Saturday, April 11, 2015

RAYNA STAMBOLIYSKA - 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.


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 collaboratorsetc.) 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... read more: