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31/08/2012

The Bridge Over The Drina by Ivo Andrić.

Back in 2004, during my time studying for a history masters degree, I wrote a relatively short academic piece looking at 'The Clash of Civilizations' by Samuel Huntingdon (the original article can be viewed here) as part of our focus on futurology. At that point the world was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks by Islamist groups and the US-led response of NATO, an alliance made up mainly of traditionally Judeao-Christian countries. 

There were many, as there are today, who believed that this was as Samuel Huntingdon had apparently predicted - that following the end of the Cold War stand-off between communist and capitalist political ideologies people were now returning to 'civilizational identity', that a clash between Islamic civilisation and Western Christian civilisation was inevitable, that the Balkans civil wars of the 1990s were both a microcosm for European society and harbinger of what was to come in terms of worldwide events. At surface level, this appears to be a realistic, if incredibly depressing, reading of humanity's current path.

My response, which formed the basis of an article published in the UCA's Herald journal shortly after, basically argued that the civilisational blocs proposed by Samuel Huntingdon took little account of the diversity of identities and beliefs, and the competing realpolitik interests, within them. The Ummah is no more united as a single bloc than Christendom is - the current situation in Syria, in which we see a primarily Shia Alawi regime pitted against primarily Sunni revolutionaries, in a civil war increasingly bending towards the genocidal, is the latest in a long line of recent intra-Islamic conflicts. It should be no surprise then that al-Qaida's victims are reported to be 85% 'non-Western' (a strange classification but we reasonably can take this as, for the most part, meaning Muslims in Asia and Africa) between 2004 to 2008, with the figure rising to 98% post-2006.

In short, the theory of a 'Clash of Civilizations' simply does not hold water theoretically or at ground level.

Nevertheless, my interest in the Balkans continued pretty much from this point - particularly the situation of Bosnia-Herzigovina. This lead to me and my significant other embarking on one of our typical hybrid holidays, mixing relaxation with exploration, during the summer of 2010 in which we took in Croatia (Dubrovnik and Korčula) and Bosnia-Herzigovina (Mostar and Sarajevo). Two years on, at a beach resort in Cuba, I have continued this interest with a reading of  Ivo Andrić's 'The Bridge Over The Drina'.

Ivo Andrić's novel is not based on one central character but rather, on a series of characters and situations occurring in the Bosnian town of Višegrad over the course of 400 years - told primarily through their interactions and actions on the town's monumental Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge. The chronicle begins with the story of Mehmed Pasha Sokolović, a Christian boy forcibly taken away by Turkish soldiers to serve the Ottoman Empire. The story goes that the pain of his separation never left him, particularly the journey across the Drina river, and sixty years later - now immersed in Turkish culture, a convert to Islam and a high-ranking official - orders a bridge to be constructed. Not simply the nostalgic whim of a local-boy-done-good, the bridge also proves to be a strategic move by providing easier passage of military might and trade between East and West (in this sense Huntingdon is right, the Balkans are historically a 'faultline' between Christian and Islamic lands).

The construction of the bridge is quite significantly overseen by officials sent from Turkey (with bloody consequences) yet the hard labour is provided primarily by peasants from the surrounding area. This theme continues throughout the book, with outside forces dictating the periodic rises and falls of the town, first the Ottoman Empire, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (supported latterly by their German Realm allies).

Meanwhile, perpetually caught in the middle, are the residents of Višegrad who are divided between Muslims (referred to as Turks, now known as Bosniaks), Orthodox Christians (referred to as Serbs), Jews and Roma (referred to as Gypsies). In this patchwork town, the bridge becomes symbolic, with the seating area and miniature plaza at the centre of it - known as 'the kapia' - acting as a meeting point. Reading around on the internet about the book, and the bridge, it would seem this is typical of many Bosnian and Turkish towns.

When we visited Mostar back in 2010, we were immediately drawn to the bridge there and found - just like Višegrad - that, although smaller, it had taken on a similarly iconic role as the town's nexus. The Stari Most, again built in Ottoman style,  has its own story of tragedy and hope from the most recent Balkans conflict. But as with the bridge over the Drina, its centre remains a focal point with young men proving their worth, and attempting to earn a few convertible marks from gawping tourists in the process, by jumping off it into the freezing cold waters of the Neretva river nearly 30 metres below.


Ivo Andrić's portrayal of Christian-Muslim relations between 1500 to 1914 in Višegrad is one primarily of begrudging coexistence, cordial on the surface but with deeply-held prejudices and clear religio-cultural boundaries preventing greater integration with one another. The residents of the town find union primarily on an economic level but tend to socialise in their own enclaves and act politically as separate blocs.

This runs contrary to the viewpoint of a young Bosniak man we spoke to on our train journey from Sarajevo to Mostar. We had found in Sarajevo, once declared 'The Jerusalem of Europe' for its religious diversity although now with a clear Muslim majority, a city that continues to starkly straddle the 'East-West divide' with quaint Turkish bazaars running into modern, cafe culture plazas and streets seen throughout the rest of continental Europe (and increasingly so in Britain). The most striking example of this was observing a young Muslim woman leaving the busy Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, pausing to take off her hijab to reveal flowing blond locks, before determinedly tottering off in heels towards the high street.

Having decided to leave our cabin which had frosted toughened-plastic windows (keeping in mind this particular journey is meant to be one of the most scenic in a country blessed with a Swiss-style landscape), we found ourselves sat opposite an older lady who couldn't speak English, instead smiling and nodding in a friendly way, and a young Bosniak man who, it transpired, was on recess from studies in the United States. Striking up conversation with small talk, the Bosniak man came to speak passionately and in great detail about his country, regaling a depressing tale of how Bosnia-Herzigovina was a united country before the 1990s with schools, politics, nightclubs - and relationships - all seeing a mixing of religions. And yet now, the constituent peoples of the country - the Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats - were living segregated lives, erecting minarets and church spires to demarcate territory, and apparently even actively adapting their shared language to create further distinction. At the end of the journey he lightened the mood by taking us to a cafe for a slice of 'pita', a large spiral shaped pie cooked in a covered pan placed under hot stones and served with yoghurt, describing it as a local delicacy - interestingly, the history of this dish places it in the börek family of pastries found across Eurasia, the Middle East and North Africa, with this specific version having a mix of Turkish and Croatian influences.

A few days after this encounter, we found ourselves sat on a coach next to an exuberant Washington lawyer who was attempting to "do Europe" in three weeks. During our discussions about Balkans history, he insisted that the differences between the peoples of Bosnia was one that stretched beyond culture and the most recent war, and that it included noticeable ethnic differences (his theory was somewhat undermined by him pointing loudly to the coach driver's 'Serbian nose' and reminiscing even more loudly about the apparently distinctively large breasts of Bosnian Muslim girls in Sarajevo).

Although we tried to distance ourselves from our coach buddy's very public remarks, prior to this we had privately discussed how the obviously Bosniak peoples sometimes appeared darker in their hair colour and general complexion, with the obviously Serb peoples having more angular faces similar to the Slavic peoples we had encountered during our stay in Prague. This is a topic of great controversy, with Bosniaks apparently denying the 'Turk' label sometimes used by Serbs and Croats to describe them - the implication being they are somehow foreign to the land. Yet it is also worth noting when Turkey defeated Croatia during the Euro 2008 football tournament, there were reports of violence in Mostar between the Muslim residents, waving Turkish flags, and Catholic residents who self-identify with Croatia.

Ivo Andrić's own re-telling of the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina - through the keyhole of Višegrad and its spiritual heart, the eleven-arched bridge - ends with the First World War and the first major act of damage to the bridge since its completion.

His voice is strangely prophetic on two accounts. First, we witness in the final chapters a lengthy discourse between two of the Serbian residents, school friends and now love rivals, about the future politics of the country. Stikovic is a young man from a wealthy Serb family returning from studies in Sarajevo whereas Glasicanin is a young man from a Serb family fallen on hard times and confined to working within the lower echelons of the local state bureaucracy. The discussion starts with the charismatic Stikovic proclaiming a new world based on nationalist and seemingly Marxist principles but rapidly becomes a heated exchange about the nature of ideology - with the usually quiet Glasicanin finding his voice to condemn the dangerous individual vanity of those who proclaim grand ideas for benefit of the masses.

Second, as we turn to the closing pages, we are given conclusion to the story of Alihodja who appears frequently throughout the latter stages of the book as the bridge passes through the 19th century. Alihodja is portrayed as a steadfast, stubborn-minded Muslim cleric fiercely resistant to the changes sweeping through the town. Alihodja becomes a figurehead for his co-religionists who seek his counsel for affirmation of their own fears and reassurance. Unrepentantly reminiscent of a time when the Muslims of the town were the ruling class - with the Ottoman bridge a sign of their power - he witnesses first-hand the Austro-Hungarian bombing and destruction of one of its arches, severing the structure into two. He interprets the damage caused as a sign of God's abandonment and subsequently dies of heart failure, face down on the road leading towards his home. 

The book, reportedly recommended reading in high schools throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, is a mesmerising chronicling of the huge historical 'tidal wave' events that have swept this distinct part of Europe over the previous five centuries yet it is also a moving collection of fictional tales about ordinary people, with needs, trials and fates repeated across the world over and over.

Ivo Andrić has been accused of anti-Muslim bias, and of furthering a myth of the Bosniak peoples  as aliens - dropped not long ago into Serbian and Croat lands by a Turkish mothership. Like all nations with such drawn-out, bitter conflicts - Northern Ireland and Israel both being examples that immediately spring to mind - the origins of the peoples there are incredibly complex and as hotly contested as issues of the present day.

As well as providing an insight into the psyche of Balkans, especially the Serbs who have perhaps been demonised somewhat in Western media having been on the 'wrong end' of two NATO interventions there (not without good cause), the book leaves you with unanswered questions: Have past empires caused irrevocable damage to the lands and peoples they made colonies? How do peoples of different religions go beyond cold coexistence? Can any lessons be drawn for our own societies?

Whilst the Clash of Civilisations theory remains debunked, the book does leaves you thinking that the peace and prosperity in the Balkans, as with South Africa, is fundamentally important to every single one of us during this age of globalisation - because if a genuinely cosmopolitan society can be achieved there, then there is hope for humanity as a whole (for there are very few societies in the 21st century that do not face similar challenges).

Looking to the UK, particularly northern England, at segregated towns in Lancashire such as Oldham, Nelson, Rochdale and Bolton, and similar towns in neighbouring Yorkshire such as Bradford and Dewsbury, it is easy to draw pessimistic comparisons. Yet it is also a challenge to act, a call to our society to proactively avoid the long, slow march towards the kind of bloodshed that occurred in Višegrad. No doubt there will be those who say "not in our country, we're not like that", just like Alihodja who insisted the bridge would never fall, but history is one of unintended consequences and if The Bridge Over The Drina serves any educational purpose, it is to remind us of this and of the deep roots of ethnic and cultural conflict which often go ignored, or simply unnoticed, until it is too late.

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