Down with all sorts of intolerance

Pillow talk, 1.30 a.m.. But it’s no night for sweet nothings. Not after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. This cold-blooded slaughter of journalists, artists and police officers has chilled the heart of Europe. Reading some reactions, it sounds like civilisations are clashing all the way from Paris to our bedroom. Maybe we should draw a line along the mattress between two rather errant adherents of the world’s most (deservedly) maligned religions.

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On one side of the bed, a tired ‘foreign’ soul is trying to get to sleep. A ‘native’ near-insomniac natters into the wee hours. Midnight browsing through Twitter is rarely soporific. Though this evening? Among the words of rightful condemnation, there’s a burgeoning and self-righteous streak of hate. Coming from erudite voices who’d consider themselves ‘liberal’. Comments from across the globe, from Ireland…

‘You’d love to say something. Like start a conversation about this.’

He stifles a yawn but, despite his fatigue, he’s worried. ‘So why don’t you?’

Submission. Fear of what others will think. Often we violate our freedom of expression by obsessing over perceived social norms. You wouldn’t want to be labelled as… Disrespectful? A crank? Some kind of sympathiser? OMG(od-or-Western-Values) no! The perpetrators of terror are a threat to everyone. Yet a little dialogue mightn’t hurt. Especially here in Ireland where there’s a tendency to brush over cultural difference with a laissez-faire approach that silently advocates assimilation. Fáilte… if you’ll act like us.

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It’s reminiscent of the ‘Father Ted’ show about the reception that people from China got when they arrived on godforsaken Craggy Island. Broadcast in the mid-nineties, while Ireland was at the beginning of a wave of immigration, this episode of the sitcom featuring three eccentric priests still sums up Irish attitudes. ‘The Chinese – a great bunch of lads!’ Ted declares at the conclusion of his ‘multi-ethnic’ slideshow in honour of the newcomers. His Asian guests are unimpressed – the presentation was held to make amends for the cleric’s racial abuse of them. But cross-community relations are salvaged by pints in the local pub, where Ted’s earlier gaffes are forgotten (until closing time). ‘More drink!’ Cheers ensue. Sure doing as the Romans do is grand.

The series, which ridiculed certain bizarre aspects of Irish life, was a huge hit with my Bosnian. It constituted a major part of his intercultural education. He learnt that ‘down with this sort of thing’ (written on a placard outside a small-town cinema) is a priceless response to any form of blasphemy. He still laughs out loud at the reruns – knows the lines better than I do.

‘Shows how much time you’ve spent watching TV.’

‘Careful now!’ quotes the Balkan Ted-head.

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In Ireland, Ted and Co. were instantly popular. Only the most conservative moralists objected to their irreverence. The rest of the country chuckled at this Anglo-Irish production. The main actors were Irish comics, so everything was fine. We were just slagging ourselves and the idiosyncrasies of an era which, by the end of the twentieth century, was on the wane.

More hallowed topics such as the tragedy of the famine of the 1840s could, however, prove less hilarious. At least in the minds of some who view a proposed British comedy about the ‘Great Hunger’ as a wound to Ireland’s psyche. How dare the ‘ould enemy’! Though, looking back, their aversion to this type of joke isn’t surprising. Historical portrayals of the Irish as simian drunks by English cartoonists don’t seem too funny. ‘Punch’ magazine, for example, printed masterpieces in the art of racist offence. But satire, even if tasteless, can never be something to die for…

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Two days later – further attacks in France. Concern at terrorism in our midst, rising Islamophobia. It’s strangely familiar. I’m telling the non-radical-Muslim in the house about sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. How it spread a similar sense of dread, how it unjustly implicated whole communities. The killing of workers in Kingsmills, the murder of musicians from a seventies show-band – the region where I grew up is haunted by such barbarity. And, also, the bombs in England which left Irish people who lived there the target of derision and suspicion.

Then we’re satirising each other again. No shortage of skit material in a ‘mixed marriage’. Yeah, it might’ve been easier if he’d met a Muslim girl and I’d fallen for a Catholic guy, preferably of our own nationalities. But probably there’d have been less dark humour. Anyhow, that’s not how fate operates. With us, it was coup de foudre… followed by a work in progress. Varying perspectives always need to be negotiated. Dealing with cultural diversity in pre-millennium rural Ireland, awareness of identity in post-war Bosnia, and after 9/11… It hasn’t exactly been a ‘garden of roses’ relationship but it’s forced us to challenge prejudice.

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Free speech. Well maybe now it’s time to talk. About the violence in Paris. About the brave blogger, Raif Badawi, who was flogged and imprisoned this week in Saudi Arabia. About those killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria. About Syrian refugee children dying of the cold. To question why some issues get prioritised by the media. To be liberated from our insulating ideologies and respect all people as equal brothers and sisters.

Because life is a constant lesson in trying to understand. Sometimes – perhaps through love’s smiles and tears – it makes us re-evaluate things we’ve taken as given. And that can help us create unique pieces in the mosaic of co-existence which illustrates humanity. Teaching us to say in a personal, meaningful way ‘Je suis…’

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Food, fun and faith for funds

Climbing hills, dressing up as Celts, weaving trendy accessories… Over recent weeks, my family and I have learned a few new skills – all for the sake of the Irish Red Cross ‘Balkans Floods Appeal’. Internationally, the extreme flooding witnessed in May in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia is no longer deemed ‘newsworthy’. But for the many thousands of people now struggling with its aftermath, the consequences of the disaster are very real.

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The world’s cameras have zoomed out. They’ve taken their shots of the torrents and their aerial pictures of settlements submerged in muddy water. There are horrors breaking elsewhere or popular distractions like sports and show-biz to be filmed. As reports wane, assistance often follows a similar pattern – any immediate surge of interest tends to fall off fast. In our case, though, we simply couldn’t forget. My husband’s uncle and aunt live in Bijeljina and they were personally affected by the floods. This brought the crisis home to us. We had to try to help in whatever way we could… hence our series of events for the Balkans Floods Appeal.

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Our efforts were small-scale. They began with our daughters’ bracelet-making scheme around our neighbourhood and our trek over a windswept Irish mountain (see previous post). The success of these early endeavours, which raised almost €600, inspired us to do more. Phone calls and email enquiries ensued. Plans were hatched in between late night World Cup matches. Football became addictive viewing but, far from being a diversion, it strengthened our commitment to our fundraising campaign. Supporting Bosnia can’t just be about yelling at a screen beaming 90 minutes of excitement from South America. Nevertheless, like millions in the worldwide Bosnian fan club, we celebrated the team and lamented their premature exit from the tournament.

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Bosnia’s sojourn in Brazil may have been brief but, in our house, it was memorable. The children took huge pride in their father’s country, especially as their mother’s hadn’t qualified.  And they loved the pre-match parties featuring blue and yellow ice-cream sodas, Irish attempts at ćevapi, and Fox’s biscuits on which I’d inscribed best wishes to the ‘Dragons’. Few of the neighbours could’ve missed the giant flag fluttering from one of our upstairs windows as we put Bosnia and Herzegovina on the local radar. Through football banter, we also talked about current issues in the Balkans and let people know about our fundraising.

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We continued on 26 June – the day after Bosnia’s victory against Iran – with a coffee morning at my husband’s workplace in Dublin. His employer, the Irish Medicines Board (IMB), has a welcoming attitude towards charities and many of his colleagues offered to bake for us. This was just as well because domestic science lies beyond my comfort zone. As a person who only willingly cooks for ‘cultural occasions’, such as the World Cup and major feast days, I must admit that the prospect of producing fare fit for public consumption was pretty daunting.

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I opted for my tried and tested ‘hurmašice light’ – a reduced-sugar version of the traditional Bosnian recipe. Luckily, my limited repertoire also extends to shortbread cookies. So I rustled up three dozen of these and decorated them with the flags of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. (Chef’s tip: ready-to-roll icing, dyed with tinted food gel, works a dream.) My ‘Balkan’ treats looked cute but the staff of the IMB proved true culinary geniuses. Their scrumptious chocolate cakes, lemon drizzle slices, profiteroles, caramel squares and other delicious goodies formed a mouth-watering array. In addition, they were unbelievably generous – donations received at the coffee morning amounted to €820.

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Two days later, we were fundraising again. Though, this time, it was much closer to home. I’d spoken to one of the priests of the small, rural parish in which we live – Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth – about our ideas to help flood victims in the Balkans. He gave us great encouragement and suggested we hold a church-gate collection in aid of the Irish Red Cross appeal. Having obtained the required Garda permit, we were able to proceed with this on the last weekend in June. We started at the evening mass on Saturday 28 – a date of particular historical significance, exactly one hundred years after the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was killed in Sarajevo. Due to this anniversary, Bosnia got a quick mention in the media (including a few moments of TV news in Ireland) as the centennial commemorations of World War I began. But while academics and journalists debated the region’s past, our focus was on its present problems.

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By coincidence, June 28 was also the first day of Ramadan. My husband – probably the only Bosnian Muslim to have manned a charity bucket outside an Irish Catholic church – was hungry as sunset approached. Both of us were heartened, though, by the response to our collection… and ever-so-slightly nervous about its next stage. Prayers were said that the fine weather we’d been blessed with would last. Fortunately, it appeared that someone ‘up above’ was listening because Sunday dawned with divine radiance. This was a relief since we had four services to cover in the two churches of the parish. At each, people showed incredible goodwill and altogether we collected €610. The inter-faith dimension of the event was also important. It touched on what should be at the core of all religions – concern for humankind and generosity of spirit. These are values rarely emphasised in a world that seems to thrive on division.

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Our final event took place in the Marshes Shopping Centre in the nearby town of Dundalk on Saturday 5 July. The administrator of the centre kindly provided us with this opportunity to collect on the premises. And I became ‘well-known to the Gardaí’ – not for involvement in serious crime but for seeking police permission for a second collection in rapid succession. We made an attractive display with information about the floods and their impact on the Balkans. But to really grab the attention of passing shoppers our daughters wove more ‘loom’ bracelets. This kept them occupied (and out of trouble) through the first week of their summer holidays. Industrial quantities of tiny bright hoops were turned into awesome wrist-bands. Glitter, glow-in-the-dark and metallic designs were available. Colour combinations to represent Ireland, countries of the Balkans and surviving World Cup nations, catered to the tastes of both boys and girls.

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The shopping centre was rather quiet on Saturday morning and, yes, that freaked me out a bit. However, I needn’t have worried as it got much busier in the afternoon and our stall, which was in a prime location, drew many visitors. Children coaxed their parents to stop by and were thrilled at our range of bracelets. We gave these as ‘thank you’ gifts for donations. Teenagers made their own contributions and adults took considerable interest too – from our local senator, Mary Moran, who was very supportive, to a young couple from Croatia who’d recently come to live in Dundalk. It was lovely to talk to people, not just about the Balkans but about their experience of fundraising for various causes. By the end of the day we’d collected another €340 for the Irish Red Cross. Our daughters were especially pleased that they, and their handiwork, had played a crucial role in this achievement.

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This collection brought the total raised from our action for the Balkans Floods Appeal to €2,360. It multiplied by almost forty times the €60 we’d already donated online. In five weeks, with a little effort and a lot of enjoyment, we’d increased far beyond our expectations the help we could offer as a family. We’re extremely grateful to all who contributed. They’ve demonstrated that Ireland’s capacity for altruism hasn’t been crushed, that humanity remains a powerful force. From a practical standpoint, we’ve also seen that by organising simple, replicable activities it’s possible to maximise the response to any appeal.

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Regarding the floods in the Balkans, we can only hope that external aid will flow to the affected areas and that this will target those who are most vulnerable. Meanwhile, we’re preparing to go to Bosnia next week. We’re not sure if we’ll be able to travel to the flood-hit regions – logistics, children and time constraints will determine this – but we’ll try. Even if we can’t, we’ll bring with us a positive message from Ireland. We’re glad to say that some people here are aware of current challenges in Bosnia. Better still, they’ve shown that they care.

Please continue to support the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Here’s a summary of our fundraising:

31 May – children’s sale of bracelets, Blackrock, Co. Louth: €125

7-8 June – Táin March, Dundalk and Carlingford, Co. Louth: €465

26 June – coffee morning in the Irish Medicines Board, Dublin: €820

28-29 June – church-gate collection in Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth: €610

5 July – display stand in the Marshes Shopping Centre, Dundalk: €340

TOTAL  raised for Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: €2,360

Thank you/hvala to everyone who helped!

Read more about our fundraising in my previous post: 
 

The rocky road to Rio, via Sarajevo

Sport has never been my forte. Swimming I can manage, but only in the serenity of the Adriatic Sea. My ten-year-old outclasses me at tennis and I can hardly run to save my life. Nor am I a great spectator. I lack the patience. Or is it passion? In football terms, anyhow, I wouldn’t be what Bosnians call a ‘fantico’. Although I’ll scream at TV screens when national pride is at stake. And, to my shame, Ireland versus England brings out the raving bigot in me… Sorry!

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Yes, sometimes nerds can share the adrenalin high of dedicated sports fans. Often it’s found in the buzz of rooting for the underdog… particularly if that lowly side comes from somewhere special. So count me among the supporters of the soccer team from Bosnia and Herzegovina! As reported by the global media, their qualification for World Cup 2014 made history. More importantly, on the domestic front, it brought huge joy to our house. Perfect timing too – hours after Ireland had been hit by yet another austere budget.

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Ostrich-like, our heads were stuck in sand dunes of avoidance at any mention of economic news. However, even before the match started, there were plenty of welcome distractions. As well as football D-Day, it happened to be Bajram, as the Muslim festival of Eid is known in Bosnia. True to my tradition of cooking for cultural occasions (and not much else) I was preparing a typical Bosnian spread. Well… a slightly lower-cal version of it – to reduce the risk of fatal cholesterol overdose. Burek and sirnica had just gone into the oven when we heard it was 1:0 in Lithuania. Or so the tweets suggested as, scrolling down my phone with greasy fingers, I noticed word-long messages simply declaring: ‘GOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL!’ Fear not, this isn’t as ghastly as it may sound in English. Au contraire, when followed by a string of blue and yellow emoji, it’s profoundly positive. Things got better still – my husband burst into the kitchen to tell me the guy who’d scored was one of his friend’s (approximately seven billion) cousins. Seems we have an eternal claim to fame!

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Tense minutes dragged – for the person glued to the internet. As I was having a culinary melt-down… Bosnian food is delicious but very labour-intensive. Finally, though, our Bajram meal was ready to be served. However, at about the same moment, a whistle blew in a distant Baltic city. Victory! Fortunately, my precious pita wasn’t incinerated amid the subsequent exultation. Bosnia and Herzegovina were heading to Brazil! The kids immediately asked if we could go too. Sadly, the latest round of Irish fiscal adjustment has quashed all hope of Rio, unless we get lucky in the EuroMillions lotto. But, at least, we’ve got one of the family’s teams to cheer. While Ireland might’ve salvaged credibility with a win over Kazakhstan, its Brazilian quest had already proven vain. Yet Irish disappointment was suddenly irrelevant. The night belonged to Bosnia. Through every form of social media, photos, songs and fireworks whizzed across the diaspora. Sarajevo erupted into jubilance. Celebration went viral. Bosnia was trending with a rare shimmer of success.

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Maybe that’s the beauty of the game – its power to generate euphoria, no matter how ephemeral. A football match can’t heal post-war divisions. It won’t make life, for most Bosnians, any less of a struggle. But, for one evening in October, past scars and future uncertainty were forgotten. It felt like Ireland’s trail to Italia ’90. That virginal delight of qualifying for our first World Cup… especially as it came when horizons still seemed bleak. Then, Ireland’s reputation was defined by violence in the North, economic stagnation, corruption and emigration. As a nation, we were minnows – a poor, peripheral member of Europe’s clan. Perhaps our status now isn’t that different. Though surely, in the late 1980s, our FIFA rankings were higher.

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Soccer gave us a boost. Long reviled as a ‘foreign’ rival to native Gaelic (all-limbs-allowed) football, it helped us to restore faith in ourselves. Everything stemmed from Stuttgart… The European Championships in 1988 saw the epic defeat of our former colonial masters by a team that couldn’t be described as quintessentially ‘Irish’. Lads from mixed backgrounds joined the squad. Red hair and a thick brogue weren’t exclusive criteria for selection. Once a chap could trace his granny’s roots to somewhere between Dingle and Donegal, all he needed was the skill and the will to win. And the country got behind this motley bunch. Singing tributes to our English manager, we became ‘part of Jackie’s army’. Houses were re-painted in the Irish colours. Babies were taught how to chant ‘olé!’ Flags were draped from windows until their edges frayed. Years were spent paying off that pilgrimage to Italy.

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But, as the expression goes, ‘the craic was ninety’. Even if – in retrospect – it was quite over-the-top. Sport is no panacea for the trials of reality. The diversion it provides is akin to bread and circuses. Or beer and football, in many Irish cases…  And soccer itself is tarnished. Racism on the field and in the stands, fans with neo-Nazi links, and hooliganism are some of its corollaries. Allegations of match-fixing, bribes and seedy deals, the exploitation of workers building stadia for major tournaments further undermine its ethos of ‘fair play’. Exorbitant salaries paid to players who are seized by a celebrity culture that turns them into idols, then ogles their fall from grace, also attract bad press. Nor is football the automatic leveller of fraught pitches. Ireland, for instance, is home to two ‘international’ teams, both of which have their own distinct fan-bases. In its northern counties, the Scottish Premier League gets harnessed for sectarian purposes. Identities are gauged from Glaswegian club preferences – are you for Celtic or Rangers? Bosnian soccer is plagued with similar problems. More complicated, as the potential split is threefold. Still, nothing can detract from the achievement of a team that, whatever cynics and propagandists say, is multi-ethnic. So, in our hearts, we’re with the Zmajevi

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All the way to Brazil! An amazing country – I had the sheer good fortune to visit it in 1990. On a holiday I’d won, at the age of sixteen, as first prize in a national competition for poetry. Back when I’d the guts to enter contests… The week I spent there, accompanied by my rather overwhelmed dad, was unforgettable. It’s a place that rightly revels in its diversity. Yet, although I had no previous travel experience, I was struck by the starkness of its inequality. Dual faced Rio de Janeiro – a city of hills, where favela-covered slopes plunged down upon the opulent Copacabana coast.

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On our last day in the city, we took a tour by taxi around its centre. In a battered VW Beetle which, fuelled with ‘alcool’ (a cheaper, ethanol substitute for petrol) reeked of booze. We passed the famous Maracanã stadium and another striking example of modern architecture, the cone-shaped cathedral. Naturally, my devout father wanted to drop in to say a prayer. Possibly to beg God to grant us safe passage home, after our numerous adventures. The driver, however, advised against any such show of piety. His unequivocal Portuguese – ‘drogas!’ – as he mimed a point-blank shot to the head, was enough to convince us to stay inside the car.

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Brazil has made substantial progress in the decades since. Today, with its economy at a ‘newly advanced’ stage of development, it’s added its initial to the BRICS. But it’s been the scene of popular unrest. And many of the issues prompting recent protests relate to the extravagant hosting of next year’s Mundial and the 2016 Olympics, when poverty remains rampant. Sporting glory, it appears, can’t eradicate suffering in a country of two halves.

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A glimpse of Brazil… it’ll always brighten my mind with vivid snapshots, such as those from our brief trip to Amazonia. There, among other escapades, I got my heel clamped between the jaws of a jaguar (it may have been crippled, but its teeth were sharp as sabres). We also journeyed by boat through a confluence called the ‘Meeting of the Waters’. Where, due to a temperature difference, the dark Rio Negro and the silt-rich Rio Solimões flow in separate shades for several kilometres. Until, mingling, they become the largest river in the world. And so, perhaps, with football…

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My dreams of returning to Brazil aren’t likely to get much further than a café of that name in Sarajevo. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance again to sample its chocolate-oozing palačinke (scrumptious crêpes). As for soccer, thanks to a testosterone deficiency, I’ll never understand the offside rule. But when it comes to shouting at the TV, you’ll hear my roars – and those of my ‘dragons’ in Ireland – right to the very top of the Corcovado.

‘Hajmo Bosno! Hajmo Hercegovino!’

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Guess who’s meeting the parents…

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.

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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?’

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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.

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‘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.’

‘Why?’

‘’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…

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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.

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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.

‘Hurmašice light’ – celebrations without borders

Cross-cultural cooking… I didn’t think this blog would begin in the kitchen. Not exactly my environment, suffice to say I’m not a fan of MasterChef. But today, I’m rolling up the sleeves, checking out recipes and trying to remember to switch the oven ON. My brief culinary conversion must be due to divine intervention, for this miracle occurs four times a year and coincides with the festivals my family celebrate: two Muslim (Bajram, as Eid is called in Bosnia) and two Christian (Christmas and Easter). Today marks the end of Ramadan and we’ve just returned from Bosnia where, even amid the bustle of Sarajevo, the serenity of the month of fasting was tangible.

To be honest, my inter-faith family isn’t too much into self-denial. Be it Ramadan or Lent, we’re rather lax. Also, living in present-day Ireland, the cultural norms are different and attitudes towards religious observance have changed in recent years. Gone are the days of my childhood, when to eat a sweet between Ash Wednesday and Easter was to risk eternal damnation. Throat lozenges, being ‘medicinal’, escaped doctrinal bans and suddenly became delicious – though I’m not sure if fake coughing was a sin! But celebrations have always been important. And for my children, the chance to experience some of the common ground between their parents’ religions is something that might help them grow up more tolerant.

So back to the cooking. Assembling all the necessary ingredients, I know my attempts will be paltry compared to traditional Bajram spreads that run to many courses. I’ll keep it simple, though, with a little bit of fusion. And some cheating – shop-bought filo pastry! We’ll have burek (proper spirals) and sirnica (filled with a mix of cottage cheese and Philadelphia) along with improvised salads.

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Dessert poses the biggest challenge: my pièce de résistance – Bosnian cakes known as hurmašice. To be made from a recipe printed in Kuhar (Svjetlost 1965), a dubious gift from my mother-in-law shortly after my wedding. Unfortunately, I haven’t put this hallowed tome to a lot of use, but it comes out of the cupboard biannually for Bajram… with its measurements in dekagrams and vague tips for seasoned cooks who can judge correct amounts odoka. Still, it somehow works. I may never get them quite right, but my hurmašice go down well with the kids. Even hubbie, the connoisseur from Sarajevo, is impressed.

However, being Irish, I’ve slightly amended the instructions. When it comes to making the syrup, I’ve halved the sugar content. Hence, we’ve ‘hurmašice light’. Either gourmet heresy or how cultures blend and evolve… Anyhow, it’s a recipe I’ll pass on to my daughters. Taken from their grandmother’s cook-book, adapted with my pencilled-in suggestions. They can adjust it, as they like, to their own tastes.

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Wishing all who celebrate today, in Bosnia and across the world, Bajram Šerif Mubarak Olsun!