“You cannot get pork in Novi Pazar. It is impossible!”
Lady, if you’re going to be adamant about something, fine. But, please, don’t take it out on the pork. As if the site of numerous minarets on my cab ride from the bus station wasn’t enough of a clue, the attendant at the hotel desk had made it abundantly clear that this was southern Serbia. This was the geographic appendage of the Serbian republic that lay closest to predominantly Muslim Kosovo. Yes, the same Kosovo that put arms dealers kids through college in the late nineties.
I lugged my bag up to my room and got settled which is code for figuring out how the bathroom works. Novi Pazar is a small town and the friendly couple on the bus who split a cab with me assured me that this was the best hotel in town, lack of competition notwithstanding. Peckish and without much daylight left, I took the lift back down to the lobby, past the pork-abstainer and into streets that felt more like the Middle East than Europe. I wanted a brief stopover here because of that exact reason. Belgrade and Niš were Serbian towns, i.e. Orthodox Serbians were strongly in the majority. Historically, the north was in the vanguard of trying to evict the Turks out for centuries. But Novi Pazar had a much higher Muslim conversion rate and unlike the rest of Serbia, Turkish rule is still a fairly recent memory; as recent as 1912 in fact. But, just like the country at large, Novi Pazar even has its Serb Orthodox and Serb Muslim sides. Confused yet?
And of course Novi Pazar also has an old Turkish quarter. Structures topped with stained terra-cotta, straddling cobblestoned lanes was, from what I read, not that much different than in Ottoman times. I was a wee bit late for dinner at any place in the quarter and, disappointingly, I headed toward the melee. In Europe that usually means finding yourself surrounded by overly loud pop/dance music in the city center and even Novi Pazar had one of those. I walked past numerous cafes filled with young Serbs, their hair coiffed in that dumb shark fin style they so love. Techno made espresso cups and beer bottles vibrate on tables. Serbian women, a gorgeous variant of the species by the way, walked around in impossibly high heels and make-up, their hips practically swaying to the beat.
I settled on a little family shop near the center. I sat down, said “Hallo” followed by “mantija” and “Coca Cola” and waited for maybe a minute. The lightly stubbled guy behind the counter held up a plastic bottle with milky white yogurt inside and looked at me for approval. I nodded affirmatively and he proceeded to douse the plate before him with the thin liquid. His subordinate then placed this masterpiece in front of me along with a red and white, ice-cold can of American diplomacy. I hungrily tore into the mantija (man-tee-ya), a honeycomb of pastry pockets filled with well-seasoned beef (not pork) and usually covered in that thin yogurt sauce. At first glance they looked like cinnamon rolls but the initial bite proved the taste to be in the complete opposite direction. The Serbs up north had looked at me weird when I said I was visiting Novi Pazar. They claimed there was no reason to go there except to have mantija. That’s when I bought my ticket.
Reveling in meat-fllled afterglow I decided I needed a digestif. Getting away from yet another Madonna remix, I found a small cafe just around the corner from where the Raska river divides the downtown. Thick, black and angry Turkish coffee was what I was after yet I was cautious. In Greece, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt and a bunch of other former Ottoman places, calling their coffee “Turkish coffee” is a misnomer, sometimes an insulting one. It’s a pride thing and many of the former Ottoman dominions historically weren’t too proud of being one.
“We call it Turkish coffee. It is not a problem.” an hysterically smiling Ismet said as he took my order. No Serbian coffee here. The cafe was a place where older men would go to hide themselves in quiet conversation. The night air was cool and I was having a swell time getting down to the gritty sediment at the bottom of my (and really, any good Turkish coffee’s) cup. When it was just Ismet and I he pulled up a white plastic chair next to me while the movie Swordfish was playing on a TV in the background. We chatted about his engineering degree made useless by the struggling Serbian economy, New York City and other things. His English was decent enough to have a topical conversation but not strong enough to talk his way out of a speeding ticket. Ismet was more than affable, though, and someone whom you wanted to show you their town.
Just then fuzz from a distant speaker system bled out. A voice then began the gradual octave ascent into the night air. The first time you hear one of the five daily Muslim calls to prayer in a foreign land, especially at night, it is truly haunting. I had heard my fair share though and this one seemed intrusive. Ismet, perma-smile still attached, instantly got up and walked back to the counter where he quickly washed a couple of dishes.
“You will stay here? I go to pray. You wait?”
And for the next half-hour while Ismet walked over to the nearest mosque to pray, I was the caretaker for a coffee shop in Serbia. Always been a bit of a dream to own a coffee shop, I just never thought I’d get such cheap rent. Eventually one of the only two other patrons turned to me and asked me — I think — where the guy who normally runs the place went off to, they wanted to settle their bill. I confidently looked at him and put my two hands together to mimic prayer. This seemed to satisfy the guy. Hence my first act of customer service on Serbian soil. Eventually, Ismet came back and relieved me. We chatted a bit more and then I got up to leave. He asked me how long I was staying and I told him that I was just passing through on my way to Sarajevo the next day. He said I should stop by in the morning for some coffee and maybe he’d be there. I agreed that I would.
The next day, true to my word, I stopped by and had another angry brew but Ismet wasn’t there. Such is travel. I got up and wandered around the town for the next few hours before I had to catch my bus. On the way back to the hotel to get my bag en route to the bus station, I heard my name being called out. I turned to find a grinning Ismet in the same striped polo shirt he was wearing the day before. He ran up to me, shook my hand, said goodbye and wished me a safe trip. It’s completely trivial but at the time I was really moved by this gesture. To have your name called out in such an obscure corner of the world where no one knows anything about you, is a startling feeling. But what startles even more is that in such a brief window of time — less than twenty-four hours — in Southern Serbia I had established some sort of relationship with a complete stranger and he seemed slightly disappointed that I was leaving. I was a night watchman for a small business and handled it ably without any customer complaints (though I have yet to consult Yelp). Finally, in record time, I figured out how the hotel shower worked. I practically lived a life in Novi Pazar and I didn’t even miss the pork.
WHAT: textbook mantija, stuffed with beef, and covered in a thin yogurt sauce
WHEN: June 3, 2012
WHERE: Novi Pazar, Serbia