Finding Europe

Dimitri Diagne

In Budapest, in the square outside St. István Basilica, there is a Christmas market. After worrying about a truck attack for a split second, I entered. They were selling Christmas market things—mulled wine, hot chocolate, fried dough, fruit brandy, smiling snowmen, plastic reindeer, Santa figurines of varying quality. It was overcast and drizzling. I pictured Christ in the temple, turning over merchant’s stands, long hair disheveled and plastered to his face, sweeping his arms across counters full of pastries, the flesh of salmon and fowl, metal boxes of forints, euros, and dollars, ripping down strands of LED lights. Maybe next year a conceptual artist will dress in linen robes and take up this task. Maybe the members of an artist collective will go to all the Christmas markets of Europe and do it at the same time, some dressed in linen robes, some dressed as Charlie Brown.

For all their cheap commercialism, Christmas markets bring joy to many. The posh and artfully-lit promenades of Central Budapest, which host the main Christmas market, are packed with people marching in tight formation from Lacoste to Intimissimi Italian lingerie to Zara Home, each storefront dripping with icicle lights, an enormous glowing tree guiding the way. Stepping into a side street feels like stepping out of a slow but powerful river full of eddies that disorient and terrify. I prefer the slightly quieter, stranger quarters. The Ottoman bathhouse where, for about twenty dollars, you can sit in a 500-year-old stone tub with old Hungarian men in linen loincloths for unlimited time; the tiny bar operated semi-legally by an English immigrant of Afro-Caribbean origin and frequented by an alt-looking crowd; the bookstore-café owned by the publisher of László Krasznahorkai’s mind-bending novels. I even prefer St. István in the rain.

From there, I walked towards the parliament, through the kind of neighborhood that surrounds important government offices. The streets were clean and quiet, the buildings grand and featureless.  Like many somewhat famous and extraordinarily photogenic buildings, especially those that imitate old styles, the Parliament’s Gothic Revival structure was quite boring in person, a strained and self-conscious attempt at an anachronistic form of beauty. I left quickly. The sun began emerging from the clouds as I boarded a yellow tram. It took me along the Danube, on whose far bank Buda’s monumental architecture lay bathed in golden evening light.

Budapest looks like a city someone would design in Forge of Empires or some other online strategy game. Looking across the river from Pest into Buda, one sees a Baroque palace in front of a Gothic church. Next to that a colossal statue of an angel hovers over a medieval citadel, behind a sprawling Beaux-Arts hotel-bathhouse. At first glance, there is very little to indicate that we are no longer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The historical jumble of styles, expressed in their most grandiose forms, easily reads against the late-afternoon backdrop as a piece of propaganda artwork, a testament to what a particular element of Europe sees in a particular section of history. It is distinctly Western, distinctly opulent, distinctly built to project the grandness of what many would like to interpret as a distinctly grand European civilization.


Several hundred miles to the south, in Montenegro, the distinction is less clear. The country prides itself on being the only part of the Balkans that remained at least partially autonomous throughout the entire Ottoman period. Popular history holds that the Empire’s forces were no match for its rugged land and its rugged, warlike clans—one of which my maternal great-grandmother was a member. A Montenegrin acquaintance offered me a more skeptical revision of this story. He suggested that the jagged limestone plateaus covered with scrappy oak trees were not worth the effort to conquer, so it didn’t take much to convince the Ottomans to stop trying. In any case, Montenegro held out for hundreds of years despite being completely surrounded by Ottoman territory. Meanwhile, on the Empire’s far northern frontier, the Hungarians toiled on the ramparts of the antemurale christianitatis, the symbolic wall between Christian Europe and the Muslim East.

Perhaps it is out of a feeling of solidarity, then, that Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister and President of the far-right Fidesz Party, donated twenty-five kilometers of a new antemurale, in the form of barbed wire, to Montenegro this past summer. I first heard about this gift through that same Montenegrin acquaintance, who dryly and half-jokingly hypothesized that Montenegro might achieve long-awaited EU accession by becoming part of a growing right wing-coalition. This informal group, spearheaded by Hungary’s Orbán, and including the leadership of Austria, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, along with sizable minority parties in France and Germany, is committed to drawing a particular kind of boundary for Europe. Montenegro could decide to use Orbán’s gift and join in this mission. The Hungarian Prime Minister almost certainly intends the barbed wire to run along Montenegro’s southern border with either of two majority-Muslim countries—Albania and Kosovo. In an age of globalization, it would help affirm an image of Europe as a bastion of Christendom, a sharply delineated West.

In the face of immigration from majority-Muslim countries, this ancient and strange mission of walling off a particular version of Europe is becoming increasingly fashionable and visible. It is also practically impossible—and morally unjustifiable. Europe cannot be constituted as a fixed and uniform cultural and geographical region, especially in a contemporary world drawn together and also ravaged by the inequities of global late capitalism. It is these inequities that at once make European countries desirable destinations and create people in need of destinations. Attempts to wall off Europe are a kind of trans-boundary ethnonationalism, which, like all instances of ethnonationalism, require a dishonest smoothing over of history. The idea of a white, Christian Europe that is fundamentally separate requires rejecting the great historical truth that such a Europe is not real. Not only in the sense that the creation of the Western European powers was only possible through exchange with African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian societies, and later, through the exploits of colonialism. But in the sense that Europe, as a coherent cultural and physical territory, has never really existed.    


A National Geographic world map hangs in my childhood bedroom. Thanks to its decade-long presence, I can recite most national capitals. I can draw from memory a decent outline of the Mediterranean Sea. France is purplish-blue, Brazil is green, South Africa is yellow. Other countries are delineated by their own rings of color that fade to clean white as you move away from the borders, which appear as the crisp, sudden interfaces between two colors. Sometimes they are separated by the slender blue strand of a river. Some follow the jagged ridge of a mountain range (Pyrenees is written above the France–Spain border). Some seem to follow nothing in particular. These take the form of either straight lines (curved to account for the map’s reduction of a spherical surface to a flat one) or convoluted meanders, like the vast squiggle between Kazakhstan and Russia that bifurcates into the vast squiggles distinguishing Mongolia from Russia and China.

Look at a satellite image of Central Asia and these boundaries seem absurd, as they ford rivers, wind through deserts, and cut across mountain ranges and language families. One could make the same observation of the US-Mexico border west of the Rio Grande, and of countless other fronteirs. The meaning of such a border is not geographic, linguistic, cultural, or ecological. Political boundaries denote the area over which the international community, or some powerful element of that community, has acknowledged the sovereign authority of a particular nation state. Of course this state sovereignty is amended, suspended, violated, and ignored so frequently that it rarely exists in its pure form, revealing just how contrived political borders are.

The borders of continents tend to be less arbitrary than those of countries. They are delineated less by compromises and treaties than by geology. Floating on the slurry of molten rock miles below Earth’s surface, there is a North American Plate, a South American Plate, an African Plate, an Australian Plate, an Antarctic Plate, and a Eurasian Plate, into which the Arabian and Indian Plates are smashed. Cracks in the Earth’s crust tend to manifest in geographical features on the surface. South America erupts suddenly the bottleneck of the Panamanian Isthmus. Australia and Antarctica are surrounded by ocean. The Mediterranean and the deep trench of the Red Sea separate Africa from Eurasia. But at what point on that great landmass does Europe begin?

A high school history teacher of mine described Europe as a fractal pattern of peninsulas sticking out from the northwest corner of Asia.  For hundreds of years, powerful people who lived on this continental outgrowth have tried to define its eastern boundary. Even when it concerns spaces that, like continents, aren’t inherently political, geography is a politically involved practice. Because continents are understood to be rooted in the most concrete physical reality, they may offer the most stable and irrefutable identity around which to organize politically. Continents are more than tectonic plates—they become cultural associations, parties of solidarity, which take on new political significance in the framework of transnational federations and organizations. NAFTA, the African Union, and the EU are all based on some notion of continental identity. As the EU expands, it becomes more and more geographically contiguous, constituting a territory of adjoining states whose membership in the Union can be held up to defend the idea, easily exploited by conservative politicians and other xenophobes, that a culturally coherent Europe coincides with a physically integral Europe. The latter gives the former the legitimacy of material existence.

A physical definition turns Europe from a shakily defined cultural construct to something literally set in stone. But the lack of a clear geological boundary leaves a physical definition dependent on cultural and political debate. The most successful strategy in this debate has continually proven to be the identification of a cultural Other, a group whose differences with every culture in whatever area someone wants to define as “Europe” exceed the differences between those cultures. Since the 8th century encounter between the Umayyad Caliphate and a Frankish Army led by Charles Martel, this other has been Islam, later to be represented by the Ottomans. The Other now takes the form of insidiously diffuse Middle Eastern and North African migrants whose stereotyped image stirs paranoia in the minds of many white Europeans, both Christian and non-Christian. This contemporary stereotype of the Other is not only Muslim, but also dark and poor. Each trait is enough to imply the others, and each is enough to prohibit inclusion within the ideal of Europe. Each represents something that those who attempt to draw the boundaries of Europe see their continent not to be, something they want to prevent their continent from becoming. This otherness appears more legitimate, more fundamental, when it is tied to some seemingly objective physical barrier—the Central Asian nomads beyond the Ural River, the Moors across the Strait of Gibraltar, or the Turks and Levantines past the Bosporus. When the Muslim Other is confined beyond the physical frontiers of some contiguous area, Europe is no longer the subjective and viscous concept of Christendom or, even more vaguely, Western Civilization, but a concrete, stable, unchanging cultural and physical entity.

Of course, this immutable unity is largely a myth. One reason is that groups characterized as Other live within areas within any physical definition of Europe. Along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, completely surrounded by the majority Christian countries of Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia and Greece, lie Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania—three majority-Muslim countries. Most members of their religious majorities trace the origin of their faith to the Ottoman conquest. The existence of these three countries is evidence enough that no Christian definition of Europe can rely on the physicality of the continent. The most it can do is attempt to maintain literal fences and equally real legal barriers between itself and its foil. This seems to be the European Union’s working plan. A map of the Schengen Area reveals a large hole, occupied by the three majority-Muslim countries and three of their four Christian neighbors. Croatia, the exception, appears with Romania and Bulgaria as part of a buffer zone of European Union members that are not part of the Schengen Area. The EU has made it clear that Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo, along with Serbia and Montenegro—which both have significant Muslim minorities—are not part of Europe.  


As I was writing this piece, an article by the Bosniak writer Riada Ašimović Akyol appeared in the Atlantic. She argues that the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is living proof that Islam can exist in Europe, and has indeed existed there for hundreds of years. The standout sentence is the claim that “Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Turks, and others see themselves as fully Muslim and fully European.”[1] Akyol suggests that if those who define their continent against Islam would get hip to the fact that entire communities of Muslims are both indigenous to geographical Europe and proudly embrace European identity, they could stop worrying so much about whether recent Muslim arrivals can integrate into European society. But this hopeful conclusion relies on a premise too general to describe the process of identity formation in at least some parts of the Western Balkans. Hundreds of years of discourse and conflict, combined with the EU’s current politics of exclusion, have produced a more complicated situation than the one Akyol describes. Most people I’ve talked to in Kosovo, Albanians and Serbs alike, do not consider themselves European. 

Two minutes by foot from the new central mosque, a gift from Turkey, the hottest bar in Mitrovica occupies an old Ottoman bathhouse. On the weekends, they’re known to turn people away on the basis of their outfits. Behind the counter is a display of around thirty bottles of Cîroc vodka. At this bar, a couple of months ago, I made a sarcastic comment about “you Europeans.” One of my friends chuckled. “You think we’re European?” another asked, feigning flattery. I thought of geography in terms of the map in my bedroom wall. The people I was with did not. On the other end of the local glamour spectrum are çajtores, small, sparse, unisex cafés where men gather to talk and gamble over tiny, hourglass-shaped cups of strong black tea that cost twenty cents each. “Some young people here can’t even afford one of these,” an acquaintance told me over a cup at the çajtore I frequent, whose name in Albanian translates to “at the hut” and whose design, with burlap wallpaper and bark-covered wood panels, tries to emulate one. “Things are very bad here. Lots of people leave for Europe.”

Europe, then, is a place to which one travels from this country on the Balkan Peninsula. One goes there to find functioning train systems, the rule of law, and regulations that prevent power plants from pumping brown coal smoke into grey winter air. An abundance of jobs that don’t require having a well-positioned relative, and the freedom to cross international borders in pursuit of those jobs, in search of education, to meet relatives, in a way that—by declaration of the EU—Kosovars cannot. Many people say that living here can feel like being “trapped.”

A Kosovar Passport is one of the world’s least powerful. Citizens can travel to 14 countries visa-free, and thirty-four with a visa on arrival. Not included in this number is the United States, the powerful ally that occupies a position of special reverence in the minds of many Kosovar Albanians. Neither are the countries of the European Union, whose flag adorns public buildings and infrastructure projects throughout the country. Getting a visa for Germany or Switzerland, two of the most common destinations for Kosovar immigrants, requires a long wait outside an embassy, a barrage of forms, a non-refundable fee of close to one hundred euros (no small change in a country where unemployment hovers around thirty percent and average monthly income at around four hundred euros), and an understanding that in the end, you’re likely to be denied. It is a process that many describe as humiliating. Similarly humiliating might be boarding a plane at the Stuttgart airport, where the flight to Kosovo is sequestered in a small, old, far-flung terminal along with flights to Hurghada, Egypt and Izmir, Turkey. You have to pass through a special passport-check to enter the gate area. The terminal serves as quarantine for less wealthy, darker-skinned, not-quite Europeans. It contains a single food stand that sells four-euro coffee.

Europe is where the money and the power are. This is a definitional statement, from the perspective of many in Kosovo and in the region. Factions in several former Yugoslav countries believe that by becoming European, they’ll get access to some of that money and power. Hence the possibility of Montenegro allying with Orbán’s right wing EU front, to prove that they belong on the European side of the antemurale. This is a long-standing trend. In Race and the Yugoslav Region, Catherine Baker relates how in the 1980s, members of Slovenia’s nascent independence movement asserted their “Europeanness” to contrast themselves with the “Balkanness” of their neighboring Republics to the South and East.[2] Likewise with Croatian nationalists, who could emphasize their Catholicism and relatively pale skin. Slovenia and Croatia are both members of the European Union. Kosovo is still waiting for its citizens to be deemed worthy of traveling there.

As Jeton Zulfaj recently observed in Kosovo 2.0, a Kosovar online investigative journalism publication, the European Union’s refusal to grant Kosovo visa liberalization is likely at least partially due to xenophobia.[3] Unlike some nearby countries, Kosovo can’t claim to participate in what EU members identify as cultural Europeanness. Most Kosovars I’ve met aren’t interested in becoming fully culturally European—if doing so requires assimilating completely into a Western way of life that many reasonably see as alienating, cold, and lonely. It seems that Kosovo must wait, then, for the European Union to abandon the practice of basing political, social, and economic inclusion on some notion of European cultural uniformity.

In the endless debates over whether recent arrivals will be able to integrate into European culture and adopt European values, it is easy to forget the premise behind these concepts—the contrast between Europe and not-Europe. A fence cannot be built around Europe. A line from mountain range, to river, to sea cannot mark a barrier between European culture and the Other. Europe’s economic power, reinforced by a continual reduction of the bodies of Black and Brown and not-quite-white people into exploitable resources, makes it a resource to others. Ability to partake in that resource, and to eventually become material partners in it, rather than maltreated generators of it, cannot be determined on the arbitrary basis of culture. As the world becomes more cosmopolitan, and the injustices of Western-dominated global capitalism come into sharper relief, it will only grow more difficult to use mythical geographies to support protectionism and exclusion on the feeble foundation of “cultural difference.” Only a radical openness can create a future that is more honest, just, and functional than the past. 

[1] Akyol, Riada Asimovic. "Want to Cultivate a Liberal European Islam? Look to Bosnia." The Atlantic. January 13, 2019.

[2] Baker, Catherine. Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-conflict, Postcolonial? Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018.

[3] Zulfaj, Jeton."Will Kosovo Pass the Final Test?" Kosovo 2.0. September 11, 2018.