Book review: ‘Minarets in the Mountains’ by Tharik Hussain

Sarah Fairbairn reviews a unique travel book by a Walthamstow writer
By Waltham Forest Echo

Credit: Bradt Guides
Credit: Bradt Guides

Part history lesson, part travelogue and – endearingly – part food journal, local writer Tharik Hussain’s exploration of the Muslim heritage of Europe shines light on a history that has often been denied, supressed or ignored.

The book is heavily inspired by the Book of Travels, written 400 years ago by Evliya Çelebi, whose journey forms the backbone of Tharik’s own route through the Balkans. He compares the places he visits with Çelebi’s descriptions of the thrumming heart of the Ottoman-era Europe, whether in areas like Serbia’s Novi Pazar – still a thriving hub of Islamic learning and identity – or what feel like more isolated remnants of almost-forgotten empire.

What might otherwise have been a fairly dry description of buildings, dates and historical facts is rescued by his warm interactions with locals and the inclusion of his travelling companions: his wife and two daughters. The girls ensure that, alongside minarets, caravanserais and Tekkes, we’re treated to explorations of swimming spots and art galleries, which the book is all the richer for. They have a particular preoccupation with street food – pides, pizzas, kofte and ice cream all play starring roles – meaning the reader is given a taste of local life as we explore the beauty of the region.

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In the process, however, Tharik uncovers attitudes to Muslim culture that range from uncaring ignorance to outright hostility and in some regions – notably North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina – is confronted with shockingly recent attempts to erase this history entirely. As the book notes, such revisionism denies the heritage of all citizens, Muslim or otherwise. Speaking about the restoration of a historic Montenegran mosque, one interviewee insists: “Everyone in the area, Muslim or not, wanted to fix it, because it is a part of their city and their history.”

Troubled by the recent rise in popularity of a stricter, more conservative Islam, many of the older Muslim people Tharik speaks to in this book are determined to protect the legacy of their distinctly cross-cultural past. From the European-Muslim art of the Tulip mosques to the ‘Turkish Michaelangelo’ who designed the famous bridge of Mostar, in many parts of Europe “the mixing of cultures and heritage was so ancient…that the lines had been blurred centuries ago”. This travel book serves as a reminder that we all have an obligation, regardless of faith, to protect these monuments and memories. As the author himself notes, the Muslim history of the Balkans “is the heritage of every European”.

Minarets in the Mountains is available from Bradt Guides here

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