Sandžak, or the Balkans of Old, Is Gone

Publication: 14 July 2023



At first, the typical South Yugoslav landscape (green hills, cubes of houses scattered over them) started with wide Muslim graves on green slopes. That was Sandžak. Then everything started to climb on everything else, and this was its new capital, Novi Pazar.

Novi Pazar is a city from one thousand and one nights, if you are not afraid of Orientalisation. I am not, even if it concerns me, as long as salt and pepper are used to spice things up rather than as a separate dish. But it was one thousand and one nights in a modern edition. Novi Pazar is brimming with content, it shines, it reverberates with the voice of the muezzin, minarets jut under the stars. They also jut in the morning. And they reverberate too.

The streets, winding, not particularly wide, are full of people, who mix with cars, crossing the street wherever they happen to be. And cars seem to drive the way people walk, they look like mechanical cattle, shining, roaring, foreign, imported, making you want to show them off. They are almost exclusively German cattle. German means solid and that’s it. With cattle from other countries you can never tell. In any case, there is a risk of them not being solid. The Germans with their high-tech are seen here – and generally in our reverse part of Europe – as kind of aliens from a technologically more advanced planet. Weird, smooth, genetically blonde, tall and generally well-organised with the use of modern scientific measures from the future. The Czechs snobbishly pretend they are almost like them, the Russians and the Poles are full of hassliebe for them and they swear they will never be like them (although in secret they would like to be just a bit like them, and preferably not to have to be like them, but that some German would turn up from time to time, like a genie from a jug, and clean their streets and courtyards and make cars, but that he would not despise them and would not blow things to pieces), and Romanians, Greeks or Bulgarians imported German rulers, so that they would slightly Germanise their miserable – as they thought – Eastern mentality. And reality.

Try to fix a Japanese car in Sandžak anyway. I have tried. The mechanics did what they could and they did it well, but they shook their heads all the time: not a German car? How can you drive such a thing? How can you be so frivolous, so unreasonable, so recklessly throw your money away and buy anything other than a German car? The engine had been heating up, so they removed the thermostat and cleaned the cooling system. German engines lay about by the workshop, cars with open bonnets stood around like patients with open mouths you have to peer inside, mechanics were hanging by and the main mechanic went from car to car, from engine to engine, like he was playing a multiple game of chess. He pulled back his cap to the top of his head. It was warm, so the cap was superfluous, but to do without it – no way.

We were languishing in Novi Pazar and they were repairing. One day, two days, three days. We were in no hurry and they had lots of work to do. And it was not their specialisation. And languishing in Novi Pazar is very nice. You can send out emails: we are not going to make it, we take time off from life, we are sorry, an act of God, we are stuck in Sandžak – and then you languish. Drink Turkish coffee in coffee-and-tearooms and slowly chatter with people. And those who get the emails are thinking to themselves: in Sandžak? In what? The very sound of it – Sandžak. There must be a war going on there. Or at least some sort of guerrilla operation. In countries with such names there is always a war or guerrillas. But no, it is quiet here. You can even get drunk. Despite Islam. Few people here drink, but there are some joints. One is run, for example, by a footballer from a local team. He started shaking his head, too, when he learned that our car was not German. Not German? How come? We drank tequila and beer. He did not drink much. Islam being Islam. An occasional shot, he said, an occasional small beer but nothing extravagant.

So generally no drinking. It is best to come to Pazar in the spring. Then the main streets are full of teenagers and no one drinks. They sit around and talk. Boys in narrow trousers and girls in short skirts. But they cover their arms and they don’t have big necklines. And no alcohol. They drink cola, ayran, yoghurt, coffee. Or they don’t drink anything at all. They hang around the town and talk. They laugh, they shout.

Some time ago there was a disco at the top, in the ruins of the fortress. We really wanted to see what a provincial Muslim disco looked like. East European, although Novi Pazar is two Orients in one. Europa orientalis and classic Orient. But I very much like the aesthetics of Balkan Islam, for it is very homely. The mosques among these chaotic houses look like an illustration of an alternative history of Poland where the Turks come to, let’s say, Lesser Poland. Because once, quite recently, traditional architecture of the Balkans and Lesser Poland were different, here you had brick houses covered with a ginger roof, while in Lesser Poland there were sloped roofs of manors and timber or brick architecture. But now, when both Poland and the Balkans got the crush on cheap building materials and started to put together imagined paradises from them, everything became similar. Things turned into chaos both here and there. Nobody controls the overproduction. The surplus of form. Which obviously is awkward. We left tradition, we entered chaos. It must be admitted that the age-old fear of conservatives has come true in Eastern Europe. At least in the sphere of cultural landscape. I like it, but I understand those who believe that it shifted the picture of reality from a primitive but in a way subtle one into a coarse and even more primitive one, for being formally so. I don’t think that, I am looking for subtlety even in this social awkwardness. The landscape has been simply broken into individual units. It ceased to be collective. True, chaos emerged, but this is my natural environment. True, at first sight it is tiring and may seem homogenous. But, by Veles, it is not.

Now the Balkans resemble Poland. Mountainous, built up with the outcome of some great East European expedition to all construction wholesalers of the West, which ended in buying everything that was cheap but shining brightly.

Or take these provincial Balkan mosques. The carpets on the floors are worn like the carpets in rural cottages, and the stink inside is the stink of old houses in Eastern European villages: leaven, socks, sweat, mustiness. Sometimes whitewashed walls. The shoes by the entrance look like shoes in front of Polish houses or in the hall, where you change them for slippers.


In any case, we went to this provincial, East European but still Muslim disco. At first glance, things seemed similar to, let’s say, Olkusz, Tarnów or Zgierz. The music pounded mercilessly and flaked the skin off your head. Stroboscopes blew your eyes away. The club had some pretentious name. It was darkish inside, the dudes and the broads flexed in front of each other. It was impossible to breathe from the smoke of cigarettes and shishas. Energy drinks were on the tables instead of mugs and shot glasses. Lots of them. People were downing them like water. And they were steaming. They looked like tense cats. And all in all, you couldn’t stay long in this noise.


So the younger ones either hang around in the streets, or sit in the disco, although now the disco is probably closed. Sometimes they sit in restaurants and cafes. Older ones in taverns. They play cards over coffee and smoke cigarettes. They used to sit in the taverns of the charshia. The old, post-Turkish part of the town. When I came there for the first time, it was still alive. That is, it is alive even today, but not as much as before. The pedestrian street on the other side of the main square was renovated and it is there that most people sit now, among other brutalist architecture from the Tito period and among new annexes. These new taverns are modern, straight angles and all. In the old ones, in the old charshia on the other side of the Raska river, mainly older people hang around. The tables are inside, but when it gets warmer, they are brought out, not always to the garden that officially belongs to a given tavern. Sometimes you simply put them on the pavement or on the riverbank. A waiter and bartender in one, usually of advanced age, brings coffee and tea in small bowls wherever the customer happens to sit down. Sometimes he goes to the peddlers on the other side of the Raska, across one bridge or another. The peddlers text him and the waiter runs across. People sit. In the summer they wear sandals or flip-flops, it is noon after all, but they do not look like an imagined population of Ottomania. They look like East European grandpas. There are very few women in these old taverns. Like in all rural pubs of Eastern Europe. Emancipation is not making great strides in the countryside. Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, it makes no difference.


I asked the owner of the joint where they serve alcohol who he thought himself to be. A Serb? Perhaps a Bosnian, for although historically this was never Bosnia, being Bosnian as an identity came here in a quite artificial way, namely Slavic-speaking Islam started to be defined in this way at a specific time.

“Officially,” he scratched his head, “we are Serbs. But in fact we are not. I mean,” he said, “Muslims, I don’t know…”

Muslims start to sound as a nationality rather than a religion. Or perhaps I should call them Boshniaks to tell them apart from Bosnians, that is citizens of Bosnia, including Serbs and Croats. But this had never used to be Bosnia. Under Turkish rule, the Sandžak was Novi Pazarian. The Sandžak is also an administrative name, like a province. “Sandžak” means a banner, a standard. A panache.

Once this was Turkey. Slavic speaking, but Turkey. When the Serbs came, some Muslims escaped to Turkey. This was the centre of their culture and civilisation. In terms of religion, not language. Language – who cares about that?

Later, when the Nazis came, many Muslims fought on their side. Against the Chetniks, the Communists. Arm in arm with Albanians, Muslim neighbours. Although for Albanians, as they claim themselves, language and national identity are more important than religion. As it often happens in this region. You would make allies with the devil to fight your enemy. Even if it would make your God unhappy.


Now, when with a glass of whiskey in your hand you walk out of the bar run by the footballer, on the wall opposite you can see the words AUTONOMIJA SANDŽAKA. People walk along the promenade, they pass it. You can sit and stare at the non-drinking Muslims, sipping alcohol yourself. Sometimes a local madman appears, walking about and preaching. He shouts about the Koran, about chastity, about the evil West, about decadence. Generally, he is a walking fundamentalist TV channel or some Putinist television. The narrative is basically the same. Jews, decadence, the annihilation of tradition, the conspiracy of liberals and leftists. Hell and moral renewal. Globalisation and fake science, fake elites, fake truth, honour and death in the name of authentic values. And, of course, the mutual hatred between the various centres of these narratives. For it seems that such is the nature of these stories, which aspire to wrap the entire world around their small centres.

There are several Muslim religious centres in Novi Pazar. Not particularly fond of each other. What can you do? It happens that the advocates of Islamic zajednitsa in charshia spit on the ground when they walk by the Muslim centre on the main square, under the Vrbak hotel. And vice versa. I sometimes talk to them, the former and the latter, and I experience a déjà vu, for it is like sitting with a priest from Rydzyk or with an ultra-rightist on Twitter. Sometimes it seems very repetitive to me, as repetitive as a mathematical formula which can be easily solved. But sometimes there are surprises.

“And the Christian Mother of God wears a chador!” was the charge of a certain religious activist from the zajednitsa in charshia. “Nobody is picking on her, but we are constantly harassed about that!”


But this is not necessarily the true face of Islam in Novi Pazar. Almost no women in chadors can be seen. And you hear not particularly favourable opinions about the “Islam of the desert”.

“Give me a break,” said a secular Novi Pazarian friend to me, “we celebrate the Ramadan just as you celebrate Christmas. Tradition, nothing more.”

But Islamic radicals were present in the region. In 2007 Serb police killed one of the bosses of their Wahhabi cell. And arrested others. Confiscated weapons. Perhaps because Muslim extremists had made a stupid move a year before – they attacked the Balkanika band playing in Novi Pazar, accusing it of spreading the culture of Satan.

“The Balkanika band was about to enter the stage and play a concert organised by the authorities of the Novi Pazar municipality and the Serbian Ministry of Culture and Sport, when ten young people dressed in the style of the radical Islamic Wahhabi movement (long beards, semi-long trousers and white caps) climbed the stage and scattered the prepared instruments. The equipment was destroyed,” reported the website of the Belgrade B92 radio in 2006. “One of the men took over the microphone and announced to the audience: ‘Brothers, go home, this is acting against Islam, this is a work of Satan.’ Then he threw away the microphone, which got damaged, like the speakers, the mixer and part of the lighting. Four policemen present at the concert used force to eject the young people from the stage and prevent their coming back.” Some half an hour later about fifty fans of the FK Novi Pazar club, overcome with grief after the defeat of their team by Mladost from Apatin, threw stones at the empty stage.


Now you don’t see too many people “dressed in the style of the Wahhabi Islamic radical movement”. They sometimes turn up, but not too often. A beard without a moustache, the cap, three-quarter-length trousers. Halal kebab sellers in the town centre look most like them. The kebab bar is open long, so I dropped by several times, when I was under the influence after visiting the footballer. Each time I wondered if they would throw me out and, for example, rub me with hot chilli. They did neither, although they were peeking suspiciously. Or perhaps it only seemed to me they did.


But the Vrbak Hotel – a beautiful thing. It always makes an impression. It is great, huge. A brutalist Tito-style caravanserai. A concrete giga-tent of a mega-Sultan. A Communist notion of one thousand and one nights. It stands in the town centre like an alien spaceship desperately trying to merge with the surroundings. It is huge, but you enter the gigantic hall by way of the narrow, winding stairs, like you were going inside an unidentified flying object. The lobby looks like an arena from a space opera. Or like the interior of a Moorish style mega-coliseum, intertwined with green vines. It is so moving, all this brutalist Orient. The rooms are small and perhaps are meant to bring to mind alcoves in a harem. Curtain poles are carved with Muslim patterns and the bathrooms are meant to invoke the aesthetics of hammams. Strings ending with a plastic handle with the inscription S.O.S., looking like toilet cistern cords, hang from the ceiling.

And this is how local Islam is going about things, like every tradition in the world globalising in the Western mode. Either warring and biting or merging with local aesthetics.


“I don’t give a shit if someone is a Muslim, Bosnian, Serb or Albanian,” said to me the old, grey Mr Zoran, who supplements his pension by riding a taxi, just like many others. “I am not anything particular. I am a Yugoslav. It was good under Tito. And now what? Muslims go fucking mad, Albanians go fucking mad, but – he lowered his voice – it is the worst with Macedonians…

“And the Serbs?” I asked.

“They go fucking mad too. And you are from where?”

“From Poland.”

“Oh, you knobheads go fucking mental!”


Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń

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