earth.” No longer did Christians and Muslims socialize. Quite the contrary, for four long years they murdered one another in a kind of tribal frenzy. “Great was man’s wickedness on earth and every plan devised by them was nothing but evil all the time.” The rupture of the bridge was more than symbolic. Although the old bridge of Mostar was rebuilt in 2004 (photo below), no one but tourists crosses it now. The day we visited, the hatred in the city was as palpable as the rain that fell upon us; as plentiful as the bullet holes that pockmark the face of almost every building there.

We drove north to Sarajevo, a city that considers itself European. After all, it was in this very place that World War I began, when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated on one of its bridges (photo below). In the rain again, we saw the city’s famous sights: we even trekked to see the famous Sarajevo Haggadah, recently celebrated in Geraldine Brook’s novel, People of the Book. But I preferred a different novel about that time and place, Steven Galloway’s heartrending The Cellist of Sarajevo. It tells the story of the siege of Sarajevo during the 1992–1996 war. It was so easy for snipers to shoot down into the city from the surrounding hills, and to shell its citizens with mortar fire, that today, when one looks down from those same hills, the most visible landmarks are the many cemeteries that dot the city (photo below). Yet somehow, the people of Sarajevo endured the siege and managed to do what the good folk of Mostar could not—resume relationships after the war and embrace life anew.

Our hotel room in Sarajevo looked out on a Catholic school from one window and on a mosque from the other. The music of the city was a sonata of church bells with counterpoint from the call of the muezzin in the minaret. The streets were mixed, the cuisine was mixed; the markets had Muslims, Christians, and Jews shopping side-by-side. We visited a church, mosque, and synagogue (photo below), all within a short walk. Sarajevo, too, has scars of war; yet the ambience is radically different from what we found in Mostar. Perhaps it is because Sarajevo considers itself cosmopolitan.

But I think the secret of Sarajevo lies elsewhere. Not only in the self-regard of its citizens, although that is surely a factor; but in the leadership of its clergy. Most notably, that of its outspoken Muslim leader, grand mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mustafa Ceric (photo below). Imam Ceric is a cosmopolitan man himself, having grown up in what was then Yugoslavia, studied Islam and Arabic at Egypt’s famous al-Azhar University, and then gone on to earn his doctorate at the University of Chicago. I met Dr. Ceric in New Haven, for a conference on Muslim-Christian relations (I was the token Jew there), and again in Madrid, Spain. When we travelled to Madrid at the invitation of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for an interreligious dialogue, it was Mustafa Ceric who calmed the waters between Jews and Muslims over the Israel-Palestine conflict. He, a Muslim, counseled peace and serenity, cooling down tempers and gently moving our dialogue forward.

I heard the grand mufti preach at a Friday Juma’ah service held for the Muslims when we were in New Haven. He took as his topic one of the five principal Muslim prophets mentioned in the Koran, Nuh, or as we know him, Noah. Here is a paraphrase of what the grand mufti preached to his overwhelmingly Muslim audience that day:

My friends, today, now, we are Noah. The flood waters swirl around us and the rain continues to pour. I say to you that we are all in the same boat, together. We have two choices. We can all work together and survive the flood. Or, we can continue our petty conflicts and drown. If we work together, we can do God’s work. If we believe that our way is the only and exclusive way to worship the one and only God, we are in error. As the Holy Koran says, “We have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” Not that you might fight one another, but know one another and work together.

Imam Ceric continued by repeating that we are all in the same boat. He pointed out that having lived through the siege of Sarajevo, he knew only too well the horrific cost of interreligious violence. He quoted our Torah portion, “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). He told all assembled what it was like to see friends cut down by snipers’ bullets. How interreligious violence left bodies unburied—like in the days of Noah. How everywhere one turned, one saw the signs of hatred and fratricide. Imam Ceric concluded with a heartfelt plea:

We cannot go back to those dark days of the flood, my friends. We are all in the same boat. Let us work together and ride out the storm with shared faith in our God.

I reply to him today as I did then, “Amen.”

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.