Meeting and mixing in Sarajevo

HIGH LEVEL delegations have been buzzing between Ankara and Sarajevo in recent weeks. There has been a round of diplomatic activity between Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia, not in response to any faux pas or fracas requiring delicate diplomatic manoeuvring, rather it has been part of regular tripartite meetings intended to foster economic and trade cooperation between these particular southeastern European nations. As well as signing an agreement in Ankara aimed at enhancing trade links, delegates declared themselves intent on forging a common, bright future and overcoming entrenched intercommunal prejudices. That’s gotta be a good thing.

In earlier posts I’ve written about Turkey’s increasing presence in the Balkans and the whole concept of neo-Ottomanism. This a term that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu allegedly dislikes, even while he is the architect of Turkey’s reaching out to its neighbours (most of whom were formerly subject territories). Neo-Ottomanism is busy terminology – there is a lot going on in there! – and it is certainly open to pejorative interpretations, although it need not always be. The Guardian recently ran an article looking at Turkey’s re-engagement with the Balkans, deeming the whole affair a “gentle Ottoman reprise”.

sarajevo-the-loversAs noted by The Guardian, Turkish investment has increased in the Balkans, particularly in Croatia and Serbia. Significantly Turkish business investors are not interested to the same degree in Bosnia. While there is much talk of shared culture and history between Turks and Bosnians, it would seem that Sarajevo doesn’t present the same economic opportunity or certainty that its former Yugoslav neighbours do. There is however a private university in Sarajevo that is backed by Turkish business men, and this is attracting Turkish students.

And of course, Turkish soap operas are all the rage in Bosnia, and in other countries across the Balkans (as I have also posted on before). It has been reported that the appeal of these shows, apart from intricate story lines and superb acting (you know, the soapy bits!), lies in the values that they are projecting. It would seem portrayals of patriarchal families and their assorted goings-on strike a note with viewers in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and even Serbia.

The biggest hit of all remains Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), the show which depicts the life of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. He was the very embodiment of a patriarchal fellow, but it could hardly be stated that his domestic arrangements were akin to the modern nuclear family. Still, patriarchy is carrying the day amongst Balkan soap opera watchers, and I can’t help feeling that there is something of a patriarchal, or at least paternalistic, element in Turkey’s return to the region. An increasingly confident Turkey sees itself as having a leadership role to play in the region, a source of wise counsel, a model to be emulated, perhaps…

sarajevo-chessMeanwhile, another legacy of the Turkish presence in the region, Sufism, is also reasserting itself in Bosnia. The mystical branch of Islam (to use a very simplistic, reductive definition) was always a significant presence throughout the Balkans, but during the traumatic war years of the 1990s a (hardline, conservative, literalist) Wahhabi element appeared. The pendulum appears to being swinging back now, Sufism, in particular the Mevlevi order (they being the dervishes who whirl), reappearing, with a new tekke (lodge) opening in Sarajevo.

And while a gentler strand of Islam may be re-emerging, it appears that ethnic divides and strictly nationalistic identities are not quite what they were previously in Bosnia. During the wars of the 1990s, distinct identities were asserted, often vehemently, but a canvassing of opinion in late 2012 found that 35 percent of people in Bosnia identified as on a national basis as Bosnians and Hercegovinians, rather than as ethnically Serbian, Croatian or Bosniak (Muslim). This was particularly the case with younger people. Bizarrely enough, people who identified themselves as such in the census completed in April will be categorised as ‘other’ in national records.

Of course there has always been a great deal of cultural overlap in Bosnia, despite what may be imagined after the internecine wars of the ‘90s. And even then, there were plenty who conceived of an identity broader than just narrow nationalistic ones. In besieged Sarajevo, Yugoslavian national football (soccer) player Predrag Pašić established a multi-ethnic football school. On its first day, despite the threat of snipers and mortar shells, the school attracted around 200 boys from across the city. As reported in Al Jazeera, Pašić “taught a philosophy of unity and teamwork through sport”. Sport was the great leveller – despite intercommunal conflict the Bosnian boys had something in common.

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