Bosnia through the Western Travelogue

Note: Western travelers evoked history as they traversed Bosnia and the Balkans, writing down their experiences and explaining them, and by doing so also proliferated a certain kind of discourse. Therefore, the history of travelogues — and how these narratives were constructed over time — is crucial to understanding Western conceptions of Bosnia, and more generally, how orientalist discourse has been used to illustrate the “Other.” This is the last part of three essays.


The development of orientalist discourse on Bosnia can most concretely be traced through the eyes of Western tourists that wrote of their experiences in the region. Through travelogues, these adventurists documented their perceptions of the Balkan periphery, and their observations permeated throughout their respective societies and provided a discursive basis for viewing the Bosnian “Other.” The first instances of Western travel interest in the troubled region began in the late 16th century, mostly among the British upper-class [1]. However, to explore Bosnia was not their immediate goal – for Bosnia was intimately linked to the Ottoman, and it was merely seen as a passage towards Istanbul [2]. The goal of these early travelers was to understand the “Ottoman peril” during a time when the empire was cutting deep into Europe, threatening the very existence of European trade on the Italian peninsula. Therefore, their observations proved to be meager, totalizing, and nebulous; interest in Bosnia was secondary to actually exploring the Ottoman East. As the 17th century unfolded, Westerner travelers abruptly changed their routes and began to altogether ignore the southeastern passage [3]. Passing through Vienna and Budapest proved to be much more fascinating, and perhaps familiar, to these tourists in their travels towards Istanbul and it was not until the mid-19th century that Bosnian travel literature began to reappear in Western literary discourse yet again. During this time, political conditions had changed and Western policy towards the region began to reorient itself with new material realities. If British foreign policy is to be taken as an indicator of this development, Britain changed its viewpoints because of the changing times – the Crimean War (1854 – 1856), the 1856 Treaty of Paris, and the resurgence of the “Eastern Question” put Bosnia, and southeast Europe, once again on the Western map [4]. Interest only intensified after the Bosnian peasant revolts of 1875 and its occupation by Austria-Hungary, which put a friendlier, more accessible face to the Bosnian Orient.

During the height of these peasant revolts in 1875, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans traveled to Bosnia to record the insurrection that was unfolding and recorded his experiences in his text Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875. The first part of his text is an immediate account of the troubles, captured through short phrases spaced by abrupt dashes. Violence by the Turkish Orient against Christians is highlighted as a particular problem. He writes of a “murder of a young Christian by two armed Turks,” the “dangerous spirit of the Mahomentan population,” an “outbreak of Moslem fanaticism,” “farmers… being tortured by Turks,” “panic amongst Christians,” and describes the insurrection as a “Mahometan counter-revolution” [5]. His imagination of the Bosnian woman shows a gendered orientalist discourse, as he recounts his experiences with the feminine Other. He speaks of them as covered in glittering jewelry and tunics; and compares them to “exotic insects… with the forewings of dazzling gauzy white and underwings of scarlet” [6]. In his text, he recounts a brief history of Bosnia, stressing its Slavonic origins, and how the Islamization of the region was the elevating of Islam to a “national character… of a fanatical hue” [7]. He further writes:

 … Even Englishmen may be inclined to accept the conclusion that the present connection between Bosnia and the hated government of the [Ottoman] must be severed; the more so as the geographical configuration and position of Bosnia—a peninsula connected only with the rest of Turkey by a narrow neck—make it almost impossible to hold out against a serious invasion, and put it always at the mercy of foreign agitators.

Such a revolution may seem a Utopian dream… For the moment, however, the ultimate form of Bosnian government is a question of secondary importance to the paramount necessity of re-establishing order in that unhappy land [8].

In the spirit of a kind of Christian “cleansing,” he thus recommends “reconciling the Mahometan population of Bosnia to the new order of things… by sacrificing the [Ottoman]” [9].

The tropes of Western orientalist discourse are seen here in full view, to the point where one can easily list them as Edward Said characterized them [10] – such as (1) traveling to an exotic land and the exoticization and fetishizing of its people, (2) assuming fictional, unchanging essences of the land’s people, and (3) a claim to know more than the Orient which is apparent in his diagnosis for the necessity of an anti-Mohometan revolution. However, all of these are fictitious projections by Sir Arthur Evans and speak more of the orientation of Western discourse towards Bosnia than Bosnia itself. As he traverses the violent landscape, Evans illustrates history through his writing, reducing centuries of Bosnian experiences to the perceived, unchanging Orient essence. Through the travelogue, he is not merely documenting his experiences – he is directly involved in the production of history, and of narratives, using the people he encounters to pass his own judgements, and his own politics.

Still, other Western tourists followed in these same footsteps. James Creagh in his 1875 text Over the Borders of Christendom and Eslamiah: A Journey through Hungary, Slavonia, Servia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and Montenegro, to the North writes of his experiences in Bosnia during the same time Sir Arthur Evans was present. Particularly, he draws a sharp contrast between the Germanized Slavonski Brod of Croatia with that of deeper, Turkish Bosnia with the former being “modern” and the latter as “decadent” and of the East [11]. Belgian author and traveler Emile de Laveleye in his 1887 text The Balkan Peninsula also places a geographical boundary as being the Sava River. He writes,

I have never seen the difference between West and East so strongly marked. Two civilizations, two religions, two entirely different modes of life and thought, are here face to face, separated by a river… this river has really divided Europe and Asia [12].

However, he would go on to argue that this division, although existing for hundreds of years, would be corrected through Austrian influence during which “the Mussulmen character would rapidly disappear” [13]. British aristocrats Pauline Irby and Humphry Sandwith during the same period likened Bosnia to the “wilds of Asia,” which felt more like the Orient than their actual travels into Turkey and Mesopotamia [14]. It is in this sense that Bosnia to these Western travelers was more “East” than the Orient itself; exotic and different, it was akin to stepping into another world, and the geographic proximity of this other world within Europe was seemingly magical. It was magical insofar in that it was a European anomaly, and they firmly believed that stepping into it would give them insight into the East more than the actual East ever could. It was through this crude mythologized narrative that Bosnia’s suffering became the Western traveler’s entertainment, pleasure, and interest – and, to them, it was a clever, accessible way to access the Orient without actually stepping outside of continental Europe.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West deviates from this standard orientalist discourse, but only towards the Serbs; Bosniaks are excluded from West’s focus altogether. Much can be said about the over 1,100 pages of detailed text, which are filled with historical weight that is delicately put alongside West’s travels in the Balkans. She thus re-imagines the landscape with what came before it. However, she falls into a different kind of orientalism, perhaps even inverting the entire discourse – whereas previous writers had seen this Other as contradictory to themselves, West instead fetishizes them. She illustrates them to be somehow “more European” than Europe itself, possessing almost magical qualities that she has now rediscovered. This has much to do with her opinion of the Serbs, towards whom she holds the highest, almost fanatical, regard for. That being said, she maintains the same discourse as previous travelers of the Bosniaks, except it stems from a different source: she looks negatively on Bosnias because she is a Serbian nationalist, and thus views them as unfortunate “Muslim Serbs.” West reproduces the orientalist discourse through her Serbian nationalism, and thus maintains the “bulwark myth” [15] as a central component of Balkan identity which rests on being exclusionary towards Muslims. Her work absolves the Serbs of their wretched history in Western narratives, very prolifically and poetically even — but for the rest of the peoples living there, especially the Bosniaks, the same orientalist narrative is peddled with no regard.

Rebecca_2

Rebecca West. Year Unknown.

She writes of the Slavs as having an “infinite capacity for inquiry and speculation,” as opposed to the Turks who “have no word in their language to express the idea of being interested in anything” [16]. Interestingly enough, oftentimes orientalist discourse does not come from West’s words, but rather, is re-imagined through the people she encounters. In one such encounter, a Jewish man remarks that “I used to feel ashamed because the Germans took me as an equal, and here in my house I was treated as an inferior to men with fezes on their heads.”[17] In yet another heated encounter, a Bosniak man steps into their conversation, seemingly as a discursive intervention against orientalism: “then perhaps you can explain why your Belgrade gangster politicians have devised this method of insulting us Bosnians… [And] we have seen them insulting our brothers the Croats” [18]. Despite having little to no prior knowledge of the Balkans, West makes very firm statements on the nature of its people, and her diagnosis of its problems, and what should be done in the spirit of all Western travelers who came before her. She describes Bosnian women as not “[looking] in the least oppressed… they are handsome and sinewy like their men” and, in fact, they resemble the men in that “[they] look like heroes rather than heroines.”[19] In one absurd observation, she remarks “always, in this part of the world, where there is running water, there is an elderly Moslem contemplating it” [20]. Her solution to the region is, most concretely, Serbian nationalism. Her curiosity of Bosniaks stemmed from how little she knew of Islam; a “population of Islamicized Europeans” struck her as “antithetical to Europe” [21]. The Turks, she felt, “deserved destruction collectively” and that they had left the Bosniaks as a kind of “walking dead,” as the damned, with the Serbs being their opposite, as the saved [22]. According to West, however, the Bosniaks were not directly guilty of their misdirection. Their supposed “Turkishness” could not uprooted through the forces of any other group, she believed, Serb or otherwise. If we accept her words that nationalism “had come to a stage where fantasy becomes a compulsion to suicide,” then perhaps the solution for West would be symbolic suicide, one of culture, and one where Bosniaks retracted their history to embrace the fantasy, the one she took as valid, i.e. bellicose Serbian nationalism. It is in this sense that she might have agreed with Sir Arthur Evans, albeit for different reasons: in order to redeem Bosnia, its people must begin “by sacrificing the [Ottoman]” [23].

Regardless of the lucidity of the text, and the sheer brilliance of its prose, West’s text (and all of these travelogues) leaves me asking a question that may be unanswerable: can the Western traveling author ever escape the orientalist discourse? – and, even further, can any author documenting regional history ever escape the trap of essentializing, of generalizing a peoples into a pathology in an effort to describe them? The travelogue falls into these traps, for it is immensely difficult, if not impossible, to discuss Bosnia without illustrating an image of the “common person” [24]. In some sense, West’s account is “more true” than previous travelogues of Bosnia because it gives historical weight to every encounter, however I question whether even phrasing it in this fashion lends itself to being more accurate. For it is not necessarily that an account is actually “more true,” because all accounts are steeped in projections and speculations; that much is inescapable. However, it could be said that West’s account is more “vivid” if anything, because of its historical narrative and detail, but this does not necessarily make it an accurate, true representation of Bosnia. This is arguably impossible to capture in literary form. All travelogues fall victim to deferring their comparisons relative to their author’s origins; one cannot escape these biases and, in some sense, should sometimes be welcomed as a means of legitimate comparisons (within reason, of course). All of these travelling accounts attempt to get to the “real” Bosnia, oftentimes portrayed as one before Turkish influence, but locating this precise origin is impossible – this is because it does not exist. There is no derivation with which to judge Bosnia on, no historical “essence” which was lost, and no glimpse into a bright future inscribed in the land. All of these are an author’s constructions, conscious or not, and are engraved in the literary form as such. Looking at these with a critical eye, all we have left is no form, just our description of it, and perhaps that is enough to make it “true.” As it was said by photographer Michael Ackerman, “places do not exist, a place is just my idea of it” [25] – and, given that there is no historically fixed point, perhaps that is all we can actually argue at its most basic level.

***

[1] Berber, Neval. Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5 No. 4., 2010).
< http://www.spiritofbosnia.org/volume-5-no-4-2010-october/unveiling-bosnia-herzegovina-in-british-travel-literature-1844-1912/
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Evans, Arthur, Sir. Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875 (University of California Libraries, 1877).
[6] Ibid., Ch.1: “The Dress of the Woman”
[7] Ibid., XCVI “Historical Review of Bosnia”
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bullock, Allan. Trombley, Stephen. The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), pp. 617.
[11] Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5 No. 4., 2010).
[12] De Laveleye, Emile. The Balkan Peninsula (Bibliolife, 2008), pp. 72.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5, No. 4).
[15] A core component of Serbian nationalism is seeing themselves as the honorable bulwarks against Ottoman invasion.
[16] West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Penguin Classics, 2007), pp. 302.
[17] Ibid., 313.
[18] Ibid., 311.
[19] Ibid., 327.
[20] Ibid., 396.
[21] Hall, Brian. Rebecca West’s War (New Yorker Magazine, 1996), pp. 80.
[22] Ibid., pp. 82.
[23] Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875 (University of California Libraries, 1877).
[24] A central problem in deconstruction literary theory: an image produced by any text is never stable.
[25] Dyer, Geoff. Journeys into History (The Guardian, 2006). Accessed May, 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/aug/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview2/

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