The pop group U2 staged a concert in Sarajevo in September 1997 that I attended when I was a 25-year-old student doing fieldwork in the city. I got talking to another foreign visitor who was sitting next to me, a young North American about my age. He told me he preferred women with dark features, so in Sarajevo he was most attracted to the Muslim girls. It was a comment that exemplified the way visitors often view foreign countries: through the lenses of their own preconceptions. Everyone who knows Bosnia and Herzegovina knows that its Bosniak, Serb and Croat inhabitants are physically indistinguishable, as they arose from the same ethnic stock, and that Bosniaks — citizens of predominantly Muslim heritage, are as likely to be blond as Serbs or Croats, who in turn are as likely to be as dark-haired as Bosniaks. Yet this foreign visitor saw dark-haired women and assumed they must be Muslims because he associated Muslims with dark features. If you have prejudices about a foreign country, visiting it is often the best way to confirm them. People see what they want or expect to see.
The Balkans are the object of a particular kind of Western prejudice. As the Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova noted, whereas Western visitors may perceive Arab, Indian or Chinese lands through Orientalist lenses, as “the other” against which they counterpose the West, the Balkans may be viewed through “Balkanist” lenses, more as a bridge or hybrid between West and East, consequently as contaminated and lacking the purity of either. This is linked to the snobbishness reserved for the perceived “arriviste”; in this case, Balkan peoples who achieved independence late and emulated the culture and manners of the inhabitants of older established European states. People in the Balkans who remain as exotic, picturesque shepherds or brigands may be due the respect accorded to the “noble savage,” but those who try to look or behave as “real, civilized” Europeans are viewed as a flawed product. One attaché to the French Consulate in Belgrade in the mid-19th century dismissively compared Serbs who wore French dress to “dancing bears,” lamenting that “the Serb can no longer be recognised. … He blindly follows foreign customs, neglecting his own; he degenerates.”
Nobody exemplified the patronizing attitude of the foreign visitor to the Balkans more than Rebecca West, a British author who was sufficiently esteemed in her lifetime to be made a dame of the British Empire in 1959 and who is known for her rambling book of over 1,000 pages, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” published in 1941, that chronicles her experiences in Yugoslavia. It is a work teeming with factual errors, clichés and prejudices. She wrote: “Gipsies are, in all but their appearance, particularly what I do not like. … I am cold towards them all, largely because they are the embodiment of that detestable attribute, facility. … There is no design in anything they do.” And: “It is a salient difference between the Serbs and Albanians that, whereas a Serb boy baby looks definitely and truculently male as soon as it is out of its mother’s arms, the sex of many Albanians is not outwardly determined until they are in their late teens, and these boys, who were perhaps thirteen to seventeen, might have been so many Rosalinds.” She described the former Serbian Prime Minister Vladan Djordjevic as a “Jewish scoundrel,” though he was from an ethnic Cincar Christian family. She complained that “the German influence was like a shadow on the Croat World,” thereby helping to transmit to Western European opinion the Serb-nationalist stereotype of Croats as essentially a type of Serb corrupted by German influence, which has proven remarkably enduring. It was said by one of West’s close friends that “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” is “not so much a book about Yugoslavia as a book about Rebecca West” — a book about her own thoughts and personality for which a visit to then-Yugoslavia simply provided the occasion. Yet it was an extremely influential model of the travel book in which someone from the West visits the Balkans and sees everyone and everything there in terms of their own stereotypes and prejudices. [Continue reading…]