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Turkey in the Balkans….the Sanjak of Novi Pazar…

October 11, 2010

Once, in southern Serbia, a naked man handed over his wet shorts and ordered me to get into the steaming cloudy blue waters of a 400 year old Turkish bath.

The man, Samko, who was rather old and large-bellied, shuffled off to find some other shorts, the men in the bath laughing at his retreating, bare ass. Accepting with a Zen-calm my circumstances, I took off my clothes, put on the used swimsuit and got into the bath. The next few hours involved a lot of soaking and scrubbing at various troughs and pools with a final rinse sitting on a bench and dumping water over ourselves. This was Samko’s mornings. The old Bosniak had spent four decades working and carousing in Switzerland, Germany, and Iraq and was settled back in his hometown of Novi Pazar with several rifles and shotguns laying about his house and the medical equipment to pay very careful attention to his blood pressure.

Novi Pazar-which means new market-is the largest town in Sandzak, a geographical region that lies between Montenegro and Serbia and touches both Kosovo and Bosnia. In short, its a core transit point on any European smuggler’s route. Samko had insisted the Serbian photographer Igor Barandovski and I stay at his home after discovering we were the sole inhabitants of a hotel in the center of Novi Pazar owned by a local gangster who, according to Samko, had shot a man in the leg earlier in the week. Igor and I had spent evenings talking in the hotel’s restaurant and the gangster ignored us, sitting at a table full of women who forlornly watched the Turbofolk videos playing on TV with glasses of wine in front of them. The gangster occasionally went outside to shuffle around in his Yellow Hummer H2 that had Canadian plates. As Igor said, “You have to be moving some serious shit to have a Hummer in Novi Pazar.”

It is interesting to me that the above descriptions would, from a critical perspective, be described and contextualized by most as “marginal.” In case if it wasn’t already clear, with Novi Pazar I’m talking about the transportation of drugs, arms, and humans and also no small degree of paranoia. Samko also had a video camera which he used to keep an eye on the front of his house from TVs in his living room, office, and bedroom. Yet somehow in the larger context these factors, these descriptions, these details, get lost.

What is being noticed now is that Sandzak has friends. And in this case I mean the Turks. When Turkey beat Serbia in the September semi-finals of the basketball world championship in Istanbul Serbs in the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica rioted. Just a few kilometers away in Novi Pazar, local Bosniaks took to the streets cheering. Turkey currently has 15 development projects in Serbia, eight of which are in Kosovo. According to a recent article in Today’s Zaman the country is also planning on providing 30 million euros in assistance to establish an industrial zone in Sandzak.There’s also a highway being built and some not entirely specified form of mediation being offered for the ongoing conflict between Sandzak’s rival Muslim communities.

It is this conflict, or rather the larger extension of this conflict, that is most responsible for keeping Sandzak an underdeveloped place full of poorly repaired centuries old Ottoman architecture and crime. The real conflict is between the Islamic Community in Serbia and the country’s political leadership in Belgrade, which despite years of trying by both his long-time foes and former allies just cannot unseat the head of the organization, Mufti Muamer Zukorlic. The crafty Zukorlic has indeed even been able to continue building schools and mosques throughout Sandzak and duck an arrest warrant issued for him the day Igor and I interviewed him in April 2008.

Back then both Zukorlic and the farmers in Sandzak’s fertile Pester Highlands were talking about the boons of integration with the European Union. I wonder now with years of waiting for Serbia to move forward with its EU integration and the Turks laying down roads if that has changed at all. If the residents of Sandzak are today looking north to Brussels and also east to Istanbul, their hopes for new markets and investment now pegged in two directions instead of one.

Having more than one option is nice, but someone had better move fast. Eventual EU integration for the Western Balkans appears to very much be part of the plan of the powers that be. How long that eventual is will largely be dependent on how quickly these countries get their acts together, which will not happen without more than a helping hand. Zukorlic appears to be going for political power in southern Serbia, which he de facto already has. Something that Belgrade cannot allow. This creates another stumbling block in Serbia’s path away from its violent past and towards EU integration that might end up even as difficult and tiring and potentially bloody as, say, the capturing of certain war criminals.

Can Turkey help Sandzak? In Ottoman times the region was known as the Sanjak of Novi Pazar and still today retains the name given to administrative districts of the empire. After the Turkish bath Samko drove Igor and I up through the Pester Highlands, to a high point overlooking a plateau. Along the dirt road there were the grave markers of Ottoman soldiers. Thrust into the Balkans soil like swords they were reminders of another conqueror of these lands which have only recently come into European orbit. There will be more writing about Turkey’s influence (past and present) in the Balkans to come. I’m traveling and working in the region now. With Zukorlic having defriended me on Facebook and a shameful lack of interest from publishers I’m not sure yet about returning to Sandzak unfortunately. But, hey, the road to ‘Stambul is a long one. Who knows what might happen.

A Turkish bath in Novi Pazar, Serbia.photo: Igor Barandovski

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