Tides of Change from the Diaspora: Balkans, Burek, Booze and Books.
London-based writer and creative Tamara Vujinovic shares the aims and inspirations behind her diaspora-led Balkan events platform ‘Balkans, Burek, Booze and Books’-- a true celebration of the region, championing everything from its food, art, cultural diversity and its history; in addition to providing an important space for social and political conversations pertinent to the region.
My name is Tamara Vujinovic and I was born in London. My mum originates from Vrbas in Serbia and my dad is from Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Beyond this, I have grandparents from Montenegro and Croatia, so I’m a big mix up of the Ex-Yugoslav nations. My culture has been a prominent theme in my life and I have always been in touch with its traditions and histories. Growing up I spent a lot of time in the Balkans. The Mostar diaspora in London is incredibly tight knit as a lot of them came over here at the same time when the war was happening. It’s like a big extended family. A lot of second-generation children from that community, like myself, were born around the same time. We all grew up together, attending various parties and social events which celebrated our culture and our connections. For example, there was an ongoing charity fundraiser that we all got involved in called “Our Kids” foundation, whose aim was to raise money for an orphanage in Mostar. This was a big event in my life growing up because I knew everyone would be there in this massive community-centered get together with music and dancing. I’m now part of a large group of London-based friends from the Balkans. We basically re-enact our parents' lives when they first came to London, it’s great. When we watch videos of them partying back in the 90s, we all massively see ourselves in them.
Academically, I have also been massively drawn to my history. I completed my undergrad dissertation on domestic abuse in Serbia following an internship with a female-led NGO in Belgrade which supported vulnerable women including victims of domestic abuse and trafficking, migrants, and many from the Roma community. My research focused on the post-conflict political situation and how this impacted gender-based violence. For example, the sheer amount of people who still own guns in the twilight of the Yugoslav wars is a huge contributor to the femicide in Serbia. Relatedly, the psychological implications of an entire generation being at war is another significant factor provoking violence against women. I discovered that whenever footage of the war was played publicly, the country would witness a sharp increase in reports of domestic violence. In some ways it's akin to a nation-wide psychological trauma.
I went on to do an MA in Gender Violence and Conflict and focused exclusively on the Balkans throughout my course. I looked at a huge breadth of issues, from the lingering problems surrounding the Dayton accord to the harrowing phenomenon of rape with the intention of impregnating women with new ethnicities. In Bosnia, for example, rape was recognised as a weapon of war for the first time in international history.
In line with my keen interest in Balkan music and cinema, my dissertation looked at gendered nationalism and music. I focused on turbo-folk, a blend of electronic and folk music originating in Serbia and spreading across the Balkans. I focused on a singer named Svetlana ‘Ceca’ Raznatovic, a turbo-folk star from the age of 15 who was infamously married to the warlord Arkan. I looked at how her music shifted in line with the political situation in Serbia, perfectly mirroring the narratives that the state was trying to push at that time. After Arkan’s death, Ceca re-branded herself as a strong independent woman in line with the new neoliberal politics of individuality that entered the political landscape.
All in all, the Balkans have always inspired both my work and free time – I’m constantly trying to source new music/films or anything else Balkan related.
As both a born and bred-Londonder and a member of a thriving diaspora, at times, I feel that classic second-generation thing of not feeling fully part of either culture. However, I still have amazing opportunities from both sides. If the fast-paced London life gets too much for me, I return to the Balkans for a while and live a slower and considered existence. Simultaneously, growing up in London has provided me with so many opportunities that I simply wouldn’t have had growing up in the Balkans. Being raised in the West and being in tune with certain cultural facets and opinions has led to me having very liberal ideals which I am grateful for. When I return to the Balkans I often find myself arguing with people about issues like nationalism and homophobia, it can get quite overwhelming. In many ways not much progress has been made – especially on the basis of nationalism. This makes sense, people are still mourning loved ones and many still haven’t received justice. Yet, as a member of the London diaspora, I sometimes feel that my opinions are not always valid in that setting. I didn’t grow up there so I’m not aware of the hardships on the same level as those born and raised there. Maybe I even romanticize the Balkans at times through my own experience of going there on holiday. Moreover, my parents were from former-Yugoslavia, and they left right on the brink of it completely disappearing. It was a different world then. A lot of my knowledge comes directly from their experience of growing up there, but it's been some 20 years since they lived there now.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve been more exposed to the creativity of the Balkans and become more and more in touch with other members of the diaspora who are equally influenced by their culture. I wanted to somehow bring this together hand in hand with conversations about past issues as well as contemporary ones, to reflect how we can move forward. I also wanted to focus on the amazing diversity of the Balkans. Balkan identity extends past Ex-Yugo, there are so many other countries involved. I’ve recently been exposed to Albanian and Kosovar, Romanian, Bulgarian and Turkish cultures through being involved in the Balkanism platform. I’d previously known quite little about their cultures, so it was great to get a breadth of the diversity. Moreover, in spite of the rich heterogeneity, it also became clear just how much binds all these groups together. Despite the region experiencing such turbulent times, there’s so many amazing things being born out of it. This is not spoken about enough and it’s not always given the platform it deserves, particularly in the UK, so I wanted to create that space. This is how Balkans, Burek, Booze and Books came to fruition.
The aim of the first event was to provide a place where the diaspora could come and connect, as well as platforming different creatives and activists linked to the Balkans. The main themes raised at the first event I hosted were:
1. Environmental activism. The Balkans has an abundance of natural beauty, and we spoke about how important its preservation was and how attitudes towards the environment need to change. Until very recently, Balkan communities were very environmentally conscious in the way they farmed etc. But through the destruction it’s faced as well as its wider integration into the global capitalist system, the attitudes have dramatically shifted and it hasn’t been at the forefront of people’s minds. Governments never push for environmental change and actively avoid the topic, instead often pushing for environmentally destructive economic change. Whilst small groups of people are protesting this, there’s not enough awareness surrounding the issue. Much more awareness is needed.
2. The socio-political situation. We spoke about what unites as well as what divides us as people from the Balkans. This is intimately tied to the way a lot of governments are set up. There’s still a big blaming culture in terms of ethno-politics, particularly in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Curriculums are often taught in the interest of a specific nation, and people are not taught history in a neutral way. It’s important to understand all sides and understand that atrocities were committed in many places. It’s also important to highlight stories that aren’t taught as much.
3. There was also an emphasis on positive cultural traditions. For example, we had Borek at the event which was made by a second-generation Macedonian woman named Spasia Dinkovski, who is based in London. She runs a company called Mystic Börek which weaves her traditional knowledge of Borek with her Western kitchen experience, creating amazing new flavours and techniques. I think she is a great example of the positive impact of being a child in diaspora, as she seamlessly blends the best of both worlds in her recipes.
4. Lastly, we spoke a lot about identity and acceptance. There are some cultural traditions that are quite harmful to people in the Balkans. For example, acceptance of the LGBTQI+ community is very limited. We also discussed mental health; another key issue that demands attention. The turbulent history of the region, coupled with a lack of resources, as well as big stigmas surrounding mental health, means people are not getting the help they deserve. Many aren’t living their freest or happiest self. There is so much generational trauma and there simply are not enough resources to tackle this issue.
Not only was it important to discuss these topics, but I also wanted everyone attending the event to have their say. We gave everyone feedback forms which asked them what they saw for the future of the Balkans. A lot of people came to the same consensus: There is so much good there, we just need to pinpoint and tackle the issues whilst keeping in mind how to progress. We have a panel discussion on BiH coming up soon so make sure you’re following us to keep updated!
The purpose of events like this is also just for people to network and share their ideas and projects. The hope for the future is that we can become bigger and bigger and help each other out. With such a big diaspora community, people have found better lives in the West. I do hope people will begin to re-invest into the Balkans. In the future I intend to hold events there myself, bringing together local creatives and activists. I don’t want BBBB to focus entirely on the diaspora, I want it to be a true symbiotic relationship so that both sides are benefitting and growing together.
Lastly, as important as it is to talk about the issues facing the region, I think it’s also incredibly important to focus on the positives. For this reason, we aim to host events of alternative types of engagement. Most recently we hosted a film club, showcasing movies from Kosovo, Greece, ex-Yugoslavia and Romania. The Balkans are so often misrepresented yet there is so much to offer in terms of long cultural traditions and creativity that should be preserved and celebrated. I hope that BBBB can continue to pay tribute to this.
BBBB recently became the Balkan London Collective, you can keep up to date with their future events on Instagram