Narrating the nation, narrating the city.

Author:Janev, Goran
Position:Skopje, Macedonia - Report


Studies of inter-ethnic relations, typically provoked or inspired by recent or ongoing conflicts and prolonged tensions, often remain confined to analysis of political discourse and actions. Analysis of spatiality in this branch of research is largely limited to the notion of territoriality, which is most closely connected with research into nationalism and is linked to the concept of the nation-state. As the compilers and authors selected in the copious reader on state space demonstrate (Brenner et al., 2003), probing beyond this assumed "territorial trap" opens up almost limitless analytical possibilities. I propose a more thorough elaboration on spatiality in the study of inter-ethnic relations within a nation-state. Moreover, I extend the application of the notion of territoriality to street level, in an urban setting in particular. I will use a spatially-oriented approach to examine the tense ethnic relations in Macedonia in the capital city of Skopje. I employ the concept of narrative spaces to better understand social action in the political realm, expressed both in spatial practices and contained in the built environment, and the mutual influences of the social relations thus shaped, or inter-ethnic relations specifically. Since the early days of independence, the Republic of Macedonia--once famous for its ethnic diversity and even today with a significantly mixed population of 2 million structured as follows: 60 per cent Macedonians; 25 per cent ethnic Albanians; and 15 per cent Roma, Turkish, Serbian, Bosnians, Vlachs and others--has been negotiating a formula for the new nationhood that can accommodate such diversity. The emphasis on ethnic politics hasled to the development of a political and social order dominated almost completely by ethnic interests. I will elaborate below on how the emerging order of the past two decades has led to the formation of an ethnocratic regime. Yiftachel (2006, 32) defines as "ethnocratic" those regimes that rupture the concept of the demos in favor of a single ethno-national group. On the basis of my material I suggest that relocating political legitimacy to ethno-national groups and emphasizing the plural is what has caused this rupture of the concept of the demos. The ethnocratic regime that has emerged in Macedonia, as I argue in this article, is best observed in the new spatial order. That is why I rely on spatiality to explore and explain the working of ethno-politics.

My fieldwork site is the city of Skopje where I was born and raised. I later trained as an anthropologist elsewhere and conducted my first fieldwork study in Macedonia as a researcher from abroad. For this present paper I have again conducted my research from abroad. I first became sensitive to spatiality through my interest in local government and the process of decentralization in post-conflict Macedonia. In 2001 there was a brief military confrontation between radical ethnic Albanians and Macedonian state security forces that maximized the polarization of interethnic relations between Macedonians and Albanians. The new territorial distribution of the municipalities in 2005, designed to appease ethnic Albanian demands, provoked a renewal of tensions. The devolution of powers to local government held out great promise for a more participatory democracy but, at the same time, carried the danger that democratic participation would be limited to ethnic collectivities.

Macedonian-Albanian inter-ethnic relations are arguably the most appropriate for observing the subtleties of political economy of scale (Brenner et al., 2003) as they involve troubled international relations in the reshaping of the region of South-East Europe, inter-ethnic relations within the Republic of Macedonia, and local administration and regional dynamics within the country at sub-national scale. I started designing my research in 2008 when I realized that ongoing efforts to build a number of cultural institutions and erect a number of monuments were increasingly growing beyond affordable, imaginable, or necessary dimensions. Already, by late 2008, some of those intentions to remake the city in nationalist fashion were becoming apparent and I decided to focus on this symbolic reconstruction. It was not until early 2010 that the government announced the "Skopje 2014" project, but it soon became obvious that acts of planning and urban design were rooted in existing power structures of nationalism (Fenster and Yacobi 2010, 1). This grandiose project is intended to make the capital of the Republic of Macedonia into the national capital of ethnic Macedonians. Favorable demographic distribution and ethno-political engineering in 2005 created an Albanian-controlled municipality of Chair. The local government responded by proposing the construction of a "Skanderbeg Square" to symbolically express their indisputable right over the part of the city that forms the nucleus of the old city. Therefore I decided to adjust my analytical apparatus to accommodate the increased importance of spatiality in my research. In this article I will elaborate the usefulness of the notion of narrative spaces for the study of politicized inter-group relations in urban settings.

My engagement with the city of Skopje demanded that I make a decision about my primary unit of analysis. In many ways this unit transpired to be Skopje's Old Bazaar, a remnant of the city nucleus from medieval times. On the other hand, I also explore the workings of nationalist forces in a country of great ethnic and religious diversity. Therefore, the bazaar, or charshija as it is called locally, is where I concentrated my fieldwork activities, but the implications of this study are much wider.

I was familiar with the charshija since my mother, a ceramic artist, ran a studio/gallery in the bazaar with my father for five years in the early 1990s. At that time I was a student of ethnology and would often go to the gallery to allow my parents to have a break. The research I conducted fifteen years later has benefited from this prolonged engagement, for I was very familiar with the physical terrain. The social terrain had altered significantly, however, and so I needed to acquaint myself with the changed charshija. I conducted more than twenty in-depth interviews with various shopkeepers and held many other shorter exchanges and conversations. I also organized a short survey with over 400 respondents, including almost all of the shopkeepers in the Old Bazaar. Given that the word charshija still means "the talk of the town", and given that this particular place still affords insights into the traditional social order and is located between the new boundaries in the Macedonian ethnopolitical landscape, I believe that the charshija holds the key to understanding the emerging ethnocratic spatial order.

In recent decades, spatiality has finally won a more generous reception across various disciplines, including anthropology. It has never been completely absent and there have always been researchers interested in observing social life through the analysis of spatial phenomena. In spite of the fact that engagement with social space was one of the major concerns of the founders of the social sciences, as noted almost half a century ago by Kuper (1972) space, social space, or any aspect of spatiality has yet to attain a mainstream position. The renewed and intensified interest in urban phenomena has contributed towards a more privileged treatment of spatiality. Increasing disciplinary specialization, however, has been accompanied by a slight neglect of spatiality in the social sciences in general. With this case study of Skopje--and its Old Bazaar in particular--I propose that spatiality is a central aspect of inter-ethnic relations in an urban setting and requires openness between disciplinary boundaries to allow fruitful conceptual borrowings.

Urban scholarship that accepts spatiality as constitutive of social phenomena also tends to disregard disciplinary boundaries. This results in cross-disciplinary conceptual fertilization because borrowings and adoptions of concepts, studies, findings, metaphors and approaches are plentiful in current literature dealing with the spatial aspect of societies. Certainly, there are a great many sub-disciplinary divisions and sub-specializations stemming from increased attention to spatiality. That could be used to argue that many concepts have lost their communicative value as they have been specifically utilized within different contexts within each discipline. Creative license in the manipulation of concepts allows for breakthrough findings but could also introduce a great amount of confusion. There are also concepts that travel across social sciences and humanities and we should be careful when employing them if we are to avoid misunderstandings.

Rather than steering clear of such a potentially confusing situation, I intend to engage with spatiality by borrowing a concept of narrative space that has been developed elsewhere. This concept has been widely used in film and literary criticism, where it also means two similar but different things. Narrative space has already been welcomed in the social sciences. I will use the notion of narrative space to analyze the consequences of the establishment of an ethnocratic regime in Macedonia and the ways in which this regime enforces a corresponding spatial order. Moreover, I will not limit the construction of narrative spaces by merely observing the narrative functions of the built environment and symbolic landscaping. I argue that narrative spaces are also constructed by immaterial actions of spatial practices that do not even require oral or literary expression. The approach to spatial practices and spatial acts that I use to construct my argument follows, to a certain extent, Bourdieu's (1977) conceptualization of habitus, the unspoken transmission of spatially-learned social roles...

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