Azra Nuhefendić

Azra Nuhefendić

Azra Nuhefendić, writer, journalist and correspondent for Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso won the journalistic prize "Writing for Central and Eastern Europe". We publish her speech for the ceremony held in Vienna on 22 November 2010

25/11/2010 -  Azra Nuhefendić

It is a privilege and great honour to be here this evening as winner of such a prestigious award.

Thank you very much.

Before my address, I would like to dedicate this award to my late sister Esa: she was supportive when I felt discouraged, she trusted me when I felt a failure, and she was encouraging when I felt hopeless. I know that she would be happy seeing me here this evening.

This Award would be a very important recognition for anyone, much more so to someone like me who comes from Sarajevo. If those responsible for the assault on Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, with the aim of destroying the country and eliminating its people, had succeeded in their mission, I would not be alive, let alone here today, and certainly would not have been able to make my voice heard in public in one of Europe's most important cultural capitals, like Vienna.

Thank you very much.

Now, I would like to say a few words about being the 'OTHER' or 'othering' or otherness. For two reasons: Firstly, because the process of 'othering', the creation of the other, in my opinion, has been re-emerging in present-day Europe, with the mass deportation of Roma emigrants from France as its extreme example so far. I believe that 'othering' is a serious challenge for Europe today, and could be even more important for its future.

Secondly, because on a personal level, by being declared different myself, or 'OTHER', my life took an unexpected and unwanted course. That change began 20 years ago. I am still, in my new home country of Italy, dissimilar, although not in a dramatic way and with none of the dangerous consequences it had for me in the 1990s.

It is the most natural thing in the world to be different, and I would like to say a very welcome one, not only for humankind, but for the universe as a whole. And thank God that we are dissimilar, that the world is diverse. That makes our life go on, more colourful, more interesting and attractive; the opposite would be uniformity and boredom.

This diversity, which is something natural and positive, should not be confused with 'othering' or otherness, which is an artificial process, and which usually has negative connotations and consequences.

To be different becomes dangerous when a simplistic recognition of normal human diversity is combined with ethnocentric thinking. That leads to a tendency to represent 'others' as somehow, categorically, topologically, fundamentally, different.

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to view one’s own culture as superior, beautiful, logical, sensible and true, and then by extension, viewing other peoples’ cultures as inferior, as not good, or bizarre.

In certain social or historical circumstances, such as economic crises, we tend to, or can be encouraged to consider humans, groups, or entire societies whose life and historical experiences vary from our own, as 'different' (which is true), and incomprehensible (which is not true), and use that to distance them from US, and to re-confirm our own 'normalcy'.

Labelling an individual, group or whole nation as 'other' has always had a precise purpose. By declaring someone 'other', people tend to emphasise what makes s/he dissimilar from their society, their people, their nation, religious group, tribe and so on. And often leaders tend to exploit such notions for political purposes.

The recent genocidal wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia remind us that 'othering' can be an instrument of terror that results in multi-generational hatred and violence

Allow me to explain, from my own experience, how the process of 'othering' works. I’m Bosnian, a Bosnian Muslim to be precise. Before the war I lived and worked in Belgrade in Serbia where the majority of the population are Orthodox Christian.

I had no problem living in Belgrade before the war. On the contrary, for the most part I felt better there than in my home town Sarajevo: I had a good job, was recognised for my work, had many colleagues, friends and acquaintances.

In no fundamental way was I different from my fellow Belgrade citizens, and no way of dressing, no food, no language, no physical appearance, habits or mentality distinguished me from them.

In ex Yugoslavia, religion, the one thing that would eventually make a distinction, was not something that mattered. The majority of the population in ex Yugoslavia was atheist, and the beliefs of those who were religious, like Andjekla, to this day my best friend, who comes from a religious orthodox family, were treated, as they should be, as a private affair.

So, religion, which could have been the only category that might make me 'the other', before the war, was not a dividing line between me and 'them' (the Serbs) and was no basis for any distinction or action.

However, being Bosnian I had to endure some of the stereotyping which was applied to all Bosnians no matter whether they were orthodox, catholic or muslim. In ex Yugoslavia we, Bosnians, independently of our religious origin, were considered as good but dull people, funny, kind of conservative, with a good sense of humour. Of course I may posses all or none of these qualities, but that is how, generally, people would consider me, being originally from Bosnia. I should emphasise that this was not the image of a Bosnian Muslim, which I am, but of Bosnians as a whole.

At the beginning of 1990, as national leaders and politicians initiated preparations for war, the process of fostering Serbian national identity started. 'Othering' was imperative for a sense of national identity and unity, and consequently the exclusion of all those who would not fit into 'US' was also paramount. Thus, literally overnight, I stopped being a friend, a colleague, a neighbour, a human being. I became 'other', and 'othering' was used to distinguish” “me” from “them.

The only thing that mattered was that I was, originally, a Bosnian Muslim. The archaic, pejorative label for Bosnian Muslims came back into use: we were labelled “balije” (nannies) or Turks. Some of my colleagues even stopped calling me by name, but would refer to me as Turk, implying that I was a foreigner, the 'other', that I was a part of a group that did not belong in Europe, implying that we came from somewhere else, and consequently had no right to live in Bosnia, on European soil. 

Although I come from a family that was not religious at all, and I have never practised a religion and have never felt Muslim, whatever that means, I was categorised as such. My otherness was constructed, and the only basis for making it plausible was to place me in a religious category, declaring me a Muslim, which in today’s world is often associated with fundamentalism, terror, the enemy, a source of danger.

What was happening on the individual level was even more drastic in BiH as a country where the entire nation of four million people was subjected to 'othering'. As happened in my former country, otherness often evolves into demonization and dehumanization of a whole group of people and can result in multi-generational hatred and violence.

In those days the ex Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Kardzic declared this process of otherness of Bosnian Muslims as the vital sacrifice that Serbs were making saying that “one day the West will be thankful to the Serbs because we are defending Christian values and culture ”.

Otherness in extreme cases justified the war, mass crimes, besieged cities, destruction, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, mass rapes of women and girls. And all this, which under normal circumstances would provoke disgust in ordinary people, became acceptable to them because the OTHER was the subject of wrongdoings.

Ever since the war in BiH people often ask me what is the difference between people of ex Yugoslavia, or how one could distinguish who is who? No apparent or hidden difference is necessary to create the 'other'. As a European, for me, Indians and Pakistanis look the same, yet they have been enemies for almost a century.

Who among us can distinguish who is Tutsi and who is Hutu in Rwanda? Perhaps the most drastic example of creating the 'other' is in North and South Korea: one people, two artificially made countries, and a decades-long conflict that has been going on through the creation of otherness.

Now back to Europe, to the present day. I have been living in Italy for 15 years. My social situation has gradually changed but one constant feature has remained. I am still perceived as different. I guess that it will be my status for the rest of my life, since I am different in Italy, but when I go back to Sarajevo I’m different there as well.

But that is OK, it is natural, a low level dissimilarity. I have also learned that being perceived as different is not the exclusive privilege of people coming from Balkan or Third World countries.

Preparing this speech I read a story by the American writer, Linda Lappin, who lives in a small village in central Italy. Even Americans, citizens of one of the richest countries in the world, can be 'other'. She writes:

“Attitudes towards foreigners, especially Americans, are always in flux in a village like this one, where the word itself “straniero” is interpreted in the narrowest sense. Even people from the village a mile down the road are considered as “outsiders”.

As long as the 'other' or otherness remains at a low level, within its natural boundaries, one should not be concerned. As the above-mentioned American writer remarks “otherness is just an illusion we can easily discard”.

What concerns me is that in present day Europe to which, thanks to my Italian citizenship, I now belong, the creation of the 'other', or otherness is ever more frequent. This practice is tightly connected to our fear. We are increasingly terrified of criminals, homosexuals, immigrants, atheists, a multicultural and multi-religious society, politics, politicians, government, pollution and so on. Modern European society has become highly sensitive to all kinds of fear, and thus easily manipulated. 'Others' are always at hand, and an easy target.

I’m not saying that Europe is going towards war, but in order to protect the 'US'- ourselves, we Europeans may be willing to accept violations of some fundamental human rights - of the 'other', of course - or a certain degree of aggression towards the other. As one who once survived otherness, I am perhaps more sensitive to that process.

Of course today, we cannot say to immigrants “go home”, but the message that can be heard is that "this is our land, love it or leave it", means just that and seems to be quite acceptable to most of US. That message brings to mind the French fascist intellectual, Robert Brasillach, who in the thirties spoke of "moderate anti-Semite politics”. In today’s Europe, it seems that “a moderate anti-immigrant protection/politics” is quite OK.

But it is not fine, and in modern and civilized society otherness should never be OK.

To conclude: I came here accompanied by two young people: my niece Masa, and my nephew Igor.

They escaped from the war at the age of one and four, they have grown up in Italy. Their mother tongue is Bosnian, but their first language is Italian. They prefer a good Italian pizza to the typical Bosnian dish, pita (an act of capital treason as far as their grandmother is concerned!).

Igor and Masa are Italian in every sense, in law as well. Unlike the majority of second generation immigrants, in the past they had difficulty accepting that they are Bosnian too. With time, they have come to terms with that as well.

So these two young people, like many similar to them all over the Europe, speaking in terms of 'OTHER', united US and THEM. And I can see no contradiction in being one, or the 'other', or both at the same time, in the same person.

For me they represent the Europe I have always dreamt about.

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