A Love Song Still Divides a Region

Many countries lay claim to a ballad that crossed the Middle East and Eastern Europe, provoking devotion and dissent

A Love Song Still Divides a Region

“Gülümsemeyi unutma! Don’t forget to smile,” the event organizer kept telling me in Turkish on my wedding day, that late September afternoon in Istanbul, nine years ago. She was an experienced professional and I was an antsy foreign bride. In the years after, whenever I think of that celebration, the ceremony’s music stands out.

For that occasion, my husband and I had agreed that we would have both a Turkish and a Bosnian song, reflecting our respective cultural traditions. I chose a sevdalinka, a traditional Bosniak love song, titled “Oj djevojko Anadolko” (“Hey, Anatolian girl”). The lyrics of that version depict a young man and woman’s romantic, sensual conversation of courtship and seduction. “Hey, Anatolian girl, be mine,” the man sings,

“I’ll be nourishing you with almonds, to feel your scent;

I will give you a drink of rose syrup, to wash your sighs away.”

Growing up, I heard it many times; it was chosen as a serenade to me on my wedding day. But as with so much in the Balkans, even a song comes with a thousand stories. Or, in this case, a thousand tongues, both in the Balkans and beyond. Its lyrics are sung in Greek, Macedonian, Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian and Yiddish. And it has found admirers in as far away as Korea, Japan and Indonesia as well as throughout the Arab world. How this happened remains for the most part a mystery, though the sometimes competing narratives about the song’s origins and metastasis can offer an intriguing glimpse into the past, and into a song that, despite its theme of love, has caused so much political tension.

Theories about the origin of the song in question abound. The title of the song that is best known is probably the Turkish one, “Üsküdar’a Gider İken” (“On the way to Üsküdar”). Üsküdar is today a district of Istanbul, on the Anatolian shore of the Bosporus, but was once a city in its own right, a base of Ottoman military operations and a final destination of caravans from Syria and Asia. So, one suggestion, as per the title, is that the song symbolized soldiers’ return to the Ottoman capital. In Turkey, the other title is “Kâtibim” (“My clerk”), stemming from “kâtip,” a bureaucratic Ottoman title for a scribe or clerk, and the lyrics depict a singer’s courtship for him.

Whatever its origin, communities across the region made it their own. Protestant missionaries in Lebanon in the early 20th century set Christian devotional texts to local melodies, creating “Ya Banat Iskandaria” (“The girls of Alexandria”) out of the already well-known melody. Lebanese diva Fayrouz created an instant classic with her famous 1995 interpretation “Chat Iskandaria” (“The Shore of Alexandria”). In Greece, the mournful love song became up-tempo dance tunes, known as “Ehasa mantili” (“I lost a handkerchief”) and “Apo xeno topo” (“From a foreign and distant place”).

Back in the Balkans, there have been numerous versions of the song in countries, from a popular soundtrack song from the 1950s in Bulgaria, to different lyrics with love themes in Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania. But like so many things in the Balkans, even a song can carry political baggage.

Amid the nationalist fervor that began in the Balkans in the 19th century, people from almost every ethnic group have claimed — or at least assumed — that the song was their own. They could not imagine that it could be owned by everybody, including those they thought of as their enemies.

And so instead of this love ode bringing people together over a shared history, it triggered a sometimes bitter dispute over its origin and “ownership,” in effect turning a love ballad into a cynical tool for nationalist and political gain. Confrontational interpretations of the song’s origins were used as a way to lay claim to cultures and geography. In the 20th century, as the Balkans grappled with state-building after the end of the Ottoman Empire, the song and its origin became a bigger metaphor for some chauvinist and parochial world views. Laying claim to the song became a way to lay claim to authenticity of a culture, to a history and, eventually, to entire lands.

This uglier side of a beautiful song is reflected in Bulgarian filmmaker Adela Peeva’s 2003 documentary “Whose is this song?” Just as the title suggests, the film portrays Peeva’s regional quest across the Balkans, exploring the background of “Üsküdar’a Gider Iken”. Almost every single one of Peeva’s interlocutors in different countries claimed ownership of it.

In the southeast of Peeva’s home country, the song reflects Bulgarian nationalistic feelings for those who fought Ottoman forces. There, Peeva is told she risks being stoned for suggesting the Turkish origin of the song.

As Peeva travels, music keeps mixing with politics, religion and history. In Serbia, when Peeva provocatively plays another Bosnian version as a Muslim devotional song to several Serbian men she is having a fun night with, she is threatened with beating, the men claiming the song was stolen and a “provocation.”

Given the still-raw political tensions in the region, few could muster the sentiment of the late Bosnian musician Omer Pobrić, a maestro of sevdalinka, who tells Peeva: “It is so beautiful, I have no words. Everyone — Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim — we all have loved and protected it because it is a nice Bosnian song. It brings East and West together.” Even he, however, insisted it was of Bosnian origin.

While such disagreements over folk songs can seem laughable or at least easily resolvable, they can, in particular contexts, reflect bigger political problems and contested wars of narratives and interpretations of historical events.

In the Western Balkans at least, the current atmosphere is still filled with obnoxious, openly stated aspirations for “formal political and institutional ‘unification’ of all ethnic Serbs” in the so-called Serbian World — a political claim that would necessarily involve impossible population transfer and, doubtless, large-scale killings. This in a region where denial of the Bosnian genocide continues and the state sovereignty of Kosovo is still denied. Too many are willing to buy into harmful national myths about a “unique” culture in such a mixed region.

But there will always be tunes like “Üsküdar’a” that will keep connecting peoples of different languages and faiths in the universal language of beautiful music.

For me, the melody has gained even more significance since my wedding.

While I walked down the aisle, my good friend, the Pakistani musician Zoe Viccaji, fell in love with “Hey Anatolian girl” and was inspired to make an Urdu version of it on her return to Karachi. Recorded in new lyrics and using uniquely Pakistani instruments, “Ishq Kinara” became a hit in the country, and today has millions of views on YouTube.

In some cosmic way, ever since then, I like to believe that Viccaji’s attendance and her remarkable, creative work on that song after my wedding contributed to new connections among people elsewhere, by furthering the song’s voyage around the world.

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