Aleksandra Kovac
18 November 2004


The meaning of the Serbian word inat in a bilingual dictionary (like Morton Benson’s is often defined in terms of “malice”, “spite”, or “grudge”. None of these is a direct equivalent and each contains only a partial component of the emotional complexities the word suggests to the Serbian ear.

A closer correspondence for inat would be, in the words of Dragan Milovic, “an attitude of proud defiance, stubborness and self-preservation - sometimes to the detriment of everyone else or even oneself.”

The word inat most recently acquired notoriety as a description of the Serbian mentality in 1999, during Nato’s bombing of the country; many Serb citizens proudly displayed a “target” symbol on their coat, or even defiantly held annual public events despite the air raids. But in its way, this was only the latest manifestation of a long historical trend.

Indeed, the fact that Serbian history from the inside can seem like a catalogue of resistance to overbearing power is one key to inat. The word itself derives from the Turkish (and before then, Arabic) language of the Ottoman empire whose forces subdued and were resisted by Serbian people for half a millennium. In the course of this history, both the language and the wider culture of the Ottomans influenced the way Serbs defined themselves – in bitter opposition as well as compromise and negotiation – as a European nation on the “frontier” between cultures.

For Serbs, the defence of their Orthodox religious and cultural inheritance became a formative element in this 500-year experience. Out of their predicament – and the combination of persecution, frustration, powerlessness, and regret that it entailed – they acquired a particular, everyday mentality characterised by doing things according to the inat principle. This could mean acting in a negative mode for the sake of it; in Milovic's words, “doing things because someone has told you you can’t, not necessarily because you actually want to”.

An ironic reflection comments on this aspect of the Serbian character: “Who says we cannot swim? Sink this boat!”

Some of the important dates in Serbian history – from the first big anti-Turkish uprising (1804), the start of the first (1914) and second (1941) world wars, the break with the Soviet Union (1948), to the Nato bombardment (1999) – suggest reasons for this way of thinking, one described by the respected writer and filmographer Branko Copic as “anti-against”.

Even current political party controversies in Serbia, or those over the very future of the state union of Serbia & Montenegro, are sometimes analysed in terms of a politics of mutual inat. For example, in the June 2004 presidential elections, the unexpectedly surprisingly high support for the candidate of the nationalistic Radical party (SRS), Tomislav Nikolic, rather than his democratic rival, Boris Tadic, was explained by reference to inat – the voters responding to the slickness and overkill of the democrat with an attitude of “now I won’t even vote for what I would like”.

The malicious mixture of vengeance and envy in inat is reflected in the popular saying: Da komsiji crkne krava (“If only the neighbour’s cow would die”). The neighbour may be a fellow-Serb; but he, or his family, or even his ancestors may have wronged you in some way many years ago, or maybe just performed better than you on some occasion. So you stubbornly preserve (and even lovingly nurture) the resentful wound in your heart; and teach your young ones to do the same.

All this makes it easy to understand why Serbs say Inat je los zanat, meaning that the inat is an evil craft, knowledge or even skill. But if inat can disturb the peaceful atmosphere within a community (especially a small one), its positive aspects should not be overlooked. It is, at times, a motivating spirit that pulls the best out of you – for example, the strength to win a decisive basketball match when nobody would bet on your team. Or even, when life is not so good on a larger, national level – and Serbs have plenty of experience of that in recent years – inat can also furnish people with the resilience to feel that they can be subjects as well victims of their own history.

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