Non-Western Balkans: an identity struggle

Some time ago, overcome by a listicle-making urge, I considered putting together a playlist of highly orientalist Yugoslav songs with entries such as Bebi Dol’s Mustafa and Brekvica’s “Loša”. While trawling though YouTube I realised the absurdity at the heart of the endeavour: much of our pop music is “oriental” in the sense that it was influenced by Turkish (or wider Silk road) rhythms and thus I may as well have pointed the reader to a search term “turbofolk” or “Balkan music”.

However, this aside, songs like Brena’s “Robinja” stand out as foreign sounding to us, and self-consciously play with over the top exoticism of harems and, yes, (white) slavery. Given that up until a bit more than a century we were practically the Orient, with all of its features, it was funny to me how we put a dividing line between our relatively “oriental” daily life and performative “Orientalism”.

I decided to pick this theme up now, as I just got back from Sarajevo, a city whose main symbols are its “orientalist” (and tragically fated) City Hall and pseudo Moorish Sebilj designed by Alexander Wittek, a tragic Austro-Hungarian architect. These beautiful structures stand out from its Ottoman Baš Čaršija quarter much like “Robinja” of “Žena od Sultana“ stand out from our Turkish-knock-off pop, as a piece of intentional „Orientalism“ in the heart of something already plainly „oriental“.  Similarly, Sarajevo University’s Faculty of Islamic Studies is not housed in one of the traditional hans but in a another orientalist, Neo-Moorish fantasy by the another talented Austro-Hungarian architect, Karel Pařík, (huddled in the mix of older authentically Ottoman houses. Walking around Sarajevo’s remarkable and eclectic architecture, I throught that it as well as its history may offer a hint as to where the dividing line between our every-day “oriental” life and high “Orientialism” lies and what its intended purpose may be.

While Wittek, Pařík and many other talented architects who built Sarajevo since Ottomans retreated ,may have chosen any of the many beautiful mosques and Ottoman buildings dotted around Bosnia, the Balkans or Asia Minor as inspiration, they decided to go for the style that was almost completely foreign to the land, but complied with the European view of what the Orient should look like: the architecture of Muslim and formerly Muslim lands (Egypt, Morocco, Andalusia), that were colonised by the Western powers. In a way, this was a show of power of the new authorities: not only did they displace the style of the former rulers and still rivals, they were also showing their new “oriental” subjects how they could properly be “oriental” under the new government. This new style was not only entertaining to their Western rulers, but it was also non-threatening, defanged version of Bosnia. Given that it was foreign to the local population, it prevented it from truly strengthening links with its past or former Ottoman rulers.

Similar process was going on in Belgrade in the late 19th century. While Prince Miloš Obrenović proudly continued Ottoman style in his dress and homes, his successor Prince Mihailo, went on a modernising streak, almost completely remaking Belgrade in the Central European mold, from its architecture to the local dress. This continued even after his assassination, in 1868 so much so that even one of the most imposing Belgrade monuments, which even Prince Mihailo wanted to preserve, Batal mosque, was blown up. Authentically “oriental” (basically anything non-Western) dress and tastes in general have since then in Serbia been perceived as a marker of lower class.

However, only after Serbia was given a completed statehood and independence from the Ottomans during the Berlin congress of 1878, did it become fashionable once again to play with our non-Western aesthetic and past. Indeed, one of the most sumptuous salons in the private residence of Obrenovićs, now destroyed Old Konak, in Belgrade was in Oriental style, filled with decorations that king Milan shipped from Syria and the rest of the Middle East (but not made by local Ottoman craftsmen). It was around this time that we were safely “European” that our Romantic painters, such as Paja Jovanović and Uroš Predić, started doing their Oriental scenes which had huge success in the West.

This practice was continued during the Karađorđević era, both in Belgarde and Sarajevo. While the new Kingdom did a lot to promote the local crafts and played more with the complexity of local identity, its relationship with its authentically oriental (i.e. Ottoman) past was still at arm’s length.

For example, the ill-fated Sephardi synagogues in Sarajevo (now Bosnian cultural centre) and Belgrade (replaced by Gallery of frescoes) built in the  were built in neo-Moorish styles and bear little resemblance to the Kals where old Jews of those cities used to pray, while Karađorđević oriental salon at Beli dvor designed like Nikolai Krasnov, is more Persian and Moorish, than Ottoman, although the Karađorđevićs allegedly used to own a traditional Ottoman salon made by traditional master-carpenters of Konjic.

While this attitude is most marked when it comes to the relationship with our Ottoman heritage (unsurprisingly, given that it had and still has some political charge), it also bears on our attitude towards any “non-western” aspect of our identity. If something historically could not have been be safely packaged for Western audiences, our Occidentophile elites generally used to shun it as backwards and useless.

Occasionally though, some of the locals decided to go the to the other extreme and amp up the exotic aspects, to “sell” the local exoticism to both Occidentophile elites, (already disgusted by their nations) or foreigners. Late 19th and 20th century ethnographers revelled in promoting, generally unfounded, stories about brutal and strange practices in the Balkans. The ethnographic myths that were promoted (aside from the infamous one about Albanians having tails, which was spread by an Austrian diplomat) are the ones about lapot (ritual killing of the elders among the Serbs), strndžanje (ritual orgies in Eastern Serbia) and the tradition of married Vasojević women in northern Montenegro having to have sex with strangers who visit their homes.

Both of the approaches to our culture – of sanitising and hyper-exoticising our non-“Westerness” – of course remain in our general inability and unwillingness to see ourselves on our terms, but rather as we are seen by others.

What happened to our oriental past also happened to our Socialist heritage: after a decade of neglect, after the popularisation in the West that led to the MoMA show about Yugoslav architecture, white-washed, defanged, Guardian-friendly  version of our Socialist history is being sold and used to supplant the real, edgier and more complicated one. On the other, apart from brilliant although sensation-seeking performance artists, such as Marina Abramović, who are milking (or should we say bleeding) their Yugoslav heritage to great effect, there is a whole cottage industry of poverty, tragedy or outrage porn in our arts and internet culture that sensationalises the daily life in the Balkans, again for the foreign audience and local effete elites, who are too cool to face the reality.

Thus while in Belgrade you are considered cool if you rock out to Bebi Dol’s Mustafa, make sure you say you hate the “oriental garbage” of trubo folk, to be on the safe side.

And finally here is the playlist:

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If you likes this consider reading these articles about Orientalising the Balkans, and our fantasies about the West.

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