Commentary on this Issue's Theme of Cultural Synchretism

By Cemal Kafadar, Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies, Harvard University

While in Greece as member of a Greek-Turkish Friendship Association, a Turkish businessman, and friend of mine, visited Hadjidakis, the composer we both admire so much. The musician was pleased by the attention of a fan but not so happy about the mission of the association. "We, Greeks and Turks, have worked so hard for so long," he said, "to build a lasting enmity. Why ruin it?"

Hadjidakis was no fool, of course. Enmities take a lot of work to build. They perform many functions and address various needs. And they are not always nurtured by bad history and demagoguery. Hawks, in other words, are not necessarily stupid or fanciful. There has indeed been, alas, much warfare and bloodshed. That national memories are constructed does not mean that they are constructed out of the blue. It is easy to be loose and sloppy with notions like symbiosis and inclusiveness that, given the soothing buzz that contemporary political discourse has mechanistically endowed them with, can serve to romanticize the past.

But then, there are indeed numerous cases of symbiosis that deserve our attention, at least as much as cases of conflict, in the history of the Balkans. Most historians would agree that, contrary to the rhetoric of modern politicians, relationships and processes of a symbiotic nature did more to shape the daily lives of the people of southeastern Europe than did violence by "ethnic groups" against each other. The notoriety of Balkan "national hatreds" is a modern phenomenon, and it says more about the era of nationalism than it does about Balkan history as such. If France and England, or France and Germany, after so much violence against each other in medieval and modern times, can normalize cooperation to such an extent that they apply the notion of ancient hatreds to other parts of the world to make them seem incorrigibly barbaric, the peoples of the Balkans, too, can certainly imagine a future where concord is the norm. As the editors of this volume have imaginatively conceived in an era when all political, military, and rhetorical forces seem to be unleashed to render this unimaginable, there are abundant sources of inspiration in Balkan history for building such a future. One cannot be arbitrary with historical facts, but one can choose what one wants to build with them.