On borders, or the crossing thereof


Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]


Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]


Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]


[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1




The interminable, unfulfilled spring: is it Bosnia’s turn?

sebilj-may-2008CLICHÉS ABOUT POLITICAL SPRINGS are looking a bit shopworn at the moment; recent events in Ukraine and Crimea show how so-called springs can go spectacularly off track and with entirely unforeseen consequences.

Of late, talk of springs, of the political kind, if not of seasonal shifts, has been associated with popular protest. The last year or so in Mediterranean Europe has seen protests in GreeceSpain and France and of course the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in June last year.

Popular disaffection with the political status quo isn’t just confined to these EU-member or EU-aspirant parts of Europe.  Recent years have also seen protests and mobilisations in the Balkans, but these have been protests that haven’t attracted the spotlight of international media attention.

The Balkans are, generally speaking, stuck in the recesses of the popular imagination as an unstable region of ‘ancient hatreds’, so perhaps uprisings here are seen as unremarkable – after all, as received wisdom has it, this is a region prone to gratuitous violence.

That said, this rugged, mountainous corner of Europe is slowly gaining recognition as a place not just seething with inter-communal tensions and not solely physically riddled with 1990s-vintage bullet holes. Even Bosnia & Hercegovina, the country most closely tainted by this sort of thinking, has recently won some kudos, gaining a star rating from National Geographic Traveler, no less.

Nat Geo coverage doesn’t automatically foster a happy political arena, however. In February protests erupted in the northeastern city of Tuzla, said to be one of the powerhouses (all things are relative!) of the Bosnian economy. It also happens to be one of its most ethnically diverse cities: it retains an Orthodox cathedral and Franciscan monastery amidst it mosques, as well as an active Jewish community.

Protests in Tuzla were triggered by public discontent, disillusionment and frustration at political shenanigans that have bedevilled the country and forestalled reform and economic development since the peace accords of 1995. After three days, protests had spread to more than 30 cities and towns across the country, with Sarajevo becoming the epicentre of protest and public displeasure. As if to live up to Western (mis)conceptions of the region, protests in many instances became violent, with public offices torched and phalanxes of police bringing in tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters.

Three months on protests may have cooled, yet popular mobilisation and the voicing of political complaints and demands are ongoing. The political arena in Bosnia is fiendishly complex: where else is there such a small state that entertains two distinct political entities, five presidents, 10 cantons and a mind-boggling array of political parties and bureaucratic organs? Getting anything done in such circumstances is a tall order indeed.

Aside from the resulting stupefying political inertia, what appears to have finally sparked your average Bosnian-on-the-street is mounting frustration with the political framework put in place after the peace negotiations of the mid-90s, one that has worked to the advantage of political elites and their cronies, but done nothing for aforementioned average Bosnian Joes. The upshot of the protests, and a direct response to this democratic quicksand, has been the formations of ‘plenums’ across Bosnia. These are public forums where people gather to enunciate concerns and articulate demands, which may then be addressed to administrative bodies. ‘Plenums’ have been lauded as a mechanism that will demonstrate to Bosnians how democracy *really* works.

Giving the people a voice may generally be applauded, and it appears that there are many voices wishing to be heard. Top-down, elite-driven political development is often fraught. James C. Scott, the noted political scientist from Yale, argues that the standard top-down approach to instituting ‘high modernism’ involves enforcing legibility – that is administrability(!) – on society; such a process is feasible, but comes at the cost of local knowledge, Scott contends. And without taking account of local conditions and building on local knowledge, he continues, attempts to improve societal conditions are bound to fail. This is all the more so in Bosnia, where it appears that political actors have demonstrated few aspirations to the more enlightened aspects of high modernism, but plenty of aptitude for shoring up their own positions and feathering their own nests.

library-night-may-2008In many regards the internecine killing in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s was a top-down initiative. Rogers Brubaker in his landmark collection of essays, Ethnicity without Groups, speaks of ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’, ie those who manipulate – indeed, in some instances manufacture – ethnic tensions and conflicts to their own advantage, to serve their own usually political agendas. Brubaker’s model describes with pin-point precision the circumstances of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Such manipulation of circumstances can have very real implications, in this case serious episodes of inter-communal blood letting. So significant were these that the political quandaries of Bosnia continue to be viewed by many solely through an ethnic prism. ‘Ethnic  hatreds’ are taken to be part of the very landscape, thus creating an environment where said ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’ can play on fears of new wars breaking out, manipulating events to their advantage, thus extending the political doldrums that Bosnia has languished in for so long. Indeed, it has been remarked that various Bosnian politicians tried to put an ethnonationalist spin on the protests as they broke out earlier this year, blaming, of course, *other* ethnic groups for fomenting the troubles.

In fact, without downplaying the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, there is a long history of intercommunal fraternity at a workaday level across Bosnia, and other parts of the Balkans. Cooperation, despite religious and ethnic diversity, has been the modus operandi for a long time in the region, even during the horrors of the 1990s, as recounted by Svetlana Broz. This continues to the present, an example being the village of Ustibar in Republika Srpska, where townspeople of all faiths come together to work on building projects in concert. As reported in SE Times, locals remark that, ‘For us in Bosnia, this is so normal. We live together, indeed.’

Perhaps on the ground it is apparent to adherents of different faiths that they share a great deal of history and have much in common. Indeed in the early days of the Bosnian protests, Serbs across the border went out in sympathy with their Bosnian neighbours, gathering in Belgrade and chanting ‘Brave Bosnia, we are with you.’ Such an expression of solidarity is perhaps recognition that the peoples of the region may be connected by issues other than ethnicity.

In the last few days, both Serbia and Bosnia have been beset by disastrous floods. (Too much spring rain, perhaps…) It is to be hoped that in the face of such a natural disaster that the two peoples can be a support to each other, that they can cast aside earlier differences and work through the mire together. Already, the plucky Macedonians are mucking in to bring supplies and succour their neighbours.

Meanwhile, a significant event in recent weeks little noticed in the mainstream press was the reopening of Sarajevo’s City Hall. Destroyed by Serb artillery fire in 1992, the building’s decrepit and bombed out appearance seemed to symbolise Bosnia’s troubled plight. It is now fully refurbished, revelling in all of its neo-Moorish glory – could this possibly be a harbinger of spring for Bosnia?








Neo-Ottomanism hanging in the balance

NEVER ONE alert to treading on toes, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while visiting Prizren  recently, caused a minor diplomatic furor by remarking that ‘Kosovo is Turkey’.

It’s a curious comment, to say the least, but in a region still beset by nationalist sensitivities, and in a territory that the Serbs still see as rightfully theirs, it displays a remarkable lack of diplomatic nouse. Serbia duly demanded an apology for the ‘scandal’ and declared its intention to pull out of tri-partite talks with Turkey and Bosnia, which began to great fanfare in 2010 with the aim of dispelling long-running hostility in the region.

Perhaps on some level Erdoğan has a point. To my interloper’s eye (not having ever visited Kosovo, mind), there are many similarities in landscape, architecture, artistic traditions and modes of everyday life across the Balkans/Turkey/the Caucasus.  In my experience as a visitor, the vibe(s) in Albania/Bosnia/Republika Srpska/Macedonia/northern Greece/Armenia/Georgia is/are not unlike that in Turkey. There may be more lamb and less pork on the grill in certain places, more church spires or minarets in others, but, as I see it, the pace of life, traditions of hospitality, the levels of gregariousness, neighbourliness and conviviality are remarkably consistent.

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Erdoğan riffing on affinities and/or commonalities – however clumsily – doesn’t necessarily equate to aggressive intent (which is how the Serbs have construed his comments), but it’s hardly statesmanlike talk, particularly given the traumatic history and tense geopolitics of Kosovo. Who knows if Erdoğan’s was an off-the-cuff remark, or if is just more evidence of a lack of strategic thinking, and an unhealthy degree of hubris (and thinking that he can say whatever comes into his head without repercussions).

The comment was another hiccup in Turkey’s efforts to buddy up to its neighbours, a policy begun under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and efforts to assume a leadership role in southeastern Europe. Davutoğlu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy began with what appeared self-generating momentum back in the day but has been scuppered in recent years as the Arab Spring has gone haywire. As one Turkish journalist points out, Davutoğlu can rightly claim that events beyond his control, particularly in the Arab world, have meant his aspirations are all but unattainable, but it’s also true that Erdoğan, and his bluntness, have made things less tenable in the case of Syria and now Serbia.

Whether Turkey’s ambitions to be a regional leader were ever realistic is difficult to say. As has been noted, at one time its brisk economic growth and the relative stability of its political arena certainly meant it was well placed, but it appears that any window of opportunity is now firmly slammed shut (or perhaps shattered). Some may breathe a sigh of relief at this, but ambitions on the part of Turkey in its near-abroad need not have been sinister. There has been much talk of neo-Ottomanism as either some post-modern form of imperialism, or at least a desire on the part of the Turks to exact some sort of revenge for earlier territorial and military retreats.

Implicit in such interpretations lies a degree of Islamophobia that construes any proactive Muslim-majority state to be intrinsically hegemonic or expansionary (with missionary intent). But it may be more reasonable to see that at its heart the zero-problems-with-neighbours policy is only neo-Ottoman in the sense that it involves rekindling relations with the states within what was once the Ottoman realm. These are Turkey’s immediate neighbours, so it only makes sense that Turkey enjoys good relations, cooperates on strategic issues and trades with them.

For all of the fallout from Erdoğan’s inopportune comments and the traumas in Syria and Egypt, Turkey maintains good relations with Georgia, and these look set to continue under newly incumbent President Georgy Margvelashvili. Turkey also continues to be a country of opportunity for Greeks fleeing the economic malaise in their own homeland. In recent weeks, Ankara has opened the doors for Greek doctors to practice in Turkey, and in fact it is well documented that increasing numbers of Greeks, many of whom have studied the Turkish language, are finding work in Istanbul and Izmir.

Meanwhile, in a recent diplomatic flurry, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has started patching up relations with Iran and Iraq. Perhaps the stage is now set for neo-neo-Ottomanism.

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.

Turkey’s soap-led cultural flowering

IS IT PART OF A prime minister’s role to pass judgement on the nation’s prime-time TV broadcasts? It may remain open to question, but as noted in an earlier post, Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has expressed his disapproval of the hugely popular soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl. The Turkish viewing public doesn’t appear to be taking his tut-tutting to heart if the 1.2 million ‘likes’ on Facebook for the series are any indication (as noted on the official website). Muhteşem Yüzyıl and other historical TV series have been credited with inspiring interest in other Turkish artforms, particularly novels, both within Turkey and beyond.

In fact, the popularity of the TV series is increasing beyond Turkey’s borders. Sociologist Nilüfer Narlı, from Bahçeşehir University, notes that soap operas are raising Turkey’s profile in the international arena, particularly in the Arab world and the Balkans, a projection of soft power in the  cultural sphere in formerly Ottoman domains. This is happening not only at an diplomatic level, as government officials from Turkey and its neighbours interact, but also at an individual level as the television-watching public ponders the narratives, events and themes of historical Turkish soap operas and of the history (or histories) that lie behind them.

blue-mosque-2010At the vanguard is Muhteşem Yüzyıl, appropriately enough as the series focuses on the life of Süleyman, perhaps the most celebrated of all Ottoman sultans, and commander of the Ottoman campaign against Vienna in the 1520s. Formerly known only as a ruler and military figure, Süleyman, through this portrayal, is now seen as an individual, a lover, a human figure, which is prompting – presumably only in some quarters – a reappraisal of the Ottoman era in the Balkans.

As reported in the SE Times, revisiting history can provoke different reactions.  Birgül Demirtaş, an Ankara-based Balkan expert, argues that in the wake of Muhteşem Yüzyıl the Ottoman centuries, previously regarded in the Balkans as a “black page”, are now being re-evaluated through a prism of “common history”. On the other hand, Milica Mijovic, from the Serbian publishing house Narodna Knjiga, while conceding that “everyone across the region watches it”, remarks that period dramas such as Muhteşem Yüzyıl have made the “Balkans almost nostalgic for a not-so-fabulous past”. It’s not unequivocal enthusiasm, is it?

The Bosnians, perhaps most likely to be fans on the basis of their shared Islamic faith, are lapping it up. A competition, which attracted hundreds of applicants, was run on the Bosnian channel Televizja OBN to find people who most resemble Sultan Süleyman and his bride Hürrem and who would ring in the New Year in Sarajevo. Well, presumably the competition was to find people who look like Halit Ergenç and Meryem Uzerli, the actors who portray the great sultan and his one true love respectively, rather than the actual real-life historical figures. (For mine, Meryem Uzerli has something of Kate Hudson about her, but I’m not sure if the real Hürrem did…)

aya-sofya-2008One can only wonder if the Turkish premier approves of a sultan-look alike performing a midnight countdown, but his earlier condemnation of the series resonated in some quarters. Turkish Airline THY promptly dropped Muhteşem Yüzyıl from its inflight entertainment services after Erdoğan’s criticism. However, one carrier’s loss is another’s opportunity, it would seem, because Emirates promptly snapped up the series for its own inflight channels. This is the first Turkish TV series to have featured on any of the Arab airlines, a situation which will probably win the drama an even wider viewing audience.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s outburst, which was duly echoed by various of his AKP parliamentarians, has been greeted with dismay from many observers. The Erdoğan government had earlier been praised by demonstrating itself willing to confront aspects of Turkey’s history which had been taboo and to make some efforts to address, or at least discuss, past wrongs. There are various skeletons in closets that the AKP were willing to examine, but which had long been denied or glossed over by the Kemalist apparatus, or on which debate had been stymied by staunch Kemalists. The AKP’s approach was initially welcomed as part of a grand reckoning  that could see Turkey casting off historical millstones and forging on in a new era of openness and accountability. However, as columnist Semih İdiz has written, it would appear that AKP is no more an impartial in its approach to history than the Kemalists were. Agendas are still imposed, and histories must be viewed through particular prisms, just different ones to those in play before.

Perhaps it’s just history repeating itself – a historical re-enactment, if you will – this time with different actors and different spectators choosing alternative rose-coloured glasses to embellish the view.

Mucking in in Sarajevo

TURKISH PRIME MINISTER Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was recently in Sarajevo to receive an award for his “international contribution to the development of culture and cultural heritage of Sarajevo”. This was the Isa-Beg Ishaković Award, named in honour of the Ottoman founder of Sarajevo, who in 1461 transformed a scattering of villages into a city. Isa-Beg Ishaković, a contemporary of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, left a substantial legacy in the Balkans, building bazaars, bathhouses, a mosque and the palace (saray in the Turkish) that gave Sarajevo its name, also endowing buildings which remain in the modern Macedonian capital, Skopje.

As well as patron of Sarajevo, Isa-Beg Ishaković was an Ottoman general. And here’s where hackles are raised. The fact that the Turkish premier should be in Sarajevo claiming an award named after a soldier who conquered in the name of the House of Osman, which had an unashamedly imperial, expansionary mission, conjures spectres in certain quarters. One of these is  neo-Ottomanism, something that Erdoğan’s government has been accused of.

Like most isms, neo-Ottomanism is open to various interpretations. Some see it as a resumption of Turkish adventurism, wanting to roll back the clock to an era of conquest and Turkish overlordship of the Balkans. In this region of jousting nationalisms, a Turkish presence is intimidatory and pervasive for some: apparently during the Balkans wars of the 1990s the Muslims (Bosniaks) of Sarajevo were disdained as “Turks” by Serbian nationalists and paramilitaries. A less predatory interpretation paints neo-Ottomanism as the resuscitation of cultural and economic ties across south-eastern Europe, a Turkish re-engagement  with its immediate geographical  neighbourhood – a region flatly ignored for most of the 20th century during Republican Turkey’s decisively westward tilt.

It’s certainly true that Turkey-Bosnia relations have become closer of late. Turkey is supporting Bosnia’s bid to join NATO. But it is not just a case of Turkey drawing closer to a fellow Muslim community or seeking to sideline or dominate non-Muslim governments. The Trilateral Istanbul Declaration of April 2010 saw Turkey signing an agreement with both Bosnia and Serbia to create a “consultation mechanism between our countries” concerning political developments in the Balkans with a particular emphasis on rehabilitating relations between Serbia and Bosnia.

This is all well and good, but isn’t this a region of “ancient hatreds” and intractable ethnic antagonisms? Well, perhaps not. Received wisdom has been largely flavoured by the horrors of the wars of the 1990s but that period aside the states of the former Yugoslavia have historically seen no more or fewer episodes of bloodshed and warfare than the rest of Europe, or elsewhere. Different peoples lived alongside each other for centuries and just got on with life. That’s not to say that it was some sort of Utopia, but members of different ethnic communities weren’t constantly at each other’s throats.

In fact, even during the bloody years of the mid-90s, ethnic lines could be crossed, everyday interactions unfurled between Serbs, Bosnians and Croatians. And in instances documented in a book entitled Good People in an Evil Time by Svetlana Broz, the granddaughter of Yugoslav strongman Tito, people sheltered, protected, gave succour to individuals, neighbours, sometimes strangers from other communities, whom, according to the swirls of nationalist fervour that ruled the day, were their enemies.

This is perhaps just a continuation and extension of the practice of komšiluk, or taking care of neighbour’s shrines (from the Turkish komşuluk: neighbourliness), recorded throughout the 20th century in Bosnia and documented by the Slovenian anthropologist Bojan Baskar in Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean. Beyond just the maintenance of shrines, it appears that this extended to inter-communal financial contribution or helping in the actual building of places of worship, so that Catholics would contribute to the building of a mosque and Muslims participate in building a church. So rather than traditions of division and hatred with which the Balkans are stereotyped, it appears that the very opposite was true: the tradition was to muck in together.

Erdoğan picked up on this when in Sarajevo, saying it was a city of “ coexistence where people live in peace and friendship.” It is certainly a buzzing city, where life is lived at close quarters. It’s a city of music, culture and art, walkable and compact, filled with human warmth. But for all of the amicable interaction that happens on a human scale, the political arena is still beset by nationalistic rivalries and antagonisms. Debates between Serb and Croat-Muslim political groups about who should fund Bosnia’s cultural institutions have been frozen for some time, leading to the recent closure of the National Museum and placing the future of other museums hanging in the balance.

Clearly in Bosnia there are still scores to settle, or ground to be regained. Recent habits of chauvinism die hard, and some wounds, perhaps, have not healed. Political bickering and nationalist interests are putting in jeopardy cultural artefacts created during an era before nationalism(s) when coexistence was a given.