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10 Nov 16

Seeking the Serbian Soul

Srdjan Garcevic

I travelled from Exit to Guca and from Novi Pazar to Subotica to challenge foreign- and my own- prejudices about the “essential” Serbian character.

Novi Sad’s Petrovaradin hosts EXIT. Photo: Flickr/Exit.

In 1980s Yugoslavia, as the socialist state was beginning to crumble, each of the component states grew concerned with their essential identities. It became vitally important to differentiate oneself from neighbours with whom one had shared a country with for 80 years. In this quagmire of jingoism, the image and idea of “true Serbian-ness” was crudely assembled as a rallying banner.

What did that mean, this “true Serbian-ness”? The true Serbian was ethnically a Serb (despite the rich mix of ethnic identities in Serbia and the region), staunchly Orthodox (despite the rather spotty church attendance), patriarchal (despite rather independent position of women in Yugoslavia) and obsessed with history and war. History was re-shaped to highlight his ancient origins and national culture refocused to make him look more unique. This not only ignored the diverse cultures and histories of other ethnicities living in Serbia, but also those of many ethnic Serbs who historically lived under different cultural influences from Trieste to Thessaloniki.

The ultranationalists, led by Milosevic and his allies, aided by parts of the Serbian Orthodox Church and cultural intelligentsia, quickly cast themselves as the arbiters of true Serbian-ness. Unfortunately, with the moulds of national identity in ultranationalist hands, the opposition ended up tacitly agreeing to the ultranationalist version of Serbian identity: the key difference being that ultranationalists looked upon that image with admiration, while others admonished and abhorred it.

Growing up, much of the national history and culture was somewhat spoiled for me as it was weaponised, not only in gruesome wars against our former compatriots, but also against those of us opposed to ultranationalist madness. Although I did not go as far as some, who consider everything local as inferior by definition, as a teenager I scoffed at ethno-music and school trips to Serbia’s ancient monasteries.

In the false dichotomy of Exit, a contemporary music festival in Novi Sad, and Guca, a trumpet festival in central Serbia, where the former symbolised liberal cosmopolitanism, and the latter stood for conservative nationalism - I was firmly on the Exit side. Similarly, most of my crowd only read foreign literature, learnt foreign languages and never considered trips around Serbia as anything but a chore.  

When I moved to the UK, my attitude towards Serbian-ness changed. Most people there knew little about Serbia in this post- Milosevic, pre-Djokovic era of the late 2000s. I often had to explain how cold the winters are 'up there', how I did not speak Russian and that we did not use huskies to pull our sleighs. Basically, that Serbia wasn't Siberia. This was an amusing and welcome corrective to the morose discussions of identity back home. I found it exciting to explain my country's culture to keen listeners, and there was a freedom in enjoying and ridiculing parts of it without stigma.

A certain level of prejudice was present, however. Although initially it was funny to play with the Borat-esque perceptions, I realised some foreigners actually believed the stereotypes. A former colleague quipped that it befitted a Serbian to wash floors; another doubted the existence of internet in Belgrade. Several others asked about my family's ties with the mafia. There were many who assumed I hated Croats, Bosnians and Albanians.

Some biases were presented as fact. The author of a review of a book on Montenegrin history in an influential London-based magazine, was surprised that Montenegrins feel that “fighting and looting” were historically preordained, as their forefathers did before them. A service used by my former company to help with cultural understanding, described Serbians as good hosts, but "manipulative". Negative terms were not used for Western Europeans, who were all described as honest and hardworking.

Of course, many of these biases were applied to all "Eastern Europeans" (i.e. everyone non-Germanic, east of Venice). I can hardly recall an Eastern European (let alone a Serbian) character in a mainstream English language film depicted outside some violent or criminal context, either as victim or perpetrator.

On the other hand, there was a small group of Serbia enthusiasts. However even some of them believed in true, exotic Serbian-ness. Often they would offer an explanation of what a true Serbian is like.  Invariably, he was a gentle savage: good host, fond of rakija and folk music, yet full of prejudices against anything outside his village. When I would disagree with this, and note that Serbians are a varied bunch, I would be dismissed, again, as "not a true Serbian".

But again, what does that really mean, to be a “true Serbian”? Curious for an answer, I set off to explore Serbia and, maybe along the way, let go of some of my own prejudices. After Exit, I went to Guca. The similarities were greater than differences: at both there was a bunch of people, mostly local, some foreign, spending a few days in the squalor of a festival camp to get the chance to party the night away, often drunk, and not very concerned about discussing identity, politics and history.  As expected, at Guca there was more nationalist paraphernalia (busts of četnik generals were curiously rubbing shoulders with those of Tito), slightly stranger scenes (a skimpily clad dancer twerking next to a family having lunch), but most of it was just a good old-fashioned boozy festival. There was majestic scenery, great trumpet music, as well as Severina, a Croatian superstar.

Not finding any “true Serbians”, but only revellers in Guca, I continued my quest. During my travels around Serbia, I visited quite a few serene monasteries and took part in many rakija-fuelled singalongs in kafanas. I went from Sanzak where medieval monasteries and ancient Ottoman minarets watched calmly over daily life. I’ve seen Roman forts in central Serbia, and went all the way up to Subotica, a city famous for impressive Hungarian art-nouveau architecture and a massive synagogue. Throughout, people held various views and had diverse origins. Some of them were pleasant, others weren't. There were memories of violence, suffered and inflicted by compatriots and foreigners, but there were mostly people, un-exotically trying to make do with what they have and who they are as individuals.

Rather than finding a single true Serbian-ness, I found diversity. Past and various cultural influences were often discussed. At its best this led to syncretism: taking best parts of foreign things and making them our own, like Ottoman and Austrian culinary influence, Byzantine inspired architecture or Greek-based alphabet. At its worst, this turned into paranoia and an impulse to insulate oneself from complex reality.

Although I did not find the rough and rowdy true Serbian-ness I was looking for, these trips made me happy to admit that I am not a “true Serbian”. No-one is.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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