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 is the original co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She was educated at UC Berkeley and the LSE. Originally from California, she now divides her time between Belgrade, Odessa and San Francisco. You can follow her on Instagram: http://instagram.com/balkanist/

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