Better a far neighbor as a good friend

November 1, 2009

By Annelys Devet, Tourisme in Twelve Parts

How wonderful it is not to be a tourist. Especially in places where there are hardly any tourists at all this time of the year, November. Beograd (literally: white city) is grey, dirty, crowded and different, especially so much different from other cities in the west. I am here for two weeks to make a “Subjective atlas of Serbia” together with artists and designers. In a personal way this group of Serbian creative persons is going to map out their country and daily lives. Direct involvement as a starting point to develop honest alternative images. All interviews we had about the work, combined with an overall view of all plans and intentions, directly touch the soul of society. For me it is a crash course in Serbian culture. Which appears to be more complex than expected.

Under Tito’s regime Yugoslavia was already a federal state with Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as closely connected autonomous provinces, whereas all these republics had been killing each other for centuries. Retroactive Tito is appreciated again, if not proclaimed a hero. Dragan, one of the designers for the atlas, explained to me that Yugoslavia was in fact far ahead of the political construction of the EU. The generations born before 1970 were used to travelling freely, saw themselves primarily as ‘Yugoslavians’ and were informed about developments both in east and west. However, the following generations have experienced the war at a crucial moment in their lives, namely in their youth. One of the results was that many were badly educated due to teachers on strike and a total lack of money for schools and universities. Suddenly this generation had to identify itself as ‘Serbian’ again. To the question what his contribution to the atlas could be the designer Milan Vukelic answered: “I don’t know yet, I don’t know what personal is, what I am, who I am, what Serbia is. All borders change continually, everything changes from day to day. Nationality, identity; I don’t know, I don’t know what it is…”. Phew, heart-rending.


Also in Belgrade itself you experience this ‘identity split’. The city is terribly interesting because there are hardly any (or no) monuments worth mentioning, apart from an old fort, the war museum. That is not only because of all the wars but also of being torn apart between so many cultures. Everything is sham, neo, fake, simulacrum or otherwise adjusted. Nowhere extremes; laminated floors and plastic mugs everywhere. There is a lack of everything and at the same time there is consumerism everywhere. Public space is dilapidated, but not totally neglected everywhere. Everything is so mediocre, even the holes in the roads. The East-bloc architecture is of the ‘ordinary’ kind, the new developments are not uglier than in Dortmund or Eindhoven, nowhere is there radical housing or council housing or high rises. The city feels completely European, the only difference being that in European cities also intercultural phenomena can be seen, and foreigners – tourists or allochtonous persons. I have not seen a head scarf yet but not a Chinese, Japanese (with or without camera), any coloured person or Yankee either, nothing. The only community which distinguishes itself are the Roma, who completely belong here but are considered outcasts by a majority. It is not only a class difference, it is deeper, seems ethnically determined. It feels like an almost medieval dividing line. Hard. Complex. Saddening.

Never before have I been in a city where I didn’t want to stay, work or live. I have hardly taken any pictures.


Earlier I already made a “Subjective atlas of Palestine” in the same way. Working in Ramallah with resident artist nobody had a problem with showing something beautiful about their own culture. They were proud of what Palestine once was and still can be. What I saw was pure beauty. In Serbia the experience was quite different. It almost seemed that people were ashamed of their own culture, or at least could not or did not want to identify with it. National identity is a taboo. “That’s what started wars”, a journalist said, “isn’t it a very dangerous project you are doing?”

The high walls of the EU.

Young people have only one wish: emigrate. Of course it is mainly based on the misunderstanding that anywhere else in the world jobs are there for the taking and that it does not matter what kind of work you do as long as you can move freely (read: cross borders), thus providing daydreams and mirages. But the walls of the EU have an incredible height. The piles of papers that must be shown in order to be eligible for a visa at all are almost impractible. “And if you manage”, says art historian Marija Kovac, “you have to practically get down on your knees to hand it in at the consciously low-built counter in question. As if all steps in the procedure are meant to discourage you.”. Only in exceptional cases, when someone has contacts abroad, is it possible to arrange visa. The EU has multiple locked doors: “Rules are rules,” says Brussels from its ‘tower’.

Colourful and energetic

Dragan, the artist mentioned above (born in the 60s),indicated that the hope is now aimed at the generation of the 90s because they have not experienced the war consciously and they can ignore the collective friction with the neighbors. One of the youngest participants in the atlas, Simon Kuzmanovic (1985), explained to me proudly that the Serbians are actually a very colorful and energetic people. For in order to start six wars, even if you lose them all, you need a lot of energy. A wonderful observation. What I experienced as a relief while talking with all designers is that Serbians have a great political awareness. Much more than us they are aware of the collective element in society. There seems to be no room for egotism and individualism. People help and support each other. They party together on exciting underground locations and show a heart-warming hospitality which you usually only find outside the EU.

The Serbians I have met are world citizens who do not think in terms of borders of the old society. It is the strict rules of the surrounding states that limit Serbian freedom of movement, resulting in a major outflow of qualified persons, also known as the brain drain. Not Serbia is the bad neighbor but we, in the heart of a complacent EU, have closed the gates of our gated community. In our political agenda and collective awareness our neighbors have thus become anonymous. And what is more frightening than the unknown?

The conflicts between neighbors in the former Yugoslavia are endlessly more complex and layered. It will take generations to come to terms with that. We, on the other hand, are capable of making good friends with our far neighbors: “be welcome, and make yourself at home.” Isme opened the doors already.