A Journey to Balkan’s Ancient Economic Hub: Novi Pazar (Serbia)

One of the most exciting things in Britain for the international students is affordable travel particularly in Europe. 

Low cost airlines can take you to many destinations for amazing prices. What is more appealing for us is easy access to European visas perhaps for many a dream, especially in times of global suspicion and economic trouble. During the time I have spent in the UK it has become apparent to me that for the British people going on holiday is as important as blood is to your body; this practice normally attracts international students too. Luckily, I managed to get a cheaper flight to Belgrade [Serbia] by Wizz Air and if you are a student extra discounted train connections to all airports in Britain are an added bonus. But sadly, the Wizz Air experience ended up being a disaster as the airline does not have any official presence at Belgrade International Airport. I learnt that by failing to produce a printout of an online check-in document even though its airline’s website stated that one would have to pay an extra £15 to catch a flight out.

On arriving at Belgrade airport, I quickly encountered an immigration officer who gave me a strange glance indicating to me that they do not embrace Pakistani tourists but after few searching questions proceeded to leave. What next is always a first priority for a tourist is to find a safe and secure hotel or city centre without hurting the wallet too much. Here too, I found a young Australian student who knew Belgrade and a bus service that can take you to city centre for just £2 which is a reasonable amount in comparison to a taxi ride. From Belgrade to Novi Pazar I met friendly Serbian students who barely spok English but nevertheless revered foreigners. I would suggest to anyone visiting Serbia that you obtain Serbian dinars, especially if you are taking morning   flight since the exchange office opens at 9 O’clock. 

Since 9/11 Pakistani identity has been engulfed with crisis around the world and this is often visible in places like Europe and America. In these troublesome times if one passes through the immigration with ease it is more likely in remote countries where people barely know anything about Pakistan other then what media feeds them. Terrorism, Extremism or a failing State!  It is surely a case of courteous experience, my journey to Southern region of Serbia, Novi Pazar, once a leading city, famous as trading and industrial hub, begins with a pleasant surprise when the Serbian visa counsellor tells me that for Pakistanis the visa fee is just £2 instead of £50 as in case of most countries. 

Novi Pazar means ‘New Marketplace’ and holds ancient monuments dating back to 1461 of its founder, Isa Beg. The most trusted and respected General in Ottoman history and a first governor of present day Sanjak including Bosnia, who also established beautiful cities of Sarajevo and Skopje along with many mosques, schools and other important buildings.  Novi Pazar historic heritage from Ottoman’s times is in grave danger with few old monuments, houses, cafes, hammam’s  and mosques may not see the next decade or so if the authorities fail to act now. One of the oldest Turkish mosques Altun Alam is a wonderful living piece of stone work and is in considerably good condition. 

A magnificent piece of art and perhaps the only hammam [Turkish bath] which has been converted into a café speaks volumes in relation to the remarkable past of the city. The present owner has put on display many old utensils, mud pots, wooden benches and perhaps once again could be easily converted to fully functioning items. As I enter the café the glamorous ancient Turkish style décor grabs my attention. The café walls demonstrate the traditional life style of Novi Pazar inhabitants through paintings and in one corner one quickly discovers coffee making pots that are indicative of the old ways of preparing the perfect cup of coffee. In Novi Pazar this traditional method is known as (Dzezva) and is very evident within the confines of the Hammam café.

When walking around the city centre one can easily detect and observe the hospitable nature of the Novi Pazar locals.  In Novi Pazar everywhere I went with my host, Hachim Rizvanovic a local religious and political figure, always introduced always me as ‘Musafir’ meaning ‘guest’ in their language. It surprises me to see small shops like ‘thalaay’ in our Raja bazaar are mostly visible here in Novi Pazar where you can buy amazing souvenirs. These shopkeepers mostly sell stuff from Turkey, India and China at nominal prices here. At one shop, I stumbled across an amazing piece of art, a model of Khana Kaba, and was rather gobsmacked to find this unique item so many thousands of miles away. The shopkeeper was very gracious in his hospitality after discovering I was from Pakistan and duly presented me a brass made model of historic mosque Altun-Alem a living symbol of 14th century Ottomans which is still an icon of Novi Pazar. 

Like any newcomer to this city, I was surprised to hear words from Arabic, Persian and Turkish languages such as; Marhaba meaning [welcome] Allah Amanat refers to [May God be with you]. Life in the surrounding villages is simple and traditional, especially for me, as it reminds of my time in the Himalayas; where people burn woods, slaughter animals in large quantities during the summer season using traditional methods of smoking to dry meat that they later use in the winter season. You can find this meat in different shapes in shops known as Mesar which means butcher. 

If you want to have a real taste of refined meat then the best place to buy dried meat is from local farm houses such as the one in the nearby village Paralovo. In addition to this, you can find few types of smoked meat in the city centre shops like Ukus, Boyajic, Micirlic, Zamo and Pepic.  There are two types of meat, one is called Sujuc and the other is Prshuta used to make a number of traditional dishes, soups, and sandwiches. 

Local culinary style borders upon traditional fayre. For example, the family gather around the dinner table; once a popular custom in England that seems to be under irrevocable decline. However, in Novi Pazar this tradition is alive and celebrated. The traditional itinerary would begin with serving juice and coffee to guests upon arrival, followed shortly by offerings of fresh fruits and nuts and last on the menu, providing it is not lunch or dinner time we were presented with a sweet dish like Baklava and Dudovi Humasice.

Manners are valued highly here in Novi Pazar there are peculiar customs for instance inside homes people wear socks (Popce) made from sheep wool which have many colourful designs. I learnt very quickly that in some families to be bear footed was considered to be a disrespectful act. Similarly, having been hosted by a few traditional families, thanksgiving is considered to be a well-known Muslim and Christian practice and considered as a must. I could not help but notice the guest stands at the guest entrance and leaves the gathering place as a sign of respect. This peculiar tradition can be traced back to Ottoman rule and it is perhaps for this reason the Persian word ‘Musafir’ meaning guest in the Balkan is considered to be a blessing from God. At dinner tables, guests always enjoy the privilege of having first pick of the main dishes. The city is rich in cafes and restaurants offering a great mix of traditional and modern places for eating and dining out. Some of the famous restaurants are Meydan, Gaziya, K2, Badem and Fontana. 

Novi Pazar museum is located at the centre of the city just opposite to Kultural Centre. The eye catching patterns on the ancient wooden door at the entrance and the magnificent pieces of turban carved stones that often symbolises high ranking Turks is on display in the museum lawn. The museum holds precious collection of the arts, manuscripts, weapons, pottery, coins, jewellery and costumes and other various momentous items that demonstrate the glorious past of this historic city from the times of Romans to Byzantines and Ottomans empires, it seems that everyone has left their indelible mark on history.

The most notable component of the museum is the display of Turk Muslims and Serbs in their everyday life throughout different stages of the last few centuries which to me spells out how Islam and Christianity are two civilizations that lived together for centuries in the same lands. Among many superb collections are musical instruments, weaponry and industrial equipments and Darvish objects that exhibit the importance of Novi Pazar particularly during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The city has revelled in its status of being the leading trade hub in the Balkans. Its most famous son, the renowned artist Muharem Radetinac commissioned a series of water colour paintings depicting every aspect of the city throughout history. The museum offers a complimentary booklet of his fabulous work compiled by Prof. Sait Kacapor to every visitor. A noble gesture, for more details about museum one may read at reaching http://www.muzejras.org/etnologija_e.html.

Novi Pazar has good strong links with the main Balkan States such as Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo which are only few hours by bus only costing a maximum of 15 to 20 Euros. If you have more time, the surrounding villages’ like Sopocani, is home to the ancient monastery founded by the Serbian king Uros during the 12th century. Delimedje, another local village holds the record for the highest minarets throughout Europe, standing 80 meters tall piercing the sky, a mosque that demonstrates the tolerance of Serbian government especially at a time where in neighbouring countries the construction of new mosques with tall minarets has been severely curtailed. 

Novi Pazar holds many secret treasures of all time of the most famous civilizations throughout the history from Roman and Byzantine rule right though to the Ottoman period. The journey to village Starčeviće is truly breathtaking as it brings home to you the amazing scenery that contains high mountains alongside the river Ribarice. Incidentally, Ribarice is a combination of two words ‘Riba’ meaning fish and Arice; cows sound giving you an everlasting memory. I stop by a few bridges along river Ribarice that runs from Kosovo to Serbia and imagined that I was travelling the Himalayas along the river Indus. Here at least one dozen types of the best quality fish around are available and these include: Pastrmka, Klen, Skobalj, Som, Saran, Smudj, Mlaica, Babuska and Deverika.
Unfortunately, life in these parts of the Balkan is not as luxurious as many other countries throughout Europe. Most people have to survive on a maximum salary of 300 Euros while the vast majority remains unemployed in Novi Pazar. As you walk in to the heart of city centre you find scores of young people roaming around with little or no hope for their future. I learnt and experienced in my two weeks long stay in Novi Pazar, once an industrial place that is now a home to socially and economically deprived people. Although this city presently has three Universities with a considerable number of youngsters intending to continue onto advanced studies however the opportunities to gain scholarships abroad are at a premium. Students from Gymnasium College told me that they may not pursue higher education despite having a desire to do so coupled with the fact that there huge uncertainties from the global economic downturn  which makes their survival rather precarious to say the least.

From what I have witnessed here it seems that the Serbian government has shown little signs of development. A country that is striving hard to be in the European Union camp appears to be somewhat apathetic to portraying the core values that the West stands for, such as ‘equality’ which means a discrimination free or a tolerant society but like other European countries living conditions for Cigan (Roma/traveller) here are too often an uphill struggle. In the Balkans, the wheatish skin people sometimes refer to themselves as being Egyptians since the word Gypsy originates from Egypt. But it seems that scholars on this subject as many believe they actually originate from Indian during the times of Afghan king Mahmud Ghaznavi. 

As I visit a nearby place in Novi Pazar, I saw a Cigan for the first time having a sizeable good house and doing scrap business. Despite being in Europe for more than eight centuries they are yet seen as problematic despite the fact that the vast majority of them are hard working and dedicated people but unfortunately they escape the glare of mainstream media organisations. Unlike in Britain where Channel television programmes My Big Fat Gipsy Wedding help viewers to better understand Roma people’s life. Sadly the picture of poverty is worldwide and this city is undoubtedly a victim of this image.  As I pass by, a child runs to me speaking in local dialect and I ponder upon the point as to whether this child is identifying with me based on the common skin colour we share.
One is not surprised to have stumbled across evidence of a shrewd programme designed to transform the demographics of Muslims majority Sanjak and thus reduce it to a economically deprived zone. This will surely result in an escalation of conflict and perhaps bring another unpleasant episode of bloodshed in the near future. History tells us that Sanjak has been Turkic for at least last five or more centuries in all its aspects ranging from culture, faith and traditions. Failure to decide uponSanjak’s fate is akin to a regional time bomb waiting to go off.

Prof. Jamal from Novi Pazar University unfolds interesting facts about everyday affairs relating to Muslims. For instance, the Hijab controversy that became the talk of the town in many European cities has little or no audience here in Novi Pazar where I see most young girls in Islamic dress complete with Hijab. 

The professor stated ‘hijab is not an issue here in Novi Pazar; perhaps someone may pass on strange looks to a hijab wearing woman in Belgrade’. Sitting at the steps of the University of Leeds I am thinking how a piece of cloth has become a matter of tension between two set of people while both Islam and Christianity ask their followers to adopt modernity. The Nuns!

By: Irfan Raja