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ISSN 1409-6900 | UDK 82+7     Blesok no. 53 | volume X | March-April, 2007



                     Peer-reviewed journal
Blesok no. 53March-April, 2007

New Old Times in the Balkans: The Search for a Cultural Identity

p. 1
Naum Panovski

I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as the New. “Parade of the old new,” Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913–1956

Sarajevo by Goran Stefanovski, produced by Undermain Theatre, Dallas, 1995. Directed by Naum Panovski. Photo: Courtesy Paolo Racagni.

     In the spring of 1992, Yugoslavia as I knew it, a truly multiethnic and multicultural country at the heart of the Balkans, ceased to exist and disappeared from the European map. In a very short period of time Yugoslavia was ravaged by wars. As a consequence the unique Yugoslav multicultural entity and identity was annihilated and the braided intercultural space was divided into many small national cultures. Idealism, humanism, and ethical values disappeared, while pragmatism and scrupulousness, a world greedy for money and fast profit, appeared on the war-torn map. The civil and the urban were forced into exile, while everything rural, primitive, and brutal became the standard. Religious and political dogmatism took over people’s minds, knowledge was disregarded, ignorance was celebrated. The open borders were closed, the rich and vigorous artistic and intellectual life was wiped out, the dissident voices were silenced, and towns changed their names. The world was divided in two camps: traitors and heroes. The “turbo folk”[1] won in the “Balkan bar.”[2] The man again became wolf to a man.
    In that process of transition to new democratic values, what was truth was proclaimed to be a lie, what was right became wrong, the villains and criminals proclaimed themselves victims, what was once history—ah, history is palimpsest anyway—was obliterated and became part of people’s individual memory and personal mythology. As Bosnian playwright Dzevad Karahasan wrote in his book Sarajevo Exodus of a City “our life was removed from the real into the ideal,” and became a fixed image from the time gone forever.[3]

Hotel Europe by Goran Stefanovski, produced by Interkult, Sweden, 2000. Photo: Courtesy Bernd Uhlig.


    For all those lined up along the ethnic and nationalistic lines, the process of disintegration of Yugoslavia—a common home to many Slavic and non-Slavic nations—was seen as a liberation. For them Yugoslavia was considered “a dungeon for the nations.” In that way the fascinating words “liberation” and “freedom” in the small new countries—Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia—that appeared after the death of Yugoslavia received a very special place. They became the most used and abused expressions.
    During the last decade of the twentieth century, when the removal of the Berlin Wall was bringing new life and real freedom to many Eastern European countries, unfortunately many did not see


1. The expression is adopted from the popular folk music and refers to the rural primitivism that had conquered the entertainment scene in the mid-eighties.
2. This is a well-known phrase used very often by the prominent Croatian novelist Miroslav Krleza when he referred in his writings to the former Yugoslavia.
3. Dzevad Karahasan. Sarajevo, Exodus of a City. Kodansha International: New York 1994. Dzevad Karahasan is one of the most prominent Bosnian intellectuals, a playwright and novelist, living in exile in Austria today.

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