BELGRADE: Overriding bitter memories held by some of the influence of the Ottoman empire, and the religious hatred that Serbian society is often known for, an unusual Serb-Arabic club in Belgrade has been doing rather well. The Arab-Serb Friendship Association tells a different story from those many tales of hatred of Muslims in Bosnia or Kosovo that Serbs became infamous for. Serbs at this club have found all sorts of reasons for friendship with the Arabic and Muslim world. “Friendly relations with friendly nations should be cherished,” retired military pilot Ivan Baralic told IPS. Baralic founded the ‘YU Marhaba’, as the club is locally called.
“It carries a symbolic name — of former Yugoslavia (YU) and ‘thank you’ in Arabic,” Baralic said. “Politics might change, but people remain the same, ordinary. And we remember that. It’s why I wanted to establish this club.” Former Yugoslavia that fell apart in the wars of disintegration of the 1990s was one of the founding fathers of the non-aligned movement, which included most Arab countries since the early 1960s. Under its policy of ‘neither East nor West’, Yugoslavia offered education, and construction and military aid to friendly Arab nations.
Thousands of Arab students from Syria, Jordan and Iraq studied engineering, pharmacy or medicine in Serbia. Hundreds went to the military air force school, and became elite pilots in their native countries. Serbian language was compulsory for those who enrolled at the university. Years of studies and living among Serbs led to many marriages to local girls, and jobs in the new homeland. Many never returned to their native countries. Most became successful physicians and pharmacists. Their children too went into successful careers, and some are now TV anchors or journalists, and have kept their Arabic names.
The club officially has 500 members, but hundreds more come on special occasions, Baralic says. Lectures on Arabic culture and on Middle Eastern countries are held regularly. Each Arabic country can display information on tourism and economic opportunities, on panels at the clubhouse. Members organise Arabic dinners and belly dancing, and feasts to mark occasions such as Eid. Many ambassadors and diplomats from Arab countries are regular visitors.
But the bulk of the members worked in Arabic countries until the early 1990s.
They are mostly construction engineers and workers, interpreters, or former military personnel, who spent years in different Middle Eastern countries.
At one time in the 1980s, some 20,000 workers from Serbia and former Yugoslavia were engaged in Iraq. They built the largest dams, highways, military airfields and the office of the secular Baath party that ruled Iraq until 2003. The Baath building was destroyed by US bombs in the Gulf War in 1991. The construction industry brought 1.7 billion dollars annually to former Yugoslav firms at peak. The department for oriental and Arabic studies at Belgrade University enrolled an unusually large number of students in the late 1970s and 1980s, because interpreters for Arabic were in high demand..
Most Serb graduates from here went to Arab countries, and few ever returned to live in their native country again. “We loved to work there (in Iraq),” Sava Kovacevic (65), a retired engineer told IPS at the YU Marhaba club. “The salaries were excellent, paid on time — up to 2,000 dollars a month. After a year or two, you could save for an apartment or things like that.”
Military and medical personnel went mostly to Libya. They worked as trainers for military, mainly the air force, and in military or civilian hospitals for years, even decades. “Those were the times when whole neighbourhoods of (former) Yugoslavs were formed in Tripoli or Benghazi,” said Stevan Miljacic (68), a retired physician. “We always felt at home, no matter where we lived. We were not snobbish like Westerners, and mingled a lot with local people.” Everything changed when Libya and Iraq came under international sanctions in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Only years later, in 1992, Serbia was also punished in the same manner due to its politics in neighbouring Bosnia.—Dawn/IPS News Service