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Macedonia’s Romani Imam

Ali Berat is a role model for many in his community, but others criticize him for exhorting Roma to abandon their traditions.

by Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani 4 June 2010

SUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia | Ali Berat is a rarity in the Balkans. A rarity even among his people: not only is he a Romani imam, but he also hails from a devout Muslim family, within a vast Roma diaspora known for its mild religiosity.


Berat, however, studied for six years in the Islamic holy city of Medina, then returned to his Macedonian hometown on a mission to preach to his people. In his crosshairs are Romani traditions he says help stunt their development.


Ali BeratAli Berat
“I would like to ask one question about all these traditions,” says the bearded Berat, 36, while seated in his elegantly upholstered living room. “Have they changed the education levels of our people? Have they lifted us from poverty? … When we say we are Muslims, that is not saying we are not also Roma. But all these traditions are taking us one step back.”


It’s not unusual for a charismatic Romani leader to offer religion as a salve for suffering: researchers track a pattern across Europe dating back 60 years, particularly among Evangelical and Pentecostal Roma. What’s interesting today is how this is happening to the Roma of Macedonia – a country polarized by inter-ethnic, inter-religious tensions between the majority Macedonian Orthodox and minority Albanian Muslims. The dominoes have also tipped toward local Roma. Which is also cause for concern among some observers, who suggest Roma identity is at risk.


“Islam in Suto Orizari does not show respect toward Roma culture,” says Romani activist Enisa Eminovska. “Increased religiosity among the Roma concerns me because the price of being ‘real Muslim’ is abandoning Roma culture.”


Historically, the Roma devotion to family, clan, and tradition has taken priority over religion. At the same time, experts say they are largely a God-fearing people, enjoying a more private, intimate relationship at home, not in a church of the ethnic majorities they lived among, says Tomas Hrustic, a researcher at the Slovak Academy of Science’s Institute of Ethnology in Bratislava.


This is understandable, Hrustic says, considering a backdrop of centuries of nomadism, coupled with living in societies that kept the Roma at arm’s length. Conversely, survival instinct helps explain why Roma also tended to embrace whatever faith the local “gadjo” observed. Sometimes, it gained them a degree of acceptance, or even the freedom to roam unmolested. Today, then, the rainbow of Romani sub-groups also reflects the range of religion in the Balkans and Eastern Europe: Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Protestant, and many others.


An ongoing debate within academic circles, though, is whether increased religiosity actually harms Roma identity. Pentecostalism in Romania, for example, is connected to Romani self-awareness, pride, and even “Roma nationalism,” says Hrustic, who lived for a year among Roma in eastern Slovakia.


“This is nothing new, for a Roma religious leader to offer religion as an answer, or way out of your problems,” Hrustic says. “But whether it’s a force for good or bad really depends on the aims of that charismatic leader and how he leads them on this mission. Does he convince them to get rid of their traditions, or build on their traditions and identity, emphasizing their cultural heritage?”


Mix all that historical-religious context with the recent inter-ethnic, inter-religious bloodshed in the Balkans: the 1992-1995 conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia, and 1999 in Serbia and Kosovo. They inflamed not only ethnic identities across the peninsula, but religious polarization. With seemingly everyone retreating to the haven of their “own community,” why wouldn’t some Roma also turn more religious?


Then add on top the unique situation in multi-ethnic Macedonia, an ex-Yugoslav republic of only 2 million. Even before the word “Sarajevo” was seared into the Western psyche, the Macedonian Orthodox warily eyed the restive Albanian-speaking Muslims who comprise a quarter of the population.


Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Albanians of western Macedonia have pressed for greater rights, and especially for equal access to jobs, university places, and state funding. Further inflaming matters, they watched Serb Orthodox next door persecute their ethnic brethren, the Kosovan Albanians.


It boiled to a head in 2001, when open clashes broke out between Albanian guerrillas and Macedonian security forces. Dozens were killed on both sides – armed forces and civilians alike.  


For both Macedonian and Albanian, the trauma of those skirmishes has been a driving force behind growing religiosity that percolates within a country that is simultaneously one of Europe’s poorest. 


This in-your-face religiosity becomes clear on a visitor’s first night in Skopje, the capital. The huge “Millennium Cross” – reportedly the world’s largest cross monument, built soon after the 2001 conflict – sits atop Vodno Mountain, glowing above the city.


With Macedonia planning to erect a grand statue to Alexander the Great in Skopje, Muslim leaders are also clamoring for a new mosque to be built in the same square.


The pattern repeats across the country, says Macedonian sociology professor Zoran Matevski. The Orthodox Church, backed by Macedonian political parties, has erected crosses in Macedonian-majority towns, while Albanian Islamic authorities, backed by Albanian parties, build mosques in Albanian towns.


“It means you somehow mark the territory,” says Matevski, who researches the sociology of religion at Sts. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. “There is a great link here between national identity and religion. This is in the nature of Orthodoxy and Islam, and a feature of the West Balkans. The states are young and weak, so you don’t have state identification, but religious and national identification. When you ask Albanians, they feel like Albanians, not like ‘Macedonians.’ ”


Today, though, with Macedonia eager to please and join both the European Union and NATO, Matevski says the authorities are leaning on the Orthodox Church to lead society toward inter-ethnic tolerance. The church wants something in exchange, says the scholar: religious instruction in public schools will likely begin in the fall.


That said, though ethno-religious affiliation is high, religious fervor is not: the vast majority of Macedonians and Albanians, says Matevski, “belong, but don’t believe” – marking holidays only.


Macedonia is home to 54,000 Roma, according to the 2002 census, although estimates put the real figure at twice that, or even as high as 250,000. The community includes both Orthodox and Muslims, depending on the region, and those affiliated attend either Macedonian-language church, or Albanian-language mosque. Matevski today observes significant numbers also joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses.


“It’s pretty understandable, considering how marginalized the Roma are,” he says. “Where they go depends on who helps them more to get out of this marginalization.”


There are also reports of increasing numbers of Romani congregants at purist, Saudi-financed mosques.


Within this broader context, there’s the inimitable suburb of Skopje, Suto Orizari, commonly known as Shutka. The 20,000 or so residents comprise what has been called the biggest Romani town in Europe, with a Romani majority, Rom mayor, and Romani as official language.


Indeed, the Roma of Shutka are a rare sight in this part of the world: with a self-confidence seen nowhere else, they walk down crowded boulevards, arm in arm or hand in hand. Many families hang out in their front yards, grilling meat, enjoying music.


At the same time, Shutka sees its share of internecine tensions.


Already on the margins of Macedonian society, the Roma are saddled with joblessness that some pin at 80 percent. A prime source of income – and irritation – is the high rent that Macedonian Roma home-owners extract from the Kosovo Roma refugees who fled here a decade ago.


Some Roma in Shutka, then, turn to Berat for answers to their misery. 


The Berat family religiosity was shaped by Ali’s grandfather, who 30 years ago, says the grandson, was the first from the community to make the hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca expected of every devout Muslim who can afford it. The patriarch, who died seven years ago, inspired Berat to become a cleric.


“I’m grateful and thankful that you came to our home,” says the imam, whose elegant home is large by local standards, with ornate, cherry-red furniture and shelves lined with Islamic and Arabic texts. “We are open to all guests. But we’ve seen many journalists who show only the negative. But I see you’re doing something different: showing the religious part of the community.”


Berat says that in today’s economic climate, more and more locals turn to drugs, prostitution, and violence. So it’s unsurprising that ordinary folks search for greater meaning to their existence.


“We have a methodology to show people how to live life in a happy way,” the imam says. His measured words, through a full beard flecked with gray, give him the countenance of a much older man. “I have a question for them: What is the meaning of our existence? We also need spiritual food, spiritual nourishment. My message is even though we live in poverty, on the margins of society, and are discriminated against only because we are Roma, even if society ignores us, God won’t ignore us.”


Unusually, he preaches to his congregation in Romani.


His soaring, white-and-green mosque – the fifth to be built in Shutka – is now a major landmark on the main road into town. Its glass-enclosed, carpet-covered prayer hall offers grand views of snow-capped peaks in the distance – plus the Millennium Cross, a daily reminder that the congregation lives in “Christian” Macedonia. 


The mosque, though, remains half-finished, with the upper level yet to be done. Construction began a decade ago, but moves as a snail’s pace, he says, because it’s being built exclusively from local money and donations from some Shutka Roma who have moved west. 


Still, Berat says the mosque attracts ever more congregants. 


Across the street, a small Islamic shop confirms a growing interest. Opened just months ago, it’s the first such shop in Shutka, and its soothing melodies are an oasis from the hot, dusty streets. Rather than hop the bus into Skopje, Muslims here can buy locally: small prayer carpets from Turkey, religious books from Bosnia, CDs and DVDs from Syria, music and perfumes from Saudi Arabia. 


The young owner – a Macedonian named Darko who says he’s in the process of converting to Islam – says the shop was a “logical concept” to answer rising demand in Shutka. 


“If you’re a Muslim believer, then you want to live with Islam,” Darko, 27, says. “The political parties are giving a push to major religions, so there’s also greater liberation for religion. This is a good thing, as it diminishes nationalism. Outside, we’re all friends.” 


Down the street, practically in the shadow of the mosque’s minaret, neighbor Iskender Iskender explains how Ali Berat has opened his eyes.


“Before, we knew we were Muslim, but we didn’t know about the real Islam,” says Iskender, 28, who is growing out his brownish beard. “Before, we didn’t have an imam, but now we have one speaking the truth. And we understand him very well, since he’s speaking in our own language.” 


Iskender says he now also has a different notion of identity. 


“I’m a Rom, and my religion is Islam – but for me, religion is more important,” the father of two says. “You can be any nation, but without religion, you are nobody.” 


Berat says it’s not only about embracing Islam, but the process of educating oneself about more mainstream topics as well, that will lift Roma from their station in life. He says he wants to emphasize positive role models, like biographies of renowned Romani leaders, or Romani writers from years past. He’s also working on a long-term project: a new Romani-language translation of the Koran. One has been done before, but from Bosnia long ago. 


“Roma have been manipulated for years,” says the imam, who has a daughter and three young sons. “They need someone they can trust.” 


Some in the community, though, quietly criticize him for exhorting Roma to abandon certain traditions – a claim he doesn’t quite reject. For example, the spring festival of Erdelezi. 


Roma here typically mark the arrival of spring with the sacrifice and slaughter of a sheep, then cook the meat outside – a symbol of their earlier around-the-campfire, caravan existence. The entire family digs in, with music blasting, as neighbors walk by, peering over the fence. 


Berat, though, has a beef with that. 


“We’re trying to get away from selfishness, have them to open their wild hearts,” he says. “If we kill a sheep for Erdelezi, we can eat meat today. But our neighbor may not have the same feast, so they’ll look at us and cry. I say share the sheep with all. We’re trying to build the bridge of love between them. I tell them to stop with this holiday, but it doesn’t mean I tell them to destroy their traditions.” 


That troubles Eminovska, the Romani activist. 


“Although these holidays may have pagan aspects in their way of celebrating, they are probably as old as the Roma themselves and have stories and meaning behind them,” she says. “All of this together creates factions inside communities where members of the same family decide to either follow Islam or Roma culture. But why does one have to choose one over the other?” 


Some of Berat’s followers, though, seem to have no qualms. 


Agron Demiri and his wife, Ganimete.
Agron Demiri and his family have lived in Shutka for the past decade, after fleeing the chaos of Kosovo. Today, one of his brothers works as an assistant to Berat. 


“We agree with the thoughts and words of our imam, and what he says about celebrations,” the 27-year-old Demiri says. “We want to go through life the right way, and Islam shows us the right way.” 


If Berat’s messages don’t penetrate the parents, he has a more effective way to get them in the door: win the hearts and minds of their children. He offers this deprived community a free Internet-connected computer lab, English classes, and sports activities. With a dose of Islam on the side. 


“We don’t want to be a people without a religion, as the only difference between people and animals is a belief in God,” he says. “Roma have lost their hope for everything. If they lose their hope in God, they have no reason to live.” 

Michael J. Jordan is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Bratislava. He blogs about Central and Eastern Europe at Jordan Ink. Shejla Fidani is a freelance journalist in Macedonia. Photos by Michael J. Jordan.

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