May 2, 2016

Being beautiful in the Bosnian way

The first step towards destruction of a nation is destruction of its memory. Destroy its books, culture and history and then find someone to write new books, invent a new history. Such a nation will soon start to forget what it is and what it was.
Arthur Schlesinger

Cult of recognisable Bosnian beauty

It is familiar how the Bosnian people since the ancient times paid a lot of attention to physical beauty, which is certainly an inheritance of our Illyrian forefathers, especially women from the tribe of Japod, which were reputedly the most beautiful. From then on through all the following centuries, among the Bosnian people a cult of beauty was nurtured, which was literally present in traditional life from the earliest age. Describing a process of beautification of a child, Antun Hangi writes, that this process actually reveals a classic and inborn desire of people to look good, which was certainly in one part of our history the main preoccupation of affluent people such as traders, craftsmen or noblemen, while among the majority of the poor people such a custom was not nurtured. The author writes:

As soon as ebejka washed the child and clad it, she strokes its head so that is more beautiful and formed well. As the ebejka is doing, so shall too the young mother, which needs to watch out that her child's forehead doesn't get too big. Bosnian people don't like large foreheads. A child which has a large forehead, is made fun of and is said that his forehead is big as a hangar. In order for a child's head to develop properly, it needs to be wrapped with not one, but two bandages. One goes from the forehead and is tied at the back, it is called connector, the other one goes underneath the beard and is tied at the top of the head, and it is called chin guard. These bandages are tied numerous times so much so that one feels sorry for the poor child, and once the bandages are removed we notice red markings on the head since the blood couldn't move freely in and out of the head. But they're not only striving to beautify the child and make his head of a proper shape, but all parts of the head, namely the forehead, nose, lips, eyes, ears, eyebrows and chin. Though I have to condemn this practice out of health reasons, I will mention how and why they do them. The forehead is usually covered with oil, thick milk or slime so that the child doesn't get wrinkles around the eyes. Folk, especially more common people, hold that people which have wrinkles around the eyes are troublemakers, ready to do all sorts of evil. A girl which would see large wrinkles in a boy wouldn't marry him. People love like that the nose of the child is nice looking and harmonious that's why they squeeze and thin the noses of the children since no one likes a wide nose. The eyes are usually stroked by mothers while nursing the child so that the eyes won't be murky and to turn out to be healthy clear and large since the larger the eyes, the dearer they are to the people. They tighten the ears and place them closer to the head so that they don't become large and loopy. Similarly they gather the lips of the child between the fingers so that they don't become large. They push the chin towards the throat so that it's not protruding like a saddle. The neck of the child is also stroked so that it is not too thick and that the child doesn't get goitre. They place ham-pamuk (cotton wool) on the child's chest so that the chest will get nourished and grow stronger. Similar things are done with the hand and feet of the child. They tighten them with bands like criminals so that the child looks like a little mummy. The lazy stomach is not exempt. It too needs to be tightened and furbished, so that the child is not tubby and a binge eater.

Because of what we've said above we shouldn't be surprised that among the folk there developed a specific skill of analyzing the human body, physiognomy of the face but also certain physical movements and habit, in order to bring a conclusion about the type of person we're dealing with, its strengths and weaknesses. Today, when we analyse this practice it is evident that parents used it the most when choosing a spouse for their son. Since marriage was seen as a very serious matter, which is the case with conservative societies such as Bosnia, it is reasonable that a lot of attention has been paid when choosing a new family member with the intent of securing fertility and unison which always signified certain advancement and widening of the family.

Generally, women paid attention usually to their face and complexion. White face among Bosnian women was a symbol of beauty from the old days and it is no wonder that they traditionally avoided exposure to the sun, especially during spring, in order to retain their white complexion. In Velika Kladuša it was believed that the sun was poisonous until the winter part of the year doesn't pass i.e. until the beginning of May. Still today some grandmas remember hiding their face from the sun when they were young, especially before a fair or a celebration, in order to have a white face when they appear among the people. They were aided by washing their face with whey, it is still believed that whey tightens the face and keeps it fresh and clean. Similar things are claimed about goat milk.

How widespread and deeply ingrained these ideas were in the traditional lives of the Bosnian people is perhaps best shown by numerous love basma (spell), poetic and often rhymed magical words, which were once used by women to attract love and attention of a certain man but also favour of their surroundings. Šerifa Mujagić says of love basma "they are not charms, they are harmless and serve women so that men like them more".

Analysing their content it is easy to notice congruence in stressing those characteristics and status symbols of beauty which the Bosnian people have seen as desirable in women in the past: thin waist, tall, so that she may walk proudly, white complexion and rosy cheeks and lips. We should emphasize that the mentioned proportions were not unique for the entire nation, this type was accentuated in urban areas, while in rural ones preference was given to women capable of physical labour and virility. With this some customs changed. All attributes, or most of them, were main components of love basma:

Die, burst, until you come to me

until you see me thin

tall, white and rosy!

Desire to be attractive but also accepted by others is clearly stressed in this basma:

I flew like the water,

shuddered like the forest

they look at me as if I were a Bey

they respect me as a king

around me my friends

faithful servants like I'm the king,

wherever I go I carry gold,

when I walk I throw gold,

when I speak I pour out honey,

elzalif amin!

How she wanted to appear to others, and especially her beloved man is seen in one part of this love basma:

...cute to the entire world,

dear, loving and beautiful may I be,

mostly to my NN!