What honor is there in defeat? I asked myself this question eight years ago today. It was my first summer living in the Balkans, working for an organization to help rebuild a multiethnic democracy in the conflict-torn region.
As a Turkish-American I grew up amid two cultures that pride themselves on their military might; cultures that name their sons after war heroes, and reenact winning maneuvers. Americans even think it’s necessary to school the competition: Boo-yah!
June 28th is a day of celebration for the Serbs, a south Slavic people. Serbs celebrate Vidovdan, a holy day honoring the Orthodox St. Vitus, to mark a moment in 1389 when the Ottoman Turks defeated them on the “Field of the Blackbirds.”
“You were — um, I mean — you lost,” I stuttered to my Serbian colleague back then.
“Yes.” He stood up straighter.
“Aha. You lost and — so you’re celebrating.” It may have been my most confusing cultural exchange since I’d arrived in Sarajevo. Right up there with my negotiations with the landlady to keep the window ajar against the Balkan belief that an open pane would guarantee you’d die of pneumonia.
“We celebrate our honor.”
Who celebrates being conquered on their own soil? Commemoration of victory, as the Turks and Americans are prone to, is obvious and easy. Everyone wants to be a winner.
Living in the Balkans for four years, I learned there is such a thing as winning in losing.
The Ottomans may have overpowered them physically, but the Serbian spirit lived. Serbs may have died, but their people, religion and culture survive. That is what and why they celebrate. For the rest of us chest thumpers, it’s worth noting.
How does your culture define national honor?
By day, Elmira Bayraslı takes care of press for a non-profit that supports entrepreneurs. By night, she’s a writer and a yogi.