The Power of Rakija: Multiculturalism in Post- Yugoslav States / Yosra El Gendi

2016 Summer School Participant
Course: Religion and Conflict: The Balkans' Explorations vs. Explorations of the Balkans

The tale of the power of Rakija is said to have been delivered by an Ottoman commander on the warfront as he was encountering heavy resistance from soldiers in the Balkans. He stated that they would “drink Rakija before battle and so became invincible”. While there is little evidence for this myth of Rakija drinkers’ invincibility, the story reverberates in popular culture.

Rakija, a locally branded alcoholic drink, made from fruits, captures the spirit of the Balkans. The consumption of Rakija preceded, and later defied all borders that have been created around the states that emerged with the disintegration of what was once known as Yugoslavia. A popular drink in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Slovenia, the popularity of the drink has even broken religious barriers among the Muslim communities in the Balkans. Coming in different tastes and flavors depending on the region, Rakija emerges as a case of unity amid diversity.

The name is also perceived as a site of a deeply-rooted cultural exchange. While the origin of the name is disputed, one version holds that the name has etymological origins in the Arabic word araq (which also refers to the vaporized liquor of brewed fruit that looks like sweat or araq in Arabic) and is believed to have been introduced to the Balkans during the period of Ottoman rule. In this sense, it is paradoxical that the national drink of Serbia, for example, a Christian Orthodox nation by self-identification, has its name rooted in the Ottoman (Islamic) culture and the Arabic language. Serbia even holds an annual rakija festival. While in Arabic today the term rukjia is used to refer to processions conducted to protect a person from the devil through prayers and Quran reciting, it has similarly found resonance in the perception of the rakija drinker as invincible.

Akin to the situation in the Balkans, the drink also seems to escape the divisions of the public and private sphere that have been so strongly stressed as by the Western Europe as “modern” and by default “secular” understanding of relationship of religion to the political realm. Rakija is known to be homemade as well as commercially brewed and purchased in the Balkans, just as the personal understandings of religion enters into politics, and politics into religious understandings and interpretation.

Taking the “Religion and Conflict: The Balkans’ Explorations vs. Explorations of the Balkans” Summer School course with Dr. Dino Abazovic, was an eye opener on many of the social and cultural-political processes that have taken place in the polarization and intensification of ethnic-religious conflict. One of the many interesting things that we did was deconstruct the ethno-national narratives that were developed prior to and during the Yugoslav Wars. We examined how religious institutions sacralized religious symbols of their respective as national myths. These new myths facilitated the separation of communities that once lived together and undoubtedly added fuel to the fire.

In all this rush to assert a growing sense of division, these religious institutions and their respective communities were largely silent on cultural symbols and myths that do highlight common cultural aspects to them and that may be used to unite the Balkans until today. The persistence of these divisive narratives in the aftermath of the war has complicated reconciliation and peace-building processes even within the post-Yugoslav nation-states, all of which have included minorities of other religious groups.

This struggle with memories of war continues until today within the older generations. However, the younger generations, free as they are from the experience their parents went through, have shown more tolerance towards former Yugoslav icons, including football players that they take as models, regardless of their religious or national identity. Despite parental concern, these young ones have the courage and "invincibly" to bring together once polarized differences that once erupted in an ugly civil war.

If those who drink Rakija are truly invincible, then let's talk of reconciliation over some Rakija.

Cheers!


 

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