The Western Balkans are home to the largest population of indigenous Muslims in Europe, but few people know about them and their culture is in danger of disappearing. In a new book, author Tharik Hussain shines a light on these unexpected parts whose history and identity have been shaped by Islam for more than 600 years.
How did you first come across these communities?
‘I knew there was a Muslim presence in Bulgaria, but I had no idea to what extent it still existed in the area. On a family holiday, we drove in from Romania through the mountainous north and suddenly started seeing all these little mosques. Some of them were obviously in use. I was shocked to realise Muslims were living here, in the middle of the Bulgarian countryside, and that they had a long heritage that had been deliberately eradicated. That’s when I decided to plan a bigger road trip through the Western Balkans that later became the material for my book.’
Your literary companion for this road trip was 17th-century Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi. Why him?
‘I wanted everyone to know about this amazing and interesting explorer, who I would say is in the same league as Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo, but has been widely overlooked outside the Turkish world. He offered a window into an era that we don’t know much about, when large parts of Europe were undeniably Muslim, and he had gone to a lot of the places I wanted to visit. But more importantly, he was the one historic traveller I could find who had really written extensively about this region and therefore offered a comparative Muslim perspective on its people and places, which in some cases had changed dramatically since his time.’
The individuals you meet on your travels aren’t post-colonial migrants like many in western Europe – their families have been Muslim as far back as they can remember. Was that important for your book?
‘It was very important. To show that Europe has an indigenous Muslim identity – one that is living – puts a completely different spin on the current debates about culture and religion. It means that when politicians and commentators across western Europe say that Muslims don’t belong here, that doesn’t stand up at all. These people are still here hundreds of years later. You can visit them, sit with them, eat with them and hear the adhan (call to prayer) as you walk down their streets.’
What were the standout moments of your journey?
‘Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, was a major highlight. I don’t think there is anywhere outside Turkey where I have come across so many stunning Ottoman monuments in such beautiful condition. I would also recommend Berat and Gjirokastër in Albania, where the historic centres are UNESCO World Heritage sites and some of the most fairy-tale-like spots I have been to.’
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