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The presentation of Dr. Hercules Millas at the International Conference The Cultural Potential of the Balkan Countries as a Factor of Development, organized by Balkan Political Club - Istanbul 29 May/1 June 2003





     I will narrate a Turkish joke not only because we are in Istanbul but also because Balkan meetings remind me of this didactic anecdote. The story goes as follows:

     In old times a group of peasants from a village of east Anatolia was traveling on foot to Istanbul. In those days this journey was difficult and took many days to reach the big city where they hoped to find a better fortune. Their purpose was to work in Istanbul for a few years and return home a bit wealthier helping their family lot.

     The story brings to my mind the people of the Balkans that almost in their totality strive in a similar way: they work hard and they hope for a better future for themselves and for their families. The rest of the anecdote has a surprising development, as surprises often accompany the fate of our people. As the group walked along a creek someone pointed to a bird that was flying really very low and exclaimed: ‘Oh! It almost touched the water!’ Then they started discussing and very soon quarrelling, half of them saying that the bird did touch the water and the other half claiming that it almost touched but in actuality it did not.

     This part of the story ends in a tragedy. Shouting was followed by insults, then by physical force. Beatings raised the tension to extremes and some used their knives to defend themselves. When they realized what was happening and stopped it was too late; almost half the company had lost their lives. Shocked from the outcome, very sorry for their behavior, buried their dead and headed to Istanbul.

     There is a second round to the story. After few years the remaining of the company started their return journey. When they reached the same creek they remembered the sad incident. They all agreed that it was a shame that so many friends had died for nothing. It was stupid, they said, for people to quarrel for such minor things. There was nothing more precious than human life. Killing was madness, especially for such trifle things. They could have discussed the matter calmly, with respect to each other’s opinion and they should have never resolved to force. They developed a discourse of wisdom and remorse, as it is usually the case in Balkan and other interethnic academic and/or political meetings.

     And then somebody said: ‘after all, is it of any importance if the bird touched the water or not? Why should one insist on that? If you succumb, if you accept the opinion of the other or even if you pretend that you agree with him quarrels of this kind can be easily avoided. It was enough to say, yes it did touch the water, and nothing would have happened’. ‘Yes’ said someone else, ‘but it could have been even simpler if the other party accepted that the bird did not touch the water since it was obvious that it did not!’ To make the story short, the unhappy incident was repeated. They fought again with the same arguments. The rest of the company lost their lives too, quarrelling and fighting over the same topic.


     If we stop and think and analyze the motives and the forces that trigger such situations we notice the following:

1- After a crisis the feeling of remorse is predominant. Many voice the need of peace, good neighborhood, harmonious coexistence and even friendship. There is no doubt that people are sincere when they feel sorry for the unhappy past incidents.

2- However the ‘sad incidents’ repeat themselves. The question is why? If we analyze the (fictitious) incident above we notice that the participants had never understood what really happened. They thought that the main misunderstanding was about ‘the bird’, - about a real situation, a ‘fact’ outside themselves - whereas the bird was only the pretext. Their behavior was conditioned by very complex feelings, motives and drives of their own.

3- The peasants who were really sorry for the atrocities, never analyzed what really caused the killing in the first place nor their role in the incident. They never understood themselves. Whereas the outcome of the incident was directly connected to themselves (not to the bird). They were truly sorry for the incident but not for their beings (their selves), their way of thinking, their approach to the ‘Other’, their understanding, their psychological tendencies and their ‘ideology’ (to use a more political term).

4- The tragedy could have been avoided not after an agreement on the status of the ‘bird’ but after a drastic change of behavioral attitude. It is often very difficult to reach to agreements on situations related to judgments; and this is so because perceptions and evaluations change from one person to the other (and from one nation to the other). To insist on an agreement on ‘facts’ may prove disastrous. What is of importance is a change in our attitude vis a vis the different evaluations and perceptions. Our unfortunate group of peasants could not accommodate and accept a situation with two mutually excluding ‘truths’. What they never managed to do after the first tragedy was to change their philosophy, their behavior, their understanding of ‘truth’ and of reality. 

5- The group that caused the unfortunate atrocities, apart form their shortcoming in the philosophical domain, were blind and deaf of their psychological world too. They never understood that their attitude was basically influenced by some basic human vices: stubbornness originating from pride, pride that originated from insecurity, insecurity that originated form phobias, phobias that originate from ignorance, and combinations of such inner drives.


     The anecdote is Anatolian but it does have a universal didactic message. It resembles some recurrent incidents of our vicinity. To whom do we really look like? Surely not to the peasants heading to Istanbul. Contrary to them we have the valuable experience of an unhappy past like the ones returning home. We share with the second group the remorse felt due to ‘our’ (as nations) participation in incidents that we are not happy with. Are we, however, in a better situation or do we risk their fate - in repeating ‘mistakes’ - in spite of our good will?

     It is difficult to give a conclusive answer. The Balkan people of our time on one hand have a clear advantage: they have a rich experience of the past and experienced the examples to be avoided. We also have the opportunity to know why we fought and much about nationalism, the ideology that dominated on all interethnic fights. The academic input in this area is immense. On the other hand the average citizen is not familiar with these academic and theoretical products. Nationalistic ideology is dominant and is perceived as a ‘common sense’ by the majority. This is the negative aspect that still poses a threat to the area.

     In short, the message of this didactic anecdote is quite simple: lament, remorse, discourse of peace, of peaceful coexistence and of friendship do no harm, but this is not enough. Understanding the reasons and the forces that caused the problems in the area should be the main target in our meetings. This means a shift towards study sessions on specific issues, on concrete situations and on problematic controversies. Such meetings are more difficult to handle and liable to some friction. However, the easiest route is not always the most efficient. 





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