New Internationalist

Elvis And Slivovitz

Issue 308

Sarajevo street posters promote Western pop music.
BRIAN MEADE / CAMERA PRESS

Elvis and slivovitz

As a towering wave of Western culture washes over the globe,
age-old traditions are pushed to the side in an unsteady transition to an unknown future.
Peter Lippman wonders what will happen in war-torn Bosnia.

I walk through the open-air market in my adopted Bosnian home looking for an eggplant. The old woman selling vegetables is wearing a hand-woven shawl and a linen scarf with an ancient hand-embroidered geometrical motif. In the stall next to her a young man wears a T-shirt with the words ‘Beverly Hills 90210’.

Twenty years ago you would have found hand-woven rugs for sale in the Tuzla market. Now there are factory-made carpets with pictures of Elvis or the Manhattan skyline.

Vujanovic : will Bosnia retain its identity in the face of increasing influences from abroad?
photo by PETER LIPPMAN

Despite being nominally part of the Soviet bloc, Yugoslavia was wide open to Western culture by the early 1950s. Right into the 1980s,Yugoslav gastarbeiters (guestworkers) were traveling to Central and Western Europe, returning with the pocket radios, hairdryers and other consumer goods which symbolized prosperity.

Dada Hadzic, a 48-year-old construction engineer for a large state-owned building materials company had many friends who worked in the West. She smoked Marlboros in my kitchen as she explained: ‘They found good work, for good pay. They’d bring with them those things that they con-sidered progressive, part of “civilization”. Televisions and tape players with batteries, that you didn’t have to plug in. You could walk down the street with a tape player on your shoulder. That was terribly popular around 1965.

‘When I was little I went to see all the Disney movies. Then when TV came, Western programs captured the fancy of young people.

‘I remember when we saw Gone with the Wind with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. All the men wanted to have a mustache like Clark Gable. Every actor was an ideal for someone.

‘We may have lived under a communist government but we had really long necks to see the West.

‘Many boys let their hair grow to look like the Beatles,’ Dada remembers. ‘And girls liked to look like Faye Dunaway or Catherine Deneuve.’

But despite Western influences some unique Bosnian traits seem to survive – including what Alma Ahmetbegovic calls the ‘art of doing nothing’.

At 22 she works as a translator for the UN in Tuzla and lives alone with her mother in a highrise on the edge of the city. When I visited she was preparing to go to a kafana (pub) with her friends.

‘I have a friend who lives in New York who wakes up at six and then takes two hours to get to her office,’ Alma says with disbelief. ‘She works until five, then she runs home. And she goes to school, too. I don’t think a person from here would be interested in success at that price.’

Hadzic : will Bosnia retain its identity in the face of increasing influences from abroad?
photo by PETER LIPPMAN

Post-war Bosnian life goes on in spite of the devastation and massive unemployment. Summer afternoons are quiet and the evenings boisterous, dominated by the korzo, the traditional Mediterranean-style walk where everyone, especially young people, saunters out to see and be seen. Yet in the midst of this very traditional Bosnian event, walking past the kafanas with booming music and poster-sized pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Brad Pitt, Western influence is clearly visible. Restaurant signs brazenly proclaim ‘Fast Food’ in English.

But the majority of Bosnians are struggling. Production is only 20 per cent of its pre-war level and the average monthly income for those with work (about half the population) is just $200. Few people other than profiteers have the chance to do much more than dream about getting and spending in the Western fashion.

Nevertheless, the process of Bosnia’s inclusion into the world economy continues. In pre-war Yugoslavia property was generally ‘socially owned’ – except for houses and small businesses. Now international aid is conditioned on privatization. Which means that ordinary citizens are about to lose their shirts while politicians, war profiteers and gangsters (between whom there are few distinctions) clean up behind the scenes.

Will Bosnia manage to retain any of its warm traditions in the face of increasing Westernization? And will it be able to stake out a place for itself as a sovereign country with something better than a colonized economy? Vojislav Vujanovic, a Sarajevo journalist and art critic is not optimistic.

‘We don’t produce anything ourselves, except slivovitz (plum brandy),’ he snorts. ‘Will the West allow our domestic factories to develop? I think they will give us as much as it takes to maintain a naked existence and nothing more. Enough that we can buy their products, but not produce them.’

Vujanovic’s pessimism about Bosnia’s economic prospects mirrors his sensitivity to the enormous cultural shifts taking place in his homeland. He’s nervous. Perhaps with justification.

Peter Lippman is a freelance journalist based in Bosnia. He travels widely in ex-Yugoslavia.

Paman Gober in Yogya
Linda Kaun flips through some Disney comics with children in her Indonesian neighbourhood.

‘Hey, here’s one about Paman Gober (Uncle Scrooge). Let’s see what he’s up to!’ Three children and I are sitting on my front terrace in Yogyakarta reading Disney comics on a Sunday afternoon. Kwik, Kwek, Kwak and Donal Bebek (Huey, Duey, Louie and Donald Duck) have to help Uncle Scrooge because he’s been working too hard and his blood pressure is too high. Uncle Scrooge agrees to a vacation on a secluded tropical island. After eating a huge lunch, setting up his lounge chair he shouts, ‘I don’t have any trouble relaxing, but I’m NOT going to do any exercise!’

Paman Gober, Donal Bebek and the boys, up to their tricks in Indonesian. ‘That’s funny,’ laughs nine-year-old Novi. ‘Paman Gober only likes money,’ she says. ‘And Donal had to trick him into doing olah raga (sports) so he’d be sehat (healthy).’

‘Ya,’ adds Agung, a 13-year-old boy. ‘I like Paman Gober the best! He always makes something funny but a little strange happen.’

‘Who are your favorite characters?’ I ask Novi and her 11-year-old girl friend, Fenny. ‘Winnie the Pooh and Pluto,’ replies Novi. ‘But I like Minnie too. She’s nice to everyone, she likes to joke and tease, she flirts with Mickey and she likes to draw.’

‘Any others you all really like?’

‘Ya, Gufi (Goofy),’ they all say at once. ‘He’s so silly and funny too,’ reflecting Indonesians’ love of slapstick humor. Agung says, ‘If there’s a pretty girl he likes to flirt but if he sees something scary he always runs away fast.’

Fenny lives next door to me with her grandmother, parents, a younger sister and brother, and two pembantu (servants). Their house is only a few years old, built over rice fields in a ‘modern’ style. Her parents have a small ‘mom-and-pop’ store on the main street in Yogya, selling snack foods like krupuk, the shrimp crackers we eat with our meals and crispy, fried tempe, made from soy beans.

Like Paman Gober, Indonesia’s élite let nothing stop them in their lust for gold. Now the major surgery required to bring this nation out of the lengthening krisis monetar (monetary crisis) is being paid at a high price by the ‘mom-and-pop’ shop-owners and the marginally employed – like the families of Fenny, Agung and Novi.

Before the rupiah devaluation in July 1997, a kilo of rice cost 1,000 rupiah. A family needs two kilos a day, which means at today’s price of 3,300 rupiah a kilo, there is no money left over. Cooking oil was 350 rupiah a litre, now it’s 1,100. A kilo of eggs went from 3,000 to 7,000. A simple pair of child’s rubber sandals costs 15,000 rupiah while the salary of a middle-class civil servant is only 11,000 a day.

‘So how do you know about Disney?’ I ask.

All three say they watch the hour-long Klab Disney (Disney Club) program on TV. The show features a mix of cartoons and filmed segments with a pair of live hosts. Klab Disney has been introducing Disney characters for the past two years to a weekly audience of at least three million, broadcasting to nearly 20 stations across this vast archipelago. Agung and Novi tell me it was only through the TV that they became Disney fans.

Some older friends, Nita Purwanti and Adji Putranto, a thirty-something, middle-class couple say they encountered Disney’s characters in their teenage years when official Disney products first came to Indonesia. Their son, Intang, was ‘bathed with Donal Bebek soap, covered with Mickey Mouse blankets and had dolls, hats, T-shirts, school supplies, all with the familiar Disney images on them’.

‘And how about the comics? Do you often read them?’ I ask Novi and Agung.

Even though they don’t have the money to buy them, they read Disney comics ‘at friends’ houses or sometimes at school’. There are many comics to choose from like Wonder Woman and Batman, Indonesian folk-tales and a whole range of Japanese action comics such as Dragon Ball and Samurai.

‘How is Disney different?’ I inquire.

‘Disney is funnier,’ they all shout. Fenny says: ‘The drawings are more real and each character doesn’t look the same like in the other comics.’ Both girls say they choose Disney because ‘the stories are more interesting’. Meanwhile, Agung, like boys the world over, seems to prefer the action comic Dragon Ball. He likes ‘the fights and yelling even though you know it’s only pretending’.

But even as he grumbles about being sudah bosan (bored) when Klab Disney shows another Chip and Dale cartoon on the TV, he is soon laughing at their antics.
‘Hey, what about Mickey Mouse?’ I ask. ‘What do you like about him?’

A long pause. Then Novi pipes up. ‘I like that he loves Minnie!’ They all giggle. •

Linda Kaun, an American, lives with her Indonesian partner in Yogyakarta. She is a visual artist who takes the occasional foray into journalism.

Contents - this Issue     Magazines Home


This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Elvis And Slivovitz

Leave your comment