Herzegovina (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“Here in Mostar the really adventurous part of our journey began.”

HERZEGOVINA, LIKE DALMATIA, is an historical region in the former Yugoslavia, serving no political or administrative purpose beyond its tie to Bosnia as the outline of that state.  West visits Trebinje and Mostar on day trips from Dubrovnik before traveling to Sarajevo in the next chapter.

Rebecca West’s travels in Herzegovina (Google Maps)

I have written extensively about Mostar, primarily around its signature span linking the left and right banks of the Neretva River.  In this city, then a mix of Croats and Bosniaks, West has her first sustained encounter with the cultural and religious legacy of the Islamic Ottoman Empire.  Until this point, the Turks have mainly served as background narrative describing how the region struggled against the imperial domination of Vienna and Istanbul. 

But here Turkey has permanently altered the urban environment.  People pray in mosques.  West finds this influence becoming.  The town is impeccably clean, “more likely to be due to the Moslem’s love of nature, especially of running water, which would prevent him from desecrating the scene with litter in the first place.”  She continues:

“They build beautiful towns and villages.  I know of no country, not even Italy or Spain, where each house in a group will be placed with such invariable taste and such pleasing results for those who look at it and out of it alike.  The architectural formula of a Turkish house, with its reticent defensive lower story and its projecting upper story, full of windows, is simple and sensible; and I know nothing neater than its interior.  Western housewifery is sluttish compared to that aseptic order.”

She observes and admires the local dress of Christian and Muslim alike.  “The great point in favour of Moslem dress in its Yugoslavian form is a convenience in hot weather,” she writes, “which in these parts is a serious consideration, for even in Mostar the summer is an affliction.  The cotton overall keeps the hair and the clothes clean, and the veil protects the face from dust and insects and sunburn.”  This is a cogent, if practical, defense of pious dress. 

But she is also shocked by a local custom.  She describes the Muslim women dress in Mostar:

“It consists of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it.  It is cut with a stiff military collar, very high, perhaps as much as eight or ten inches, which is embroidered inside, not outside, with gold thread.  It is never worn as a coat.  The woman slips it over her, drawing the shoulders above her head, so that the stiff collar falls forward and projects in front of her like a visor, and she can hide her face if she clutches the edges together, so that she need not wear a veil.”

Covered woman of Mostar, date unknown

This is so astonishing to her that she reproduces a photograph in the first edition (see above), a postcard image that appears to have been widely available at the time. But this kind of dress, known locally as feredža (from the Turkish ferace) is not as strange or unique as it may first appear. It is primarily an outer garment that allowed the wearer to dispense with a face covering, as West notes. It shares in common elements with the Persian chador or Arab niqab.

Tapadas limeñas, date not known

In fact, it looks remarkably like the elaborate dress of the tapadas limeñas of Peru (above) and the Mulheres do Capote e Capelo in the Portuguese Azores (below), both during the same era.  All of these together appear to be the result of constant intermingling of cultures, from the Spanish Mantilla and Coptic Christian covering to Catholic habits, Jewish ferace, and Orthodox veils, that were much more common across Europe than West may have known at the time.  Indeed, in many cases it would be difficult for the modern lay person to tell the various dress and purpose apart.

Mulheres do Capote e Capelo, date not known

This misunderstanding aside, West’s comprehension of and respect for Islamic culture and practice is strong for a Western woman.  It is perhaps at this point that we can discuss this book and the insinuation of an Orientalist bias in the text.  This stems, in my understanding, mostly from Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova.  Todorova quotes West extensively in her book but West herself is mentioned only four times.  None of these citations suggests a clichéd interpretation of the region.  Todorova may have had more evidence in West’s exploration of the veil which, at the end of this chapter, she insinuates both male oppression and sexual mystery commonly associated by Western observers.

Nonetheless West defends the Balkans against outsider accusations of inbred violence by comparing the Christian lower classes in Ottoman lands to the exploited English proletariat and suggests that the former were better off being governed by the far more civilized Turks.   And while Todorova quotes West’s infamous opening lines (“Violence was, indeed, all I knew I knew of the Balkans…”) it is clear from the context that West was admitting her ignorance at the time – a gulf that she resolutely began to fill with this book.

More evidence against Orientalist bias comes in Trebinje.  Here is West’s first impression:

“We saw the town suddenly in a parting between showers, handsome and couchant, and like all Turkish towns green with trees and refined by the minarets of many mosques.  These are among the most pleasing architectural gestures ever made by urbanity.”

West and her husband visit an old Turkish villa in the suburbs at the insistence of a small boy handing out calling cards in the city center.  What they discover is hard to read and not because of the affected performance of Orientalist tropes, including a faux harem and pornographic photography, but because West and her husband instantly recognize the farce but allow it to play through.  Their guide – “It was evident he was affected by the glad pruritis of the mind,” West dryly notes – hits all the beats of fevered Western visions of the East, which they reject.  This chamber piece has a meta aspect as the guide, playing a stereotype, expects West and her husband to play their own stereotype as civilized Westerners offended by Eastern sexual decadence.  They refuse to perform their expected parts but see the sham through to the end.  “Shall I throw him downstairs?” West’s husband offers.  “No,” she responds, “I find him enchantingly himself.”

Despite her disgust at this charade, West’s empathy has not left her. Her interest in a loom and some third-rate kerchiefs inadvertently humiliates the three girls on display, who are pretty but malnourished, because they do not know how actually to weave or sew. West recognizes them as the urban underclass, domestically unskilled because they are too poor to own sheep. Caught in the open, the girls can only laugh and “exchange bitter remarks.” West understands their Serbian but only because “slight knowledge of a foreign tongue lets one in not at the front door but at the back….I was able to grasp clearly what these young women were saying about me, my husband, my father, and my mother.”

Jeanne Merkus, artist not known, 1876

West uses Trebinje to shortly tell the extraordinary story of Jeanne Merkus, a Dutch mystic of the late 19th century.  Orphaned at a young age by wealthy parents and raised by a cleric uncle, she moved to Palestine and built a villa in Jerusalem to await the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  She waited there 15 years before bolting to fight in the Herzegovina uprising, a revolt in 1875 led mainly by Bosnian Serbs against the Ottoman administration.  She later spent her fortune on weapons for the rebels and joined the Serbian Army just as the war came to an end.  Merkus lived out the rest of her life in poverty on the French Riviera and Utrecht in the Netherlands while Turkey took possession of her villa in Jerusalem.  West clearly admires Merkus and suspects she would be better known to history if only she “had acted in an important Western state as a member of the Roman Catholic Church in the right century.” 

As it was, Merkus died in obscurity, with very little written about her and her family destroying the rest, “sad proof of what happens to Jeanne d’Arc if she is unlucky enough not to be burned.”  I have half the mind that West was thinking of herself and her legacy, which she could intuit but not predict: distorted and maligned in the 20th century before facing erasure in the next.

(Very many thanks to my friends Alma S. and Suada H. for their historical assistance!)

###

About James Thomas Snyder

NATO fan, ex-diplomat, author, critic, translator, and former U.S. Congressional speechwriter. All opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. government or any employer, past or present.
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