About the Work

by edin hajdarpašić

“The Alphabet” was first published in 1913 by the Bosnian teacher Petar Mirković, who attributed the composition to a Bosnian shaykh known only by the initials “M.B.u.Z.” It takes the form of a love poem written by a male student named Fejzo flirting with his darling Fata (Fatima) while teaching her the shapes of the Arabic letters. “The Alphabet” stands apart from other South Slavic poetry as neither an epic-folkloric opus nor an example of the Romantic lyricism favored by intellectuals at the turn of the century. Instead, it is a kind of vernacular didactic rhyme, playing with the straightforward heteronormative theme of a lovers’ tryst and entangling it with the shapes of Arabic letters. 

It is in the context of a modernizing project that “The Alphabet” appeared in 1913, most likely as an attempt to expand the practice of writing Bosnian in the Arabic script. Ever since the expansion of Ottoman rule into the Balkans in the fifteenth century, Arabic script had been one means for writing non-Arabic and non-Ottoman languages (a literary practice often called aljamiado). In Bosnia, many local writers adapted the Perso-Arabic script to South Slavic dialects. But as the historian Harun Buljina notes in a recent article in Turcica, the use of this arebica script experienced a modern revival in the early twentieth century when several Bosnian Muslim intellectuals standardized it for use in print. The fact that a number of Arabic letters are missing from “The Alphabet” may reflect standardization debates over arebica ongoing at the time. 

But these finer linguistic points may seem extraneous to the poem’s weaving together of flirting and writing. Its lines can sometimes be mawkish or a bit chauvinistic. For example, Fejzo, the male student teaching his beloved to write, begins to compare the letter saat (ص) to his lover’s braided hair, but the braid reminds him of a kind of burek that he then asks her to make. In another verse, he woos Fata by promising never to hit her because it would make him cry, hinting at the contempt and violence that often lurk beneath flattery of women. Other verses muster more compelling imagery. In one stanza, Fejzo compares the letter seen (س) to a rake that will sweep his beloved off to bed where they will both write and cuddle. In another, he imagines the dot above the noon (ن) as a boat floating in a giant bowl of sharbat.

“The Alphabet” is a sentimental and uneven collection of verses that continually links literacy with intimacy. It is its central aspiration—to make people love reading and writing—that makes the poem worth translating and engaging with here.


m.b.u.z. was a shaykh who lived in Bosnia at the end of the nineteenth century. He is said to have recited “The Alphabet” (“Ašiklijski elif-bah”) to the Bosnian teacher and folklorist Petar Mirković, who published this poem in 1913.

edin hajdarpašić is a historian teaching at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840–1914 (Cornell, 2015). His writing, which has been translated into Italian, Chinese, and Turkish, concerns the politics of history and memory.


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