“How was your flight coming in?” Dzemal asked me, as he grabbed my suitcase and loaded it into the back of his ’80s hatchback. “God willing it was a good flight. Did you come all the way from America?”
“No,” I replied, “I came from Turkey. I’ve been teaching English there.”
“Oh, Turkey! Very nice, I know a lot of people from Turkey. Some Turks are staying in the inn tonight. Maybe you can meet them. But I don’t know, maybe you won’t see them. It’s hard to know what will happen, you know?”
Here we go, I thought to myself. It was nice of Dzemal to pick me up from the Sarajevo airport, but I can’t stand the idea of making small talk about possibly seeing some Turks who may or may not be staying in the hotel.
“Yeah,” I nodded tiredly, “who knows what will happen?”
“Exactly! Besides God, no one knows what will happen. That’s why I never make certain plans. Like today, I knew I would pick you up from the airport. But who knows if I could? Only God.”
My ears started to prick up at this. Although Bosnia is a fascinating example of religious mixing and turmoil – Sarajevo, a predominantly Muslim city was under siege for three years by Orthodox Serbian forces in the civil war in the ’90s – I didn’t expect to hear such a fatalistic Bosnian. At least, not only five minutes after arriving in Bosnia.
“What do you mean?” I asked cautiously.
“Like this. One day you could think everything is going well and then, boom! Suddenly the opposite happens. A war happens, your car breaks, you lose your money. Bad things can happen. Things you never knew about or expected, you know? God willing it never happens, but it can.”
“So you don’t make plans?”
“I do. But I’m always unsure, you know? God willing they will happen, but who knows?” Dzemal continued as he drove along the highway leading to his house, now an inn where I was planning to stay. My arrival had brought the heat to Sarajevo, and Dzemal brushed aside sweat that was trickling down his red face from his black curly hair.
“God tests you, you know? It’s like this. God is like your friends. Maybe you have lots of friends when you’re rich and buying drinks for everyone at the bar, you know? But if you become poor, where do these friends go? God is like this – he wants to make sure you are really his friend, so he tests you. If you are with him even when things are bad, then God knows.”
“I see,” I said. “So God always just wants to make sure people are really with him?”
“Yeah, like that. It doesn’t matter who you are, just if you are with God. Are you Christian?”
“No, I’m Jewish.”
“Oh, that’s cool, man” Dzemal continued. “There were Jews here for a long time. This was a great city, but now it’s shit. God willing you’ll like it, but it’s shit, man. It just makes me so sad how now all the time I have to defend my religion. People always hear these bad things about Islam in the news and politics, and it makes me sick, man. People say these bad things about the religion, but they don’t know it.”
“I understand. I lived in Turkey, I know how great Muslims can be,” I tried to reassure him.
“What makes me very sad too is all these bad people. All these bad people there who say they fight for religion. They are all just sick in the head. How can you fight for God? God said those that that kill one innocent is like they killed all the people, but those that save one innocent saved all the people? So how can they fight for God?”
Silence settled over the car. We drove along for a block or two, now in the center of Sarajevo, in complete silence.
“God willing you’ll love this city though, man.” Dzemal smiled at me. “On that bridge there Franz Ferdinand was killed by the Serbs.”