This is Where I Belong: Imaginative Geographies & Continental Drift

The problem with belonging is that our conceptions of it are often too crude


As the S-Bahn train approached the station in Alexanderplatz, my face was turned to the scratched window. As I looked outwards, the aspirational glass and manicured concrete of 21st century Berlin slowly began to fade and transform into a more spartan and grey-scaled scene – a memory fragment from the winter of 1981. We had stood in that very same place, underneath the futurist radio tower, shortly after nightfall, dim lights, a bitter cold wind blowing around us. And though the end of the GDR was less than a decade away, in that transitory moment, the functionalist aesthetics and the collective propaganda on which we had been weaned, felt ever fixed and beyond repair. We were there to see things for ourselves, first hand, without prejudice, but of course we mostly saw what we expected to see – and with a large dose of prejudice. At that age, I guess that was the best that could be hoped for. Of course the city of Berlin, and my reactions to it, grew in complexity, as I intersected with it over the next decades, and as layers of time and experience became thicker and more nuanced; imprinted with roughly-sketched meanings and then quietly surrendered to memory. There came deep friendships, drunken strobe-lit nights and dozens of concerts played and concerts seen. There came storied reminders of both the planned and unplanned restlessness of things – the forty-two cranes that once hovered above Potsdamerplatz (I counted them) eventually moved onwards in monetized, concentric circles towards New Careers in New (Parts) of Town – and the city’s emotional landscape became permanently altered for me, when clubs and other music sanctuaries closed down, lovers skipped town and treasured friends passed away.

On the way to the S-bahn, I had walked up Warschauer Strasse. Jana’s office had once been just a couple of hundred meters away. In many ways, her Berlin is my Berlin. She opened up so many of its doors to me. When she passed away last summer, we had been friends and colleagues for nearly 25 years, and almost all of our experiences together had taken place inside the city. I will never know what to do with that loss, especially because there was no chance to ever say goodbye. But she will always be welded onto how I read and breathe Berlin. I simply can’t imagine that city, that geographic space, without her story – our story – woven into it. On this last trip, I felt her presence everywhere.

So much of what we believe to know about a place is private and, in fact, unseen to most. As we ghost and drift through our personal geographies, we are, to a great extent, solo navigators – seeing and feeling the vectors of the physical and emotional world quite differently from each other. Sometimes our humility wins out and we accept that we cannot necessarily make brazen, universal proclamations based solely on what we gather through these travels. The mystery and beautiful inconclusiveness of our imperfect lives and our opaque but creative perception should keep us humble and busy enough. But many want much more than that. They fear and despise any whiff of uncertainty and flux. They arrogantly desire their own unsteady subjective to be pumped up and sanitized into an unyielding social objective. They want bold borders and fixed identities based on historical whims and their own narrowly-bracketed experience. They want inclusion through exclusion and universality through self-absorption. They try to insist that their own constricted view from the train window be timeless, permanent and discerned by all.

I was in Sarajevo last December, and again I was staring out the window of a moving transport. This time it was a taxi, and it was driving the hilly back roads of the town, taking me to the airport. The center of Sarajevo sits in a steep valley, surrounded by hills on three sides and though it was early afternoon the winter sunlight had already vanished from the downtown. But as the taxi crested the western hill, we again found the sun and, as it hit the windshield, for a moment I couldn’t see anything clearly. Then we turned to the right and I saw a large flag-bearing sign announcing the entrance to the “Republika Srpska.” I hadn’t expected to see this and it definitely caused me to pause.

Post-war Sarajevo is still, to this day, a nominally divided city – the center being primarily Muslim in ethnicity and belonging to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the surrounding ridges are demarcated in favor of the Bosnian Serbs and their semi-autonomous Republic. My host in Sarajevo, the sevdah musician and scholar, Damir Imamović, had taken me to the top of one of the hills earlier that day and pointed out the positions from which the Serbian bombs and sniper fire had rained down on central Sarajevo’s mostly Muslim population during the siege. I was shocked, of course, by his descriptions, but when you surveyed the landscape, you could conclude that there appears to be a somewhat safe distance between that horror and the purgatorial present. But the road sign was something else. I sensed it as more than a mere formality. It felt like a warning, a formalized residue of hate: “you do not belong here.” A quick visual scan didn’t do much to shine a light on why the border existed in that exact place. There were a few houses around. To the untrained eye, they looked more or less the same, no matter which direction you looked. A few people were walking about, but from behind one couldn’t tell. The cars seemed unremarkable. Nothing stood out. Whatever made that border a necessity was unseen and obscured from the gaze of an outsider like me. Why there? What symbols are carved into that landscape that set it apart, and make it one thing but not the other? Does the ominously named Inter-Entity Boundary Line – the border that divides these communities relate to actual ethnic histories, or does it simply draw a line where the fighting stopped? The southern Slavs, from which all the ethnic groups derive, appear in recorded history in roughly the 6th century – before Christianity and Islam had taken root in the region. If one goes back far enough, these sorts of boundaries and institutions of division are entirely without context or meaning.

I had come to Sarajevo at the invitation of Damir, because he was releasing his first book Sevdah – a primer on the Bosnian musical style of the same name – and he had asked me to be a part of the book launch panel. I am only marginally versed in sevdah, but I had produced Damir’s last album and released it on the record label I co-own and so that and our friendship was the tie in. Sevdah is a musical style that came to prominence in early 20th century Sarajevo and is mostly connected with Bosnia’s Muslim community. Certainly one can hear the deep resonance of Ottoman and southern Balkan musical motifs in the traditional sevdah repertoire. But in Damir’s book he does much to blow up the myth of sevdah’s cultural purity and cultural purity in general. Both the book and his own inspired musical engagement with the genre, recognize that hybridization is not really a choice – it is at some point the natural course of things. As the 19th century turned to the 20th, Sarajevo was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual city with a plethora of ethnic groups and Diaspora living and performing music side by side. Sevdah’s development was of course not immune to these varied influences, nor were the musicians from other genres immune to performing sevdah songs (often referred to as sevdalinkas). Damir describes the sessions for Sarajevo’s first gramophone recordings (1907) this way:

“…Musicians performed in Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, Ladino, Turkish, German, Russian. The ethnic censorship of songs and performers, often felt in published collections, simply did not exist here: Roma and Jewish musicians formed a band and performed sevdalinkas, songs in Ladino, Turkish marches and popular kolo (traditional circle dances); the Jewish singer Sida Musaffia included sevdalinkas in her repertoire…it was a very ordinary, very human mishmash that the nationally aware would have certainly tried to sort out. Fortunately, in this respect, the first sound technicians were more akin to modern-day producers rather than nationalist activists.”

As Damir tells it, the music of early 20th century Sarajevo developed via the messy, impurities of cultural give and take. At least for a time, the mixture and makeup of the multifarious society was ingrained in the sounds that its musicians were making. The divisive geographies and attendant bloodshed of Bosnia’s future, still lay dormant, beyond its doorstep.


“It is perfectly possible to argue that some distinctive objects are made by the mind, and that these objects, while appearing to exist objectively, have only a fictional reality. A group of people living on a few acres of land will set up boundaries between their land and its immediate surroundings and the territory beyond, which they call “the land of the barbarians.” In other words, this universal practice of designating in one’s mind a familiar space which is “ours” and an unfamiliar space beyond “ours” which is “theirs” is a way of making geographical distinctions that can be entirely arbitrary.”

“For there is no doubt that imaginative geography and history help the mind to intensify its own sense of itself by dramatizing the distance and difference between what is close to it and what is far away.”

- Edward W. Said, Orientalism

There is a lot to be found in these sentences, and ever since I first stumbled upon them, I haven’t been able to let them go. In some ways they state something very direct and sturdy, which of course is a very noble pursuit, as that is something we too often forget to do. But I think there is a richness here that sustains several readings and speaks loud and clear about the pathologies of our time. I would summarize Said’s point as being this: many of our cultural truths, founding narratives and geographical imperatives are simply imagined. We make them up. They exist only in our heads. They are not based on historical evidence, or Rousseauian states of nature or genetic mapping – a tool that most always reveals wildly heterogeneous populations. They are not what he would call “rigorous ideas.” They are dumbed-down constructs that deflect reflection and reappraisal. We invest them with an unearned objectivity, as if an idea’s popularity somehow gives it a double shot of truth and objectiveness. We make new maps and build new walls just so we can avoid asking the hard questions.

And when that fails, the shooting starts.

Of course, there is nothing in itself odd or suspect with the fashioning of imaginative geographies. We all do it on a very personal level. My drifting encounter with Berlin last week is of course an example of that. But that happened in my head and until now, it mostly stayed there. I own that. No harm done.

But when societies and nation states wallow in opaque fragments of memory and widescreen illusions, illusions and memories that correspond to the very geographic space to which they and their neighbors are fixed; we obviously can have big problems. Things can get dangerous very quickly. We can easily visualize the wars and conflicts that have been started by this sort of binary (“us & them”) thinking. But sometimes the effects are subtler, though still stupefying.

We checked into the hotel in downtown Belgrade. On the desk in the room, was the usual array of tourist brochures and maps. I unfolded the map of Serbia and something felt immediately strange. There was an aesthetic disconnect. The shape was “wrong.” It took me a moment to realize what felt out of place. Kosovo was not portrayed as a separate country – there was no thick line black line around its borders – it was blended into the whole of the space the map called Serbia. I immediately checked to see if the map was dated. It was published in 2016. I went online and checked Google Maps. There was Kosovo, clearly demarcated but with a provisional -- border as opposed to the continuous blackened line that denotes a “real” country. I then checked the Michelin guide website. Kosovo is portrayed there as a country like any other, the border scheme matching that of France and Germany and other fixtures of the “international community.” Imaginative geographies yield imaginative cartographies. Maps are amongst our most “objective” reference points. They are literally used for orientation. They tether us to what we supposedly know about the world. But the mapmakers only offer interpretations and the maps themselves – and the countries that maps supposedly portray – can easily fit into Said’s categorization of objects that “appear to exist objectively, (but) have only a fictional reality.”

A few weeks later, I came across a news item in the New York Times entitled “Serbian Nationalist Train Halts at Border with Kosovo.” It described a potentially dangerous border row between Serbia and the emerging but controversial country of Kosovo. But what happened actually seems more like a Luis Bunuel absurdist drama or State sanctioned performance art, than a run-of-the-mill international muscle flexing. The article notes: “A train decorated with Serbian nationalist slogans and images departed on Saturday from Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, and headed for northern Kosovo but it halted at the border in a stunt that set off a dramatic escalation of tensions between the former wartime foes…The train was painted with Serbian flags, religious Christian Orthodox scenes and the words “Kosovo is Serbian” in 20 languages.” Apparently the decorative flair was not only reserved for the outside of the train. The inside walls of the train cars were also lined with images of Serbian Orthodox saints and other religious figures and photos of Orthodox monasteries that reside inside Kosovan territory. In the end deep breaths were taken and a full-scale crisis was averted. But at least for some hours the imaginative fully out ran the routine. A young student on board was quoted as saying: “I have to admit it is unusual. I feel strange. Like I am in church.”

The Slovenian poet and cultural critic Aleš Debeljak, who sadly passed away last year, wrote a beautifully melancholic essay in the 90s called “Brush Me with Your Knee Beneath the Table,” that attempts to measure the consequences of Yugoslavia’s end on a very personal, even spiritual level. In those first years after its demise, Yugoslavia was for him a sort of phantom limb, something he felt at all times, especially as he navigated the cultural milieus of its previously connected cities. There is a deep nostalgia in the essay, but it is a nuanced and cosmopolitan one. Our current nostalgias and the imaginative geographies that accompany them, are woefully predictable and revolve around the simplistic return to “purer,” less connected versions of our worlds and ourselves. Debeljak’s desire is much different. He longs to reconnect to the cultural and geographical diversity that existed in Yugoslavia. He resists the atomization of the things that he holds dear: mostly literature and music. The regional rock music of his generation was called Yugo-rock and its main purveyors floated freely across the borders of Yugoslavia’s component States, bringing not only the views and sounds from other places into Debeljak’s Ljubljana, but also connecting him with other youth, listening to the same songs in Skopje or Belgrade or Zagreb. For Debeljak, the effect of this entwinement was profound. “Of course Yugo-rock was based on the universal configuration of bass, guitar, drums, and voice, but it also drew on the living wellsprings of southern Slavic folk melodies…I am convinced that Yugo-rock afforded me the rare chance to live in a multicultural society long before that term was co-opted as the official protective coloring of the politically correct.”

Later in the essay, Debeljak writes: “If you don’t realize what you’ve lost, then you’ve lost nothing. I know very well what I have lost: the experience of that singularly rich identity – the product of a unique, challenging, yet uncommonly charming cosmos…”

As the bonds of Europe bend and sway and threaten to divide, these words are anything but simple nostalgia. They are recognition of a different sort of imaginative geography. A poet’s prayer for a re-connected future.


I can't think of a place I'd rather be.

The whole wide world doesn't mean so much to me,

For this is where I belong,

This is where I belong.

-- The Kinks, “This is Where I Belong”

I love the wistful pulse of this song. It is one of those perfect happy/sad compositions that Ray Davies built his reputation on. The sentiments belie the narrator’s age and experience. He has never even had a chance to see the world beyond his own street, but he claims he wants none of it. It is row house, middle class nostalgia with a loose backbeat. A perfect song to hum alone, but a shaky foundation on which to build a sustainable world. There is too much “I” and not enough “we.”

The problem with belonging is that our conceptions of it are often too crude. We tend to reduce belonging to the binary and the oppositional. Here vs. There. Mine vs. Theirs. The Saved vs. The Damned. America first and everybody else go to hell. These definitions spring from negation – “you don’t belong but we do” – and I think at least in part that is because we are ultimately rather lazy. Narratives of exclusion and fixed identity are easy to write and easy to sell and when they catch favor they spread like weeds. Narratives of inclusion and multiplicity are complex, messy, labor intensive and will be, by their very definition, forever works-in-progress. They are a hard sell and more often than not, they have been the books that sit on the shelf.

The Lebanese/French writer, Amin Maalouf, argues in his passionate, lengthy essay “On Identity” that even our most inclusive philosophies are now outmoded and fall short of the mark. We need not only to fully embrace multiculturalism but also multiple identities and identifications. In an age of digital bonding and radical migration and economic interconnection we are morphing into one another at rates never imagined before. Because of this, he writes:

“A new concept of identity is needed, and needed urgently. We cannot be satisfied with forcing billions of bewildered human beings to choose between excessive assertion of their identity and the loss of their identity altogether, between fundamentalism and disintegration…If our contemporaries are not encouraged to accept their multiple affiliations and allegiances…if they feel they have to choose between denial of the self and denial of the other – then we shall be bringing into being legions of the lost and hordes of bloodthirsty madmen.”

Maalouf’s book was written more than 20 years ago. One wonders what words he would choose today?

Would he recognize the lost and the bloodthirsty of this moment as being the very ones he predicted would follow?

Despite these dark proclamations, Maalouf is a radical humanist and cautiously holds on to his trust in the power of education, constructive banter and unguarded community. He tells us: “I no more believe in simplistic solutions than I do in simplistic identities. The world is a complex machine that can’t be dismantled with a screwdriver. But that shouldn’t prevent us from observing, from trying to understand, from discussing, and sometimes suggesting a subject for reflection.”

For the last six years, my wife and I have assembled with a rotating group of 45 others - 7 or 8 times a year - in our best friends the Košir’s Ljubljana living room. At these gatherings we drink and laugh and listen to incredible musicians play for our small gathering of fellow travellers. I have come to rely on these evenings, not only for the necessary musical fix they provide, but also for their tangible connection to something that feels a lot like hope. I feel saner when I am there. Less alone. Less done in by frustration and futility. On a few occasions I have also performed there. A few weeks back was one of those times. At the end of my set with The Last Side of the Mountain Band I did something I had never done before. I made up a song of sorts, right there on the spot. The words were not really lyrics, they were just something that came into my head. They were not anything special. But they were what I felt at that moment, in that room. They were fragments of an imaginative geography.

We have to keep our shit together / this is our place/ this is our time

We have to keep our shit together / this is our place/ this is our time

We have to keep our shit together / this is our place/ this is our time

We have to keep our shit together / this is our place/ this is our time