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Coffee and Ćejf: Learning from Muslims in Bosnia

Updated: Mar 12, 2018

This post was written in February of 2017, immediately after President Trump imposed a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The past week has made it clear that there's still a lot of fear and mistrust when it comes to Muslims in America. As a patriot and a humanitarian, this makes me sad. And as a traveler, it perplexes me. In several visits to the Muslim world, I've had nothing but positive experiences.

I'm not naive. I realize that some Muslims do terrible things. But judging an entire faith based on the actions of a tiny fanatic fringe is insulting at best, and dangerous at worst. When you travel, you realize that the vision of Islam presented by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon is highly selective. Meeting Muslims face to face comes with rich opportunities to connect with a different slice of humanity, and to learn.

The Muslim country I've spent the most time in is Bosnia. On my last visit to Sarajevo, my local friend Amir invited me out for coffee. Not just coffee — Bosnian coffee.

"Here in Bosnia, coffee is not just a drink," Amir explained. "It's almost a way of life." Unfiltered, potent Bosnian coffee (which you probably think of as "Turkish coffee") is the linchpin of a complex social ritual that captures this culture's deliberate, stop-and-smell-the-tulips approach to life.

We settled into a rickety table in a cozy, cobbled caravansary courtyard. When the coffee arrived, I was ready to slam it down. But Amir reminded me that Bosnian coffee punishes those in a hurry...with a mouthful of gritty grounds.

He patiently talked me through the procedure — and, more important, the philosophy — of Bosnian coffee. "There's no correct or incorrect way to drink Bosnian coffee. People spend lifetimes perfecting their own personal ritual. But one thing everyone agrees on is that coffee isn't just about getting caffeinated. It's about relaxing. It's about being with people you enjoy. Talk to your friends. Listen to what they have to say. Learn about their lives. Then take a sip. If your coffee isn't strong enough, gently swirl your cup to agitate the grounds. If it's too strong, just wait. Let it settle. It gives you more time to talk anyway."

Reaching the bottom of my cup, I remarked that the grounds had left no residue at all. "When it's done properly," Amir said, "you'll never taste the grounds. If you find a layer of 'mud' in the bottom of your cup, it means that someone — either you or the person who made the coffee — was in too much of a hurry." (So I guess that technically, there is an incorrect way to drink Bosnian coffee.)

Looking around the courtyard, Amir said, "This is a good examples of merak. Merak is one of those words that you cannot directly translate into English. It's more of a concept. It means, basically, enjoyment. This relaxed atmosphere among friends. It's when you're nursing a cup of coffee with nowhere in particular to go — savoring the simple act of passing the time of day."

Amir explained that the Bosnian language is rife with these non-translatable words. Another example: raja.  "Raja means a sense of being one with a community," Amir said. "But it also means frowning on anyone who thinks they're a big shot. It's everyone knowing their place, and respecting it." In American terms,  Raja is what prevents you from being the jerk who shows up in a convertible and a tux to your high school reunion.

But my favorite Bosnian word of all is ćejf (pronounced "chayf").

Ćejf is that annoying habit or ritual you have. It's the unique little quirk that drives your loved ones batty. And yet, it gives you pleasure. No, not just pleasure: deep satisfaction. In traditional Bosnian culture, ćejf is the idiosyncratic way someone spins his worry beads, the way he packs and smokes his pipe, or the very particular procedure she has for preparing and drinking a cup of Bosnian coffee.

In American culture, we have ćejf, too. We just don't have a word for it. Maybe you have an exacting Starbucks order that mystifies your friends, but tastes just right. ("Skinny one-pump vanilla split-shot latte, extra hot.") Or every weekend, you feel compelled to wash and detail your car, or mow your lawn, or prune your hedges...just so. Or maybe it's the way you keep your desk organized, according to a special logic that only you fully appreciate. My own ćejf is probably the way I tinker with my fantasy football lineup. (Should I start Jordan Howard or Latavius Murray this week?) Or the way I chew gum when I'm stressed out: Exrta Polar Ice flavor, always two sticks...never just one.

In our culture, people call this behavior "fussy," or "O.C.D."...or, simply, "annoying." We're expected to check our ćejf at the door. But in Bosnia, they just shake their head and say, "What are you gonna do? That's his ćejf." You don't have to like someone's ćejf. But — as long as it's not hurting anyone — you do have to accept it. Because everyone has one. What's your ćejf?

Another Muslim moment that sticks with me came in Morocco. I had just sailed over from Spain to Tangier, setting foot in Africa for the first time. My tour guide, Aziz, brought me to a restaurant where we sat down to a hearty lunch. I'm self-conscious about the very clumsy, very American way I use my knife and fork: Grip the knife in my right hand to cut, then drop it and pick up the fork to eat. I'm jealous of my suave European friends, who deftly use their left-handed fork and right-handed knife, in concert, to eat like pros.

But here in Morocco, Aziz watched me very closely as I ate, a smile slowly spreading across his face. Finally, he blurted out, "I love the way you eat! So respectful." In Aziz's culture, the left hand is considered dirty — traditionally used for cleaning yourself — while the right hand is used for eating. By transferring my fork to my right hand, I was — unknowingly — being a very good Muslim.

Traveling in the Muslim world has changed me. And not just by opening my eyes to a beautiful faith — in little ways, too. Thanks to Islam, I force myself to slow down a bit when I get coffee with friends. I'm more forgiving of my loved ones' little quirks. And I unapologetically grab my fork with my right hand.

When you travel, you figure out where your minuses become pluses, and vice-versa. You pick up new ideas and discover that you fit better into a larger world. With the stroke of a pen, President Trump just made connecting with Muslims much more difficult. Let these stories be a gentle reminder that the world can be an immeasurably rich place...but only if we're open to it.

God bless America. And may peace be upon us.


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