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How Bosnia’s Only Female Coppersmith Is Reinventing Tradition

By Sarah Khan

03.11.20

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Nermina Alic in her shop, which she took over from her father.

Photo by Susan Wright, The New York Times/Redux

Nermina Alic in her shop, which she took over from her father.

Nermina Alic inherited the business from her father, Hadzan, who is the oldest craftsman in Sarajevo.

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In the 1600s, the winding alleys of Sarajevo’s old quarter, Baščaršija, would have been a buzzing hive of artisanal activity. On any given afternoon, a stroll through the labyrinth was likely to ignite all the senses: You’d hear the cacophony of coppersmiths wielding their mallets on Kazandžiluk Lane, smell the wares of the leathermakers on Sarači Street, taste the walnutty dzandar baklava that takes three days to make, and see the colorful slippers on display in the shoemakers’ alley of Čizmedžiluk. These days, however, the number of artisans is dwindling; age-old ateliers are being replaced by vendors hawking mass-produced souvenirs. Visit now, and the bazaar’s sensory overload comes via a steady procession of tourists passing through a maze of machine-made coffee sets and Sarajevo-branded T-shirts.

But listen closely on the fringes of the Baščaršija, at the base of a steep, cobbled stretch called Kovači, and you can still hear a faint tak-tak-tak puncturing the silence that settles in after a nearby mosque’s call to prayer. Follow that rhythmic sound up the hill, and there, on a postcard-perfect lane lined with hip cafés and boutiques, you’ll find coppersmith Nermina Alic busy in her tiny workshop and store.

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It’s by no means easy work. After pounding copper into shape with a hammer, Alic stands before a churning fire, plunging pots and dishes into the flames with a pair of tongs; it’s part of the multi-step process of plating the wares with tin. Once the pots and dishes have cooled, she hunches over them with a sharp engraving tool to tap out precise embellishments, scraping off the tin so the copper reveals itself in delicate patterns. This technique is known as savat, and Alic is one of its last practitioners. She’s also Bosnia’s only female coppersmith.

Alic at work in her shop.

Before Alic, the only women who worked with copper in Bosnia were involved purely with the decoration process and never with the physical labor—the toiling over an open fire and pounding slabs of copper into sinuous shapes with a hammer. “It’s a hard job to do, but I’m living proof that it’s possible,” she says.

Possible, yes, but it’s been a long journey to acceptance in a male-dominated trade.

Alic’s father, now almost 83, is Sarajevo’s oldest living craftsman. When she was younger, he was happy to let her work on smaller pieces but never thought of someday passing the work on to his daughter. 

“I’ve come to this store all of my life—when I was a child, I wanted to be here with my dad rather than get ice cream,” says Alic, an only child. “[Working with copper] comes kind of natural to me. I always knew that I understood the material itself, I understood how to work with that material. Even before my dad recognized I could do these things, I knew I could.”

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At the Sarajevo Academy of Fine Arts, Alic studied sculpture, an art form that echoed her father’s work, and spent her Saturdays and summers with him in the workshop, where copperwork has been practiced for more than 200 years. At some point, her father realized he could no longer deny her natural aptitude for the trade.

“I said I’d like to try [to do this work full-time], and he said, ‘I believe it’s going to be hard, but let’s try.’ He didn’t doubt my ability to work, but he doubted that society would accept me.” After she graduated, Alic began working alongside her father, building her own relationships with his clients, until she gradually took over the business. She’s never looked back.

But copper making, which first arrived in the Balkans with the Ottomans in the 15th century, is at a crossroads, as maintaining a centuries-old business that values time-intensive handiwork is increasingly difficult in an era when machines produce facsimiles of traditional crafts at a fraction of the price. “A hundred years ago, there were hundreds of coppersmiths in Sarajevo, even though it was a much smaller town at the time,” says Alic. “Now it’s much bigger, and you have maybe 30 coppersmiths left.” 

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Today, the nearby markets are brimming with cheap savat replicas, and many craftsmen who inherited workshops from their fathers have begun using the spaces to hawk inexpensive souvenirs. But Alic still finds a steady clientele of locals and tourists who are drawn to the quality of her handcrafted work. Along with the classic coffeepots and plates, she innovates with the savat technique, making candleholders out of  traditional džezvas (coffeepots), a widely recognized symbol of Bosnia. “It’s important for me to have something to show my creativity,” she says.

Each day, Alic faces the dual burden of being the only woman in what’s considered a man’s line of work and of being one of the few remaining masters of an endangered craft. And yet, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I believe that every woman everywhere in the world feels that pressure, one way or another, and there unfortunately are always going to be people who will doubt your abilities just because you are a woman,” she says. “But I’m still lucky that there are more people who do trust me and who do trust my work.”

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