Graphic by Joaquin Kunkel

Friendships Across Borders

What happens when nationalism and friendship come into conflict, and how experiences at NYUAD have changed this junior's perception.

Sep 25, 2016

This summer, I had the honor of visiting my Serbian friend in her hometown, Belgrade. What marked my first visit to her country were not only the positive experiences I had while discovering her culture, religion, national history and nightlife but also the cultural shock brought about by the unusually high tensions between our two countries — Serbia and Croatia.
The situation escalated once I came back to Croatia, with our former prime minister calling Serbia, among other things, “a fistful of misery” in a secretly recorded conversation that shook up my country and the rest of the region. For a moment, I felt that this could pose a challenge to my friendship with my Serbian friend from NYU Abu Dhabi.
Quite early in my college education, I realized that one advantage of being at NYUAD is that we get to be away from the preponderant mentality of our home communities: one that assumes that one layer of our identity is more important than the others. Furthermore, when these identities as a modus operandi include hate towards a whole group of people as a prerequisite of belonging, the effects can be toxic. The tricky part becomes finding a way to escape that mentality while keeping your identity intact. In simple terms: is it possible to be a Croat without feeling resentful and suspicious of Serbs, Slovenes and Bosnians?
During my first semester in Abu Dhabi, I remember talking with my writing Global Academic Fellow about what it means to be a Croat at NYUAD. Most of the people I had met here had never even met a Croat, so I found the experience of having to explain where Croatia is or what it’s like living there both liberating and daunting. At the same time, the role I could play as a certain informal ambassador of my country — a country which people generally didn’t know much about — excited me, since it allowed me to challenge certain misconceptions that some might have held.
At NYUAD, the first place I could call home after Zagreb, very few people understood why I could get strange looks in Croatia if I held up three fingers in the air instead of two, for raising three fingers means identifying oneself as a Serbian. The ones who did understand mostly didn’t share my national identity. And thus, for the first time in my life, I found myself living with people from the other sides of the Croatian border. These were people who spoke languages similar enough to mine to have profound conversations with me, but whose national identities, combined with certain historical events, left the impression that there was a rift between us that I wanted to eliminate.
I had to find a balance between my national sentiment and having friends of different ethnic and religious backgrounds long before coming to Abu Dhabi. Despite this, I was still a member of the supermajority: an ethnic Croat in Croatia raised in the Catholic spirit. You can’t get much more typical than that in my country. The friends I grew up with mostly did not share my heritage, and I never saw this as a hurdle in our friendship; on the contrary, I saw my friends’ differences as opportunities to share experiences and cultural practices. Since we grew up in a post-war, transitioning society dominated by nationalistic discourse, and since we were still kids, my friends and I seldom got into conversations I would readily have now. At the same time, any possible historical grievance my friend’s community might have had went largely unaddressed since it was always drowned in mainstream Croatian discourse. Consequently, we grew up respecting each other’s differences without probing them too much, despite calling each other by ethnic slurs for fun — we still do that sometimes; these are things that are impossible to explain to foreigners.
Abu Dhabi was a game-changer — I discovered that even though I am from an unusually diverse Zagreb neighborhood, my NYUAD colleagues had very different experiences regarding their nationalities and cultures. Sometimes these differences would be innocuous for us to play around and joke with them: these would include national stereotypes, language differences and making fun of corrupt politicians. But sometimes, these differences would be difficult to talk about. For example, I learned first-hand this summer how one military operation from the war in Croatia — an operation my father was a part of — gets a completely different interpretation in Serbia: what is celebrated as a day of liberation in my country is a day of mourning in my friend’s.
It is easy to imagine how tensions could arise even in a neutral and welcoming place such as NYUAD. For this reason, some people might choose not to talk about certain topics, mostly with regard to politics, making them taboo. Personally, I always try to get to the bottom of the problem, even though it might be demanding to do so. In the situation my friend and I found ourselves in, I feel that clinging to the no-politics taboo might have been dangerous, and I think that because we voiced our concerns and tried to find the reasons behind the tensions, we actually managed to deflate them.
Navigating political conflict and friendships is difficult enough without taking the route I have taken, the one where I try to explore difficult concepts and topics as much as I can, and at the same time not to fall into the common mentality of naši ljudi, naš jezik — our people, our language — where differences are made into sameness while being covered by the comfortable blanket of taboo.
At NYUAD, we have the privilege to be able to explore how different we are, and at the same time to show our communities at home how similar we can be. By doing so, I believe that we help build our national identities without the negation and demonization of the nations across the border and bring people together in a genuine way.
Stjepan Klinar is a contributing writer. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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