How to Write About the Balkans

Photo Credit: peaksofthebalkans.com

Begin with some dramatic, vaguely dangerous-sounding scenery. For instance, “steep cliffs plunging directly into the sea”,  “a vampiric maw of limestone peaks”, or “beauty infused by danger”. Even in this era of enhanced Euro-Atlantic integration, descriptions of the Balkans should retain a sense of foreboding, or better yet, evil. The region’s mountains are “accursed”. The geography appears as if “God gouged its surface with his fingernails”. Its topography looks like “the devil’s work”. Or:

The biblical valley of dry bones, you might imagine, lay somewhere between Knin and Obrovac.”

Make sure to place yourself, the Western journalist, at the very center of the story. Include anecdotes about being strapped into the seat of some godforsaken regional airline as it makes a bumpy landing on a narrow strip of runway. Detail the sheer terror you feel in the company of your wild-eyed driver, who careens recklessly around the blind curves of deadly mountain roads. Admit that you find yourself uneasily calculating the age of every local male you meet, nervously wondering if he ever carried a weapon in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, or Kosovo.

In contrast, the locals will appear fearless and serene, perfectly satisfied in their poverty. At this point, you should describe the smiling peasants offering plastic cups filled with raspberries on the roadside, or the women in headscarves dutifully carrying heavy buckets of sir up the hill to sell at the market. You might describe hospitable villagers who ply you with homemade rakija (“a type of brandy made from distilled fruit”, you’ll explain), or in the cities, enthusiastic university students who, despite the astronomical unemployment rate, enter “secret, smoky clubs” and dance ‘til dawn in a city you might deem “the new Berlin”.

Next, you should mention that this “friendly” and “vibrant” atmosphere makes it difficult to imagine that so much “barbarity” or “bloodshed” was visited upon the region so recently.

The war, which you may warn readers is too touchy a subject to broach with the famously passionate locals, was “blood-soaked”; the conflicts were “bloody”. You will likely repeat what Winston Churchill once said, that the Balkans produce more history than they can consume. And the recent history of the Balkans, you might attest, has been written in blood. Afterall, it was the breakup of Yugoslavia that gave humanity the term “ethnic cleansing”.

You might want to repeat what Balkan “expert” Tim Judah says about Yugoslavia: That it was “a noble idea”. The grouping of Slavic people who spoke the same language (forget the Albanians and their irksome language for now, they will only complicate your expert analysis) in a single country did, in your expert opinion, make some sense. But it failed in practice, along with the entire twentieth century communist project.

You might say that Yugoslavia “perished” or “was consumed” as if by an uncontrollable wildfire, as if there were no real agents or actors responsible. As an expert Balkan journalist, you already know that you’re supposed to dismiss any explanations that involve “ancient hatreds” as “sooo 1998”. Yugoslavia merely “fell apart” or “disintegrated” because it’s imperative that you obscure the fact that some of the real orchestrators of the “fratricidal bloodletting” are still in power.

As a Western journalist writing about the Balkans today, you’re now expected to give these very war criminals a little bit of praise: For posing for pictures with former enemies in Belgium, for signing forceless “historic” agreements, for expressing tepid interest in EU accession and thus making Eurocrats feel better about themselves.

But mostly they should be praised for not acting so damned Balkan.

However, you know that news of this “progress” will be met with disappointment by some of your readers and colleagues. Complaints have already been lodged. Dubrovnik now seems “too polished”. Restaurant menus in some of the region’s hotspots are now “too refined”. Porto Montenegro is “over-manicured”. Its “swanky hotels” are “utterly soulless”. These places have become too European and thus, insufficiently Balkan for adventurous Europeans on bargain vacations.

You should reassure your anxious readers that the region remains quite unpolished and unmanicured in places, and that besides Croatia and Slovenia, it’s unlikely that there will be any new Balkan entrants to the “European family” for at least ten tourist seasons.

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This article was inspired by Conor Purcell’s “How to Write About Dubai“, and a number of other articles inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina’s genius “How to Write About Africa“. 

Lily has been the publisher, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist since it launched in the fall of 2013. She ran the magazine when it was still headquartered in Belgrade, Serbia, and has continued to run it with the help of a small but trusted international team after Balkanist moved to Odessa, Ukraine in May 2014. She was educated at UC Berkeley and the LSE. Follow her on Instagram: http://instagram.com/balkanist/

  • LolaAkinmade

    Haha! Loved this. And love this site too. Wish I found it before I traveled. Just returned from the region myself with lots of stories and photos to begin parsing.

  • The Wondernuts

    I can do one better than that “bumpy” airplane ride.

    We… Took the overnight train. ;-)

    Western travel journalism blog posts to follow soon…

    But seriously, though. Loved the article. Hilarious.

    • sr

      I’ll try to one-up your one-up: took the night BUS. Summer, bad AC, and because of the promaya myth no open windows. I don’t remember how many hours but I didn’t sleep.

  • bimbo_rocca

    ah, yet another western quasii-intellectual living in belgrade and crying about yugoslavia. how typical.

    • http://sekeljic.com Srecko Sekeljic

      LOL, at least she’s married to Serbia :)

  • Dejan

    Get your mouth straight, Lily.

    The so-called “European family” is a criminal family and is not much different than the hell the people of the former Yugoslavia went through and are still going through.

    But don’t worry, the more socialist and totalitarian your “European family” becomes, the more you will understand the meaning of the word hell in the Balkans.

    And please, please explain if being part of the so-called “European family” actually means going broke like Slovenia, or paying 200+ million euros for an already failed project like Croatia will have to in 2013.

    Peace, Lily, and may God help you and your people to wake up as soon as possible from the socialist and totalitarian nightmare which you call European family, believe me Lily, you will save yourself and your people from a lot of suffering.

    Amen !!!

    • Anoniman

      Dejan, I can’t tell if you realize that this article is satire.

    • cinesimonj

      Oh you poor, poor little child.

  • Dogus Centro Fecondazione

    It’s funny, cos it’s true. :)

    It would be interesting to send a brave explorers (with those 19th century explorer hats) to prime western countries, to make a report about their native culture and primitive customs…

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  • Charlie Loo

    …lots of typed text and nothing said, except that the ”writer” was littering with PC keyboard all over – (give me back my reading time you piece of shiat/moron) or you are some fucking J** hater, or all what you have is hate!
    COKE / Sokol, fuck you bro,,, next time share some PRO articles otherwise I unsubscribe from you to!!!

  • Lowlyone

    Well that was a nasty piece of work.

  • Andree

    Too wonderful. Thank you

  • G.

    Enjoyed this until I realized the writer is American. I guess that fact makes this all the more ironic? Number one qualification for writing about the Balkans is NOT to be a native. You think you have the right to joke about our lands and cultures, hmmm okay.

    By the way, I’m well aware this is satire. Point still stands.

    • http://Balkanist.net/ Balkanist

      We’re half-Balkan and half-American. We can understand your point to a certain extent, however we believe that people of all nationalities should be self-aware about how they’re portraying others.

  • Ralph @ iBikeBelgrade