Inventing the Balkans - interview
by Bozidar Jezernik
Interview with Bozidar Jezernik, visiting professor at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His book The Upside-Down Land, in which he analyses myths and prejudices present in the writings of travellers to the Ottoman Balkans from the first half of the16th to the present day, has just been published in the Bosnian language.
Inventing the Balkans
What do your studies show?
A systematic study of works written during the past five centuries, beginning with the publication of a travelogue by Benedict Kuripecic in 1531, shows that all these works speak as eloquently about the authors themselves - of the culture and way of life of the societies from which the observers derive - as they do about the peoples of the Balkan peninsula. Geographical concepts tend as a rule to be neutral, but the concept of the Balkans seems to be an exception to that rule. In the writings of Western authors it has acquired - like Asia or the Orient - a specific connotation, depicting not so much a geographical area as an idea of localized chaos, a picturesque albeit explosive point of contact between East and West.
What is the meaning of the term the Balkans?
It is quite a recent term, popularized in the early 19th century by the German geographer August Zeune. He spoke of a Balkan Peninsula analogous to, say, the Iberian Peninsula. In Bulgarian balkan means simply mountain, and in Turkish steep forested mountain. It came, however, to denote the chain of mountains which in ancient times was known as Haimos. Today it is used also to refer to the area which in the West used to be known as Turkey in Europe. The term came also to be used by Balkan peoples themselves during the period of their struggle for independence - they used it in order to present their backwardness relative to the West as the outcome of Ottoman rule. The term Balkan, in other words, contained also a value judgment - symbolizing something that was unsatisfactory and had to be changed for the better.
The majority of Western travellers gave a highly subjective account of the Balkans. Why is that?
All these reports are, as you say, subjective. This is because the travellers were more concerned with what was of topical interest in their own countries than in what was really happening in the Balkans. Their descriptions are full of prejudice and at times contain observations which have nothing to do with actual reality.
One of the best examples of this partiality is the work written by the Russian consul Hilferding, who at one time lived and worked in Sarajevo. You quote him a great deal.
Hilferding is a very interesting author. We are speaking of a highly educated man who in 1826 was elected to the Imperial Academy of Science in St Petersburg. He was a great expert on geography and history and knew well the South Slav languages - in contrast to travellers from Western Europe who did not know them, so were unable to communicate with the native population. He travelled through Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova, which he called Old Serbia. He left behind a travelogue which is one of the most important documents relating the customs of the people living in these areas. In the case of his work I was particularly interested in one question - the question of eyes that cannot see.
Are you referring to his notes on the destruction of eyes of saints painted on Orthodox frescoes and icons?
Yes. Hilferding saw that figures portrayed on the icons and frescoes found in the Orthodox churches and monasteries had their eyes scratched out. Following his own prejudices he accepted the explanation given to him that this had been done by the Muslims, the Turks. This is interesting because there was sufficient information available to him from which he could have learnt that this explanation, offered by the Orthodox priests and monks, was false. Theirs was a construction aimed at presenting the Turks as barbarians. But Hilferding favoured the Orthodox people: he ascribed to them the most positive characteristics, while reserving the worst ones for Catholics and Muslims.
It is interesting that he writes that in Bosnia one and the same people adheres partly to Catholicism, partly to Orthodoxy. Were there other authors who wrote in this way?
Many did. The development of national consciousness in the area of the Ottoman Empire followed a different course than in Western Europe. In the case of Germany, for example, the religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics was solved in the sense that national membership was accepted as a higher order of identification. So you had Catholic Germans and Protestant Germans. In the system that prevailed in the Ottoman Empire, however, religious identity was considered as primary. People there were organized in so-called millets, communities organized on a confessional basis. So you had the Orthodox millet, the Catholic millet, the Jewish millet, and so on. Members of different millets lived according to different rules. The millets had a degree of administrative autonomy, they were so-to-speak states within a state. It was confessional not ethnic membership that was important.
Despite their subjective point of view, these writers did record that the Ottoman Empire was - relative to that time - a multi-cultural and tolerant society.
Indeed. The tolerance exhibited by that society, ethnic but also confessional, was much greater than in Western Europe. This situation lasted until the First World War.
However, the British traveller Arthur Evans wrote in 1877 that Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim children went to schools run by the clergy where they were taught to hate each other.
The change occurred in the 19th century, when schools were established that were financed from abroad. Many persons from the West engaged in building schools in Bosnia-Herzegovina; one well-known case is that of Miss Irby, who travelled through the Balkans and supported schools for Christian boys and girls. This was the time when a highly negative attitude to the Ottoman state and Islam became the norm in Europe, which unfortunately was reflected also in these schools. They were established as an instrument of propaganda. It was not, perhaps, their main motif, but the element of propaganda was very present in them.
How did the Ottoman authorities react to the opening and work of these schools?
They were under strong pressure from the European powers, which demanded of them implementation of reforms that would improve the status of the Empires Christian population. The Sultan, in other words, was forced to undertake reforms.
You write also about the destruction of mosques and other Islamic monuments during the last war, which has produced once again a segregation of schools on a religious basis.
This is, in fact, the conclusion of a process which many authors writing in the nineteenth century called Europeanization. It involves the elimination of all tangible traces of Ottoman presence in the Balkans. Europe, I am afraid, expected Serbia to win, after which peace and stability would prevail in the Balkans. This is true especially of France and Great Britain. I myself have heard a member of the British government speak in these terms on the BBC. Of course, this was not the view of all British people, there existed a difference of opinion. With the change of government a different view has prevailed.
Like that of the United States?
Yes. The United States is a multi-cultural society whose development is based on ethnic and religious tolerance. There the sensibility for tolerance and common existence of various ethnic and religious communities is higher than in Western Europe.
Are you surprised by the fact that in Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina ethnological material is not considered worthy of scientific research?
We are faced with a basic problem, which is that Sarajevo University does not have a department of ethnology. There was once a plan for its establishment, but its realization was blocked primarily by ethnologists from Belgrade and Zagreb. It is most important that such a department be created within the Philosophical Faculty.
How do you see the present-day situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina?
This is a difficult and uncomfortable question. The current situation in Bosnia is unusual also in comparison to the not-so-distant past. In Bosnia today we have Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats - but not Bosnians. A hundred years ago there were no Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats. People differed only by religion. If, however, Bosnia-Herzegovina is left to follow the pattern of Western Europe, in time there will be only one people - the Bosnian-Herzegovinians. I hope that this will come about - the sooner the better.
I should like to ask you finally, since I did not find this in your book, what you think about Titos role in the Balkans?
I have not studied this question, but can answer as a citizen of former Yugoslavia. The Communist party of Yugoslavia under Titos leadership did some positive and some negative things. One of its positive deeds, one of the things that can be credited to Tito, is the emancipation of a number of national communities, among them the Muslims or Bosniaks and the Macedonians. That cannot be forgotten.
Translated from Slobodna Bosna (Sarajevo), 23 March 2000