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Vol 3, No 3
22 January 2001
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Learning to Pray at Five Thousand Metres
A personal encounter with Balkan Islam
Dan Damon

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

—T S Eliot, "The Journey of The Magi"

In January, when the Epiphany story of the Three Wise Men is being retold in churches, I think about how religions meet and change each other. For me, that's the greatest lesson contained in the picturesque biblical description of the three Magi. They were drawn to Bethlehem to see something or someone foretold in the stars and signposted by the brightest star of all.

T S Eliot's poem portrays them as mystic pilgrims, driven by visions, uncertain about why and unhappy along the way. "The cities hostile and the towns unfriendly and the villages dirty, and charging high prices. A hard time we had of it." (Any foreign correspondent knows how that works.) They were royal magicians or astrologers or scholars or just wise men.

There aren't that many details about them in the Matthew Gospel; in fact, it's only a guess there were three of them, from the number of presents they brought to the young Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh. But what is almost certain is that they did not share the same religion as the Jews they met in Bethlehem. They came a long way from the East, from a royal palace somewhere in Arabia or Persia, for a walk-on role in the nativity of Europe's dominant religion, Christianity.

"From the East" is the significant part of the tale. Ask most indigenous Europeans about Islam and they will base their responses on the idea that the faith whose prophet is Mohammed is in some way unnatural in Europe.

A few months ago, I interviewed an Evangelical Christian businessman in Birmingham in the English Midlands about how much of his money he was giving away to set up Evangelical radio stations in several countries of the developing world. After the interview, we were chatting about the way Birmingham had changed and he complained about the number of mosques being built there.

But why is that a threat? I asked. A population who want their children to go to worship every week sounds like an improvement. He didn't get it.

To him, and this is not an especially British response, Islam was an alien religion, brought from the East. The irony that he was spending his money exporting Christianity to far off countries and found the arrival of the devout in his own region somehow frightening was completely lost on him.

East is West

One of the good friends I made during the war in Bosnia is the Reis al-Ulemma, the leader of Bosnia's Muslim faithful, Mustafa Cerić. He has told me how often he has to remind people who start talking like that, about the Islamic threat to European civilisation and the ancient hatreds, that all Europe's main religions came from the East.

"Should I consider Christianity a threat because it came from Jerusalem?" he says. "Don't Christians all over Europe pray every Sunday in church to Jerusalem, comparing it to a kind of heaven? There are 25 million Muslims in Europe; they are as embedded a part of European culture as any other monotheistic religion, with much to teach."

Cerić is one the most ecumenical religious leaders around, I think, because he doesn't simply talk about tolerance, but he celebrates the ancient links between the four religions of his region—Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and Judaism. He is sure that Islam in Bosnia is different, and he sometimes says it is better than in other countries where the Muslim faith is observed, because in Bosnia Islam has co-existed as an equal with other religions. He is quick to say, as is another friend, Enes Karić, that the history of religious co-existence in Bosnia is a peaceful one in all but a few years out of the past half-millennium.

Enes is the first translator of Qu'ran into modern Bosnian and was education minister during the war. He calls the Balkans not "a clash of civilisations" but a place where civilisation is made because ideas flow and mix and spark to inspire new ways of thinking.

I have to admit that sometimes it's hard to imagine Muslims and Christians sharing a happy history together. I've seen too many tumbled minarets and smashed plaster Madonnas to believe that such harmony is easy. But I am sure the Balkans is a region where diversity is inevitable and tolerance has in the end been unavoidable; and unless we all in Europe learn to celebrate diversity our hopes for a better life are diminished.

Back to the Three Wise Men. For me, their appearance in the Christmas story has extra significance because I too made a hard journey with friends into a land of a different faith, through snow and ice, and came across people with powerful faith. I don't want to draw too many parallels, my journey was far more prosaic and I wasn't following any stars, but the circumstances of that journey meant that I was made more aware than many Christians, perhaps, of the part other religions have to play in the development and survival of the universal search for faith that I continue to believe offers the best hope for humanity.

High level meditation

My journey was in 1994 up the Baltoro glacier in Pakistan, as part of a Bosnian army mountaineering group trying to conquer an 8,000-metre peak, Gasherbrun II. You will have worked out that Bosnia was still at war in 1994, so how, and, even more, why should Bosnian soldiers want to climb one of the world's most difficult mountains?

It's a long story, and a good one, but maybe most of it has to be told another time. These fighters, most of them from a special unit that had defended Sarajevo since the start of the fighting in 1992, had been keen mountaineers before the war—Bosnia has a lot of lovely mountains, so if you lived there you might be a keen climber, too.

Through the long nights in the bunkers and trenches they had kept their spirits up by planning that one day they would all walk out of their besieged town and climb in the Himalayas—to them, I guess, barricaded in their urban war zone, a Himalayan summit was the perfect vision of freedom.

For a few brief weeks in early 1994, when Michael Rose, the new UN commander, showed signs of wanting to stand up to the besiegers, some new transit routes out of Sarajevo were opened for a few lucky people. The climbers got a permit to go. And they went to Pakistan, to climb an 8,000-metre mountain.

They didn't do what plenty of others, maybe anyone sensible, might have done, and as soon as they got out of town go to the beach and stay in the bar, or smuggle themselves into Germany. I had made friends with them during my reporting of the war, and I went with them to climb their mountain—not all the way, just to basecamp at 5,000 metres.

It was the hardest thing I had ever done physically—the roads kept getting washed away, and so it was dangerous too. And one blessing from it, the greatest, was that I met people of pure faith, true believers.

The porters and drivers, who carried our equipment and sometimes us across the raging rivers for hours every day, were Muslims, naturally, and Shi'ites, a sect that has a reputation for dangerous fundamentalism. Because they knew we were from Bosnia, and they'd heard on the radio that Bosnia was a place where Christians were killing Muslims, they assumed that we were all Muslims, too.

"Do you know how to pray?" they asked.

I had an excuse; I was Church of England. One of the mountaineers was a Serb, another a Croat, so they kept quiet too.

But most of the Bosnians couldn't pray either, and they were supposed to know. They celebrated the festival of Eid every year at the end of Ramadan, after all, with wild and drunken all-night parties.

So the Shi'ite porters set about saving us all from hell by teaching us to pray to Allah. And for me, suddenly, this was a revelation. High in one of the most beautiful places in the world, amongst some of the poorest people in the world on the material scale, I saw how powerful and how salvationary devotion to prayer and faith in God could be. To them as Muslims, with their village walls postered with pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, their submission to God was worth much more than the things they could get down the mountain in the towns.

I learned to pray their way, as we walked along the glacier; and I thought about the lives of those Muslims. When I came down from the mountain, I read Qu'ran, and I realised that the lessons and the challenges were very similar to those in the Bible, and I knew that better. It became clear to me on that long journey that the similarities between faiths are much more important than the differences, when it comes to trying to understand the mysteries of life and the value of morality.

A Croat in an Afghan village

Of course, the obvious conclusion I reached was that when Christians and Muslims fight, in Indonesia or Kosovo or anywhere, they aren't fighting over theology.

During our visit to Pakistan, before we set off up the glacier, we went to visit Afghan refugees in the camps near Peshawar near the Khyber Pass and the Afghan border. They were pleased to see us, in their village of pink mud beside a slow stream on the outskirts of town. We chatted about war and expulsion.

"When we have finished our war," said one elder, "we will come to help you kill the Christians."

My Croat friend and I decided not to go into details. We realised that for those Afghanis, the Soviet Army was a Christian army. For the fighters of Žepa and Srebrenica, Ratko Mladić was a Christian, too. Anyone tempted to claim that God is on their side in a war needs to think about that.

In Sarajevo recently to record a programme about the fifth anniversary of Dayton, I visited a place that I'd always avoided, the Jewish Cemetery above the Parliament. Anyone who knows Sarajevo will find it obvious why it was a place to avoid during the war; it was a high-scoring sniper post, and driving through the empty street with your foot to the floor and your head as low as you could get it was as close as you'd want to be.

But I've never really felt like going there since Dayton for another reason. Almost the whole Jewish community left Sarajevo in 1992. The Jews had arrived four hundred years earlier when the Inquisition threw them out of Spain. The Sultan thought their skills as craftsmen and knowledge of finance would be an asset to the Empire, and their resourcefulness proved him right.

The community managed to survive the Nazis in the Second World War. But at the end of the 20th century, the wealthiest civilisations in history watched on television as civilians were deliberately shot down, and one of the most characteristic symbols of the city's diversity was taken out in bus convoys with a few possessions in plastic bags.

We saw it; we all reported it clearly, yet obvious evil was allowed to become rampant because powerful people who went to church regularly and thought themselves good did nothing.

All the same lessons

A few mosques are being rebuilt again in some parts of Republika Srpska, which won't be enough to make us forget when they were knocked down, will it? And which only proves what we all knew. It will never be possible to keep any part of Europe exclusive for one group or religion. Luckily, people will have to live together, and pray together, whether they like it or not.

Every January, the Magi from the East could remind us of that lesson if we go along with T S Eliot's imagination. They were so changed by their meeting with another faith that they could never again settle to the narrowness of the religious observances in their homeland: "no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods."

Dan Damon, 22 January 2001

Moving on:


Jan Čulík
TV Spies

T J Majcherkiewicz
Poland's Central Banker

Sam Vaknin

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Swedes in Charge

Bernhard Seliger
Deutschmark und Ostmark

Brian J Požun
Carving up Slovenia

Jana Altman
New Czech Media Law

Beth Kampschror
War Criminals Roaming Free

Alex Smailes
Environmental Nightmare

Mel Huang
A Mosque for Tallinn

Wojtek Kość
Poland's Muslims

Dan Damon
A Rediscovery of Faith

Jonathan Bolton
Scott Spector's Prague Territories

Charles Sabatos
Josef Škvorecký's When Eve Was Naked

Peter Hames
Slovak Film

Andrew James Horton
Jerzy Stuhr's Latest

Štěpán Kotrba NEW!
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
Andrea Mrozek
Germany: Fears Abound

Oliver Craske
UK: Nukes Getting Nearer


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