Novi Pazar’s shared cultural heritage

Celebrating and instrumentalising shared cultural heritage in Novi Pazar carries enormous potential for creating a positive platform for dialogue between its two main communities.

By Teddy Noel-Hill

Novi Pazar is a town much maligned and much misunderstood. My first visit there came in in 2008 and I was struck by its distinctive and captivating cultural heritage. Since then I have been convinced that using and promoting the shared cultural history of Novi Pazar, both within the town and in Serbia more widely, could have positive transformative effects pertaining to intercommunity relations and its position within Serbia. I was privileged enough to return to Novi Pazar with TransConflict. Whilst on the trip, I gained a small insight into the problem the town faces and what needs to be done to tackle them.

Novi Pazar is home to a vibrant, well educated and numerically significant population of young people. Given that most of the rest of Serbia, along with high profile cases in Western Europe, not to mention Russia, are going through demographic crises, this is an important advantage when looking to the town’s future. It was with a selection of these young people that TransConflict – in collaboration with Kulturni Centar DamaD – engaged in a debate on life and interethnic relations in Novi Pazar.

The discussion was primarily based around the question of coexisting in a multicultural society and the role that culture plays in that existence. Central to the debate was the idea of shared cultural heritage and how this is represented in Novi Pazar. Novi Pazar has a rich and compelling cultural heritage that in theory is shared between the town’s Bosniak and Serb populations. Unfortunately, cultural exclusivism is pervasive within public life in Novi Pazar.

One member of the group gave an example that illuminated the problem in a telling way. They recounted the case of a programme on local television dealing with the shared history of Novi Pazar and Sandžak more generally. The only problem was the content was actually split into two programmes; one focussing on Serbian cultural heritage, the other on Bosniak cultural heritage.

The group was unanimous in establishing that culture represents an important pillar of society and is therefore crucial to the betterment of interethnic relations. Celebrating and instrumentalising shared cultural heritage in Novi Pazar carries enormous promise for creating a positive platform for dialogue between its two main communities. The economic benefits for doing so were also discussed, in the context of attracting tourists and outside investment.

There was no denial of the multi-dimensional rewards and holistic transformations that shared cultural consciousness and promotion could bring to Novi Pazar. However, various members of the group pointed out that the idea of shared cultural heritage remains a major area of disagreement between the two communities. One member of the group stated that discussions concerning shared culture too often run the risk of offending people from the other community. The fear of causing offence, or saying things that could be open to distortion, were highlighted by those at the debate as restrictive forces on improving intercommunity relations.

Insidious promotion of cultural exclusivity by those in positions of authority in Novi Pazar is sadly strangling any potential efforts towards the realisation of a shared cultural heritage, be it in the past or looking towards the future.

There was then a clear message from this part of the discussion – Novi Pazar needs tangible projects that promote the shared cultural heritage of the town that explicitly draw attention to the fact that the project would be undertaken by members of both the Bosniak and Serb communities.  It would be a tragedy not to use Novi Pazar’s unique and richly endowed cultural landscape to improve interethnic relations within the town and to improve its poltical, economic and social position within Serbia and the region. The transformative power of culture can be harnessed in interesting and constructive ways in Novi Pazar, with many members of the discussion group putting forward tangible ideas to this effect. The production of a weekly television programmed highlighting the shared history if the Sandžak region and the making of an interactive cultural map of Novi Pazar were two potential projects that were mentioned.

As I left Novi Pazar there was a pertinent reminder of the challenges facing the town in regards to its situation within Serbia as a whole. It was a Saturday and Novi Pazar football club were hosting a team from Belgrade. The Belgrade side have a fan base notorious for their extreme-right wing orientation, which alas, seems to be a common trait of football hooligans across Europe. Football stadia all too often represent a stage for all forms of bilious hate-filled sentiments that encompass racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia etc.  In the instance of this Saturday in Novi Pazar, the chanting was of a highly unsavoury politico-religious nature. As someone who watches football regularly in England, I am no stranger to the highly-charged atmosphere of football matches and the heavy police presence that accompanies them. The police presence in Novi Pazar however was more akin to a military operation and it felt as if the potential for violence and was very real.  Hateful chanting takes on an altogether more serious dimension in places such as Novi Pazar where there are heightened interethnic sensitivities and divisions. Whilst important steps can be taken within the town to improve relations between Bosniaks and Serbs, influxes of this nature reflect some of the perceptions and treatment of Novi Pazar throughout the rest of Serbia that need to be tackled. They could also potentially act as dangerous tipping points for strained community relations. Serious measures must be taken by the state authorities to address this, both on a macro and micro level.

Although cause for concern, these events did not overshadow the positivity that I took away from my time in Novi Pazar. Despite the difficulties and divisions that exist in Novi Pazar, the dedication and talents of my warm and welcoming hosts are having and will continue to make a constructive impact. Novi Pazar is fortunate that it possess such an asset as its cultural diversity, which can and should be celebrated. It must be hoped that the foresight, understanding and determination of those young people who wish to determine the town’s future will be allowed to shine through.

Teddy Noel-Hillis currently studying for a masters in Politics, Security and Integration at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London (UCL). He is currently researching the nexus between nationalism, politics and culture in South-Eastern Europe.

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