Courting (1899)

Courting (1899)

Courting, oh that courting! Is there anything more ideal and pleasant than courting? Those times when a man in his adolescence would sacrifice days and nights for a single look of his beloved, the times when he did not have any other wish but to see the queen of his heart or hear her sweet words, can never be forgotten. Those days when her soft squeeze, and sweet smile emanating from her lips made him the happiest man on Earth are indelible in both heart and mind. Not to mention the very first hug, and the first kiss! Is there a man in this world who could ever forget that?

When courting is more ideal and gentle, the love itself is more pure and noble. If there exists a non-selfish, gentle, and ideal suitor, then that is our Bosnian Muslim: he courts for weeks and months, but must not enter the house of his beloved. He does not even dare squeeze the hand of his ideal, his beloved girl, let alone to press her against his heroic chest and kiss her pleasant face, rosy cheeks, and those blue or black eyes occupying his heart and mind in dreams and reality.

Before proceeding about courting, let’s first say a few words about a lad and a girl. Once a girl turns fourteen or fifteen, she becomes a young lady. Now, she cannot leave her house alone, and if she is visiting her friend or a cousin, she needs to put on a veil, just like a married woman. She is not allowed to go to čaršija, and neither can she go to places crammed with a lot of people. If she does go somewhere, then she needs to walk through streets where not so many people pass through. Therefore, if you happen to pass through a silent Muslim part of the town, you will see, here and there, a young woman passing hastily, without making any noise. This is a girl who covered her face with duvak (veil), a long, thin, white scarf, and she left the house simply to see someone in her neighborhood, or she is rushing to see her friend or relative. As strictly commanded by the Shari’ah law, a girl is not supposed to leave her house covered in duvak; however, from ancient times, it is common for girls to leave the house covered in duvak just to see someone in the neighborhood, or visit their friend or relatives, and only if their house is not so distant.

In Sarajevo, where the people are more liberal, young ladies don’t hide usually; and yet, you can never see one of them walking without anything on her head or without a fez as if she were a Christian or a Jew. Her head is always covered with a big scarf, which frequently reaches her tal. Using her hands, she needs to tighten both ends of the scarf to her face. If an unknown man, especially some heterodox person, passes by her she needs to cover her face more with a scarf.

The young lady is lonely, and apart from her girlfriend, there is not a single person on this planet with whom she could talk so intimately. She cannot talk to little girls – after all, she is a young lady, and a friendship between a woman and a young lady is not as affectionate and reliable as the one between the young ladies, for women don’t have those thoughts and wishes swarming in the girls’ hearts and minds. It is exactly because of this that a young lady needs a girlfriend: who will she complain to, and reveal her heart’s secrets, if not her female companion, a friend who is the only one to understand her, a friend who laughs with her, comforts her, and cries with her – even wipes her tears, if necessary. The young lady’s heart is so secretive; not even her mother should know all the secrets it stores, but a friend can know everything. Because of that, two friends are frequently together, and cannot live without one another, so to say. When they meet, they tell secrets that only they are allowed to know, or they sing and dance in circles, sway on a swing, or amuse themselves in some other way.

Muslim girls are generally very beautiful, for they do not have to perform difficult tasks; they are not burnt by the sun, or affected by cold winter. They carry out only house chores – no wonder they are so beautiful! They lead a sober and moderate life, as God and their disposition commands – no wonder they are so healthy! The young lady is bragging about her beauty:

My mother would caress me so nicely,
And would send me to bed at an early hour.
And she would start waking me up quite late.
My mother would quench my thirst with sherbet (water me with sherbet),
And wash me in a pink rose.
She would serve me food before the lunchtime,
And let me dine before the dinner.

The grandeur of a young lady’s beauty is wonderfully described in this harem folk song:

Ever since the world was created,
A more beautiful flower has not blossomed.
Nor has there been a more beautiful girl,
Than Fatima.


Nothing in the entire Bosnia can match her beauty,
Nor her waist in nine sanjaks,
Or her light-brown (blond) hair all the way to Istanbul,
Her eyes and eyebrows are like
Šama and Misira.

A hobbledehoy Meho proposed to a girl from Herzegovina (Hercegovka), and got married to her without even seeing her; and now, he is taking her to his house. While crossing the mountain, he prayed to God to send him “some mountain breeze, and a bit of south wind from Herzegovina”, so that he can actually see what he’s taking home. God had mercy on him, and so he sent him “some mountain breeze and a bit of south wind from Herzegovina.” The wind removed her pulli veil (duvak) from her head, and underneath it:

The face flashed as a shiny sun.
All the weddings got caught in a frenzy,
A hobbledehoy Meho fell from a horse.

For the girl to be beautiful, she need to have “rosy cheeks” and be “slim and tall”. She needs to have “hands of a barber”, and her “hair shall fall below the waist.”

If they lack natural beauty, young ladies strive to increase it in an artificial way. They dress really nicely, dye their hair and eyebrows, and put blush and white powder on their face. And now, imagine a young and healthy Muslim girl of tall stature, with her hair across the waist, her eyes and eyebrows coal black, and her face of white and rosy complexion: and this girl is dressed in a gorgeous, highly picturesque Turkish garment embroidered in silver and gold. She’s wearing a fez on her head; the fez has a tassel and golden coins (ducats), her neck is filled with plies of gold and pearls, and her hands covered with bracelets (belenzuci) – and tell me now, is she is not beautiful? Then it is no wonder that our lad spends weeks and months courting his beloved, and breaking her doors and windows, so that he can pluck, then take home that naturally beautiful, but watered and artificially grown flower.

Just like girls are beautiful, so are the lads robust. Among the Bosnian Muslims, you can find truly beautiful people. Therefore, is it out of the ordinary that a girl falls in love with a lad? Is it out of the ordinary that she strives to look as beautiful as possible, to become dear to him, and to win his heart?

Considering the fact that Muslim girls hide, people may think that a lad and a girl can hardly meet with each other, or that they get married according to their parents’ wish or command; or because of the intervention of older women who know a girl or a lad, and they get married without ever seeing each other. In old times, some fifty to eighty years ago, this actually was the case, which can be proved by the folk song on a hobbledehoy Meho who was taking his wife home, and was praying to God to send a wind so that he can see what woman he’s taking home. Today, this is completely different; not only does a lad have a chance to see a girl, but he also has an opportunity to speak to her.

Lads generally meet with girls when they husk corn, then during hatma dovas, circumcision ritual (sunnet), and at the weddings.

Some well off gentleman would invite lads and girls from the neighborhood over dinner, or for the corn husk. Girls always come with their mothers, or unmarried brothers, but lads come alone. Lads would sit on the corn, while girls would sit on the soil next to the corn. While they husk corn, girls are not wearing veils. During the corn husk, girl’s mothers are in the harem with the host: while there, the youth amuse themselves alone. There is more than enough laughter, jokes, and innocent teasing during the husk, and at times, muffled girl’s giggle can be heard, until everything goes back to silence. After that, they again laugh and joke – typical youth. When girls start feeling a bit more comfortable, one would start singing, and the rest follow. As soon as girls finish one song, lads would sing another one, so that everyone can see that they can also sing.

Muslim girls are very shy and well-raised, so none of them will dare look at the lad’s eyes during the entire evening; not to mention that she won’t dare converse with him. If a lad took a fancy to some girl, he would throw corncobs into her lap. If she accepts the corn and husks it, that means that she likes the lad, and that he’s allowed to court her. Until they’re husking corn, it is normal that a host pays attention that there are no married people, or uninvited men and husbands of different religion.

At circumcision rituals, weddings, or during hatma dovas (praying), girls have lunch or dinner in harem with women, and men dine in a separate guest room (ahar), in the neighborhood. However, just like real Eve’s daughters, girls use an opportunity to leave the harem, so that lads can see them. After lunch or dinner, married people go home, while youth meets in a separate room; in the guest room, young people dance in circles (igrati kolo), or amuse themselves in a different manner. If the weather is nice, lad and girls go out into the courtyard, and start dancing in circle. Each lad would stand next to a girl he fancies the most, and so they dance until the night falls. When the night falls, they go back into the house and amuse themselves, as long as their parents let them. If there is a small number of girls and lads, and they decided they don’t want to dance in circle, girls would then sway on a swing and sing, while lads would make jokes and converse with them. The lad will never approach the girl too close during their conversation – he would address her from a three to four-step distance. While talking to her, lads pay attention not to say something inappropriate, which could make a girl feel ashamed before others.

The Shari’ah does not approve of these kinds of meetings and dancing either – but this is how it is today, and one cannot change it. Therefore, we can see that girls and lads have enough opportunity to meet among themselves, and fall in love eventually. Lads court girls only on Fridays or during holidays, but in the afternoon. As soon as people finish their noon prayers and leave the mosque, lads would go under the windows or outside the doors of their girlfriends. By that time, girls have already put on their most beautiful garments and all of their jewelry, and are standing behind the windows, at the doors, or in the garden behind the fence, and are waiting to see who will pass. There are only a very few doors in the Muslim parts of the town which don’t have one girl, at least, standing there on Fridays. The lad comes under the window, outside the doors, or before the garden’s fence of his beloved, and the courting would start. The manner of courting, and the words they say to each other are beautifully described by Fejzi-bey Kulenović, so it won’t do any harm if I quote his words literally: “Oh my dear dove, why are you hiding your face? That face which is more beautiful than the rose.” “I am hiding my face, for the sun is too strong.” “Hmmm, am I just a branch on your way? If yes, shall I leave? Are you hiding because you don’t fancy me, or you’re afraid that your beloved may burst?” “My beloved has come – there is no-one else to come! If you don’t fancy me, then you can go to a covered market place (bezistan), and pick a girl for yourself.” “I have been selecting plenty of them, but my eyes remained on you, for you are as beautiful as a bouquet of flowers, not to be carried still, so you are a bejturana that no-one has searched for yet; you are of such a loveable shape, just as if you are ornamented with pearls and pure gold.” “This is a great praise for me, but listen to my troubles now: ever sine I met you, I have become your slave; I cannot eat or drink, or think properly. I can only emit silent sighs, as if my soul exhales.” “Oh, that’s from the last year’s Eid! You are so sweet when you’re that way! Come on, come a bit closer, so that I can see your black eyes, and your tall forehead – my shiny mirror. If only I could seize you round your waist, I would bite you like a mouse bites a belt, you sweet biting! I would feed you honey, would merge you in a mash, and drink you in the sugar.” “Oh dear! Oh dear! my body is burning like an eggplant on fire! If the heart were a thin board, and a knife an icicle, I would immediately stab myself.” “Let me see”, and the door khanat (handle) nudged. She screamed, and ran down the courtyard. Once he realized he’s waiting in vain, he moved on, and when he was far enough from her house, he could hear the girl playing and singing:

“Don’t court me Mujo,
Don’t become sick with love (sevdah),
For there is no
Worse sorrow than love-sickness (sevdah).”

If the girl is not satisfied with the lad who came to court her, or if she’s waiting for her beloved, then she will, all of a sudden, start pretending that someone is calling her, and would shout back. When the lad asks her: “Who is calling for you?”, she will answer: “My grandmother – she wants me to make a pie.”, or: “My grandmother is scared that my grandfather may burst”, etc.

This is how the girl and the lad from Sarajevo court each other. In other towns, young people court the same, except that the wordplay is somewhat different.

When lads notice that a lad and a girl he’s courting fell in love with one another, rarely would some other lad come to court her. Even if he did, it would be in vain. Until the right one comes, the girl won’t show herself to him, or come at the doors. If a lad unexpectedly encounters a girl at the door, then she would use excuses involving her grandmother or grandfather, or something else, just so she does not have to court with him.

There are girls who cannot pick a permanent lad, and as a result, they court with different lads, depending on which ones come to court them. If a girl of this kind is beautiful, she will, of course, have more lads falling in love with her, and then all of them would court her. If two, three or more lads show up in front of the girl’s house at the same time, none of them will retreat. On the contrary, they would start a quarrel; oftentimes, they start a fight, with some of them getting beaten – some of them would even die.

Lads bring to their girls (especially if they were courting her for a long time) various gifts, such as figs, oranges, partokole, lemons, raisins, rezaćije, and other things. Girls, on the other hand, give bouquet of flowers, gurabije (type of pastry), ječerma (a type of sleeveless coat), čevrma, and apples to their lads. They give each other gifts hand-to-hand, or they send them through some child or old woman, who will, along with the gift, deliver some message. If a girl is courting with some lad for a long time, she starts feeling more free: not only would she give him gifts, but would also invite him for courting if she sees him passing by her house. She cannot and must not shout to him, but would start rushing to him, with a bouquet of flowers and apples in her hands:

“Mehmed was scolded by his mother:
‘Mehmed, my dear son, may a mother curse you
Where did you get all those apples?’
‘I got them all from girls, mother,
The most beautiful one being from Humusa.’”

If a lad is handsome, then some married woman would fall in love with him – then, she would start showering him with apples:

“Do not brag about, you praised military commander,
Today, I went to a mosque at the crack of dawn,
And your wife was at the door,
And was rushing to me with apples.”

When a lad courts a girl for a long time, and they love each other, or if they have sworn on loyalty, he would come to see her not only on Fridays, but on other days: nonetheless, he cannot enter the house before marrying a girl.

Children of rich and respected people never engage themselves in courting, at least not in public: the women mainly get married through the intervention of their female cousins, or other women, or by their parents’ wish and command. The girl’s parents are striving to have their daughter married for someone from a well-renowned family, while the lad’s father would never allow his son marry some poor girl or a girl from lower class – she must be from the bey or aga’s (aga is a title, just like bey) family. The rule is that the bey’s sons get married to the bey’s daughters, and aga’s sons aga’s daughters. In situations such as these, parents do not care if their son loves a girl they chose for him, or if a girl will love her future husband. Even to this day, it is common that a lad from the bey’s or aga’s house doesn’t see his girl before marrying her, and taking her into salvat (a room where women are protected from the eyes of strange men). This can be proved by the folk song, where the lad’s father proposes to a girl, and she sends a message to the lad telling him that he should have Omerbegović’s wife as a bridesmaid (jengibula), because she saw her three times – so that her own family doesn’t trick him, and send him some other girl.

“Dear, dear bey, Mustaj-bey!
When decorated wedding wagons set off,
Do not send me an unknown bridesmaid (jengija).
But my aunt Omerbegović,
For she has seen for three times.”

It sometimes happens that a girl betrays her beloved, and starts courting with some other lad. In this folk song the lad is cursing unfaithful girl:

“May God have mercy upon you, you gaudy girl,
May the wind meet you wherever you go,
May the curse clench you in the Court!”

The lad would also leave a girl, and then she would curse him:

“You now have a green dolman on you,
But, until tomorrow, may it turn into the green grass.
You are now wearing white shirt,
And tomorrow, may you that turn into white sheet (ćefin).
In your hands, you have a mother-of-pearls (sedefi) and tambura (a type of guitar),
And tomorrow, may you have harness cotton and metals.
You are now under my window,
And tomorrow until noon, may you be outside the mosque.”

How severe the girl’s curse! Whoever a girl in grief has cursed, that one shall most definitely be punished by God:

“From all that grief his head hurts,
His heart will die.
When half of the day passed,
The people prominu Šećer Salih-aga.”

Not only does an unfaithful lad suffer in this world, but he cannot find peace even in the afterlife. A mother goes to visit the grave of her son Šećer Salih-aga, and she asks him:

“’My dear child, Šećer Salih-aga,
Is the black soil a burden to you,
How do you feel in mubareć land (referring to Heaven)?
Are these planks on the coffin heavy,
Did the dark soil go into your eyes?’
Then something spoke from the grave:
‘Oh my dear mother,
This black soil is not a burden to me,
It is ordinary in this mubareć land.
These planks on the coffin are not heavy to me.
And I don’t have soil in my eyes.
What is heavy are the tears in my eyes.’”


“My beloved has turned into a snake,
Sucking eyes, and hiding behind perčin (pigtail).”

In most cases, love between a girl and a lad is permanent, and parents generally do no mind if their son marries a girl and brings her to his house. If parents do not permit their son to marry some girl he fell in love with, or if they don’t permit a girl to marry him, the girl suffers:

“Ibro’s heart burst, and so did mine,
Yours burst for me, and mine burst for you.”


“Before she finally parted with her soul,
She has mentioned her beloved for a hundred times.”

As folk songs describe, love between a girl and a lad is so great, that they cannot live without one another – therefore, they will rather die than be with someone else. Parents married their son Mujo on force, and they took his beloved, on force. After the wedding, when the night fell, they brought the groom into a room where the bride is, and Mujo, instead of going to see her, sat on a trunk, took a jewelry made of pearls, tambura, and started singing:

“At this moment, my Hata Hadžagina thinks
That I am taking off a veil from my wife.
I will not do that Hata, may you live long,
For you are destined for me.
And again, Hata Hadžagina thinks
That I am kissing my wife’s white face.
I will not do that Hata, may you live long,
For you are destined for me.”

After that, he turns to his unbeloved wife, and says:

“Beautiful you are, you gaudy girl,
More beautiful and whiter than Hata,
But you are not dear to my heart.
I fancy more my Hata Hadžagina.”

Once he uttered these words, he took a knife and killed himself before his unbeloved wife:

“He stabbed his heart,
And took it out with a knife.”

The girl will also die for her beloved. Hata Hadžagina is sitting beside the window, is knitting a small doily, and is thinking about her Mujo. Sitting like that, she looked out on the street, and saw a funeral. She felt fright in her heart, and asked her aunt: “Who is the person they’re carrying?” When her aunt told her that that person is Mujo Čelebija, she took needles next to her, and:

“She stabbed her heart,
And took it out with needles.”

Love does not end even after death. Lovers sigh for one another even when buried in the ground. Because of that, a lad should be buried next to his beloved, so that it is easier for them under the ground:

“They buried them next to each other,
And put their hands through the graves.
Into their white hands,
They put red apples,
So when they rouse from sleep, they can play with each other.”

Flowers and trees sprout on the graves of those who died from love. The next morning, when “the two grief-stricken mothers”, namely Mujo’s and Hata’s mother, went to visit their children’s graves, they could see pine tree on Mujo’s grave, and a rose on Hata’s grave:

“Above Mujo, there sprouted a green pine tree,
Above Hata, a pink rose.
The pine trees has embraced the rose.
Just like Mujo would do with Hata when they were alive,
And the rose has embraced the pine tree,
Just like Hata would do with Mujo when they were alive.”

If parents do not permit their daughter to marry some lad with whom she has been courting for a long time, either in public or in secret, then she agrees with her beloved or some reliable woman that he comes for her to steal her. On a particular day and hour, usually very late at night, a girl would go to the well, carrying pots, as if she is planning to scoop up some water. Her beloved, together with his friends, waits for her at the well, then takes her to his house. If the girl is watched by her family, and cannot leave the house, her beloved would call a few reliable friends to help him if something goes wrong – the friends are supposed to come to a girl’s courtyard on a specified day and hour.

By then, the girl has prepared her clothes and jewelry and is waiting in the dark, terrified and worried when her beloved will come. Once he arrives, he starts throwing rocks and soil on his beloved’s window. The girl first opens her window slowly, then throws her stuff to her beloved, and finally, she comes out on her own. If the house has floors, her beloved puts ladder to the window so that a girl can come down.

How dangerous it is to go for stealing the girl is described by Fejzi-bey in The Anthology for a Folk Life and Customs of South Slavic People, who also participated in one of the stealing attempts. This is what he says: “Two years ago, I was lucky enough to see how a girl runs away – a luck I would not like to experience again.

My friend and I set off on a business trip to Bosanski Petrovac; we were going to a fair, and were accompanied by my cousin, so that he can feel and see that famous fair in Bosanski Petrovac. My friend was closely related with some Kulenović bey, and as soon as we arrived there, he went to the bey’s house along with my cousin. My cousin claimed that he knew the bey well, and he probably knew that the bey had a beautiful daugthter – to win her affection, he became her father’s guest, and I set off to a tavern (han). Every day, he would tell me what happened while he was courting his beloved at night. One time, he got terrified because of her father, the other because of the maid, the third time something cracked, etc.

One night, my cousin arrived, covered in sweat and water: “Get up, for God’s sake! The girl, she is waiting at the door. I swore to her that I would take her away from her house tonight, even if I had to lose my head!”

My eyes turned motionless at that wonder, and he grabbed me by my hand and pulled me. I started talking about how hasty and dangerous that decision is, but he did not want to listen to me. I realized that my words were in vain, and I subjugated to force, and we finally arrived to the bey’s Court. We entered the courtyard. The courtyard was as wide as some field, the moon went behind a cloud, and whoever I looked at in the dusk seemed like some human being that was about to attack us. In general, the dead silence pervaded. The lights in the house were turned off, meaning that everyone in the house fell asleep.

We crossed through the courtyard, sneaking on our feet as if we came to some prison. I was terrified, my teeth were chattering, as if I had a triple fever.

When we crossed the courtyard we reached some doors leading to the harem. The girl was waiting by the door. Once my cousin called her, she appeared covered in a veil, and next to her was a maid (hizmećarica), or a lady cook (ašči kaduna). By custom, I gave gifts to the old lady, and she uteslimi, and handed the girl; after that, she quickly went back into the house. I took the bride by her arm, and led her through the courtyard towards the doors. We were sneaking, and all of a sudden some giant person appeared before us. I was terrified to such an extent that it seemed as if that person was supporting the sky. I was dumbfounded, while my cousin who was following us with a big, long knife in his hand, jumped before that monster (neman), and said: “Stojan! By my religion, money won’t do you good!” Stojan said nothing. Then, my cousin took out something, and pressed his Stojan’s hand: “Go and wake up Suljo, and help me take the horses”, – and again, he put something in his hand: “Don’t be scared my bey, everything is going to be fine.” The bride and I stood there as some statues. Stojan put the socks on horses’ feet, and was leading them across the courtyard. It seemed as if he was not doing that for the first time. The horses were hitched, and we quickly climbed on a cart. We were rushing, until we arrived to Ključ (sometime at the dawn), six hours away from Bosanski Petrovac. That same day I returned to Petrovac; my cousin spent a day in Ključ and he even welcomed the people coming to his wedding who arrived all the way from Varcar-Vakuf; they were preceding him, and two days later, were following him to their Court, with song and the sound of rifles.

At the beginning, the bride’s parents were angry because their daughter left without their knowledge and permission. Afterwards, as it usually happens, everyone accepted that outcome.

In present time, stealing a girl is not so common as it was in the old days, when almost every single lad had to steal a girl. However, this custom is not so rare either, and that is why one can hear multiple times that some lad has stolen a girl. The girl’s parents would get really angry at their new son-in-law and their disobedient daughter – due to that, neither the girl and her boyfriend are not supposed to see her parents. The parents eventually give in to their daughter’s choice, and so they reconcile.

If the lad’s parents do not support their son’s decision to steal a girl he loves, he must leave his father’s house and find a new estate. If the father does not want to give him his money, the son is doing all the best to survive and feed himself and his wife.

There are cases when a lad falls in love with a girl, but she doesn’t want to hear about him, because she does not feel the same, or she is from a lower class, or she is an easy girl and has a bad reputation. In that case, a lad is lying in an ambush for a girl, and if the opportunity arises he, by himself or with the help of his friends, grabs her in his arms and takes home. If this, however, doesn’t work, then a lad tries to convince his mother to invite the girl and her mother into their house. In that case, he would simply stop a girl and would not let her leave his house. If this doesn’t work either, he is waiting for her in some street or alley to tear her pantaloons (dimije). But none of the honorable lads would do that, because in Muslim’s view, that is the worst act of crudeness one can do. Besides, such act is punishable by the Shari’ah law with prison sentence up to three years. In cases like that, a lad has secreted his purpose, and the girl becomes covered in veil, and the parents, whether they want it or not, must give their daughter to that perverted lad, for a girl like that cannot get married to anyone else.

If a lad or a girl, or both of them come from some renowned bey or aga house, they do not dare steal the girl, and the girl must not run away to him, for that would be a disgrace for both them and their parents. However, this does happen a few times. The son of respected parents usually listens to his parents’ wishes, and marries a girl they have chosen for him, while a girl decides to get married to a lad her parents assigned for her, even if she doesn’t fancy him. The main reasons why children of such respected parents obey them are primarily upbringing, love, and a respect towards their father and mother, then a consideration for their eminent origin, and finally, a fear that a father may disinherit them, for he is the unlimited master of his wealth and can, therefore, leave it to a mosque or vakuf (property of a Muslim religious community), or to anyone else.

From Antun Hangi, Život i običaji muslimana u BiH, Sarajevo, Dobra knjiga, 2009

Translated by Maja Pašović
© 2011 Maja Pašović

The editor is grateful to Gregory W. Gernetzke for help in preparing this article.

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