The persistence of orientalism

So in one of his early unguarded moments, our otherwise charming driver-guide Tomislav who picked me n Shoba up at Podgorica rail station and drove us on an all-day leisurely drive down the picturesque Adriatic riviera of Montenegro, described an Indian family he had driven around some time earlier, as “smelly.”

Shoba and I immediately exchanged glances which Tomi may have noticed, for he quickly changed his tune to “but ofcourse not all Indians are like that”– meaning, ofcourse, we were more like him ( read: European, modern, unsmelly!)- than those “others” bringing even their cook along with them and wanting to eat only Indian food on their travels!

While I have no patience for folks whose idea of travel is to bring “home” with them ( why travel then???)– I realized how deep the roots of orientalist ideology lie in the psyche of the very people-the Slavs- who themselves have been seen as dark, swarthy, “smelly” Orientals by those who regard themselves as the “true” Europeans. This is because of Slavic domination by the Turks during 300 years of Ottoman rule which rendered the Balkans “Oriental” in the eyes of Europe. A young Leon Trotsky, traveling by train from Budapest to Belgrade on the eve of World War 1 was thus enthused to say looking out the window:

“The East! The East!-what a mixture of faces, costumes, ethnic types and cultural levels!”

In such a view, Muslims (according to Prof Mark Mazower in his wonderful little book, The Balkans)–“were widely regarded as more prone to acts of barbarism than their Christian subjects.”

Thus, Greeks were seen to be one-sided victims of Turkish atrocities in the Great War in popular imagination leading Gladstone to denounce “Bulgarian horrors” without any acknowledgement that Christians too committed atrocities or even at times provoked them.

A passage from Mazower’s book sums up the European attitude of yesteryear that helps explain the prejudices of today we encountered in both our young driver and the older Serbian guide in Belgrade who corrected me when I referred to cevabci-kebabs-as Turkish cuisine as ” No, no, the Turks were nomads, cuisine comes from settled civilizations- this food we have here is Byzantine cuisine!”. Here is what Mazower writes:

“Christian Europe’s blindness to Muslim victims overlooked the huge movements of populations triggered off by Ottoman decline.” It is this blindness that has led people in the West- which now includes the Serbs and Croatians- to identify with those, who, according to Ami Bose writing in 1854, talked “in the West, about transporting all the Turks, in other words Muslims, to Asia in order to turn Turkey in Europe into a uniquely Christian Empire.”

Boue ( qtd in Mazower) tells us how inhuman and genocidal such an impulse is:

“This would be a decree as inhumane as the expulsion of Jews from Spain, or of Protestants from France, and indeed, scarcely feasible since the Europeans always forget that in Turkey in Europe the Muslims are mostly Slavs or Albanians, whose right to the land is as ancient as that of their Christian compatriots.”

Sadly- historians utterances are rarely heeded. The Balkan wars of the 1990s whose aftermath was very much palpable in the off-the-cuff remarks made by people like the Serbian guide or even, in the more “innocent” prejudice of our Croatian driver who, when we met a Hijabi Arab woman speaking Croatian at a sightseeing stop, wondered aloud to us how come she was Croatian– well, it just goes to show the persistence of stereotypes that feed orientalism and encourage the Othering that leads to dehumanization, war and ultimately, genocide.

Art and travel are crucial antidotes to challenging such ideologies of irreducible differences between peoples. That is why the play we saw (In the Name of the Lord) was so important; and our spending two days in the company of young Tomislav, we hope, helped qualify his own thus-far limited (and biased) experience of the Other in his midst.

Perhaps our intervention as adventurous, Middle Aged brown women, one of us of Muslim background from Pakistan who could be friends with a Hindu woman from India- is part of the progressive counter-ideology I am calling ” traveling feminista”!

In the Name of the Lord

This was the title of a play performed on the second night of the IFTR Congress in Belgrade and I wanted to simply note here how important it felt as an intervention into the current debates around immigration and xenophobia swirling around us everywhere

The play-stylistically more of an Avante Garde “happening” than a play–unfolded with 3 male actors and one female all reciting the liturgy dresses in costumes of the Orthodox Church. The prayer recitation went on long and seriously enough to make the audience wonder whether we were in church or in the theatre (is there a difference?)– and then, abruptly, the tone and the pace changed and the “play” became a collage of scenes one more bizarre and unsettling than the other.

Suddenly, for instance, the nice, kind preaching of tolerance and acceptance in the house of God turned into a rant by the same voices who morphed into ugly characters screaming that Muslims were overrunning their lands bringing filth and violence into their “pure” communities

There was even a surreal scene in which the characters on stage- reminding me very much of the hoodlums in A Clockwork Orange–bring a pig onstage and proceed to slaughter and screw it…. gross, yes, but very evocative too

And then the characters donned Muslim clothing including the hijab (the sole female performer puts it in and completely transforms from a half naked punk to a modest Muslim woman)–to recite long passages of Islamic prayer in perfect Arabic accents. The woman proceeded to lecture everyone in the superiority of Islam in giving respect and protection to its womenfolk compared to the objectified way in which European Christian women are treated in society.

No one escapes the incisive, biting satirical eye of the playwright/director – Andras Urban- who is a leading figure of the Serbo-Hungarian theatre world and with whom I had the chance to briefly exchange a few words after the play was over. He told me that much of it had developed in conjunction with the actors over a period of rehearsals and improvs–like devised theatre.

I found the work to be quite brilliant and enlightening in terms of exposing the truth of what even the most “tolerant” and “liberal” people think/feel deep down when they think their comfy way of life is under threat by an alien other. The Other too is never an innocent cipher either- no entity is a complete “pure” victim. We are all enmeshed in these struggles for power and recognition and must struggle always to retain some modicum of humanity. Not easy when centuries of mistrust and enmity are the backdrop of what appears on the surface to be a new, contemporary problem

Sigh.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

And traveling feminista…??

I began this blog as a way to start thinking about the life I’ve shared with others in the 60 years I’ve been on this planet as a means to dig deeper into its mysteries which are ofcourse mysteries of the self– a strange creature whose many facets seem always beyond our grasp even-maybe especially-when we are called upon to say authoritatively, this is who I am.

As the old saying goes, an unexamined life isn’t worth living–is it?

So what then, might feminism have to do with my definition of travel?

In a way- it’s a declaration of my sense of who I am, of what I’ve become in this life as person with a certain set of values, beliefs, outlook on a life worth living. That self remains riven, contradictory, full of self doubt and hard to penetrate despite the clarity of a certain political persuasion that draws me to imagine/ work toward a world based on social and economic justice that is the bedrock of my feminism.

So that in my travels, I believe I’m open to the adventure of meeting the other in my self, to the frisson of recognizing the self in an other, recognizing synergies where none existed in the palpable, embodied way they take shape in travel encounters. Distinctions of class, of gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, nationality and age–don’t so much cease to matter as stand revealed for the constructed barriers to human empathy that they are.

To plunge, defying fear, into the unknown of travel as metaphor and reality- for a woman of a certain background and generation such as myself- is undoubtedly kin to a liberal feminism I deride on many counts but which has been and remains important as a method of (Re) claiming female power.

Combined, though, with a commitment to connecting to others beyond the barriers of social caste and class, gender and other hierarchies, to envisioning and dreaming that another world is possible–I think qualifies, at least to me, as the beginnings of a first-draft definition of traveling feminista.

To examine my own orientalist fantasies as a brown woman that I’ve internalized (how can one escape?)–as well as my anti occidental prejudices — whilst turning the native gaze on to landscapes and journeys long forbidden us, especially women of the East– well, that too is part of the mix of my feminist travels

Bringing Travel Home 🏡

Someone I knew told me once a long time ago when I complained about the horror of the homestead, of my desire to be on the move like the proverbial stone, that I lacked imagination

I think what my friend was trying to tell me is something it’s taken a lifetime to realize.

Travel is a state of mind.

It requires one to maintain the same sense of openness to adventure, to looking for and embracing the new and the different in our everyday lives that we leave home for. The traveling mind doesn’t ever rest–it’s in constant motion. And it’s always in a state of excitement, enjoyment, pleasure. It requires vigilance to not slip into a state of ennui, of routine which ofcourse we all need to function but which must not be allowed to deaden our impulse to fly.

It means, even if this is a cliche, that we must look for beauty every single day, and find it by training the eye and all all our other senses to see, hear, feel, touch all the places and people we whizz past blindly, in a new light, as though learning a new language of the senses.

Reading to be elsewhere, reading home. Home as elsewhere, home as abroad.

Travel means recognizing the Other in the Self.

Tito

(The featured image is of a statue found in the Garden of Flowers representing women from every region of the Yugoslav Republic together holding up the shared weight)

Ofcourse no trip to Belgrade could be complete without a visit to the National Museum of Yugoslavia where the socialist strongman of the former Yugoslav Republic Marshall Tito is entombed in the Garden of Flowers.

On our last morning there, Shoba and I dashed off in an Uber to the museum, and discovered a delightful restaurant-cafe at the entrance called Hyde Park, where we decided to have our breakfast. ”Twas a charming place! Obviously the owner’s dream space, a confectionary delight of riotous colors and patterns covering the walls and chairs and tables, a piano in an adjoining side room, old fashioned paneled windows looking into a garden of pinkredyellowwhite flowers and boughs and overgrown grass and weeds, and the most delicious tiramisu and cappucino ever-with a charming waiter attending on us. Yes I had pastry for breakfast…. I was on holiday, folks! Shobs had her veggie omelette which I realized is an important staple in her morning Daily diet. She gets unhappy without her eggs!

Fortified with sugar n caffeine (and at least one of us with some protein in her!)- we stopped in at the Garden of Flowers where the General is buried. It was interesting to learn about the ways he devised to keep the various ethnic populations of the Balkans United, including youth relays that traveled through the various major towns of the republic starting out from his birth town and ending in Belgrade. This annual race (Relay of Youth) was ostensibly meant to celebrate his birthday and in so doing bring everyone together but ofcourse it became part of his personality cult and by the end of the 80s ( it was still being celebrated after his death)- devolved into posters w Nazi symbols etc — a far cry from the anti Stase stance of Tito’s communist Partisan army that liberated the region from Axis powers chiefly Germany, at the end of World War II

It was fascinating to see how almost everyone we met in our travels, old and young, from Serbia and Croatia- -expressed a certain nostalgia for Tito’s socialism despite ( or maybe because of?) his strongman rule. As our cabbie to the museum told us, during Tito’s time, all Yugoslavs enjoyed a decent life, with guaranteed housing, health care and paid vacations for entire families lasting up to 21 days per year.

Plus- there was peace.

The Blue Train he commissioned was another stroke of genius on his part–he spent a great deal of time living on the train as it traveled all over the country, giving speeches from it at different locations, meeting the people, and inviting other heads of state to travel on the train with him. Those who did included Haile Selassie, Yasser Arafat, JawahaL Nehru, Sukarno of Indonesia and even Queen Elizabeth!

So ofcourse Shoba n I had to replicate the journey on the Belgrade-Bar line which was the route of Tito’s Blue Train! We got off at Podgorica after a night spent squealing like schoolgirls in a tiny cabin with uncomfortable bunk beds but an adorable conductor who let me charge my phone in his cabin and helped us with our luggage when we got off at Podgorica the next morning, bleary-eyed but excited for the next leg of our travels down the spectacular coast of Montenegro and in to Dubrovnik- the jewel of the Dalmatian coast.

Our driver Tomislav was waiting for us as we rolled our bags out of the station, and we hit it off instantly. He was funny and charming and showed us some lovely spots along the way, including the picturesque seaside town of Kotor and ofcourse San Stefan where Shoba n I jumped in for our first swim in the Adriatic

Women in Black in Belgrade

It was a sobering honor to spend our last evening in Belgrade participating as witnesses to a protest by the Serbian chapter of Women in Black that took place in Republic Square right in front of the (the first and only such) equestrian statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic who is seen as the liberator of Serbia from the rule of the Ottomans.

Under his raised right arm with index finger pointing toward what was once called the Stambul Gate- thus named as it opened onto the road leading to Istanbul, seat of the Ottoman Empire–the irony of this location for the Women in Black gathering on July 11th 2018 to protest the genocide of 8,000 Muslim Serbian men by their Christian Serbian brothers- seemed fitting. For here was a statue showing a beloved prince of Serbia pointing to the Turkish population of Serbia to go back from when they had come (Constantinople/Turkey)– an interpretation fed to us by our guide with whom we’d taken a walking tour of the city a few evenings earlier, who had also commented that “there is no such thing as Turkish cuisine” when I remarked on the similarity of their “cevapi” to Turkish kebabs. He had gone on to expound his theory that “cuisine” was associated with settled civilizations, but since the Turks were nomadic barbarians, they could not invent a cuisine! Thus, he told our group- he preferred to see the cevapi as part of “Byzantine” cuisine ( ancient Byzantine culture and cuisine being linked with Orthodox Christianity, whereas more recent Ottoman Turkish era is Muslim).

Such an unbroken view of Christian historical lineage obviously sees the several centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkan region from the 1500s through to the late 19th century- as a humiliatingly long period of servitude that Prince Mihailo led the Serbian nation to end at the expense of his own life.

From that history to today, seems a short distance when we realize the politics behind food naming. One mans kebabs are another nations cevapi- and so it’s hardly surprising that in the ethno-nationalist ferment of the recent past and present- of which both the Srebrenica massacre and its denial is a part- lives on in a Serbian meme where “get rid of Kebab” is a not-so-coded reference to expulsion of Muslims from not just Serbian, but European societies…..

I had eaten supper at the most famous Cevapcici restaurant/cafe near the Square, called Drama, before heading over to meet Shoba ( who is a vegetarian) at the protest. The place is run by a young Serb and an Iranian chef– so clearly this is a merging of ethnicities that belies the ethnonationalist fantasy of “pure” cultural zones.

As I walked into the square ringed in by a heavy military police presence, I was reminded of the disjuncture between the competing and mutually contradictory narratives of history and identity that surround us.

To see the 100+ members of the local Women in Black chapter march in to the cordoned-off area, holding aloft their signs reading ” Take Responsibility”– pointed to the long history of resistance to oppressive narratives that seek to commit terrible violence on our brothers, sisters, neighbors in the name of ethnically, religiously and sexually-defined nationalisms.

It is this history of resistance to concepts of national “purity” that was on display that evening uniting the Women in Black in solidarity with feministas like Shoba and me and others from the IFTR conference who showed up. I chatted to a young feminist scholar- activist from India who was also at the protest and was attending the IFTR conference, who said to me that the rise in India’s ethnonationlism under Modi’s Hindutva regime, meant that if she and her compatriots were arrested for participating in this protest for any reason, the Indian government wouldn’t lift a finger to help them. Why? Because activist students like her who protested against right wing extremist policies in India targeting Muslims, were seen as betraying the nationalist ideology of Hindutva.

Ethnic cleansing is the biggest evil of our times that needs this coming together of social justice feminist activists from around the world.

Another non-aligned movement is the need of the day… and I thought to myself, what better place than Tito’s ex Yugoslavia for it to begin…overly optimistic? Perhaps- but another world is, and must be, possible.

A day in paradise…

We really lucked out with our guide/friend Tomislav who offered to spend the day yesterday with us taking us to some off the beaten tracks spots just outside Dubrovnik where one avoids the tourist hordes being disgorged by the huge cruise ships We started off with a delish breakfast of crepes soaked in wine and a Croatian Cappucino for me at his friend (another Tomislav!) restaurant perched on the azure sea down the road from where Shobs n I r staying in a delightful flat with a sea view of the same gloriously shimmering turquoise waters ….From there we drive into the countryside to salt slats in alongside a medieval fortress town called Stone where Tomi treated us to some ice cold beer in a picturesque town square. From there we drive to an oyster shack right on the sea after a trip to a vineyard where we tasted some local wine– and I ate 20 oysters caught even as we sat there– that’s how fresh they were! Out of this world and even got Shoba to try one! Then we drove to a nearby spot to jump off into the sea and enjoy a refreshing swim as we soaked in the most incredible scenery- water, sun, mountains in the distance…. just perfect! The drive back along the Dalmatian coast is one you just can’t tire of… what a great job Tomi has, spending his days hanging out with cool 😎 tourists like us in paradise! We invited him to join us for dinner at the Levantan (his friend’s magically situated restaurant-Mamma Mia all the way!)–after we took a quick shower and both Shoba n I hanged into our black dresses… and enjoyed signature gin n tonics mixed with great flair at our table… followed by an incredibly delicious dinner of quick fried rocket salad (fresh from their garden) topped with mozzarella, steak for our meat lover new friend and fresh grilled sea bass and veggies for Shoba n me… with sift Buddhabar music playing in the background and the Adriatic stretching out into a pink horizon as the sunset settled into night sky dappled with stars ⭐️ that glowed brightly on a clear night… we just couldn’t have felt more content, laughing, exchanging stories about our lives and loves in a shared camaraderie that felt so comfortable and warm… Dubrovnik feeling like a place I know I want to return to….A final stop at the famous cave bar next door where we took some wonderful photos evoking a sense of mystery before calling it a night and getting back for a few laughs and chatting and then turning in for the night to dream in contentment…..

The Soccer Semi Final

Omg! Shoba n I drive in with our charming guide/driver/now friend Tomislav into Dubrovnik just in time to shower n change and race down to a huge multilevel terraced bar right in the Adriatic where clutches of people are amassed in front of huge TV screens to watch the semi final between Croatia and UK–first time since 1998 Croatia made it to the semis and are now in the finals! The celebrations after a fantastically close and evenly matched game were wild and such fun to be part of! Red flares, blue, red, white fireworks, thousands of cheering shouting Croats and sympatico tourists like us… flag-waving shirtless guys and woman in bikini climbing a flagpole (!) chanting and singing and jumping up and down….. then as we walked up long steep stairs to our place we got lost… wandered into an open living room where 3 guys were watching tv and drinking beer and invited us to drink with them (which ofcourse we did!)– then they gave us directions and passing yet more cheering fans heading back to their respective homes we too staggered back in at around 1 am….We felt safe and surrounded by a tide of joy and pride which in a sports saturated cultural moment, felt more than ok to be a part of…I’ll take competition/winning/losing playing soccer anytime over its uglier alternatives!This morning Tomislav came wildly happy and took us to his friends restaurant on the sea and after a delicious breakfast of cappuccino and wine soaked creamy crepes we are off on a good start to yet another exciting day in paradise…. More later on our incredible train ride from Belgrade to Podgorica and the meandering day down the Adriatic yesterday…..

It’s been fascinating….

So— Shobs n I are on our orient express which shortly after leaving Belgrade station (topcider)– seems stuck in a nearby stop with the conductors running up n down examine the wheels w torch lights etc– ha ha quite an adventure already! We have a room w two tiny bunk beds and a sink and I feel I’m in Babylon Berlin in a train that truly is out of the 1920s!!’n Presenting my new work on Queer Performativities at the International Federation of Theatre Research was great and got a very good responseTonite before leaving we also attended a protest of Women in Black commemorating the 24th anniversary of the massacre of Muslims by Serbs at Srebrenica with posters held aloft saying: “Admit responsibility”– would in Pakistan we did that to apologize to our East Pakistani brethren on an annual basis! Anyhow- so much to report but hurts go see the sights passing by our cabin window…. we are surrounded by passengers who are all white- we are the only brown women and from so far away! People seem intrigued and pleased when we tell them we are from Pakistan and India respectively More later…. oh yes also visited Tito’s mausoleum today

Beograd Zdravo!

So I finally met Mr Popovic–he really exists! And his old world charm was very much in line with my fantasies of an Hercule Poirot figure and Shoba n I had a grand time getting sightseeing tips from him in French…. tho she was struck by the fact that he didn’t mention Tito’s mausoleum as a must-see whereas he did recommend the Palais Royales. I think her leftist sensibilities were a bit peeved!!It is true that most Serbs love Tito and give him a rating of 11 on a scale of 1-10! ( Francis Tapon, Hidden Europe 314). As do those of us from the “third world” who grew up during the cold war and were fans of the non-aligned movement which allowed us to feel a little bit in control of our destinies by avoiding the overt need to submit to either of the super power camps. Despite the fact that the man was a dictator whose socialism allowed him nonetheless to acquire 32 homes over a 35 year one-man rule of Yugoslavia- many in our generation admired Tito for the same reasons the Serbian peoples did: he kept the country independent, he was politically savvy by extracting money from both the soviets and the Americans without falling into either camp, he blended Yugoslavia’s many factions ( he himself was half Croatian and half Slovenian and married to a Serbian)- and he truly crushed all forms of nationalism, cracking open the tribal mindset of the Balkanians. During his “reign”‘Yugoslavia did pretty well economically. But after the break up of the country following Tito’s death at the end of the 20th C- the economy went to shambles and the old stereotypes of the violent, crime ridden Balkans have re-emerged- though in recent years things have started to improve after the end of the war that destroyed so much, leaving the region a symbol once again of the horrors of ethnic cleansing. Well– driving into our Airbnb this morning and later walking around the part of town we’re staying in- Shoba n I were struck by the shabbiness of the buildings- the Beograd train station is closed for renovation- and general impression is of a third world country, not Europe. In fact, Belgrade is reminding me of Karachi and Shoba of cities in India. Maybe Popovic just wanted visitors to his city to see something reminiscent of the glamor of yesteryear in Serbian history….But we did see a newspaper with Noam Chomsky on the cover- and across from our Airbnb, a Cuba youth hostel…. socialist ideals seem to live on. We enjoyed an Italian dinner ( irredentism!!)– some Roumani violin playing by a man who could have been from Rajasthani ( Shoba dancing to the strains of his strings… check out the video below!)–and posing in front of the Cuban hostel as a reminder of our memorable travels to Havana in 2011. Check out my article on our Cuba trip in counterpunch here https://www.counterpunch.org/2014/01/28/unforgettable-cuba/