Saturday, March 25, 2006

The big question

I just got this comment on an older post:
will you be honest and say what(or who) makes you really angry here in serbia? be honest... how do you like people here?
I've heard this question dozens of times (seems like thousands), and it's hard for me to answer, partially because there's so much good here in Serbia, partially because I don't want to be an ungrateful guest, and partially because I just don't get "really angry." No matter how many times I duck the question, it keeps coming back; Serbs seem to have this masochistic desire to hear foreigners say horrible things about Serbia. Do they want the chance to defend their country against a foreigner's misunderstandings? Do they hate their country, and want independent confirmation that their own anti-patriotic feelings are warranted? Personally, I believe the key is in that "be honest" that so often accompanies the question: maybe they think that positive comments are flattery, meant to conceal the negative, "honest" truth. So, anonymous commenter, I hope you're not too disappointed to learn that I really do like it here. The people are great - as I've often said, when you make friends with Serbs, you feel that they'd do anything for you. To understand my perspective, keep in mind that I lived in an apartment building in Brookline, Massachusetts with 40 other apartments and I never met my neighbors. Here in Serbia, that kind of social isolation is impossible. When I went a couple of weeks without visiting my landlady for coffee, she stopped by and said, "What's wrong? Are you angry with me? Please have some of this cake!" I've been invited to Christmas and Slava, I've appeared on TV and in the newspaper, and I've met all sorts of interesting people - because they came looking for me. Spending so much time with so many people, I've noticed that Serbs talk about politics all the time. Of course, this is because politics effects people's lives in a very direct way: everything from the NATO bombing to the Eurosong competition bears the mark of Serbian politics, and you have to talk about it because you couldn't ignore it even if you wanted to. Luckily for me, I don't really want to. Some foreigners get frustrated with the nonstop politics, but I sort of enjoy it. (I guess it's in my nature. The other day was my mom's birthday and I called her to wish her a happy day, and we ended up discussing President Bush's newest non-plan for Iraq.) So I'm quite happy to talk politics with Serbs. Here's what does frustrate me, though:
  • I'll never go to Kosovo/Montenegro myself, but Serbia can't exist without it.
  • Albanians/Bosnians/"Turks" are not normal people.
  • Albanians/Bosnians/Muslims are taking over the world.
  • The Hague/Western media/historians are all anti-Serbian.
  • I miss the good old days of Milosevic/Tito/Milos Obrenovic.
  • Europe/America/everyone hates Serbs.
To my mind, this isn't politics; it's a mixture of conspiracy theory and self-victimization. Even if it's true - Western media often do carry an anti-Serbian bias, for instance - this kind of thinking is dangerous when it dominates people's worldview. It's all centered on the troubles of the past, and God knows that Serbia needs to start focusing on the future. What's more important: the borders of Kosovo, or the fact that 27% of Serbs are unemployed? In all fairness, I've met plenty of people in the U.S. whose politics frustrate me just as much. ("We have to support our president in wartime!") In Serbia, though, since politics are so much more immediate, these opinions seem to carry greater significance. If an American believes that Muslims are on the verge of taking over the world, for instance, it really doesn't make any difference, as much as it annoys me; if Serbs feel that way, though, they could realistically vote the Radical Party into power, leading the country in the direction of the militant nationalism that in the 1990s led to the destruction of Yugoslavia and the death of thousands. I guess this comes as close to making me "angry" as anything does; everytime I see posters proclaiming Vojislav Seselj a "Serbian hero," I have a childish urge to vandalize them. So, in my experience, Serbian people are tremendously warm and welcoming, but I see that a few among them also have a capacity for stubborn, chauvinistic nationalism. Usually the stranger among Serbs is treated as family, but in extreme circumstances, he can become a blood enemy. Coming from the cosmopolitan American Northeast, where we view strangers (including our next-door neighbors) with egoistic indifference, I find this duality fascinating. So, anonymous commenter, what were you thinking when you asked that question? Am I seeing your country accurately, or is there something essential that I'm missing? I hope this answer has enough criticism in it to convince you that my deep appreciation for the Serbs is sincere, and I'm interested to hear your side of the story, if that's what you had in mind. Incidentally, are you one of my students? I've often told them that asking "what makes you angry" is a good way to start discussion about something that's important to you. You see, it works on me as well.


Babsi said...

What's more important: the borders of Kosovo, or the fact that 27% of Serbs are unemployed? you ask, and from my point of view the answer is: both. I know I have a very different approach to the whole thing, because I'm Italian; I think it's sometimes hard to make non-Europeans understand that history matters a lot, here, that past AND future must go together. I think you're simplifying a bit too much, here. If you reduce the whole Kosovo topic in complexity, making it simpler and simpler ("it's just borders") you probably can't see Serbia, and the whole European frame. Including the rebirth of Radical parties, which are a (sad) reality, not just in Serbia. But they convey certain needs and pleas and demands of 'common people', needs and feelings that can not be ignored. Hope I don't sound arrogant here, it's really not my intention. I have a good amount of American friends and they often ask me to be honest and tell them what I dislike about the USA. I must admit I love so much the States that I can't easily answer, but if there's one thing I don't like too much, is the aptitude you have to oversimplify :)

Daniel said...

Benvenuta, Babsi!

You're right that Americans don't really understand the emotional importance of national borders. Since we conquered our slice of North America, it hasn't been an issue - we certainly don't have any territorial designs on Mexico, except maybe San Miguel de Allende. For this reason, an American suggesting that national borders are unimportant could resemble the well-meaning friend who tells someone in mourning to "get over it."

I certainly don't mean to be so insensitive. At some point, though, you have to think about what decision would do the most good for the most people, and on that scale I have to say that affiliation with Europe, access to travel visas, foreign investment, economic reforms, and more better jobs will outweigh territory every time. Look at the example of Hungary, which one diplomat described to me as "a nation surrounded by Hungarians."

It never would have occurred to me to say "be honest and tell me what you dislike about the USA." Maybe it's because people often seem to need no encouragement ..

Babsi said...

Daniel, I see your point of view. I tend to believe geography counts a lot (should we say too much? I'm reading Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel. The fates of human societies", this week); the whole Serbian trouble originates from there - migrations, and borders which never turned to be concrete and solid - not for their faults. How to deal with people who *are* the nation but can not / do not live inside the State? The neverending issue nation/State, which caused so many wars and riots all over Europe. At a certain point in one polemical and funny post I've written I was dreaming to build the instrument which could safely "move" the monasteries and churches away from Kosovo, placing them outside Belgrade. So high is my frustration when I see the lack of solutions for such a small territory: too much history for such a tiny land. Let's put it this way: I hope not to see another war, I hope all rights will be respected. I do understand their issues, maybe because I had to grow up with these requests: here, every Monday someone wakes up wanting his small piece of land to change its name, or similar needs, moving to Switzerland or wanting another religion to prevail. After a while you get used :P... I suppose I'm often asked "what I dislike about the USA" because the anti-American vibe is pretty strong in these last years, and being a "liberal" (or leftist, as you like) I should *hate* Americans. I love them, instead, so people find me weird. As you see, the oversimplification can be lethal even over here: when I hear people saying the USA are just "Mc Donald's, Bush and Hollywood" I think of Charlie Parker, of the Beat Generation writers I loved, of ML King, and I panic.

Anonymous said...

Hi, again!
Maybe you don’t remember me but I’m the anonymous commenter who asked you about people in Serbia.
First of all I have to say it seems I made you a bit angry and the truth is I didn’t want to. My question was extremely friendly; I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just wanted to know how you feel about the whole situation.
Anyway, you said you wanted to hear my side of the story and I am very glad to hear that. But I think there’s only one side, the true one, and I hope it’s not going to sound to you like some kind of stereotype, you have already heard. So, I am going to start.
The facts you stated last time about Serbian people are completely true. Serbs are very kind people and I believe all the foreigners had the same chance as you did to realize that fact. That’s in our nature, I think. We were very mercifully people even to our enemies. For example, I know the story that the soldiers of our Royal Army were feeling such a great pity for the Austro-Hungarian prisoners captured during the First World War that they used to give them the last piece of bread even they knew that those prisoners had been killing our women and children. Maybe this already sounds like a stereotype but in fact it’s true. I don’t know anyone who thinks that Bosnian or Albanian people aren’t normal like you’ve said. You might have heard some jokes on that subject or something like that but in fact we do not hate any nation. You probably don’t know but all our western neighbors (Croatia and Bosnia) were liberated by our Royal Army in the First World War. After winning the battle in western Greece, our army brought liberty to Serbian and then to Croatian and Bosnian people. The Allies (including Serbia) officially won the battle in western Greece I’ve just mentioned but the fact is the Serbs were the first who got through the enemy lines. This was probably boring for you but you should know we were on the same side in the past and it’s sad your country bombed us ninety years after.
Don’t worry! We can’t forget but we can forgive. My people sympathized with Americans when terrorists destroyed the WTC. We strongly believe nobody has right to make other people suffer. To support this belief of ours I will have to say, very proudly, that Serbia has never fought the war in the aim to conquer some other country. In our long history we had a lot of enemies but our desire to be free and independent nation was so strong we even survived the Turkish Empire.
You were right when you said many Serbs have no job but I hope you’ll realize how important the “Kosovo issue” is for all of us. You must have heard so many things about that territory but all our history is based upon the events that happened in Kosovo. Kosvo is the root and heart of our spiritual existence. And when you take a man’s heart out of his body, he is not alive any more. Imagine someone decides to separate Philadelphia or any other state or decides to destroy American culture on that territory. We are just trying to save our cultural heritage. Kosovo has some of the most beautiful orthodox churches and monasteries (a few of them are under the protection of UNESCO). I do believe your deep appreciation for the Serbs is sincere but I don’t know what made you think I don’t. I strongly recommend you to get know the Serbian culture as much better as you can. Serbian nation has never been chauvinistic. And if you get know the Serbian culture well enough you will see that we are as much great as other European nations. Unfortunately, the Europe has forgotten that. This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of scientist-inventor Nikola Tesla, the man who lit the world. Nikola Tesla symbolizes a unifying force and inspiration for all nations in the name of peace and science. He was a true visionary far ahead of his contemporaries in the field of scientific development. Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest electrical inventors and maybe the greatest inventor who ever lived in general. His technological achievements transformed America from a nation of isolated communities to a country connected by power grids where information was available upon demand. In the 20th century, it was Tesla's technology that united the United States and eventually the world. He was one of the greatest sons of our nation.
One Serb has lit the world, but the world has forgotten that. This Serb changed the planet, without his inventions there would have been no electricity, no light, no computers, no cell phones, no machines…
See… just one Serb did all this and there were so many others…
Serbian nation has contributed a lot to world community just as other nations.
Great people, I tell you.
Thank you for your comments “interesting people”.
I read you have been invited to Slava…Did you go and if you did, how was it like?
Did you like it?
This was my side and I believe you could understand that for us the unique thing that’s priceless is freedom.
I will be waiting your answer to all this.
I would like to have it as soon as possible.

Best regards

Allen said...

Glad I came across this blog. I'm an American living in Istria and found your comments resonating with my experience here. Most of my Croatian neighbors describe Serbs as you do: extraordinarily hospitable and warm. Many Croats also speak nostalgically about Tito, though most professionals don't view those as the good old days. I have not run into as much anti-Muslim sentiment here, though.