North Africa, West Asia

Our otherness: imagining Balkan and mid-Eastern identities

The original quote by Orwell is “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past”. In just two sentences, he has embraced our fate.

Rayna Stamboliyska
10 April 2015

I am Bulgarian. I live in Paris. My third home is in Cairo. Egyptian taxi drivers flirt with me, attracted by my milk-white skin. Their Bulgarian counterparts try to guess which western country I may live in as bizarrely I put on the seat belt when in the car. And, well, Parisian taxi drivers are too expensive for me to afford.

My heart beats the same way when student protests erupt in my very first alma mater, Sofia University, and when people march with flowers on the streets of Cairo in remembrance of the January 25 Revolution. And it beat similarly when I marched in Paris against social reforms, which would transform us, highly educated youth, into precarious workers.

Every time I land in Cairo, there is a friend to welcome me at the airport. There is another friend to offer hospitality. And there is yet another dear friend to hug me saying, “welcome home”. The same happens in Bulgaria and Paris, every time I come back from yet another journey.

I don’t fit exactly anywhere but I wander the streets in any of my three home countries like a fish in water. 

Around a hundred years ago, the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans were part of the same empire – the Ottoman Empire. A notebook is “tefter” in Bulgarian and “daftar” in Egyptian Arabic. My beloved granny used to wish me “happy bath” when I was a kid... just as a former Egyptian boyfriend of mine jokingly congratulated me with the Arabic equivalent“na3eeman” twenty years later. Our regions' histories have followed their own dynamics, but we have remained strangely similar in the quest to redefine our own selves.

I am far from vocal about my identity. I do not mean nationality, rather the way I see myself – precisely not of a given nationality. I am what people in both the Balkans and the Middle East hate the most: a hybrid identity.

It is difficult to frame intuitions and personal observations into a rational argument. My point is not about religion, but about memory and ideology, about the otherness we represent and the way it has been addressed by the west and our own political elites. I am not aiming to pay lip service to this or that school of thought. Nor am I eager to be the n-th pedantic writer spitting on the nasty westerners and their neo-colonial desiderata. The ambition here lies in explaining how orientalism and balkanism are the same side of one coin. I am no humanities scholar; so forgive me for not conforming to the comme il faut manner.

Let's be eloquent about the burden of conforming to our own identities, and the ways culture and architecture shape political ideology in both the Balkans and the Middle East. This happens quite seamlessly through shaping the collective memory and mastering doublespeak. Amend language, semantics and public discourse, destroy buildings and monuments to substitute them with new ones to a current strongman's glory. This rings a bell on both sides of the Mediterranean, right? 

He who controls the past

The original quote is “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past”, by Orwell. In just two sentences, he has embraced our fate.

There is not one “good” way of remembering. We know that our memories are temporary and of an uncertain future. Using them to root back justice and engage in a reconciliation process supposes the exact opposite: it supposes that it is possible to transform them into rigid facts laying the groundwork for a reconstruction of the future.

Yet, this is what happens. Playing around with collective memory is a favourite spare time activity in both the Balkans and the Middle East. Employing strong words (e.g., “genocide”, “victims of communism” for Nazi collaborators, etc.) assigns events beyond intelligible boundaries – to the kingdom of emotions. Language and semantics thus become a powerful modulator of political will and ideology.

In both the Balkans and the Middle East, to remember means to recall, to reshape, to rebuild, to hammer certain events thus transforming them into an essential bit of the construction of a society.  The concept of collective memory embraces socially shared representations of the past; these then nurture current identities. Thus, collective memory is far from being the mere sum of individual memories. Instead, it is both a cognitive and a communicative process: it is the act of remembering together.

This is how the individuals involved in this activity co-construct their memories and can oppose versions of the past presented by others. Verbalised memories reflect therefore not individual “true memories” but constitute 'actes de langage'. These, according to outstanding linguist Emile Benvéniste, are a substitute for experience, able to live limitlessly in time and space. The existence, for example, of the Kosovo Memory Book as well as a wide range of artistic graffiti in Egypt reveal the importance of naming: “Let People Remember People”, the leitmotiv of the Kosovo Memory Book, crystallises the practice of using language as a tool to build collective memory.

Remembering together and sharing the same memories is a pre-requisite to belonging to society. Thus, inscribing precise memories in the collective memory is a political act. Such a choice, through words and monuments, translates which precise bit from the past will be used to build the future.

The nation's collective memory builders in both the Balkans and the Middle East have been spectacularly gifted in crafting “them” and “us”, the eternal revenge against the “other”, our opposite. Such a duty to remember is therefore an identity amplification.

Constructing collective memory follows a simple three-step process: pick the facts from the past, inject them into national memory and then, document them for posterity. The ad nauseam reminder of certain past heroes and saviours, of certain past victories and glory are thus incorporated in the modern national project. These 'foundational myths' are then structured into memory items (monuments, faces on banknotes, etc.). The story, which these bits tell, is one of grand destiny and deeds. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate the violence committed by such a highly valued society into this memory scheme.

The culture of memory

Tribalism, ethnicity and ideology maintain a tenuous relationship in both the Balkans and the Middle East. In our countries, we nurture archetypes of the hero and his enemy. The hero's sacrosanct image is a core principle of identity definition. The 'villains' in popular representations are 'impure', hybrid personalities as they have a foot in different worlds. Attempting to tell in non-imaginary terms the “sites, symbols and narrations of wars in the Balkans” means challenging the official memory and thus, identity; by doing so, you are necessarily a spy. The paranoia and rejection can grow ridiculous, for example, when Egyptian-Britons get arrested in Cairo metro for discussing January 25, 2014 in English. Such non-Manichean personalities are thus proscribed as they threaten the national identity.

It is also necessary to be able to “read” a monument – and the lack thereof. It is a textbook case of demagogy to “forget” to represent given events or to shift the representation provided by a given memorial entity. In Serbia, for instance, no monument has been built in homage of the victims of the Yugoslav wars. According to Milošević, Serbia was not at war; there was thus no victim or winner to honour.

A pre-existing monument – or even a whole city – can also be used to tell a different narrative. In a short film entitled The Third River (1952), the state-owned Iraqi Petroleum Company aimed to convey a complex yet clearly narrated nationalism. The film combines depictions of ruins and monuments, and incorporates Babylon, Assyria and the Abbasids in its history of Iraq. These have all been integral parts of the discourse and imagery of Iraqi nationalism after the coup, and more particularly under Saddam Hussein’s reign. This film also features the traditional 'old vs. new' semantics; the narrator tells that, “the oldest techniques are practised side-by-side with the new” while we watch images of industrial architecture and farmers labouring their land with donkey-pulled ploughs. As the film is narrated in English, one may guess that it was intended for a western (actually, British) audience. It is most probably why the film also highlights Roman and Byzantine history to support the western claim to Mesopotamia.

Egypt has not been better at commemorating the hundreds who died during the 18 days of the Revolution. In November 2013, the then-interim government unveiled a circular monument at Tahrir Square, “to the glory of the martyrs”, as a police general ensured in a communiqué. The Tahrir monument came after another memorial, honouring police and soldiers, was erected on the site of a square near the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in eastern Cairo where Muslim Brotherhood supporters and members were brutally killed in the bloody dispersal of the sit-ins in August 2013. 

Similar whitewashing of reality is also common in the Balkans. The monument in Budrovci (Croatia) originally dedicated to the liberators of World War II today honours those who fought in the civil war in the 1990s. Worse, the past 15 years have seen the destruction of nearly all 3,000 monuments erected across Croatia in homage to World War II; the museums have been closed one after the other as well. In addition to this dreadful obliteration, a recent book narrates the purge of more than 2.8 million books (an estimated 13% of Croatia's bibliographic fund), destroyed because written in Cyrillic, by Serbian authors, by leftist intellectuals, etc. 

We are all neighbours

We burnt and forgot monuments. But neither peoples from the Balkans nor those from the Middle East managed to uproot the human vestiges, the felool, the remnants of old regimes. We cannot however rely on outside 'benevolent wills' to help us throughout our transition.

Against the backdrop of the only organised activity in the Balkans and the Middle East – corruption – transitions and transformations happen. And they affect all our identities. The Berlin Wall fell and oligarchy spread all over the Balkans. Bulgaria, my beautiful country of birth, suffers from chronic oligarchy today. It is no new illness: Aristotle defined plutocracy centuries ago, and oligarchy is just one of its flavours along with military junta. In 1999, the European Union (EU) daringly announced that the transition to democracy in Bulgaria was achieved. Our oligarchs did everything to outlaw freedom of speech, and threats and various 'accidents' continue in neighbouring countries aimed at stifling dissent. And then, there is that thing that people call the 'Arab Spring'. It continues to “reverberate across MENA countries in complex ways defying easy assessment and unequivocal judgements”. 

What is interesting in all these cases is that, except for Palestine and Kosovo, we hardly speak of state-building. Instead, the dynamics we observe are the ones of democracy-building. The ineptness of the Westphalian model of statehood applied to the Balkans and the Middle East is not a new fad.

I will spare us the headache of recalling in detail the number of scholars having dedicated years of brain juice to prove the Balkan and the Arab worlds' 'exceptional' nature. Whoever the expert talking on this was, the rhetoric barely changed: authoritarianism blossomed because of our societies constructing intrinsic barriers to democracy. That is, both the Balkans and the Arab world are built on an array of social, cultural and economic practices that clash with democratic values. Add to this the lack of institutional frameworks able to support a sustainable transition toward democracy as well as the staggering absence of “good governance”, and here we are with God-forsaken places inhabited by barbarians who may or may not have heard about fridges.

The collective memory I elaborate on above naturally varies from person to person. Although they are greatly intertwined, Balkan and Mid-Eastern peoples' histories are far from homogeneous. Yet, when speaking of the Balkans or of the Middle East, western discourse often essentialises these peoples. Edward Said has coined 'orientalism' – and Maria Todorova has come up with 'balkanism'. I will not attempt to summarise the immensely popular work of Said, rather elaborate on Todorova's concept since it is less well known. Balkanism is a reflection of the quest to critically examine how the geographically and historically defined Balkans have become a synonym of derogatory meaning. As she writes in The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention, balkanisation today signifies more generally the disintegration of viable nation-states and the reversion to “the tribal, the backward, the primitive, the barbarian”.

Similarly to Said who explored how western (European) culture has succeeded in producing an 'Other', i.e. the “politically, sociologically, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively” East, Todorova builds upon the essentialised “Other” from the Balkans. In a similar way, the western essentialist representation framework achieves a dichotomy where the west keeps its own self-image as the superior civilisation compared to the Balkans. Todorova writes, “[g]eographically inextricable from Europe, yet culturally constructed as 'the other,' the Balkans became, in time, the object of a number of externalized political, ideological and cultural frustrations that have served as a repository of negative characteristics against which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the 'European' and 'the West' has been constructed”.

Today, aside from the generalised fear of losing our identities, the only common aspiration of the Balkan peoples is to join the EU as an attempt to achieve a better life. Nationalisms and strong patriotisms arise – and are growing stronger as we speak – in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, in part due to a carefully built collective memory and partly as a response to the strong 'westernisation' we are subjected to. The latter is a complex matter to debate as it generally includes pointing fingers, borderline comments and swiftly attained Godwin points. Yet, the challenges we face today, in each of these countries, can only be solved internally and after we have embraced our real neighbours.

And for us, the hybrid identities of 'the fifth column', challengers of the official collective memory, the national duty to remember becomes thus the foe to knock out yesterday, today and tomorrow as the past sucks the lifeblood out of both the present and the future.

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