Orientalism, the Balkans, and Balkan Historiography

Tintin, the comic strip Belgian boy detective, has many exciting international adventures. He busts up an opium ring in Egypt, he frees a gorilla from a Scottish castle, he discovers the Yeti in Tibet, he flies to the moon. But even with so fantastic an agenda, only once does he manage to travel to a thoroughly imaginary place. In King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Tintin finds himself in southeastern Europe in the fictive “Syldavia,” next to the similarly invented “Borduria,” at war with anarchists, corrupt military police, mustachioed fez-wearing bandits, and all manner of narghile-smoking Balkan buffoons.

The apparent absurd confusion of Balkan history is lampooned in Hergé’s faux chronicle of Syldavia, which Tintin eagerly reads as he flies in over the mountains: “In 1275 the people of Syldavia rose against the Bordurians, and in 1277 the revolutionary leader, Baron Almaszout, was proclaimed King. He adopted the title of Ottokar the First, but should not be confused with Premysl Ottokar the First, the duke who became King of Bohemia in the XII century.”[1] Even in being introduced to the material, one is intimidated and perplexed. If all of these people have the same name, one might wonder, what’s the point in trying to figure out what’s going on? Politics, too, is inscrutable. In its contemporary political unrest, Syldavia bears a striking resemblance to another fictional land, “Herzoslovakia,” the Balkan homeland of Agatha Christie’s villainous Boris Anchoukoff in The Secret of Chimneys, a land, by Christie’s account, of violence, brigandry, and mystery, a country where the national “hobby” is “assassinating kings and having revolutions.”[2]

Syldavia and Herzoslovakia, then, are sort of Balkan “everycountries,” composites (both in name and character) based on several assumptions: that Balkan countries are more or less interchangeable with and indistinguishable from one another, that there is a readily identifiable typology of politics and history common throughout the Balkans, that there is such a thing as a Balkan ethnic or racial “type.”[3] Yet even as Hergé and Christie assume that they know something fundamental about the Balkans—indeed, that they know the Balkans so well that they can effortlessly construct fictional Balkan worlds—both Herzoslovakia and Syldavia point to an even more pervasive, and apparently contradictory, assumption about southeastern Europe. This is the belief that the Balkans are so hopelessly and intrinsically confused and impenetrable that there is scarcely any point in trying to distinguish between them; a novelistic or cartoon substitute is, in fact, eminently more manageable and presents less of an authorial problem than does the real thing. Anything vaguely East or South-East Europeanish will do. Syldavia, Moravia, Czechoslovakia, Herzoslovakia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Borduria, Bohemia—what’s the difference, after all? Hermann Keyserling’s wry observation, “If the Balkans did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them,” was perhaps understated.[4] Even though the Balkans do exist, they must be invented anyway. Simultaneously and tautologically, then, the Balkans are both fully known and wholly unknowable. This is the first paradox of the way in which the Balkans are represented, perceived, and studied.

The second is this: if, according to outside observers, it is difficult to distinguish between the Balkan states and peoples, it is still more difficult (say those same observers) for Balkan peoples themselves to stop making distinctions between themselves, and to stop killing one another senselessly over those distinctions. “Killing one another” is not just a sort of “national hobby” but an intention or imperative that must be obeyed, and that can only be exhausted, not avoided. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagelburger’s caution against foreign intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was clearly based in part on such reasoning: “If people are intent on killing each other under conditions in which it is almost impossible for the outside world to do anything without losing itself many lives, then my answer is: ‘I’m sorry, but they are going to have to kill each other until they wear themselves out and have enough sense to stop.'”[5]

One readily identifiable dimension to West European and North American discussions of the Balkans, then, is the tendency to lump them all together, to overlook any differences that might exist between countries, regimes, peoples, or even names of countries. But a second, no less prevalent, is the direct opposite: one of the primary characteristics attributed to Balkan lands and peoples is the paranoia, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, of small differences. To “Balkanize,” after all, means to divide, or fragment, along absurdly minute and definitionally obscure grounds. What makes the Balkans the Balkans, to the outside observer, is that they can neither be told apart nor put together. By this argument, one of the things that makes the Balkans all so very much the same is the fact that they are all concerned with demonstrating how it is that they are different from one another. Simultaneously, then, discourse on the Balkans is one both of sameness and of difference.

To these paradoxes can be added others: the relationship between various Balkan states (similar yet different) is, to an extent, replicated in the perceived correlation between the Balkans as a whole and the rest of Europe, which again is one characterized by familiarity overlaid with distance. The simultaneous proximity and distance of the Balkans (the point of reference, geographical and cultural, being Western Europe), the sense that they somehow constitute the “outsider within”—these are among an array of factors that seem, on the surface, to add up to the paradoxical “intimate estrangement” that by Edward Said’s argument is the hallmark of the West’s relationship to the Orient.[6]

Add to this the fact that such essentializing as that of Hergé or Christie—or P. G. Wodehouse, Alfred Lord Tennyson, George Bernard Shaw, Lawrence Durrell (whose own fictional Balkan land was dubbed “Vulgaria”), or any one of a number of others—clearly bears no small resemblance to what Said has described as the “Orientalist attitude,” and it is tempting to declare the Balkans tailor-made for Saidian analysis. To what extent, though, is this really the case? While the impact of Orientalism has been felt in the field of Balkan history (particularly among those writers who are either themselves located in the Balkans or who have some personal connection to them), it is unclear what the ultimate utility of a Saidian approach to the Balkans might be. Its greatest value, in the final analysis, may not lie in any interpretive contribution to Balkan study per se, but rather in the possibility that through testing (and perhaps ultimately rejecting) Said’s model, Balkan historiography will be brought into dialogue with other, more established and dominant fields. In the process, the case of the Balkans may prove uniquely equipped to interrogate, expand, and elucidate the theoretical categories of inquiry first developed by those fields.

A handful of recent works of Balkan historiography have addressed, head on, the Saidian Orientalist critique and its potential utility to the study of southeastern Europe. Some of these have adopted in toto the premises of Orientalism (or, more accurately, a simplified version of them) and have grafted them onto the history of writing about the Balkans. The more fruitful but also less common approach is one that has attempted to understand the ways in which “Orientalism” and “Balkanism” are not the same thing, to assess the utility of a Saidian critique in general, and to take Said’s work as an occasion to, on the one hand, historicize certain stock assumptions about the Balkans and, on the other, to theorize what has traditionally been an undertheorized field of study. The very best, perhaps, are histories of the Balkans that show a familiarity and agility with the theoretical vocabulary of Said and his successors but that find it unnecessary or even counterproductive to make explicit use of the Saidian critique.

In the first category is Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination. As the subtitle suggests, the work is concerned with expanding the parameters of imperialism and colonialism, and suggests that, as categories of interpretation, they are, despite the absence of a literal European colonial presence in the Balkans, applicable to that region nevertheless. If “conventional” imperialists are concerned with natural resources and economic exploitation, the Balkan colonizer, by Goldsworthy’s argument, has typically sought other, but no less lucrative, foreign sources of revenue—cultural and economic—through the “imperialism of the imagination.” Of her work, Goldsworthy writes that it “seeks to explore the way in which one of the world’s most powerful nations [Britain] exploited the resources of the Balkans to supply its literary and entertainment industries.”[7] What exactly those “resources” are is unclear (plot lines? stage settings?), but to Goldsworthy’s mind they have brought as much lucre as minerals or oil. The production of fictional literatures set in the Balkans, featuring Balkan protagonists, or otherwise concerned with southeastern Europe, according to Goldsworthy, was a means whereby the British “secure[d] their stakes as surely as European colonists secured newly surveyed parcels of land in America, Australia, or New Zealand.”[8] The premise is valid, but the claim is ultimately a bit overblown.

To view the relationship between Western Europe and the Balkans as homologous to colonialism is an approach that, if used with reason (and if historicized), has validity and can be fruitful. In the case of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Greece, the argument for the link between European philhellenism and some sort of metaphoric or pseudo-imperialism has been voiced by a number of scholars. Olga Augustinos has demonstrated that Greek travel literature of the period is directly tied to Europe’s claim on the ancient Greek past and shows that this claim “made [Greece] seem closer to the West” and somehow under its control.[9] Artemis Leontis notes that, while the “Greeks, former subjects of a powerful Eastern Empire, may be said to have gained the status of modern independent nation-state without having passed through administrative colonialization by the West,” it nevertheless “could be argued that modern Greece endured a ‘colonialization of the mind,’ given that its system of education was imported directly from Germany.”[10] I myself have argued elsewhere that in the case of Greece the mechanisms of romantic philhellenism and the cultivation of the belief in Greece as the fount of Western civilization functioned as the underpinnings for a sort of “surrogate” colonialism, whereby Greece was brought into the intellectual and cultural penumbra of the West, particularly Britain and France.[11]

The concept of metaphoric colonialism as a tool for interpretation is useful to an extent, but its very development points immediately to the manifest difficulty of loosing the Saidian critique from its explicitly Western imperialist moorings. The frequency with which arguments for a “metaphoric” colonialism have been made may demonstrate the rich symbolic possibilities of one specific political/economic system, but it also is symptomatic of the fundamentally problematic task of grafting Said onto settings that do not share the particular colonial circumstances of, say, Napoleonic Egypt. In this regard, the Balkan instance throws some significant roadblocks in the path of those who would import wholesale a Saidian critique. Quite simply, the territories of the Balkans have had a very different history from those with which Said’s Orientalism is concerned. The political development of the Balkans, especially as it has been influenced by external powers, has been shaped by factors unlike those at play in the Orient of Orientalism.

That Said wedded his interdisciplinarity to a specific group of historical taxons (which include but cannot be reduced to colonialism, imperialism, and the interplay of political and academic power) has made it easier for certain fields to flourish in the post-Orientalism climate than for others. The premises on which Orientalism is based are grafted far more easily onto the terrain of Southeast Asia than of southeastern Europe. Where is one to place Serbia, for instance, in the Saidian formulation? Greece, with its peculiar cultural relationship to the West, provides a still more categorically perplexing example.

The Balkans make up a part of the “old” model of empire, the late medieval, precolonial empires of the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, both of which followed, more or less explicitly, the imperial model of Rome. They are not part of Said’s imperialism, an imperialism that, whatever his intentions, appears basically to be one of East versus West, European versus Oriental, an imperialism fairly bereft of syncretism.[12] Certainly, this interpretation is the one that has dominated the academic reception of Orientalism,13 and thus the question of Said’s original meaning or intentionality, as Said himself admits, is no longer necessarily central to what is meant when people invoke “Orientalism.”[14] The imperial mechanisms at work in the encounter between, for example, the Ottoman Turks and the Greeks of the South Balkans are dramatically different from those at play in the Napoleonic encounter of the French and the Egyptians. The Ottoman conquest of the Balkans—which involved policies of repopulation, a high degree of imperial collusion with local elites (many of whom were left fully in place), the gradual (but largely unforced) conversion over the course of generations of entire districts to Islam, and near constant military campaigns during the late medieval and early modern periods—shaped the Balkans in such a way that their political and historical development was markedly different from that of other Ottoman provincial regions, let alone from the colonies of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe. Four centuries of direct Ottoman rule are not comparable to the historical circumstances that provide the backbone for Said’s argument. Finally, the peculiar circumstances of imperial rule in the Balkans—its division between the Catholicizing Habsburgs and the laissez-faire Ottomans—shaped different Balkan territories in different ways.

None of this should come as a surprise, but in the rush to apply Said, much of it gets occluded. The distinct, particular, and myriad geographical, cultural, and historical factors (pre- and post-imperial) that are the precise cause of the ambiguous relationship between the Balkans and Western Europe are too easily glossed over by the mere substitution of an “imaginary” colonialism for the real thing. Such factors constitute precisely the terrain that is most rich with theoretical possibility, and, through careful study of them, Balkan historiography holds the potential to make a major contribution to the ways in which some of history’s most basic categories of inquiry are theorized. It seems counterproductive, then, to obscure them by the imposition in entirety of a critique that is predicated on factors absent in the Balkans and then to compensate for that absence by positing that a metaphoric or “imaginary” version of them functions in the same way as the literal or real one.

There is a big difference between “metaphoric colonialism,” “surrogate colonialism,” “colonialism of the mind,” and colonialism of the sort with which Said is concerned. Orientalism may invite us to explore the ways in which colonialism was as much a frame of mind as a system of West European political and economic domination, but for Said the former always presupposes the latter. Said’s critique is concerned not with a wholly “imagined” Orient or merely “invented” topoi: “none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture,” and Orientalism, as a “mode of discourse,” is undergirded by, among other things, “scholarship” and “colonial bureacracies.”[15] In Goldsworthy’s formulation, however, it is the very lack of such things as real (or “conventional,” to use her term) imperialism that makes it so easy to see the Orientalism at play in British depictions of the Balkans. “The concept of imaginative, textual colonisation,” writes Goldsworthy, “. . . shows the way in which an area can be exploited as an object of the dominant culture’s need for a dialogue with itself.” She suggests that “the same methodology could be readily applied to other parts of the world, but the process can be observed with particular clarity in south-east Europe in view of the virtual absence of fully-fledged conventional imperialism.”[16] Sympathetic as I am to Goldsworthy’s basic aim—to document an “imperialism of the imagination” in the Balkans—her project is ultimately subverted rather than aided by her heavy (if implicit) reliance on Said. The “system of representation” with which Said is concerned is one that is in constant and dialogic conversation with imperial structures, while for Goldsworthy, the system of representation is itself tantamount to an imperial structure. Clearly, one component—and a giant one at that—must drop out of Said if Said is to be used to discuss the Balkans.

Those who are prepared to acknowledge this fact have fared better with their application of a Saidian model to Balkan historiography. Milica Bakic-Hayden and Robert M. Hayden deal straightforwardly with the different, non-imperial circumstances of the Balkans. They argue that while Said “associates [Orientalism as a] rhetorical structure with a political and economic relationship of domination and submission,” the “language of orientalism still retains its force” in noncolonial settings, pointing out that now, in the postcolonial world, it has not as a discourse of power disappeared along with the institutions of colonialism. Bakic-Hayden and Hayden thus rehistoricize Said through their explicit interest in comparing a colonial world to a postcolonial one. In addition to suggesting some of the ways in which Orientalist discourse has outlived the very structures that first gave it life, Bakic-Hayden and Hayden’s work is particularly illuminating in showing how, when divorced from those structures, Orientalism loses much of its unidirectionality (as a discourse imposed by the West on the East) and becomes instead embedded and internalized in East and West alike. Or, better put (and more germane to the Balkan instance), they show how, through the adoption of “orientalist” rhetoric by both East and West, the boundaries between the two categories begin to blur. Thus, as they argue, Orientalist rhetoric (“Balkan mentality, Balkan primitivism, Balkanization, Byzantine, Orthodoxy”) is now deployed not just by outsiders but by the very people whom they are meant to describe. “These terms, and the orientalist framework in general, are often used even by those who are disparaged by them, a point . . . which indicates the hegemonic nature of the concepts involved.”[17] While Goldsworthy’s work assumes a model of Western imposition on or exploitation of a non-Western “other” (despite the absence of literal colonial control of that other), that of Bakic-Hayden and Hayden situates Orientalist discourse within the supposed “Orient” itself, thus interrogating the nature both of that discourse and of the “Orient” as a geographical and cultural category.

Western colonialism, a central component in Said’s model, is not the only thing that must be let go if the model is to be fruitfully applied to the Balkans. Academic power and the tradition of West European academic literary production about the Orient also comprise an essential feature of Said’s Orientalism. As he explains, “Orientalism is not only a positive doctrine about the Orient that exists at any one time in the West; it is also an influential academic tradition (when one refers to an academic specialist who is called an Orientalist), as well as an area of concern defined by travelers, commercial enterprises, governments, military expeditions, readers of novels and accounts of exotic adventure, natural historians, and pilgrims to whom the Orient is a specific kind of knowledge about specific places, peoples, and civilizations.”[18]

There is no history or tradition of West European academic interest in the Balkans that is remotely comparable to the history of Western academic study of the colonized Orient. Greece, alone among the Balkan territories, has as a region of study long been a mainstay of the Western academy, a fact that, incidentally, makes the “metaphoric colonialism” thesis more applicable to Greece than to the rest of the Balkans. The West’s fondness for Greece is intimately connected to the common tendency to consider Greece not truly “Balkan,” at least not in the full connotative sense of the term (a difference of status once underscored by Greece’s lack of ties to the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War era and now by its membership in the European Union, among other geopolitical and cultural factors). That Greece has received so much attention only highlights the academic neglect of the Balkans in general within the Western academy. Broadly speaking, there is no academic tradition of “Balkanism,” let alone an “influential” one; the term itself is scarcely established as an academic field today, much less two hundred years ago.

Western literatures such as those produced by Rebecca West, Christie, Durrell, et al. have led scholars to suggest the need for a category parallel to Orientalism (in its Saidian, discursive sense) that is applicable to the Balkan context. Maria Todorova, the real groundbreaker in this regard, explores the comparative possibilities of “Balkanism” and “Orientalism,” but she concludes, quite rightly, that they are not the same thing. This is a conclusion based on many factors (differences in the perception of the geopolitical importance of the Balkans relative to the Orient, the lack of a colonial legacy in the case of the Balkans, the largely Christian makeup of the Balkans versus the overwhelmingly Muslim Orient), among them a recognition that the history of the West’s intellectual engagement with the Balkans is not reminiscent of the history of the West’s intellectual engagement with the Orient. “The Balkans per se, that is, as a distinct geographic, social, and cultural entity, were ‘discovered’ by European travelers only from the late eighteenth century.”[19] While Said identifies the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as the moment of birth of “modern Orientalism,” he defines this “modern Orientalism” as the product of a renaissance—a rebirth, rather than an original one. Modern Orientalism rests on “a vast literature about the Orient inherited from the European past.”[20] Orientalism is thus a discourse characterized by a dialogic interplay between past and present, a product of the modernization of Orientalism as a body of knowledge, a modernization catalyzed and effected by the experience of colonial rule of the Orient.[21]Thus the late eighteenth-century “discovery” of the Balkans by the West coincides with the moment of the West’s rediscovery of the Orient.

Literary and academic output on the Balkans, moreover, does not differ from that on the Orient just in chronology and longevity. The vast array of Orientalist literatures documented by Said are different in style, aim, and quantity from those produced by Western Europe about the Balkans. As the work of Todorova, Goldsworthy, Stephen Arata,[22] Augustinos, and numerous others demonstrates, the literary output of Western Europe on the Balkans (what might or might not as a discourse be termed “Balkanism”) has fallen for the most part into one of two categories: adventure fiction and travelogue. Todorova observes that the “Balkans, together with the distant North American prairies . . . tickle[d] the popular imagination as fanciful sites for the setting of morality plays, romantic or antiromantic.”[23] Travel literature, which may or may not have been based on actual travel, largely served a similar role as didactic entertainment. While a large portion of the Orientalist literatures documented by Said fall into these same categories, it rests in the Saidian instance on the shoulders of a long and respected Orientalist academic tradition, one concerned with philology, textual analysis, history, and the study of religion. The West European academic study of Sanskrit, Arabic, Aramaic, and other Oriental languages and literatures is the single most important precursor to modern Orientalism as Said defines it.[24] In the case of the Balkans, the relationship between “Balkanism” as a field of study and “Balkanism” as a category roughly equivalent to Said’s “Orientalism” is, if anything, the reverse. The West European and North American academy, perhaps in response to a century’s worth of depictions of the Balkans as wild, exciting, and filled with mystery and danger, is only now beginning to hire specialists in Balkan history, language, and culture in any number. “Balkanism” as a discourse does not rest on an earlier academic tradition of “Balkanism” for the simple reason that there isn’t one.

It is during moments of “crisis” (as in the disintegration of Yugoslavia or during the conflict in Kosovo) that most scholarly, or semi-scholarly, work on the Balkans has been written. This has historically been the case, as well. A book on the Balkans published in 1911 is called The Danger Zone of Europe: Changes and Problems in the Near East. From its introduction, we learn that “history has proved that the Near East [the Balkans] has been both the scene of and the reason for war after war. For a variety of reasons this quarter of the universe is still a continual source of danger to the peace of the world. The Balkan peninsula and Asia Minor may always be the scene of insurrection or massacre.”[25] There is nothing of inherent intellectual interest in the region; it is simply prudent to learn about it because its messes might become ours. The book’s author, H. Charles Woods, is, like most writing on the Balkans today, interested in his subject matter because contemporary conflict has rendered it “timely.” While this is a pragmatic and reasonable approach, it is also one that has shaped the academic study of the Balkans in a way that makes it distinct from most other fields.

In both the colonial and the postcolonial periods, then, Western academic scholarly production on the Balkan countries has been most consistently linked to the perception of them as dangerous, unstable, a war zone. But here, we must view the term “academic” with caution, for the vast majority of such writing is in actuality produced not by academicians in the strictest sense of the term but rather by Balkan “experts” whose expertise derives from their experience as journalists, travelers, or political strategists. This has produced a major bifurcation within the ranks of those concerned with Balkan history. One group consists of Balkan “specialists” (largely, if not exclusively, North American and West European), whose work is targeted in the main at a nonspecialist, non-academic audience and purports to explain and unravel the intricacies of Balkan history and politics for lay readers. Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History (1993) is perhaps the most commercially successful of this genre, but a slew of other recently published books about the Balkans fit the bill as well. These works vary wildly in quality and utility (I hasten to say that some are quite good), but all are drawn together by their shared interest in addressing newcomers, or at least nonspecialists, whose interest in the Balkans has been sparked solely by contemporary political events. Within Western Europe and certainly North America, such extra-academic specialists outnumber “academic” ones, by which latter I mean those historians, scholars of literature, political scientists, and the like who hold doctorates in the topic, who are housed in universities, whose entire careers have been devoted to the field, and whose interest in it was first sparked by the usual eccentric panoply of factors, contemporary geopolitics usually not among them. This academic group is small, not usually focused on current events and, incidentally, for the most part, made up of individuals who are in many instances of Balkan origin—with the interesting result that the strictly “academic” study of the Balkans is emerging as a sort of subaltern, hybrid field, as has also happened in the case of the academic study of postcolonial South Asia (a topic that deserves further exploration in its own right but which in this context I can refer to only in passing).

There is thus a two-tier professional study of the Balkans, in which the more dominant tier consists of those working specifically on the contemporary Balkans and outside the academy. The less visible tier consists of a tiny group of academics, who may or may not be interested in contemporary events. There is little contact between the two, for obvious reasons—they are interested in different questions and problems, and write for very different audiences. This bifurcation, along with an array of preexisting factors, has made the field of Balkan studies even smaller and less visible. For working above, or at least parallel to, academic Balkanists is a freelance, pseudo-academic (the term is not necessarily pejorative) cottage industry of “specialists” on the Balkans, whose work gives the impression that Balkanists as a whole are basically political wonks who are not interested in the broader theoretical questions that inform other fields of history.

Within the Balkan nations themselves, where there obviously is no great lay or public demand for Balkan “specialists,” the study of Balkan history, literature, and culture is emerging much more clearly as a field in its own right, one that is in close touch with, informed by, and in dialogue with theoretical shifts and trends across a wide spectrum of fields. Not surprisingly, then, coming out of the Balkans are a number of studies that (like those of Todorova, Bakic-Hayden and Hayden, Goldsworthy, and a handful of others in this country) strive to bring the study of southeastern Europe into direct conversation with the theoretical and conceptual concerns of other fields. In Serbia, for instance, a number of scholars (Ivan Colovic, for example, or Marko Zivkovic) have devoted considerable time to Said’s model. In Romania, the Revue des Etudes Sud-Est Européennes has devoted two issues to theoretical debates stemming from Orientalism. In Greece, the case with which I am most familiar, a number of scholars are currently directly engaged with post-Saidian theoretical questions, among them Loukia Droulia, Stathis Gourgouris, Paschalis Kitromilides, Yiorgos Kokkinos, Ioanna Laliotou, Antonis Liakos, and Elli Skopetea, to give only a few specific names. Some (Skopetea, for instance) have directed their attention specifically to the relevance of Said’s model to the Balkans, while others (like Kitromilides) use paradigms that are clearly influenced by Said and his successors.

This being the state of affairs, it should be manifestly clear that Said’s model, once again, needs some significant modification if it is to be applied to the Balkans. Said’s understanding of Orientalism as a discourse is predicated on the relationship between Orientalism as an established and “influential” academic field on the one hand and colonial power on the other. Thus far, as we have seen, there is no such relationship in the case of the Balkans. In fact, there is neither a history of “Balkanism” as an established academic field nor of colonialism except of an “imaginary” or metaphoric sort. Balkanism as an academic field of study has emerged most potently within the Balkans themselves or as a largely subalternesque, hybrid discipline within North America and Western Europe. As such, it is a new field and is characterized by its familiarity with Western theoretical paradigms for study of the “other,” as well as by a remarkable agility in using the instance of the Balkans to challenge, rework, and expand those paradigms. Clearly, then, “Balkanism” as a discourse must be something quite different from Orientalism. Left without an influential and longstanding Western academic tradition of studying the Balkans and bereft of a framework of literal colonial domination, in what ways might it still be said that Orientalism can, or should, be used to study southeastern Europe?

Having thrown out the bathwater, as it were, we might look now to see if we should just throw out the baby, as well. If Orientalism is rendered of dubious use in the Balkan instance because of the absence both of West European colonial control over the Balkans and of a longstanding Western academic tradition of studying the Balkans, it becomes more beleaguered still when faced with the fact that it is unclear whether or not the Balkans are in any sense (geographical, cultural, or discursive) “Oriental” at all. Where the “Orient” begins and where it ends is, of course, a topic of no small debate, and its resolution has been determined differently at different historical moments. A map of the “Near East” published in 1911 has as its westernmost point Banjaluka, in Bosnia, and as its easternmost Konya, in Turkey.[26] The Near East now has disappeared, or become a chronological (as in “the ancient Near East”) rather than locational marker. We have a West and a Middle East, even a Far East, but the Near East—or what it used to be—has become so near that it is no longer the East but the West.

The confusion over what is East and what is West, particularly as it attaches itself to the Balkans, is nothing new. In an epistle of the thirteenth century, St. Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, famously wrote: “At first we were confused. The East thought we were West, while the West considered us to be East. Some of us misunderstood our place in this clash of currents, so they cried that we belong to neither side, and others that we belong exclusively to one side or the other. But I tell you . . . , we are doomed by fate to be the East on the West, and the West on the East, to acknowledge only heavenly Jerusalem beyond us, and here on earth—no one.”[27] Sava’s felicitous turn of phrase is echoed in the title of one of the best recent works of Balkan historiography to grapple with Said’s model, Elli Skopetea’s I Dysi tis Anatolis, which can be translated as “The West of the East” or “The East’s West.”[28]

As Skopetea and others suggest, of the various features of Balkan history and circumstance that invite (and problematize) Saidian modes of investigation, perhaps most salient is the matter of the location of the Balkans vis-à-vis Western Europe, and the changing way in which that location has been represented at different historical moments. Central, of course, is the relativity of geographical spaces; the sense of simultanous Balkan distance and proximity, while a constant feature of Western depictions of the Balkans over at least two centuries, is not a static frame for investigation. The concepts of “distance” and “proximity” can, varyingly, be understood to refer to physical, intellectual, cultural, chronological, political, and moral states. The “intimate estrangement,” which by Said’s formulation characterizes the West’s relationship to the Orient is, in the case of the Balkans, both heightened and literalized. Even as Europe, through the discursive mechanisms he so trenchantly and disturbingly identifies, defined and thus mastered the “Orient,” so, too, did it define itself. And in the process, the Balkans, which in the seventeenth century were regarded as decidedly “Oriental,” morphed first into “European Turkey” and, finally, into part of “Europe,” albeit a hazy and ill-defined part. The supposedly “alien” nature of the Balkans—an alienness and estrangement most famously and vividly dramatized (and romanticized) in the works of Lord Byron—derives not from their distance from Western Europe but rather their proximity to it. This, yet again, is a departure from the Orient with which Said is concerned, where the intimacy of its estrangement from the West derives from Western academic and political knowledge of and mastery over an alien other, not from any perceived sense of deep similarity to it. In the Balkan instance, intimacy derives precisely from such a perception of similarity, while estrangement stems from the awkwardness and ill ease with which that similarity is greeted.

The Balkans stand as Europe’s resident alien, an internal other that is an affront and challenge by virtue of its claim to be part of the West, as well as by its apparent ability to dramatically affect Western history. So it is, for instance, that commentators have long been flummoxed by the fact that such a seemingly “wretched” and irrelevant part of the world can have been the cause of a major global conflict: “It is an unhappy affront to human and political nature that these wretched and unhappy little countries in the Balkan peninsula can, and do, have quarrels that cause world wars. Some hundred and fifty thousand young Americans died because of an event in 1914 in a mud-caked primitive village, Sarajevo.”[29] Would so many deaths have seemed less senseless, one wonders, had the chain of events that led to them been set in motion in Paris or in London? John Gunther, the author of these words, was writing on the eve of World War II—at a time when the Balkans were being blamed for other conflicts, as well, and a time also when the Habsburgs and the Ottomans had already begun to fade from memory—and thus when one could no longer imagine a time when the Balkans might have seemed somehow central.[30] The present political environment has given rise to a new version of the same sort of rhetoric; Eagelburger’s attitude (see above) is not far removed from that of Gunther.

It is unclear whether the Balkans are the East or the West, but unclear, too, is just what counts as Balkan. On the eve of World War I, Turkey was decidedly “Balkan” (it no longer is), as was Greece (it is now trying hard not to be); Hungary sometimes was (now it never is). “Balkan,” clearly, is as much a conceptual designator as a geographic one, and just as its contours have changed over history, so, too, has the entire category shifted between East and West. The Balkans now are, albeit grudgingly, unanimously agreed to be in the West (that is, in Europe), whereas they used to be relegated to the East (the “Orient”). The eastern and southeastern reaches of Europe, in fact, were Western Europe’s first Orient, and seventeenth and eighteenth-century continental attitudes toward them provided a template for how Western Europe would ultimately perceive the entire non-Western world. In Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Larry Wolff explains Eastern Europe’s role as an internal “other”: “It was Eastern Europe’s ambiguous location, within Europe but not fully European, that called for such notions as backwardness and development to mediate between the poles of civilization and barbarism. In fact, Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century provided Western Europe with its first model of underdevelopment, a concept that we now apply all over the globe.”[31] Traian Stoianovich’s Balkan Worlds: The First and Last Europe takes us back to a still earlier paradigm for Europe, reminding us that the current, Northern definition (which regards the Balkans with ambivalence), is relatively new, dating from the founding of modern history as a field some 500 years ago. Before that, “Europe,” by the Southern, Greek definition, was first equivalent to mainland Greece, then later to the “entire northern land mass of which Greece was a part.”[32] Anything northwest of the Balkan peninsula was thus outside of Europe. By Wolff’s argument, then, the Balkans provided Europe’s first experience of the other (and thus concretized the Western category of “Europe”), while by Stoianovich’s the Balkans were the first Europe. Both make effective use of the distinctive geographic and cognitive liminality of the Balkans as the point of departure for their work.

Said has alerted us to the fact that the “Orient” is less an actual place than a frame of mind, and he defines it in fact not as a territory but as a mode of thought. But this does not mean that more or less any place can be de facto Oriental. Said writes, “The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations.”[33] It is precisely this dimension of his work that has led to such widespread use (and abuse) of his interpretive model across a wide array of disciplines and fields, among them those concerned with the Balkans.[34] The “Balkans” that appear in “Balkanism” (as a discursive category parallel to “Orientalism”) can similarly be defined as “a system of representations,” but this system is based on different referents—historical, geographical, and conceptual.

“Orientalist” cannot simply be a catchall category that denotes something along the lines of “making gross and vaguely deprecating generalizations about other (especially non-Western) cultures and peoples.” This, however, is what many seem to have understood the “Orientalist attitude” to mean. “The Orientalist attitude,” writes Said, “shares with magic and with mythology the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system, in which objects are what they are because they are what they are, for once, for all time, for ontological reasons that no empirical material can either dislodge or alter.”[35] But this is not all that the “Orientalist attitude” is. If it is, then far too much seems suddenly to “count” as Orientalist. Said’s Orientalism presupposes, along with a history of colonialism and an established history of academic study of the Orient, a clear supposition (on the part of Western Europe) as to what the Orient is—first and foremost, an understanding that the Orient is distinct from Europe itself. (Said’s work, of course, challenges precisely that supposition and blurs the distinction between categories Europe has traditionally held separate.) Here, the Balkans once again elude Said’s criteria. Their liminality, their status as an “inside other,” their own claims to European primacy, their geographical location (on the borders of but nevertheless within Europe), Western Europe’s uncertainty as to where to place them—all make the Balkans ripe with theoretical possibility. These factors also challenge some of the most fundamental premises of Said’s model and urge us to expand it or develop new ones that might better address the circumstances of the Balkans. The concept of liminality—both physical and “imagined”—is the single most provocative and promising theoretical terrain for the Southeast Europeanist, and the one through which scholars of the Balkans can contribute most to the theoretical frameworks of inquiry used by a broad array of fields and disciplines.[36]

Historians work now within an intellectual environment that is unself-consciously—indeed, at times unconsciously—interdisciplinary, an environment adumbrated perhaps by Clifford Geertz but enabled (and typified) most decisively by Said. Indeed, the boundary-crossing, if not boundaryless, quality of Said’s work has been identified as the ur-source of its power to move, annoy, influence, and enrage, as well as to elude concrete analysis. Gyan Prakash remarks, “More than anything else, what accounts for the extraordinary impact of Orientalism is its repeated dissolution of boundaries drawn by colonial and neocolonial Western hegemony. The book ignited an intellectual and ideological conflagration by its insistent undoing of oppositions between the Orient and the Occident, Western knowledge and Western power, scholarly objectivity and worldly motives, discursive regimes and authorial intentions, discipline and desire, representation and reality, and so on. Violating disciplinary borders and transgressing authoritative historical frontiers, Orientalism unsettled received categories and modes of understanding.”[37]

It is in this broad regard—its call to interdisciplinarity—that Said’s work has the most to offer to the study of southeastern Europe. In fact, the particularities of Balkan history and geography make interdisciplinarity indispensable. Kitromilides, for instance, is explicit in his views regarding the virtues of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the Balkans. He argues that not only is such a method desirable, but the specifics of the Balkan case render it imperative as well. “In [the] task [of historicizing the origins of Balkan nationalism] the method has to be genuinely interdisciplinary . . . As a matter of fact, nationalism constitutes one of those fields of social science research whose fluidity and invertebrateness make interdisciplinarity imperative.”[38] Kitromilides’s work, much of which is concerned with challenging various theories of nationalism, particularly as they are applied to the Balkans, thus identifies the field of Balkan history as singularly well-suited to interdisciplinary investigation (even as he laments the fact that most Anglophone historians seem ignorant not just regarding Balkan history but Balkan historiography of the Balkans, as well). The work of Gourgouris, too, to provide but one more example among many, illustrates the use of interdisciplinarity to the study of the Balkans. Gourgouris’s apt observation, “Much like anthropological and ethnographic subjects interrogated since the invasion of these disciplines, the inhabitants of modern Greece were subjected to so much discursive bombardment about the nature of their being as to learn to respond in accordance with the expectations of the questioners,” is clearly part of a broader inquiry, catalyzed largely by Said, concerned with the business of documenting the so-called other, and highly dependent on an interdisciplinary approach.39 Prakash’s assessment of the source of Orientalism’s potency might well be read also as a description of the Balkans; themselves “boundary-crossing,” “boundaryless,” challenging to the categories of Oriental and Occidental, and “transgress[ive of] authoritative historical frontiers.”

The Balkans’ liminal status—at the interstices between worlds, histories, and continents—is tantamount not so much to marginality as to a sort of centrality. To be “liminal,” after all, is to be between (and overlapping) two (or more) domains, while to be marginal is merely to be at the edges of one. The Poles have claimed Warsaw as “the heart of Europe.” Ioannis Kolettis, the first prime minister of Greece, declared in 1844 that Greece was “in the center of Europe.” Other East European and Balkan lands have made similar claims of European centrality. Clearly, much work remains to be done in explaining the vast chasm between such self-perceptions and the ways in which Eastern and southeastern Europe have been discursively described by Western Europe. Can it all (or any of it) simply be explained away as the product of Orientalism? No. “Orientalism” and “Balkanism” are definitely not the same thing, though they certainly are mutually illuminating categories. While it is Said who has made it possible for us to even consider such a discourse as “Balkanism,” Said’s model alone cannot show us what it is. In the absence of engagement with post-Saidian cultural-historical concerns, the Balkans, and their study, will, like Tintin’s Syldavia, remain “remote,” “inaccessible,” and largely based on fantasy. With such engagement, however, the Balkans may emerge as more central than we ever had imagined.

K. E. Fleming is an assistant professor in the departments of History and Middle Eastern Studies and in the Program in Hellenic Studies at New York University. She is the author of The Muslim Bonaparte: Diplomacy and Orientalism in Ali Pasha’s Greece (1999) and has written on a variety of topics, among them the Turkish reformer Ziya Gokalp, Greece and the Balkans in the late Ottoman period, and the fall of Constantinople (1453). Most recently, she is the author of “Athens, Constantinople, ‘Istambol’: Urban Paradigms and Nineteenth-Century Greek National Identity,” in New Perspectives on Turkey 22 (Spring 2000). Fleming is currently working on a history of the Jews of Greece.


1 Hergé [Georges Remi], King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner, trans. (Boston, 1976), 7.

2 Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys (1925; New York, 1975), 105.

3 A similar observation has recently been made in the case of Eastern Europe. Of Bulgaria, Wallachia, and Hungary, Larry Wolff points out that in many chronicles “the issue of adjacency, by which the neighboring lands of Eastern Europe were associated, was dramatized to suggest a sort of geographical destiny.” Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, Calif., 1994), 185.

4 Quoted in Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (New York, 1997), 116.

5 Quoted in The South Slav Conflict: History, Religion, Ethnicity, and Nationalism, Raju G. C. Thomas and H. Richard Friman, eds. (New York, 1996), 253.

6 Said writes, “All Arab Orientals must be accommodated to a vision of an Oriental type as constructed by the Western scholar, as well as to a specific encounter with the Orient in which the Westerner regrasps the Orient’s essence as a consequence of his intimate estrangement from it.” Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978; New York, 1994), 248.

7 Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (New Haven, Conn., 1998), 2.

8 Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania, 2–3.

9 Olga Augustinos, French Odysseys: Greece in French Travel Literature from the Renaissance to the Romantic Era (Baltimore, Md., 1994), ix.

10 Artemis Leontis, Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland (Ithaca, N.Y., 1995), 68, 68 n. 2.

11 K. E. Fleming, The Muslim Bonaparte: Diplomacy and Orientalism in Ali Pasha’s Greece (Princeton, N.J., 1999), 151–52.

12 In the 1994 afterword to Orientalism, for instance, Said denigrates those who “[slide] back into stereotypes like ‘the conflict of East and West'” and laments the fact that the enthusiastic welcome given the Arabic edition of the work was based largely on emotionality and misinterpretation. “The sense of fraught confrontation between an often emotionally defined Arab world and an even more emotionally experienced Western world drowned out the fact that Orientalism was meant to be a study in critique, not an affirmation of warring and hopelessly antithetical identities.” But clearly these two things are not mutually exclusive, and the fact that Said’s “study in critique” claimed as its territory the interplay between these “antithetical identities” would make his protestations of utter innocence a bit disingenuous. Said, Orientalism, 334, 338.

13 See, for example, Mohammed Sharafuddin, Islam and Romantic Orientalism: Literary Encounters with the Orient (London, 1994), xvi–xvii.

14 Said writes that “Orientalism, almost in a Borgesian way, has become several different books” and is now characterized by a “strange, often disquieting . . . polymorphousness.” Said, Orientalism, 330.

15 Said, Orientalism, 2.

16 Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania, 211.

17 Milica Bakic-Hayden and Robert M. Hayden, “Orientalist Variations on the Theme ‘Balkans’: Symbolic Geography in Recent Yugoslav Cultural Politics,” Slavic Review 51 (Spring 1992): 3.

18 Said, Orientalism, 203.

19 Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 62.

20 Said, Orientalism, 42.

21 Said, Orientalism, 43.

22 See, for example, Stephen D. Arata, “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization,” Victorian Studies 33 (Summer 1990): 621–45.

23 Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 73.

24 See, for example, Said, Orientalism, 136–37.

25 H. Charles Woods, The Danger Zone of Europe: Changes and Problems in the Near East (Boston, 1911), 5.

26 Woods, Danger Zone of Europe, appendix.

27 Quoted in Bakic-Hayden and Hayden, “Orientalist Variations,” 1.

28 Elli Skopetea, I Dysi tis Anatolis: Eikones apo to telos tis Othomanikis Autokratorias (Athens, 1992).

29 John Gunther, Inside Europe, rev. edn. (New York, 1937), 437.

30 Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 119.

31 Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe, 9.

32 Traian Stoianovich, Balkan Worlds: The First and Last Europe (Armonk, N.Y., 1994), 2–3.

33 Said, Orientalism, 202–03.

34 On Said’s own multiple definitions of “Orientalism,” see Aijaz Ahmad, “Orientalism and After: Ambivalence and Cosmopolitan Location in the Work of Edward Said,” Economic and Political Weekly (July 25, 1992): 98–116.

35 Said, Orientalism, 70.

36 In the instance of the Balkans, one cannot help but suspect that a geographical fact has been replicated and instantiated in the world of scholarship. On the physical margins of Europe, the Balkans have also been relegated to the margins of the academy. Balkan historians can be found housed in many different fields, including European History, Middle Eastern History, Islamic Studies, and Hellenic Studies.

37 Gyan Prakash, “Orientalism Now,” History and Theory 34 (October 1995): 200–01.

38 Paschalis Kitromilides, Enlightenment, Nationalism, Orthodoxy: Studies in the Culture and Political Thought of South-eastern Europe (Aldershot, 1994), 150.

39 Stathis Gourgouris, Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece (Stanford, Calif., 1996), 150.