January 7, 2011
Sarajevans, and other Bosnia-Herzegovina locals in general, know how to enjoy themselves. Enjoying yourself, and putting yourself first above everything else is perceived as being one of the most important things in Sarajevo. This can be an over-generalization, though, and it does ignore all the problems that this society – just fifteen years after the war, after all – still faces. Nevertheless, the conclusion can be made, if we consider that there exist at least three concepts which describe different states of Sarajevan enjoyment.
Bosnians as Hedonists
It appears that in Bosnia, the locals like to think about themselves as hedonists. Zvonko, a 28-year-old student from Sarajevo, claims that Bosnians are people “who really love to enjoy themselves” and that they are “some of the biggest hedonists that exist.” This means that they love to drink coffee, to smoke and to socialize intensively.
Moreover, Bosnians are known for their drinks and mezetluk (going out for snacks, from the word meze used elsewhere in the region too). To make it clear, mezetluk is not just about having a snack, it is mostly about socializing while thus having a bite to eat. So eating a snack alone in your house does not really count as mezetluk.
You can have meza at home with your guests or in a coffeehouse. In a coffeehouse you have meza while sitting, drinking (mostly, alcohol) and discussing some important topic, preferably, politics, with your friends or other random coffeehouse clients. You can do this in Sarajevo especially if you are a male (and particularly, a bit older).
To have this type of enjoyment over drinking and snacking some food while presenting your political views, you mostly have to go to a kafana, a peculiar mix of restaurant and cafe with a vintage, socialist touch. They serve food and drinks, with a very strong accentuation on alcohol.
Another type of cafe where you can seek enjoyment, but this time without alcohol and also without mezetluk, is the bosanska kafana. This is a traditional type of coffeehouse which serves Bosnian coffee (in other places, generally known as Turkish coffee), tea and juice. But what type of enjoyment can you have here, if you cannot drink alcohol? Well, something that is called ćeif.
Drinking Coffee with ćeif
In a bosanska kafana you experience ćeif while drinking your coffee. Actually, you can experience ćeif in many other things as well! Abdulah Škaljić, who wrote about Turkish expressions in the Serbo-Croatian language (as Serbian and Croatian were called during Yugoslavia) defined ćeif as a state of good mood, pleasure and enjoyment.
But it can also mean a will or desire from something, or even a weakness. To say that “someone is in ćeif ” (u ćeifu je) would mean that someone is kind of high or intoxicated, but not in a drugged kind of way, but more in sense of different state of consciousness (1989: 187). The slight linguistic differences in the Balkans means that ćeif can also be called ćejif, ćejf, ćef or kef.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Anton Hangi also wrote about ćeif, while describing the customs of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. According to him, ćeif is a state of deep contemplation or spiritual abandonment, a pastime that can be afforded mostly by those who are older and richer. Such people can sit for hours and hours smoking a pipe or cigarette, in a the shadow of some tree watching nature, while not thinking or feeling anything. At least this is how Hangi observed it.
In the eyes of Hangi, ćeif is something special regarding which probably no other nation knows. As Bosnian Muslims have ćeif, so do the French have their esprit, writes Hangi, but between these two kinds of spirit there is a big difference. While esprit can be connected to vibrancy and enthusiasm, ćeif means that someone’s body and spirit has been calmed down (1990: 28).
In actual practice, then, what does experiencing ćeif looks like? During the Ottoman period, coffeehouses were places of silence; men would sit on pillows on the floor and would experience ćeif while smoking their long cigarette (čibuk) (Prstojević 1992: 22).
Today, things are a bit different, since coffeehouses are not filled with people in a deep contemplative mood- though people still deeply enjoy drinking coffee. They still feel ćeif when they drink it. Today it is about taking the time to enjoy, while drinking coffee – even two or three cups in one coffeehouse. (And interestingly, not feeling anxious after drinking so much caffeine?)
A very similar concept of enjoyment to ćeif is merak. If we take a look again at what Škaljić has to say, it can mean three things: it can mean pleasure, enjoyment, a pleasant feeling and mood; it can also stand for passion, a feeling of longing, a wish for something; and thirdly, it can mean melancholy as a consequence of exaggerated longing, passion or a wish for something (1989: 458-59).
Merak is also connected with drinking coffee. Some authors write that in the past too coffee was drunk with merak (Prstojević 1992: 241). To drink coffee with merak is to drink it with delight. So, all of the ‘accessories’ which one gets along with coffee in Sarajevo demand special way of drinking it, in order for a person to feel merak while consuming it.
Senad, a 48-year-old Sarajevo local, describes the process of feeling merak: a cube of sugar, rahatlokum (Turkish Delight), or a small chocolate from the famous Croatian producer Kraš, which one would get with coffee in the 1970s, all need special attention in the way of consuming.
A sugar cube or chocolate is soaked into coffee, bitten off and then coffee is drank over it.
The melting of this piece of sugar or chocolate in your mouth is merak, explains Senad. (Or, gušt! This is another expression, but one with less of an emotional impact). In fact, the real coffee drinker (kafedžija) can with one cube of sugar drink even two coffees! If a person puts a big piece of sugar at once into his or her mouth, well, that just isn’t merak.
Feeling the Melancholy: Sevdah
The peak of enjoyment in Sarajevo is reached in the evening, when one falls into sevdah. Well, most of those who ‘fall’ into this state of being are mostly in a state influenced by alcohol. This special emotional state mainly occurs in the coffeehouse while listening to sevdah music (traditional urban songs from the Ottoman period in Bosnia, but also Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro).
The above-mentioned Senad says that you need to “drink sevdah with merak, so that your soul opens.” Sevdah music is a slow type of music with strong vocals, and is mostly about love; in some respects, it can be compared to Portuguese fado. Even without alcohol, one can slip into a melancholic mood while listening to this type of music, though when accompanied by large amounts of alcohol such a mood doubles in intensity- and this is when you fall into sevdah.
According to Škaljić, sevdah means love, love-longing, or a feeling of happiness. In addition, the Arabic word säwda means “black gall”- Arabic and Greek healers presumed this to be one of the four elementary substances that comprise the human organism. They saw “black gall” as a cause for the mood of melancholy, which they connected with a love that causes the same feeling. This, therefore, was the reason to call love by the same name- sevdah (1989: 561-62).
Senad paraphrases Sarajevo writer Mirsad Berber who says: “when company falls into sevdah… nothing is wrapped up anymore.” In this feeling of deep excitement, the sentiment of belonging grows, and everyone feels like a family; with the conversation thus intensified, there is no barrier keeping us from getting closer to each other.
However, as Senad notes, this doesn’t have anything to do with a relationship between a woman and a man. “It cannot happen that your company is sad and the company that is sitting at the next table is happy, something has to be done with this,” Senad clarifies the background of the process by which the whole coffeehouse starts to feel like a family.
So what follows this intensification of melancholic feelings are dramatic exclamations of love lost, sometimes involving physical demonstrations of unhappiness. It describes the emotional upheaval that someone goes through when he falls into sevdah.
Zola, a 38-year-old Sarajevan, explains how on a random evening, in a local coffeehouse in one Sarajevo neighbourhood, everyone who entered would buy drinks for the others. Also, one particular man who didn’t really know everyone else (in this type of coffeehouse, guests usually know one other) said: “drinks for everyone!”
Zola asks rhetorically whether this is possible anywhere else than in Bosnia (and, perhaps, in Serbia). He doesn’t need an answer, because he concludes, “As Bosnians say, when there is fun, let also the toilet burn!” (Kad je dernek, nek i hala gori!)
Hangi, Antun: Život i običaji muslimana u Bosni i Hercegovini. Sarajevo, 1990: Svjetlost
Prstojević, Miroslav: Zaboravljeno Sarajevo. Sarajevo, 1992: PP Ideja
Škaljić, Abdulah: Turcizmi u srpskohrvatskom jeziku. Sarajevo, 1989: Svjetlost
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