Andrić Grad: the broken bridge of the Balkans

Why Bosnia is spending 12 million euros building a town dreamed up by a novelist.

It seems almost too neat a symbol of the region's identity crises: one of the Balkans' most famous contemporary cultural figures building a town named after the most famous Balkan writer. But it's not only a symbol, laden as it is with implications. The plans for Andrić Grad are real, located by Visegrad at the mouth of the Drina River, the setting of Ivo Andrić's novel, The Bridge on the Drina. The main financial contributor to the project is film director Emir Kusturica, and it is expected that the project will take four years to complete, costing around 10-12 million Euros. The construction has already been met with resistance from victims of the wartime atrocities in Visegrad, and reignited Bosnia's divisions.

The legacy of Ivo Andrić fragmented in the fifty years since he won the Nobel Prize during what was then Yugoslavia. Andrić lived, at different times, in Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Zagreb, and is often taken to embody the Rubik's cube of Yugoslavian identity: a Croat Catholic by birth, he favoured the (Serbian) Cyrillic script in his writing. While his historical novels are generally seen as embodying a Yugoslavian mosaic, after the breakup of Yugoslavia the successor states "inherited" his legacy in different ways, with Serbia most enthusiastically embracing Andrić as "theirs".

Some have since argued that his novels' portrayal of Bosnian Muslims contributed to the development of Serbian ultra-nationalism, while his juxtaposition of the Habsburg Empire as a more "civilised" occupier than the Ottomans denigrated the Balkans' Muslim heritage.

Then there is the symbol of the bridge, which, between Mostar and The Bridge on the Drina, has become the dominating regional metaphor. Marina Antić has written on how the elevation of Andrić as the most celebrated Balkan writer is part of a quasi-colonial western European viewing of the region: that the book itself acts, for west Europeans, as a "bridge" linking "us" and "them"; the Balkans lazily positioned as "bridge" between east and west. All of this echoes through in the construction of Andrić Grad.

Perhaps the most curious part of the project is who's behind it: Kusturica, the film director who's been hailed everything from hero to traitor and Milošević sympathiser. The trajectory of Kusturica's identity is well-documented, and a mirror to Andrić's - after his childhood with secular Muslim parents in Bosnia, with the breakup of Yugoslavia Kusturica claimed a kind of "Yugoslav without Yugoslavia" identity that, by the end of the conflict, some read as an apology for Serbian nationalism. Underscoring what many saw as his gradual retreat from reality, after the war Kusturica moved into his specially-constructed "ethno-village" Drvengrad, built as a set for his film Life Is A Miracle, with streets named after his icons: Maradona, Che Guevara, Ivo Andrić.

Kusturica is funding the construction of Andrić Grad in collaboration with Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Sprska, and this alliance is perhaps most disconcerting - the alignment of Kusturica's vision with Dodik, the man who denies Srebrenica was a genocide, amongst his other nationalist statements. This fuels fears by Bosniaks in Visegrad that Andrić Grad is part of a Serbian nationalist plan to "finish off what they didn't complete during the war". What at first sounded like a quaint architectural reconstruction of a novel potentially becomes stitched to the concept of cultural cleansing.

Andrić's tangled history, Kusturica's fraught political position, and the violent history of Visegrad layer over one another in the construction of Andric Grad. But the flipside of ethno-politics is always economics, and the question remains: in what world would someone spend 12 million euros building a town dreamt up by a novelist?

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter @heathermcrobie

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.