First as Hajj surrogates and now as refugees - this is the tale of how the presence of Arabs in Bosnia has transformed over the years.
On a July evening in downtown Sarajevo, Arab families make up the vast majority of guests in a luxury hotel. Several hundred meters away, a migrant from an Arab country stops passersby asking for 1 KM ($0.57).
The presence and visibility of both affluent tourists and migrants from Arab countries has become a familiar sight of a Sarajevo summer. With tourists from Arab countries flocking to Bosnia over the past several years, many were quick to point out that this is a new trend in the post-war country. The arrival of Arabs in Bosnia is not an entirely new development - there have been at least five waves of Arab arrivals over the last 100 years.
In the early part of the 20th century, before the discovery of oil, Arabs came to Bosnia seeking to be surrogates for Hajj pilgrims. The term bedel denotes a person who travels to perform the Hajj on behalf of a sick, elderly or a deceased relative.
A family sending a bedel pays for the costs of the pilgrimage as well as an additional amount for the effort. Bosnian chronicler Alija Nametak wrote in 1941 of how Arab visitors seeking to be bedels for Bosnians used to visit Sarajevo and other towns mostly during Ramadan. Spending a Ramadan in Sarajevo allowed a potential bedel to find affluent families seeking to pay for the pilgrimage of a loved one.
The second phase of Arab arrivals to Bosnia was mostly in the 1970s. Bosnia was then a part of the socialist Yugoslavia which was sympathetic to the Arab countries. Yugoslavia had, by the late 1960s, rebuilt from World War II and was seeking to punch above its weight diplomatically under Josip Broz Tito.
Students from Arab countries arrived in Yugoslavia in the 1970s to pursue higher education. Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians, Libyans and Iraqis studied in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb. While many returned home, several highly educated doctors stayed in Bosnia. Students of 1970s are still working in Bosnia in today and are nearing their retirement.
The third wave of Arab arrivals was during the war in Bosnia from 1992-1995. With the newly independent republic under attack, Arabs came to Bosnia both as aid workers and as combatants. Curtailed in its ability to defend itself due to a UN-imposed arms embargo, any assistance to Bosnia was welcomed. With aid sometimes came strings attached in the form of new interpretations of religion causing concern and unease among domestic Muslim population practising Hanafi school of Islam for centuries.
Most of the combatants left Bosnia soon after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords as did many of the aid workers in the postwar years.
The fourth wave started in 2014-2015 with the increased arrival of tourists from Arab countries. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the accompanying insecurity, Bosnia emerged as a destination of choice. The opening of luxury hotels over the past several years along with new flights connecting Sarajevo to Middle Eastern cities paved the way for a large influx of visitors. Seeking refuge from the summer heat in the Gulf, Arab tourists have frequently described Bosnia’s natural scenery and climate as “paradise on Earth.”
The fifth wave is the migrant crisis underway in the Balkans. With Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary closing their borders in early 2016, the Balkan migrant route was formally shut down.
However, with the increasing number of migrants stuck in Bosnia, the crisis became particularly acute in the country starting in early 2018. As the northwestern town of Bihac close to the border with Croatia has become the focal point of the migrant crisis, an increasing number of migrants are in the capital of Sarajevo. Young Arab migrants mostly say they are from Syria and Libya.
It is possible to see, a short distance apart, both extended families encamped in branded luxury hotels and young Arab migrants waiting outside shopping markets to take the trolleys back and keep the 1 KM coin.
The story of the Arab-Bosnia nexus does not begin during the last several years as much of the media hype would have it. Over the past hundred years, Arab travellers to Bosnia comprised potential bedels, students, aid workers, tourists and migrants. The dynamic has seen the roles reversed, and fortunes changed.
The discovery of oil and ravages of wars have changed everything. While in the early 20th century, Arab visitors came to Bosnia to be bedels for affluent Bosnian families, Bosnian men are now frequently seen as tour guides for extended Arab families on vacation in Bosnia.
Nowadays, Arab travellers to Bosnia comprise two categories with vastly different fortunes. Bosnia may very well be a “paradise on Earth” for affluent Arab tourists seeking refuge from the summer heat, but it is much more of a way station for Arab migrants seeking a brighter future in a new promised land: Western Europe.
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