Selected Minor Works: Where Turks Still Menace

Justin E. H. Smith

[An extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing may be found at]

An eighth-grade English textbook published in Bucharest in 1978 begins with an inspiring hortation from President Nicolae Ceasescu: “Let you learn, learn and learn,” he beseeches the pupils. “Let you explore, explore and work. Let you relate tightly education to research and work. Only by so doing can you become good patriots, good revolutionaries, reliable citizens of socialist Romania, devoted champions of her independence and sovereignty.” As we advance through the lessons, we find many such helpful phrases as: “I hope I shan’t get too excited in front of the Union of Communist Youth members!” and: “The umbrella opens and closes by itself. It is an automaton.”

For the past month I have been hidden away in a small village in the Carpathian mountains, attempting, when not writing the book I came here to write, to learn, learn, and learn a bit of Romanian history. We are in the village of Parau, halfway between Sibiu and Brasov, about 50 kilometers to the west of the old boundary between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that part of the world under at least nominal control of the Ottoman sultan. The inhabitants travel in horse carts, wear traditional clothing, and every evening drive their cows home from the fields down the village’s dirt roads.

Picturesque, indeed. But some days, when I long to go to the little shop in the village to buy some near-stale bread or a can of corn without being stared at like some alien, I can’t help but think to myself: this is the last and greatest stronghold in Europe of what Marx dared to call “the idiocy of village life.” Old ladies scurry past the town’s church making the sign of the cross in fear and ignorance. Kinder, Kirche, Küche, as the Germans say, seem to constitute the ultimate horizon of these women’s dreams and ambitions.

The villagers stare at us with absolutely no concern for discretion as we take our nightly post-prandial strolls. It is summer and the weather is fine and we are in need of a stroll after dinner, that is all, but the intensity of the gazes from every nook and, presumably, behind every window-shade always make us feel as though we are doing something terribly wrong, as though we ourselves were the devil incarnate. You’re just lucky I’m not black, I tell my wife.

Half of the population of Romania is engaged in subsistence agriculture. For the most part, the peasants conduct their lives without using money, getting what they need by producing it themselves or bartering what they’ve produced. Most of the people who live off the land, I was told by a member of the Romanian learned class, have no idea what Europe is, let alone anything like a considered opinion on the pros and cons of EU accession.

Yet everywhere one goes one sees signs of Romania’s longing to join. The little schoolhouse in Parau has waving outside of it, from left to right, a Romanian flag, an EU flag, and a NATO flag. This is particularly odd when we consider that Romania is not yet even a member of the European Union, and we certainly wouldn’t find this sort of EU-pride in countries that are members. The EU flag, it seems, reveals no official affiliation, but is rather a symbol of psychogeographical orientation: do not confuse us, it says, with our neighbors to the East.

Americans who, in the PC-frenzy of the 1990s, trained themselves to stop saying ‘Oriental’, would be amazed to observe how that term is employed around here: ‘Oriental’ is whatever the Romanians hate about themselves, whatever is left over from Ottoman domination, whatever cultural contagion the nomadic Gypsies –whose language is closer to Punjabi than to Romanian— have spread to their hosts, whatever it is that is making EU accession so difficult. Corruption is ‘Oriental,’ as are potholes, inflation, and street dogs. The desire to purge the ‘Oriental’ also manifests itself in the form of a general aversion towards Arab, Turkish, and Indian cuisine, and a common belief that this food is prepared unhygienically. One woman I spoke to reported that her lips sprouted blisters within hours after she dared to try a Lebanese restaurant in Bucharest. Another woman told me that, while she has never actually been to Turkey, she believes that Turks are very dishonest, and that the widespread habit of dishonesty among Romanians must be a consequence of Ottoman influence. I lived for a year in Istanbul, I replied, and I experienced no significant instances of dishonesty. In Romania, in contrast, I have experienced a total of one significant instance (I foolishly gave a vendor a large bill and he gave me too little change in return).

Anyone who spends more than, say, five minutes in Bucharest will inevitably hear, blaring from cars and restaurants and homes, some very, very bad music. This music is “manele“, it is the perpetual soundtrack of lower class men in muscle shirts and gold chains and in Mercedes Benzes they ought not be in a position to afford. As in rap, the texts consist principally in boasts and threats. As far as I can tell, it is produced with no real instruments, it is cheap and forgettable, and it sounds to my ear as though it could just as easily come from Egypt or Turkey. And needless to say, the learned classes hate it. An anti-manele campaign that has been picking up steam recently instructs Bucharesters to blast Mozart from your homes and cars in the hopes of drowning out the ubiquitious trashy Oriental synth-pop.

This is meant to be a defense of high culture against the vulgar, but does it not also perfectly reflect the fundamental divide in the Romanian identity: The Ottoman Empire versus the Austro-Hungarian, Istanbul versus Vienna? Tipper Gore may hate the violent and misogynistic content of rap music, but it has been a long time since any respectable American has been permitted to bemoan the popularity of “jungle” music, to speak as though we are under musical siege by the savages. But the anti-manele rhetoric is not just about music. It’s also about geopolitics and history.

More than one Romanian has explained to me that it is simply Romania’s destiny to be ruled by some empire or other. In bad times, the empire is based in the East (Istanbul, Moscow); in good times, it is based in the West (Rome, Washington). A Romanian ambassador I spoke with in Western Europe described the routine visits he paid to other ambassadors shortly after arriving in his new assignment. The American ambassador was warm if busy, as were the Europeans. The Russian ambassador, in contrast, had a succinct speech he was evidently instructed by Putin to give: don’t think you’ve seen the last of us. The threat is not (and probably never was) communism, but Oriental despotism. I have heard more than one Romanian claim that the Russians are the direct descendants of Genghis Khan, and that there is a discernible continuity from the days of the Mongol invasions to Russian politics today.

Romania is not the only country with the bad habit of projecting everything it doesn’t like about itself towards some geographical or imaginary East. I’ve heard many Russians describe Chinese food as ‘dirty’, and Turks themselves disdainfully describe their version of manele as ‘arabesk’. Much of the rhetoric of Southeastern Europe as the last line of defense against Muslim invaders turned much nastier during the Yugoslav wars than at its present, irritating din in Romania. But what is interesting about the Romanian version is that, in their case, unlike that of the Slavs, Greeks, and Albanians, there is some solid historical, or at least linguistic, reason why they imagine themselves as more Western than their neighbors.

On the European side of the Bosporus Strait, in a northern suburb of Istanbul, there stands a tower erected in the 15th century. It is called the ‘Rumeli’ tower, this being the Turkish form of the ethnonym ‘Roman’. Romans, in this sense, are not citizens of Rome, nor even directly the one-time citizens or subjects of the Roman Empire. They are, rather, Europeans as opposed to Turks. Until 1453, the Bosporus was understood to be the absolute and final barrier between the two realms, but with the fall of Constantinople and the following centuries of Turkish advances –most famously all the way to the gates of Vienna in 1529–, the southeastern part of Europe was transformed into a grey area between two worlds.

All of this is particularly pertinent for our understanding of avian flu, an odd media phenomenon that may or may not have some distant correlate in epidemiological reality. Avian flu, the story goes, is a plague that encroaches upon the West from the East, and that has as its cause unhygienic Oriental food-handling practices. When we first heard of it, it was wreaking havoc in China. Before long, it had made its way to Turkey, and immediately after that cases were reported from Romania: it had snuck past the Rumeli Hisari as Rome’s watchmen dozed. Soon enough, entire neighborhoods of Bucharest were under quarantine, even though not a single case of human-to-human transmission had been reported, anywhere.

The impression this westward progression no doubt left on readers of low-brow newspapers like Das Bild in Germany or The Sun in England was nothing new, but only the latest reinforcement of a basic feature of European geography since at least the 15th century, according to which civilization as we know it is threatened from the east, and the greater Balkan region is conceived as the buffer zone. Once any menace, whether bird flu or the infidel hordes, moves across the Bosporus from Asia Minor into Europe proper –that is, from Turkey to Romania– the uncontested Europeans in Bremen and London know it’s time to worry.

Every Western scholar who has studied Balkan nationalism inevitably comes back to Freud’s famous description of ethnic hatred between neighbors as ‘the narcissism of minor differences.’ Increasingly, it strikes me that Southeastern Europe is that part of the world where the differences between Christianity and Islam begin to disappear, where the one smoothly transitions into the other. One might propose that the head scarves women wear in the Christian East are an indicator of the proximity of Islam. What are mislabeled ‘babushkas’ in the United States, in an unconscious jump from the garment to its wearer, are said to be merely ‘cultural’, while Turkish head scarves are a feature of ‘religion’. In spite of having read the French government’s report on ‘laïcité’, I dare say I still don’t really understand the difference, since I’m not sure what religion could be if not a set of arbitrary rules that appears, from the inside, to be grounded in the eternal order of things. A Bulgarian babushka will feel just as naked with her hair exposed as any Turk, and she will probably feel that this nakedness is bad for reasons having to do with the moral order represented by her big-bearded priest and his thick-walled house of worship. That sounds like religion to me.

The great Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga, who figures on the new Romanian one leu bank note, defended the idea throughout his long and distinguished career that Romania is, in its essence, what is left over of Byzantium after the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II. According to him, “after the transformation of 1453, in many ways only on the surface, Byzantine culture annexed itself to the Gothic world of Transylvania… to the Romanian principality of Moldavia, and, through different means, transmitted itself to the West during the Renaissance.”

Iorga was a nationalist and a chauvinist, who wrote dismissively of “this Stambul of the Turkish rulers, who were not even able to find a real new name for it.” I am an amateur observer of all of this, one who has spent time on both sides of the Bosporus, but always with other, pressing professional obligations that have prevented me from studying the history that interested Iorga in more detail. I have learned enough, however, to have become convinced that the questions of national and religious identity that interested Iorga are of tremendous importance, and that they must be studied by scholars who share none of his allegiances.