It started in a Dublin pub. Two odd bods, not your typical punters, huddled over a table. One spoke with a Slavic accent – unusual for Ireland in 1995. The other dressed in a flamboyant ensemble, hot off the Oxfam rails.
We must’ve looked nervous. Sipping pineapple juice and Coca Cola, our drinks gave no Dutch courage for the task ahead. But, at least, the place was quiet. It was early enough in the evening – May or June, so barely dusk. And the phone was tucked away in a snug corner. We shoved a few coins into it. I grabbed the receiver, waited… until my mother answered. Here’s the gist of the conversation that followed:
‘I’m coming up at the weekend.’
At that announcement, Mum expressed surprise. During my college years, my visits home were infrequent. Female students – unlike their male peers – generally do their own laundry. And I enjoyed my independence, beyond the radar of ever-anxious parents. Still, there comes a point when generations must merge in a new way. But dealing with this, for the first time, wasn’t easy.
‘And eh… is it OK if I take someone with me?’
‘Who?’ I sensed apprehension at the other end.
‘Eh… like… a fella?’
Maternal palpitations pulsed down the line, along with implorations to divine powers. This was unchartered territory for my mother – hearing from her eldest about what, she’d immediately guess, was a serious relationship. Never before had a boyfriend been brought home… No ‘passing interest’ would’ve been worth the effort and, in truth, I’d steered clear of amorous attachments. There’d been offers, but I’d tended to fob them off – the last thing I needed to impede my youthful dreams was a man. Or so I believed, until I met a certain Bosnian… and discovered I might be the world’s only ‘romantic feminist’. Naturally, Mum was curious about my obviously ‘special’ companion. Interrogations began. And I remember saying:
‘Well, he’s not exactly Irish.’
A second or two of silence… my mother paused for deduction. At moments like these, I think she’s possessed of an uncannily strong sixth sense. Although sussing out the secret lives of daughters is a skill I’m trying to cultivate myself. Anyhow, she suspected a Balkan connection. She hadn’t approved of me spending the previous two summers in refugee camps in that conflict-torn region. Apparently I was ‘mad in the head’ for going there. Yet she knew the experience had left its imprint, even if I hadn’t filled her in on my subsequent involvement with newly-arrived Bosnians in Ireland. As far she was concerned, I was supposed to have buckled back down to my studies. Nevertheless, presuming an old beau from my travels, she asked:
‘What, is he from Croatia?’
‘No, but close… Bosnia.’
Mum’s response was muted – a whispered litany pleading for heavenly intercession. I blithely told her the name of my beloved and, no doubt, sang his praises. Then the pips… I’d run out of ten pence pieces. A blessing, really. My mother could digest the facts, before we resumed with Part II of ‘telling the parents’. Meanwhile, we sauntered across inner-city Dublin. After stopping at a shop for some spare change, we finally found a phone-box that hadn’t been wrecked by vandals.
‘Hi, it’s me again…’ On the far side, Mum still sounded out breath, so I breezed on: ‘There’s just one thing I forgot to tell you. Don’t cook ham – or any kind of pork – for dinner.’
‘’Cause he’s a Muslim…’
My mother might’ve already worked this out. The mid-nineties were pre-Google days but, from years of war reports, the ethnicities of Bosnia and Herzegovina were infamous. Whether or not she’d figured, panic crept into her tone. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were invoked, as I recall. It wasn’t prejudice, just the shock of confronting the unforeseen. And information overload… I’d thrown a lot of stuff at her in less than an hour. Getting over the concept of ‘boyfriend’ was the greatest hurdle. Now, with three girls of my own, I can understand her turmoil. When the first of my daughters tells me about her ‘Chosen One’, how will I react? It must be a seismic jolt to the parent-child dynamic. The differences of nationality and religion were further tremors. Significant, though, on the worry scale of a woman who’d always lived in rural Ireland. I reassured her that everything would be fine. Then, I asked if she’d break the news to my father…
Our visit to my homestead ‘passed off peacefully’, as they say of tension-charged events in the north of Ireland. There were some isolated faux pas… My dearest had to learn that taking photos of British army helicopters was not a good idea, while my Dad’s questions about life in the ‘former Czechoslovakia’ had me cringing with embarrassment. Reading Aleksandar Hemon’s wonderful ‘The Book of My Lives’, in which he traces his displacement from Sarajevo to Chicago, I laughed at similar queries he received from clueless Americans. Nowadays, though, my parents often get on better with their Bosnian son-in-law than with his wayward wife. To claim that they’ve embraced interculturalism is, perhaps, an exaggeration. But they’ve had their eyes opened to ‘otherness’ over the years.
Likewise, in Sarajevo, it took time to get used to the ‘blow-in’ addition to the family. Ironically, compared to Ireland, I found less fuss was made about religion, despite how it’d been exploited to stoke hatred during the war. Although Bosnian society was becoming segregated, people still had friends of different faiths. Occasionally, while living there, I said, ‘it’d be easier to be a Protestant’ – a ‘neutral’ denomination in the ex-Yugoslav states. But overall, I was accepted, especially by those who cherished Bosnia’s multi-ethnic heritage.
For my other half, being a Muslim in Ireland was somewhat ‘exotic’ back in the 1990s. In certain parts of the country, where religion and politics fuse, our relationship was preferable to one between a Catholic and a post-Reformation Christian. Foreigners also escaped some of the internecine censure which native ‘mixed’ couples often faced. However, after 9/11, it’s become a bit tougher… Thankfully, Islamophobic incidents are relatively rare here. But public attitudes towards Islam sometimes appear more negative, particularly as Ireland’s Muslim population increases.
Intolerance stems from preconceptions based on narrow stereotypes. And these are best overcome by meeting people. In our case, for both families, getting to know us as individuals tempered assumptions derived from raw indicators of identity. Of course, there’ll be instances of contention – integration demands negotiation. But it’s a worthwhile process, for the commonality among humankind, whatever our diverse backgrounds or beliefs, is so extensive.