Nora Repo is a Finnish Doctor of philosophy who specialises in Islam in the Balkans and has a lot of experience in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue initiatives. Her doctoral dissertation covered Albanian women in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia which identified some very interesting tendencies in interplay of identities, Islam and religiosity. Besides being a researcher, she’s a passionate tango and oriental dancer, a strong woman, a polyglot, a frequent traveller, an explorer and soon to be working with a very exciting project involving migrants in Finland. She has written several articles covering everything from tensions in the Republic of Macedonia to inter-religious dialogue and peace-building and it’s been a pleasure to sit down and talk to this amazing human being that is Nora.
So Nora, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself, who is Nora Repo?
Well, I am a Finnish woman who moved to Serbia a couple of years ago, in the aim to realise some kind of a dream, you could say. It was related to interfaith dialogue in the Balkans. The choice is connected to my profession as I am a doctor of philosophy specialising in Islam in the Balkans, and as I have had a chance to work with ecumenical and interfaith issues already in Finland. In my doctoral dissertation, which is from the field of comparative religion, I studied Islam in the Republic of Macedonia and Albanian women’s religiosity and their identities, and how Islam presents itself in relation to these things.
This is an interesting area that I hope we can address in more detail. But first, how long have you been here in Serbia?
All in all, I have been in Serbia now more or less two and a half years.
So, you are a Doctor of Philosophy, you are a researcher, and you are a dancer too. How? How does this happen? Tell me, please. What kinds of dances do you enjoy?
Mostly I dance Argentine tango and then oriental dance also. I actually started to dance oriental dance first, I just became interested in it with a friend of mine more than fifteen years ago. We wanted to go and try the dance, to take the introduction course and I really enjoyed it very much, especially this feminine part that this particular dance includes. Then, there was a pause during which I wasn’t dancing, for several years, I started intensively again in 2006 and right now, there seems to be no end to the story.
Tango came into the picture here in Belgrade. I accidentally happened to have my first flat next to a tango school, so it was somehow brought to me. I find that dancing is one way in which I can express myself and communicate, it’s a way of creating something. I find that this goes very well together with research, as being a writer, scientific or non-scientific, it is a very creative job too – you write, that is, you create.
That is amazing! Such a unique perspective. Speaking of unique, it’s so unusual to have a Finnish woman staying here, in this country. Have you noticed? Are there many Finns here?
Yes, I have noticed that there are not many Finnish people here at all. I don’t know if we could even speak of hundreds, there are very few of us. And, yes, usually you have a reason for coming here – either you are married or in love or you have a job. I didn’t have any of these. I just came with the big wish of finding both. It is an unusual choice. It is also a less ordinary choice what I chose for my doctoral dissertation; to do a field study in the Republic of Macedonia. This is related to my personal life story, the choice of working in this particular part of the world. And then also, my family was earlier living in the United Arab Emirates, that’s why I chose Islam to specialise in.
Yeah, wow. So among the students, when you chose your specialisation, were there many other students also choosing to specialise in questions of Islam, or was it just you?
Islam is becoming a more and more popular topic due to the current situation in the world. There is more and more people having different angles when it comes to doing research about Islam, yes. It is, I don’t know, maybe some professor of comparative religion could give a more precise idea, but it is definitely booming now.
But over to your doctoral dissertation, could you tell us a little bit more about it? It was on women, women’s religious identities and Islam, please do tell us more – this sounds very exciting.
Yes, I did my research in the Republic of Macedonia in 2008 and 2009. I spent some months there and I interviewed Muslim women, asking questions about everything that might be related to their religiosity or identity, and also about other thoughts that they might somehow relate to their own religious conviction. My focus group were Albanian women, who represent a minority in the Republic of Macedonia. I found that what I managed to put together in my research was rather interesting, in that sense that the Republic of Macedonia has been very little researched in general. I could map out some Islamic local practices, laying out what it really means to be religious, for instance in situations such as when a child is born, in marriages, in funerals – these kinds of everyday details when it comes to Islam. And also more in-depth, thoughts of conviction related to what it means to be a Muslim, what are the most important basic values related to religion and so on.
I used in my dissertation a socio-psychological theory that had three levels; societal level, interactional level and the personal level. My interpretation of these interviews, which were 19 in number with these ladies, was that on the societal level, the ethnic identity tended to be the most important. On the interactional level, I would say it was gender identity, which is the most emphasised, and, on the personal level, religious identity. This was how I interpreted this interview material. But, when we are speaking about research in humanities, these are never absolute findings, so these were the main tendencies in this research, but they are not in any way unconditional.
Wow, that is very interesting, and I would encourage anyone who is interested in this fascinating topic to go read your dissertation. Now, since you’ve been staying in Serbia for quite a while now, did you have a chance to interact with the religious communities here here?
Yes. Mainly the Orthodox Christian and the Jewish communities.
Do you feel like these communities are active? Population/structure wise, are the people there younger? Is it a mixed-age thing?
I would say here in the Belgrade area, the communities are active and rather mixed – you have people of all ages and both men and women coming to the services and gatherings. This is my experience, yes.
Have you seen any inter-religious communication between those communities?
I have to say that my observation is that there have been some attempts more from the administrative side, and maybe from the side of the state, there are some inter-religious bodies which are responsible for that. But I would say that it would be welcome to have more of these kinds of actions so that people could do something concretely together.
Right, and especially since it’s a multi-religious society really, so you’d really expect it to be more of that sort of interaction. So speaking of it, when we talk about Finland and religious communities there, how do you perceive that one over there?
In Finland, I think that we are having very good relationships between religious communities on the level of the leaders. Even in Serbia, it’s the same. Thus, usually the leaders do have contact between themselves, and the lacking part is more on the grass-roots level. We would somehow need to spread out this communication from the higher hierarchical level. I find that in Finland we have a very similar situation, I cannot really compare where we have more activities between religious communities, but I would say the situation is rather similar in both countries. We have rather good communication on the top-level, and then the issue of not knowing how to spread it towards the grass-roots levels so that we could involve more people.
So, since you’re going back to Finland now, what are you going to be doing over there?
Well, I am going to start to work as a Project Coordinator for a project that is called “Protected by the Cross”. It is a project within the Evangelical Lutheran church of Finland. The project deals with the questions that are related to the immigrants who are residing undocumented in the country, the so-called “sans-papiers”, who are invisible from the administrative and legal point of view.
That’s really great! And for everyone not expecting a Christian initiative to be dealing with migrant issues in general…
Yes, well, I find it that these are the basics of the basics. As the organisation “Religions for Peace” has brought up, that when it was said in the Bible “love thy neighbour”, it was not mentioned from which community this neighbour comes, it says just “love thy neighbour”. This is the message that I find is in the core of what it means to be a Christian. These people come from diverse countries and have diverse backgrounds, the aim is to find ways to assist and help them in the best possible manner.
It feels like we need a lot of that now. Speaking with you makes me see that you’re probably the most perfect person for this job. I wish you the most of success and an interesting time, and a lot of dancing!