Monday, 21 August 2017

Balkans' Heroes: Bosnia's Papak

Text by Lidija Jularic   
Oh, look at that papak! is a phrase quite often heard in Sarajevo. It appears to be very well integrated into the Sarajevo vocabulary. But who is ‘papak’? Considering that in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian the word papak means a hoof (as in a pig’s hoof), the phrase would definitely not seem to be an expression of extreme politeness.

Is the Papak a Peasant?

Who is a papak? Mostly it is used to describe someone wearing a leather jacket, golden jewelry and, sometimes, (black) shoes with white socks. Some may add that papak is someone who drives around in a car with very loud music (local folk music, of course). Or as Zvonko, a 28-year-old student from Sarajevo simply explains: “a papak is usually someone who does not have normal city manners.”

When it comes to papak, according to Zvonko, it’s all about the sort of thinking and manners that could be described as “primitive.” In practice, however, newcomers to Sarajevo society are also often deemed to be papak. Such emigrants are usually coming from other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina or the Sandzak region (the predominantly Muslim area stretching across the Serbia-Montenegro border). However, papak can be also someone born in Sarajevo.

The word papak can be used interchangeably with the word for peasant (seljak). Yet as Igor, another student from Sarajevo explains, a papak is not really a peasant because of his way of living, but a peasant because of his primitivism. (Unfortunately, peasants seem to be always at the bottom of the social hierarchy.)

Also, Feđa, a young graduate thinks that it is not correct to connect the phrase papak with a seljak, since “a peasant is a person who lives honorably in a village.” He adds that a papak is someone who is “behaving impolite and inconsiderately. A papak is also someone who is a jerk and an imbecile, one who doesn’t know how to behave and to speak. The papak is one who, by his behavior, wants to show to others that he is dominating, one who goes to a bar and spits, screams and smashes the glasses to the floor. A papak is someone who is not behaving appropriately.”

Feđa also mentions that everyone has his own papak.

Being Different

All this having been said, it appears that the notion of papak is tightly connected to the norms that are valid in a certain group. Emir, a 21-year-old law student, explains that in Sarajevo everything that involves stepping out from a certain daily routine can be referred to as ‘papanian’ (papansko). It can therefore happen that when somebody, for example, goes to an exhibition his friends would say: “look at that papak, what will you do there?! Oh, what a peasant, look at him, he is going to the exhibition!” Yet isn’t going to an exhibition usually part of an urban lifestyle, and in this way represents something of a city norm?

It also seems that the word papak says something about the set of values that are prevailing today in Sarajevo. Some locals say that there has been a certain shift in the value system in Bosnia-Herzegovina and more broadly in Southeastern Europe in general. Hence, not only does the alleged papak not have the usual ‘city manners’, but these manners today in Sarajevo mean something other than in, for example, Vienna. Most of all, they mean something different than they had meant before the war.
Therefore, the point seem not to be really so much as regards city manners, but in the fact that a person referred to as papak does not match the particular norms of the person using this word.

Further, Emir explains that papak can be anyone who does not fit in with some group. Thus, even though the context in which papak appears is complex and flexible, it can be said that the main intention of using this word is always the same: to mark a person who is different than the one using this word.
One anecdote retold by Zvonko explains all of this in simpler terms. A guy named Bruno from Sarajevo and his group of friends went to the Croatian seaside for holidays. There they got acquainted with one Chinese tourist. While hanging out together, Bruno and his friends were explaining to him some events from Sarajevo; since they used the word papak very frequently, they had to explain what kind of person they actually were referring to by this word. In the end, the Chinese fellow had to prove that he understood who is papak. He thus took out a paper and wrote something in Chinese letters. Aware that Bruno did not understand Chinese, the tourist explained what he had written. It said: ‘BRUNO IS NOT PAPAK!’

The Problem of Being an Outsider

Hajrudin Hromadžić, who also wrote about this concept in one of his articles, is also of the opinion that papak is always used to imply someone coming from the outside. He explains that someone who is not from Sarajevo is not necessarily papak since the raja can give him a special status (raja or rayah, an Arabic word once used by the Ottomans to refer to the subject, tax-paying lower classes of society, is now used to refer to the ‘cool people’ of Sarajevo society, and also to the specific group of people one hangs out with and respects). This acknowledgment happens if a person has some special qualities making him, in the opinion of the Sarajevo raja, different from the other people who deserve the name papak. In this way, the former sort of person wins the right to get inside the circle of the group (Balcanis, 2002, p. 77).

How does this act of accepting papak look like practice? When Senad, a 48-year-old local who truly feels and believes in a uniquely Sarajevan spirit, came to Sarajevo as a child with his parents from Slovenia (they are originally from Bosnia), he was also called papak. Since he was a newcomer amongst the raja, he had to prove himself. For instance, he had to be brave enough to jump from the bridge into the river, the depth of which was very uneven in places, between 3 meters and half a meter deep. He had to have better girls, to sled faster, to drive a bike faster, to play football better and so on. He did all of these things to prove that he could no longer be considered papak. He was finally accepted into the raja, after eight years of living in Sarajevo, when he was finishing his high school.

Sarajevo’s Collective Ego

The phenomenon of papak can be interpreted to be of a rather provincial nature, as Hromadžić explains. He states that Sarajevo has a problem with its “collective mentality ego” because of different happenings in its history (for example, it was in Sarajevo that the First World War started, with the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand) and because it is the most urban city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Hromadžić’s opinion, Sarajevo lacks any “healthy measure of self-criticism” (2002, p. 77). Similar critics of Sarajevo locals being overly self-confident can be heard also from others (readers of Bosnian can just google Sarajevska fuk’ra by Mehmedbašić to understand this better).

The issue of papak appears to evoke the problem of valuing the urban and rural environment in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and even more broadly beyond the country. Usually, when the rural meets the urban, the latter is appreciated more and is considered to be better. If we take a closer look at how people think in Sarajevo, it seems that those living in the city are proud about this fact. This pride grows if they can also say that they were born in the city, and it gets bigger still if their family has been living in the city for generations: the more generations have been living in a city, the better.

At the same time, it seems that people coming from rural areas look at the situation similarly, that urban life is better than rural, though some might not admit it. They both create an atmosphere where the rural environment is viewed as less worthy, something that is to be ashamed of. Therefore, phrases like papak are rather nothing unusual.

Slovenia-based Lidija Jularic writes primarily on Balkan local traditions and diaspora communities from the former Yugoslavia, particularly in relation to issues of social inclusion. She finished her postgraduate degree in Nationalism Studies at Central European University in Budapest. With a thesis on contemporary Sarajevo coffeehouses and society, she graduated in Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Ljubljana.

This article is courtesy of the




Balkan Culinary Wars II: The Epic Battle over a Vegetable Relish

Ajvar, lyutenitsa, zacuscă or biber salçası? The peppers, tomatoes and aubergines purée is to inflame as much hostility as the Macedonian issue a century ago. Full Story

Useful Reads

Bosnia and Herzegovina
A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia (2010) | By Matthew Parish

Since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 a number of books have emerged that focus on post-war, internationally driven state-building in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Full Story


Serbia Surprises with Choice of Little-Known Singer for Eurovision

12 March 2009 | A little-known Serbian singer and composer, Marko Kon, has surprised many by emerging as his country's representative at the 54th Eurovision in Moscow.
Full Story