Photo by Tara Aldughaither
Photo by Tara Aldughaither

From Muscat to Zenica: the Value of Friendship when Building Projects

Tandem Shaml participant Tara Aldughaither (based in Muscat) went on her first placement to Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit her Tandem partner Lidija Pisker. Together, they are working on Women Heart Art. Tara now shares her reflections following this visit, with her first impressions about a country where she discovered more similarities and common history than she expected.

I had no idea the extent to which my country had a connection with BiH, but I should have known considering it is a “poor Muslim country” like Afghanistan. I have gained a better understanding of the politics of religion with this experience.

Photo by Tara Aldughaither
Photo by Tara Aldughaither

In my two-week visit, I faced many shocking reactions to my nationality.* I met actors, cultural activists, journalists, professors, café owners and waiters, bartenders, hairdressers, elderly people,… and all without exception expressed that my country “aided” them during the war, and that it also infiltrated with new mosques and books preaching religious missions, shaping a new Islamic behaviour in the cities that did not, in the eyes of many citizens, agree with their traditions or identity as Muslims.

While much of the artistic expression I saw in Sarajevo (museum, sculptures, music) expressed survival and commemoration of war-time, Zenica’s atmosphere proved to be different (although similar in its expression of struggle and survival).

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is one of the most culturally diverse and richly historical countries in Europe, with 50% of the population identifying as Muslim.

BiH was considered a secular country where tolerance existed between the very diverse people of its land under Yugoslavia and communist rule. Following the 1992 war, both the city and people’s lives have been fractured. While aid from Arab Gulf countries have succeeded in supporting local armies on the front-line, the influence of Salafi (extremist) Islam also took place. Today, Arab Gulf-funded projects like mosques and shopping malls create controversial and xenophobic opinions towards Arab Muslims.

Photo by Tara Aldughaither
Photo by Tara Aldughaither

Zenica’s past communist industry of steel milling has left it as the most polluted city in all of Europe, although internet sources deny this, placing Sarajevo at the top of the polluted city list. This is not true, I can tell you first-hand that Zenica is the most polluted city I’ve ever visited. After an hour of walking to my hostel one night, I entered my room to smell some sort of gas-like odor only to find that it was carried to my room through my hair. My eyes and nose were also slightly burning.

The buildings that were built just before the war are now living proofs of impoverished neighbourhoods, where children play football on naked courts and community centres for the elderly run without heating. There is a lot to say about the dysfunctionality of this city, but I will leave it to those who dare to visit.

The strongest impressions and memories I have of this trip were made during the two nights spent listening to music at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival and the night at the National Theatre of Zenica. There were also subtle moments which have formed lasting impressions during the walks I had in the two cities and serendipitous encounters with people. For the first time in a long time, I had interacted with people (who sometimes do not speak much English) without needing any introductions, and without feeling like we were strangers. The only person who felt like a stranger was the thief who stole my wallet, only because I didn’t get to look the person in the eyes.

I learned through this experience that my country has not been interested in redeeming the damage caused by the infiltration of extremist thoughts during their aid in the war. In many ways, this reflects the attitude patriarchy has on the damage it causes even on an individual level to its own citizens. It’s an emotionally difficult project to work with considering my background, which makes me even more driven to do something worthwhile. It’s also an organizationally challenging project seeing as BiH governments are so mistrusting of NGOs and Charities, taking 20% of the funds we will receive from Tandem. Lidija and I are going to try to crowdfunding.

Despite these challenges, I would say this trip was priceless. It came at a time in my life where I’m going through a very defining personal struggle. I have to say, it took a lot of faith and courage for me to explore a new place outside of my comfort zone during this phase in my life. What I learned is that I truly couldn’t have had the same experience without Lidija – companions and friends are the most valuable assets in our lives – a necessary reminder.

The Maujeh Project connects artists and cultural practitioners from Oman to Bosnia and Herzegovina and vice versa, in an effort to establish a new wave of exchange and to support the creative economy in both countries.