Alison Morse

Alison Morse (BOSFAM): Alison graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a BA in international relations. Alison worked for the International Institute of Boston, a nonprofit that helps refugees and immigrants in the Boston area. Alison worked with survivors of human trafficking, torture and domestic violence. At the time of her fellowship, she was pursuing a Master's degree in law and diplomacy at Tufts University's Fletcher School, focusing on development economics and human security.

Coffee Talk

25 Jun

Drinking coffee is a tradition in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, coffee provides more than a caffeine jolt before that morning meeting or a way to usher out the guests at the end of a dinner party. It welcomes visitors, gathers friends and connects one to strangers.

Coffee here does not come in the tall, extra hot, no fat, no whip, shot of vanilla, dash of cinnamon variety. Its consumption is a simple ritual: it is served in a demitasse, black, with two cubes of sugar on the side. The sugar cube, held at the very tip of one corner, between thumb and index finger, carefully breaks the thick, brown surface, quickly turning the white to a rich caramel color. The cube is then eaten; often lingering on the tongue until a slow sip is taken, dissolving it completely.

Not wanting to be ones to break from tradition, the women of BOSFAM gather twice daily to partake in their caffeinated beverage and its sugary accent. The first round is served around 9:30 a.m. and the second around 2 p.m. Coffee preparation rotates daily. The woman who prepares the coffee is then the designated server – a skill that combines the fine art of evenly distributing the rich brown liquid with a trained eye to monitor the level of each drinker’s cup. If one is not quick to turn over an empty cup, signaling completion, the server will promptly refill before a firm “ne hvala” (no thank you) can even be uttered.

For the women, these breaks are a time to talk about the latest bounties from their gardens, recap the headlines from the previous day’s news, report on their children and reminisce about the days before the war. For me, these breaks provide two opportunities a day to observe the dynamics of this patchwork family. Once the conversation moves beyond talk of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, which are the only Bosnian words I have mastered outside of the standard niceties, I take my role as the silent observer to the animated hand gestures, outbursts of hearty laughter and drying of tears.

I watch the circle of women erupt in laughter as Nura’s wiry frame leaps from her chair as she gestures wildly with her hands. Sajma is the first to respond. She carefully balances her weight on the tiny stool beneath her as she folds over in face-reddening laughter. She wipes tears from eyes and takes in a few breaths to calm herself before commenting –though she barely makes it through her sentence, words running together as she doubles over again. Tima sits squarely on her chair, her legs spread and her calloused hands tightly gripping the tiny handle of her cup; her mannerisms often remind me of my high school gym teacher. Though she contributes little to conversation, her low, raspy commentary balances the high-pitched laughter of the others. Zifa, hands folded in front of her, smiles widely, boldly exposing her three top teeth. She is clearly entertained by Nura’s antics. Though I have absolutely no idea what has been said, I find myself nodding and smiling along with them.

These moments of uncontrollable laughter are welcome breaks in conversations that frequently circle back to the war. Srebrenica and Potocari are casually added to conversation, drifting in and out of talk about the weather and the destruction caused by snails in the garden. It is easy understand why the war dominates conversation here – for some, it has never ended. Nura awaits word of missing family members. Tima lost her husband. For Zifa, it was her brother killed. For others, the upcoming burial of a neighbor, the return to one’s pre-war home, or the headlines announcing arrests of war criminals all bring memories to the surface. It is in those moments that the dynamics of the circle shift – a hand is placed on a shoulder, eyes stare blankly at the table, a quiet sip is taken while conversation lingers on talk of missing relatives. Talk of war is so commonplace, however, that it is not long before someone steers the conversation to laughter, breaking the silence that is brought on by tears. This range of emotions abruptly ends by the turning over empty cups, returning everyone to work until the next round of kaffa is poured.

Posted By Alison Morse

Posted Jun 25th, 2007

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