[Public Diplomacy] ‚Hemşehrilik‘ (fellow-townsmenship) and the venture of Bosnian-Turkish sibling cities (Part 5/8)

On this series: This blog post belongs to a series under the title and leading question „Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?“. The complete series are my contribution to an edited volume by Dr. Agata Rogoś, postdoctoral research fellow at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Agata’s Edited volume’s working title is „Permeability of dispossession / Dispossession of borders“. In accordance with her, I publish my contribution on my personal homepage, prior to the finalization of the book. The final version may still change, whether due to further copy editing and proofreading, or regarding the unclear and unforeseeable course of events and political circumstances in Europe, in the Western Balkans, and in Turkey. Yet, I believe that the phenomenon of cross-border neo-populism, as in the given case of Bosnia and Turkey, will not disappear any time soon. The complete list of references will be included in the first and in the last contribution of this series, which consists of eight single sections.

5. ‚Hemşehrilik‘ (fellow-townsmenship) and the venture of Bosnian-Turkish sibling cities

From the 2000s, accompanying the political rise of the AKP as a result of the 2002 Turkish general election, Turkey and the Balkans saw a rapid growth of the network of international sibling cities (kardeş şehir) and sibling districts (kardeş belediye). Parts of the Balkans – especially where Bosniaks live – show a significant thickness of such arrangements. The reason is not only to be found in the geographic proximity and the shared Ottoman past. There is a complex interdependency of three social dynamics at work: first, agents of the ruling party and their Sendungsbewusstsein or mission civilisatrice (medeniyetçilik, cf. next section 6/8) are strong and generous motivators behind the state-directed sibling cities. Secondly, the dynamics of the so-called hometown associations (hemşehri örgütlenmeleri) inside Turkey as a pattern of settlement in sameness and sociability in the urban neighborhood (mahalle) need to be revisited (cf. Hersant & Toumarkine 2009). Third — and especially this factor differentiates the case of Turkish-Balkan sibling cities from other Turkish sibling-initiatives abroad — the history and agency of immigration of European Muslims from the Balkans, the so-called Muhacir, are important determinants (cf. Özgür Baklacıoğlu 2006, 2015; Schad 2015; 2018; 2019). Most of them, and especially the more recent immigrants from the post-WW II period, settled in the western provinces of Thrace (Trakya), the Aegean (Ege), Marmara and Istanbul (cf. Schad 2015). Before the revisionist rhetorics of the ruling regime can be analyzed in section 6 („We will reappropriate our forefathers’ lands“: the ruling party and the Balkans), the social phenomenon of hemşehrilik (fellow townsmenship) as a „zipper“ that integrates the realm of the family (memleket) into the megacity’s smallest administrative unit, the mahalle, needs to be outlined in the following.

Although Istanbul is often (for the aforementioned reasons) perceived as exceptional, it is also the probably most representative city of the whole country: immigrants from all over Anatolia and from abroad are not only present, but also represented by their hometown associations. These associations are active either in Turkey, or abroad — in their respective former homelands (memleket), with which they often initiated sibling agreements. Many of my Bosniak interlocutors in Turkey, most of which originate from the Sandžak area between Serbia and Montenegro, highlighted their own agency as foreriders in the establishment of sibling cities arrangements between Turkey and the Balkans. When asked for their opinion of their government’s activities in their memleket, they often stressed that they do not feel at ease with their government’s initiatives „in their name“. This reaction reflects a much deeper, old societal conflict in Turkey: it is the rift of the East-West fault line between those who „came from the other side of the water“, as a proverb literally translates („Suyun öte tarafından gelen”, Bora & Şen 2009), and the Anatolians. In the East-West-binary between Rumelians (Rumelili) and Anatolians (Anadolulu), often also described in the Black-White-tropology borrowed from North America, Bosniak Muhacir people often perceive of themselves as of Europeans, Westerners, and seculars.

In their own perception, many of my Bosniak interlocutors figure opposed to the „Easterners“ from Anatolia. In their eyes, they count for the devout and religious, they are seen as the non-Europeans, and also as Kurds; whereas they see themselves as „Westerners“ and Europeans (cf. Bora & Şen 2009). This does not at all mean that Bosniak or other Rumelian Muhacir people in Turkey were not or less nationalist[1] — let alone less Turkish — than non-Muhacir people: quite to the contrary, they often highlight how very Turkish they were, and how loyal (sadık) to Turkey they had always been, throughout history. As a proof of their loyalty, their contribution to the Turkish War of Independence (İstiklal Harbi / Millî Mücadele / Kurtuluş Savaşı, 1919-1922) and to the earlier, mythically embellished Battle of Çanakkale (Gallipolli Campaign, 1915-1916) as volunteer fighters (đurumlije or gönüllü) would be mentioned: whether in muhacir publications, on posters in the entrance area of hometown associations, or in conversations. Çanakkale is, down to the present day, an important site of national pilgrimage at the Dardanelles. It serves as the highly esteemed lieu de mémoire and foundational myth for Turkish nationalists, reagardless of their figurative easternness or westernness: to the point that a particular group can be „counted in“ as self-sacrificing (fedakar) and loyal (sadık) compatriots, this quasi-religious myth is integrative. As a widespread proverb goes, „all in the same blood“ are represented by the red colour of the Turkish flag, which stems (following the myth) from the blood sacrifice.

This book by the author Sait Kačapor from the Sandžak region started, as the author writes, as a journey to his emigrated relatives in Turkey. For the book, he traveled the whole country and collected all kind of different muhacir stories, including different periods of time (i.e., of emigration). It contains various anecdotes about how Bosniaks acted out on the honour of the Turkish state, whether as far abroad as in Japan, or at home. He reasons on the choice of the book title — „Bosniaks, Turkey’s loyal citizens“ — that it were his Muhacir interlocutors who constantly came up with the centrality of their own loyalty to Turkey. Kaçapor, Sait (2014): Boşnaklar — Türkiye’nin sadık vatandaşları. Sarajevo/Istanbul: Umut Matbaası.

As this example shows, being different from the others — as Muhacir — does not mean being other than Turkish: it rather means that there are one or more deep societal conflicts about the understanding how to be Turkish and who determines what Turkish and Turkish culture would be.[2] I was told in practically every single interview with Bosniak Muhacirs (and their offspring) in Turkey what they perceive of as the most fundamental difference between themselves and the others: they themselves would never — down to the seventh or ninth generation (do sedmog koljena, I was told) — ever marry their akraba (relatives). Cousin marriage — in the Arabic speaking Middle East described as bint ‚amm marriage by anthropologists — is in Turkey known as akraba evliliği. It is considered to be an eastern practice by Bosniak Muhacir people in Turkey, which corresponds to the fact that in the Balkans, cousin marriage is practically taboo and considered incestuous. Hence, the reactions of many Bosniak Muhacir people to the fact that some of their Anatolian compatriots practice it, often were expressed in extreme disgust. „Bunlar kültürsüz„, they have no culture, was often added as an explanatory comment.

The importance of this societal conflict, where representatives of both sides can claim their own establishedness and the other side’s outsiderness (cf. Elias/Scotson 2013), should not be underestimated in the way how figurative kinship is established through sibling cities (kardeş şehir), either by representatives of the ruling party, or by Muhacir groups: even though representatives of both groups use the same kinship metaphores (like sibling / kardeş) and speak about culture (kültür), they may fundamentally disagree over the meaning and the role of their agnatic or figurative akraba (kinship) — as the example of akraba evliliği shows. In the same vein, there are fundamental disagreements over the notion of culture and the way how culture is brokered by official Turkish cultural centers and initiatives on the market of public opinions in the Balkans.

On the other hand, Muhacir people in Turkey organize themselves in similar ways as their compatriots from Anatolia do. Istanbul’s biggest Bosniak hometown (or homeland) associations (Dernek) in Pendik and Bayrampaşa are part of a myriad of similar associations under Circassian (Caucasian), Kosovar, Albanian, Bulgarian, Black Sea, and many other vernacular (e.g. Malatya, Sivas, Tokat, etc.) auspices in Turkey’s social fabric. These associations are the organizational expression of hemşehrilik, which can roughly be translated as fellow-townsmenship. The main propositions of hemşehrilik suggest that people from the same (hem) city (şehir) or province, upon migration to a city like İstanbul or Ankara, settle conjunctly in the same neighborhood (mahalle) (Kurtoğlu 2004; 2005).[3] Kurtoğlu identifies in the feeling of belonging (aidiyet) — due to the bond of a shared place of origin and shared culture — the primary reason for the emergence and perseverance of hemşehri associations (Kurtoğlu 2005). According to Kurtoğlu, one third of all civil organizations in the capital Ankara in 2003 were hometown associations (Kurtoğlu 2005; Schad 2015, Hersant & Toumarkine 2009).

A hometown (hemşehri) association from Trabzon at the Black Sea coast in Istanbul Üsküdar. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in 2015.

Although many of my Bosniak informants in Istanbul stressed that the fact of their spatial origin from outside the Republic of Turkey made their case different from other hemşehri associations, they still suited a pattern that is very similar to their compatriots who migrated from inside Turkey to Istanbul: just like them, they settled more or less conjunctly in the same neighborhoods of the same district (e.g. Pendik and Bayrampaşa; cf. Schad 2015), where they founded and constructed their respective associations and their buildings. In that sense, hemşehrilik can be understood as the underlying pattern of bringing the homeland’s realm (memleket) into the metropolis and to integrate it into the urban structure of the neighborhood (mahalle): by doing so, in Henri Lefebvre’s terminology, they produce space as social space (Lefebvre 1991). The main difference between Bosniak Muhacirs‘ space production and that of their fellow citizens from inside the motherland (anavatan) is, that the formers‘ memleket is located across the borders.

The memleket and to whom it belongs

In Turkey, the concept of having come from a memleket is very regularly made a topic of in everyday speech. For instance, when getting to know each other, it is one of the most common questions in Turkey to ask „Where is your homeland?“ (Memleketin neresi?) – as common as the question „Are you married or single?“ (Evli misin, bekâr mısın?), which often directly follows the former question. Everybody has a memleket, and is even expected to have one, be it inside or outside the motherland (anavatan), which is Turkey.

Memleket, according to Ayça Kurtoğlu, has two meanings: first, and mostly when the perspective is taken from a position outside Turkey, it can be the land of the nation (ulusun toprağı): in that sense, Turkish speakers in Berlin can be heard speaking about their memleket, which appears identical and synonymous with „Turkey“, which inside Turkey would be denominated as the anavatan. Secondly, it can have a more precise meaning and signify the land of the family (ailenin toprağı) – or, even more precisely, the land of the family’s roots, whereas the roots (in a traditional understanding) are imagined along the patriline, which is called soy in Turkish (Kurtoğlu 2004; 2005; Delaney 1991; 1995; Sirman 2005; 2008).

Inside Turkey, hemşehrilik mostoften refers to the second, patrilinear meaning of memleket, which (in the patriarchal order of society) means „the land of the (fore) fathers“ (babanın/atanın toprağı) (Kurtoğlu 2005). If the question „Where is your homeland?“ is asked inside Turkey to a person who traces her/his patriline back to a place equally inside Turkey, it is not uncommon, even for a second- or third-generation, İstanbul born city dweller, to answer the question with “I am from Malatya” (Malatya’lıyım), even if it were already the paternal grandparents who had migrated to Istanbul. However, when a (post-migrant) Bosniak Muhacir in Turkey is asked the same question, she/he will most likely say „I am Bosniak“ (Boşnağım) or „My homeland is Bosnia-Herzegovina/Sandžak“ (Memleketim Bosna-Hersek/Sancak): their (fore-)father’s true memleket can hardly be named by anything else than what it is — a place outside Turkey.

The oldest and biggest Bosniak association’s building in Istanbul Bayrampaşa in 2015, when the association was still called „Bosna Sancak Kültür ve Yardımlaşma Derneği”. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in 2015.

However, it is not so easy to name the memleket outside Turkey in a way that is understandable and communicable inside Turkey, in Turkish, to all other members of Turkish society. Many Bosniak Muhacirs in Turkey use the notion Bosna-Sancak, as if Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serbian and Montenegrin Sandžak were one country. This sometimes leads to irritaded reactions by outsiders, and even by Bosniaks and other people from Bosnia-Herzegovina: when I presented the picture above to outsiders, amongst them Bosnians from Bosnia-Herzegovina, this raised eyebrows and question marks. The picture shows the building of the Bosniak Dernek, displaying the Old Bridge (Stari Most) from Mostar in its façade, while the Dernek’s name is Bosna Sancak, but lacks the toponym Hersek (Herzegovina): it appears incoherent, as the real Old Bridge is located precisely in Herzegovina, and neither in Bosnia, nor in the Sandžak. When I explained that practically all members of the Dernek originated from the Sandžak, and not from Bosnia-Herzegovina, this was more than once commented upon as „not authentic“, „false“, and „imaginary“.

Given that every community, and notably national communities, is imagined, it is of course truthful to qualify this form of bricolage from the wide repertoire of Balkan toponyms and metaphores as constructed and „unauthentic“ (cf. Lévi-Strauss 1962). It would probably not be ratified by a Bosnian-Herzegovinian public, even ridiculed, and perhaps conjure upon an inner Bosnian conflict between established and outsiders, e.g. in Sarajevo, where immigrants from the Sandžak are called Sandžaklije and oftentimes perceived as rivals. Yet, inside Turkey, this bricolage can be understood as a succesful and reasonable, communicative strategy.

According to the supposedly lower, general geographic knowledgeability of toponyms outside the anavatan (Turkey) – especially the names of smaller towns and regions, e.g. Sjenica, Tutin, Rožaje, Pljevlja or Sandžak – it is not expected, from the interlocutor, to specify the exact town or region: the person asking for the memleket would probably not know where to locate these places, further complicated by the fact that these places also have Ottoman-Turkish names. The word Sancak in Turkish is known as an older synonym for flag or banner (similar to bayrak), and, more frequently, as an Ottoman-Turkish word for an administrative-territorial unit. This is, in fact, the reason why the border-area between present day Serbia and Montenegro is called Sandžak: it hails from the Sandžak of Novi Pazar, called Novopazarski sandžak in Jezik*, Sanxhaku i Pazarit të Ri in Albanian (which is also spoken in parts of the Sandžak), and Yeni Pazar Sancağı in Turkish. It was one of the last Ottoman lands in the Balkans, finally lost only in 1913, while Bosnia-Herzegovina de facto belonged to the Habsburg Empire from 1878, and de jure from 1908. In the wider Turkish public, all these details are not well-known. Better known, to the contrary, are the toponym Bosna, mainly due to the war in the 1990s, and the Old Bridge from Mostar, especially well-known from the mid-2000s, when the Balkans became an affordable and attractive tourist destination for Turks. This is why Bosna-Sancak and the Old Bridge can be found accross Turkey as an intelligible semantic bricolage.

The categories memleket – the metaphoric belongings of the (fore-)fathers – and anavatan as the motherland exist alongside each other in a complementary relationship, as implied by the family tropology (Sirman 2005; 2008; Delaney 1991; 1995). In this logic, the father of a concrete, Turkish family possesses the concrete soil (toprak), house (ev), and land (memleket). Via hemşehrilik, the „old belongings“ can be — symbolically — interlocked and integrated into the post-migrants‘ urban space in the metropolis and in the Turkish motherland. This is what Bosniak Muhacirs in Turkey do, when they build façades and monuments of the Old Bridge in their Turkish mahalle, when they reproduce other symbols from the memleket, like Sarajevo’s city fountain sebilj, when they add their „ethnic food“, like Pita/Burek, to the national menu: they produce their space and place in society (Schad 2015).

Not unsimilar to the practice of symbolic bricolage in the example of the preceding picture, this form of marketing „Bosniak burek“ (Boşnak Böreği) would not work in Bosnia, but can be seen as a succesful communicative strategy for the Turkish market: In Bosnia, people painstakingly distinguish between Burek, which is always with meat, and Pita, which is never with meat. Everywhere outside Bosnia, however, the word burek/börek/boureki/brik can be used as the umbrella word for all sorts of pita and burek. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in Istanbul, 2015.

With the end of the Yugoslav wars by the early 2000s, the relaxation and liberalisation of the border and visa regimes, new and eased traveling opportunities to the Balkans, as well as the increased economic wealth of many Turkish citizens, it is all but surprising that the Turkish actors in the Western Balkans started to „rediscover“ the „lost soils“ (kaybedilmiş topraklar), as the Republic founder and metaphorical father figure Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Father Turk) is regularly quoted in Turkey: he had refered to the Balkans as the „lost soils“.

According to Nükhet Sirman, the whole political commonwealth of Turkey is also imagined as a household, as suggested in her concept of the „making of familial citizenship“: the Turkish house belongs to the Father Turk (Atatürk), after he had inherited and replaced the Sultan, and the „big house“ of the old motherland (eski vatan) had to turn into „small houses“. As Sirman stresses, the project of replacing the old family concept of the Ottoman pater familias by the „European family“ had thereby always remained troublesome and incomplete (Sirman 2005), which is also why other authors, like Bülent Somay, speak of the „undead father“ (Somay 2019): in that sense, the Sultan from the Ottoman patriline was replaced by the Father Turk Atatürk, whereas Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tries to inherit the latter. The totemic logic, after all, remains intact.

As the concept of the memleket and the aligned questions of belonging — to the family’s father — demonstrates, this also applies in the smaller social unit of the family. And still, when the old belongings of the fathers‘ lands in the Balkans are in question, it is important to distinguish between actors on behalf of the ruling regime — and those who are motivated by their own biographies and other interests. The space production of Turkey’s Muhacirs is, above all, a way to cope with the family’s past, to keep the relationship to relatives in the Balkans alive, to integrate the own family-narrative in a meaningful way into everyday life, or even to obtain double citizenship by one of the Balkan countries — and to enjoy some of the advantages it can bring, like eased traveling or competitive advantages on the global market. When Turkey’s Bosniaks speak of their fathers (atalar), forefathers (ecdad) lost soil (kaybedilmiş topraklar) and memleket, their speech is not primarily figurative or imaginary; it is rather telling of their own family’s narrative, as they often do relate to ‚real‘ relatives, biographies, belongings and even aspirations of citizenship.

To the contrary, the ruling regime’s representatives appropriate and apply the same tropology – even though they may not have a personal, biographical background in the Balkans: their speech bears the clear signs of historical revisionism and misrepresentation. The logic of „bringing the memleket to the anavatan“ appears to be an important, underlying rationale of the ruling party’s cross-border activities and foreign policy.

How this problematic plays out in the regime’s public diplomacy and city siblings will be treated in the next blog post (Part 6/8) of this series, titled „We will reappropriate our forefathers‘ lands“: the Turkish ruling party and the Balkans.

Recommended form of citation

Schad, Thomas. (2021) ‚‘Hemşehrilik’ (fellow-townsmenship) and the venture of Bosnian-Turkish sibling cities‘ ( = Part 5 of the series Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?)Inkubator Metamorph, 23 June. Available at: https://thomasschad.wordpress.com/2021/06/23/public-diplomacy-hemsehrilik-and-the-venture-of-bosnian-turkish-sibling-cities-part-5-8/ (Accessed: Date of access).

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[1] It is noteworthy from a non-Turkish nativist speaker’s perspective to consider the partly positive connotation of the word milliyetçilik (nationalism) in Turkish. In my experience, there are two diametrically opposed understandings of that word: the one is critical and similar to the meaning of e.g. Nationalismus in the German language or nacionalizam in Jezik*, where nationalism is widely considered as the herd of problems, conflicts, and intolerance. The second understanding is positive, and even declared one of the leading principles by Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk], called „Fatherturk Principles“ (Atatürk İlkeleri). In the emblematic symbol of the Six Arrows (Altı Ok), which still is the symbol of the Republican People’s Party CHP, Milliyetçilik is represented by one of the six arrows, the other five being Cumhuriyetçilik/Republicanism, Halkçılık/Populism, Laiklik/Laicism, Devletçilik/Statism, and İnkılapçılık (also: devrimcilik)/Reformism or Revolutionism. To the eye and ear which is accustomed to the first understanding, only, it can appear challenging to understand that in Turkish, nationalism is often considered a virtue.

[2] Culture is here an emic category: it is not the researcher’s (my) understanding of culture that it can be described as a fixed set of attributes or behaviour. It rather reflects my interlocutors‘ language, who abundantly use the notion of kültür (culture), kültürlü („with culture“, „having culture“ or „being cultivated“) and kültürsüz („without culture“, „having no culture“ or „being uncultivated“). For instance, I was told by a Bosniak Muhacir car driver in Istanbul’s traffic jam, „Bunlar kültürsüz„: These have no culture — meaning, the others in the traffic were „uncultivated“, in his eyes. Compared to the Balkans, where similar traffic simply doesn’t exist, or even Europe — where I came from — they would know nothing about proper, „cultivated“ behaviour in the urban car traffic.

[3] While şehir means ‚city‘, this does not mean that the members of a hometown association called Malatyalılar („Malatyans“) necessarily originate from the city of Malatya: villagers often identify with the closest urban conglomeration, and hence, ‚Malatya‘ can also mean the province or land around Malatya, in everyday speech refered to as the memleket. Fittingly, this Arabic loan word originally means „realm“ (Cf. Danilenko 2020).


Find all the referencese in the first blog post of this series (click here)


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