Two years ago the Prime Minister Gruevski welcomed His Majesty, the (e)Mir Ghazanfar Ali Khan, the Prince of the Burusho people, from the remote Hunza Valley in the Himalayas in Pakistan. It was not an ordinary bilateral meeting, as the Pakistani delegation claimed to be “coming back home“, and was certainly made to feel like that. According to their collective memory and narrative of origin, they are the descendants of the warriors of Alexander the Great – in particular, the ones who were too tired or simply not willing to march back to Macedonia after reaching the Indian hinterlands. Ghazanfar Ali Khan later on met with plenty of VIPs, including one metropolitan of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, who compared him to Alexander the Great (at least, in terms of his looks). These days, the Burusho tribe has made the news again – namely, the Macedonian government has decided to simply confer three hectares of land for the construction of a royal residency of the Burusho royal family [News, only in Macedonian: . To add to the quirkiness of the situation, the land is located near to the site of Paljurci, which was put on the map by president Ivanov, who revealed that it was the exact location of St. Paul’s mission is spreading Christianity in Macedonia.

Therefore, the broader public becomes ecstatic whenever the “Hunza” story gets in the press. The majority of the people are critical of the developments, as it is hardly comprehensible how those unknown distant people have become our ad hoc kin-group solely on the basis of myths and tales of origin, while there are still traces of contention towards the very neighboring ones. Furthermore, the whole narrative has a comical overtone due to the seemingly naive and unsophisticated, yet deadly serious rhetoric of “fraternization” between the Macedonian officials and the Pakistanis.

When it comes to the public response, it seems that the overtly sardonic attitude to the topic prevails. It manifests in several ways: referring to the government representatives as “Hunzas” and attributing the term “Hunza” with a negative meaning, denouncing on the cooperation between the two sides as “fraternity between two tribes” and part of the “mountainous” nationalist rhetoric. And, while the whole issue deserves and requires public scrutiny, what I have noticed that at one point, the debate has crossed one thin red line – it has invaded the human dignity of the Burusho representatives.

It is more than legitimate for one to criticize the Macedonian government and the introduction of the “remote family” rhetoric; however, that does not waive the right of respecting the distinctiveness of the Burusho people. The mocking on the “Hunzas” has been grdaully becoming a sheerly prejudiced rhetoric and an act of “Othering”; a very good illustration of orientalistic attitude towards the people imagined as exotic semi-barbarians from the far-away mountainous lands, being different than “us” – not just different, but lesser and totally inferior because of their background. Maybe people derive pleasure out of deriding them, believing that that way, they manifest their own superiority.

The sad part is that this issue has emerged in a culture that has been an object of orientalism as well. The people of Southeast Europe have been often generalized and portrayed as crude and uncivilized, belonging to hostile peoples bearing complicated names. Alas, we didn’t learn our lesson of our own experience.

And who is to blame for this rather negative trend? The domestic and the international media, the politicians, the opinion makers, or maybe the Pakistanis themselves? The author of these lines can not be exculpated as well. I personally have made plenty of fun on the “Hunza” topic (including a sarcastic take on the visit of the Burusho leadership in Macedonia in the form of a song), when the issue had first gained public visibility. And for a while now, I have been feeling guilty and responsible about it – hence I feel an utter need to apologize for my attitude.

Here I would lay my own experience and the lesson learned.

Orientalistic behavior, among other things, is rooted in the lack of “primary sources” about the object. It is easy to generate stereotypes, to Other and imagine “the Hunzas” with contempt when you haven’t really met any of them personally. Nevertheless, my narrow-minded perception has been rubbed into my face, when I had the opportunity to meet one Burusho exchange student in an international setting. I can not recall all of the details accurately, but he could have easily been a member of the “royal” family, or even a prince; yet, for the matter of fact, he seemed a bit awkward with all of his religious and “patriotic” talks. He was in love with Macedonia, although he could not tell the Republic of Macedonia from the Greek province of Macedonia (he unlikely caught himself in the heart of the name dispute I guess). Yet, while hanging out with him, I could not stop feeling horrible, guilty and responsible for my previous acts of mockery and prejudiced talk (and artistic work!) on the “Hunza” topic. What I was thinking, was that if me and my friends heard the same type of “jokes” we had been making about the Pakistanis said about Albanians, or Roma, or Jews, or Africans, we could have easily started accusing people of hate speech or would have just given them a lesson on tolerance and multiculturalism. Yet, since it was about the “Hunzas”, it was considered cool.

What I have realized from this experience, and what I keep on realizing as the Hunza story is making the news again, is that the media (including some international ones) must move beyond the stereotypes on the Burusho Pakistanis. In the whole story, their role is the most subordinated one, as their actions solely depend on the script prepared by their Macedonian partners. Yet, it is a huge mistake to load the meaning of the term “Hunza” with negative features and it is morally wrong to exploit their background of tribespeople from the Himalayas for the sake of “enriching” the anti-nationalist rhetoric.

However, as I already mentioned, being respectable towards the Burusho people does not mean that one also should oversee the potential abuse by the government for the sake of very shallow political goals. Currently, the whole idea of aiding the construction of a “royal palace” in the “historic site” of Paljurci, legitimizing the idea of being “distant relatives” remains highly dubious and harmful to the Macedonian political debate. It is an entirely irrational narrative that maintains the mythologized discourse of ancient Macedonian nationhood, which is detrimental to the both internal and external “national questions”. The infamous “antiquization”, the meta process of redefining the Macedonian national self by reverting to the ancient Macedonian narrative of origin, has turned the identitarian policies of the government into a monoethnic, nineteenth century like nation building project and has obviously exacerbated the fragile post-2001 multicultural practice, aggravating certain Albanian political leaders. In terms of the foreign affairs, on the other hand, the political use of the ancient Macedonian rhetoric had significant contribution to exhausting the chances for a successful outcome of the Macedonian-Greek negotiations over the “name dispute”. Finally, one must not neglect the very pragmatic remark that while the VMRO-DPMNE led government is making Macedonian citizens buy off their own yards and lots on which their houses have been built, it enacts a totally arbitrary decision to simply give out land to foreign citizens only because of certain historical claims.

Anastas Vangeli is a Research Analyst at the Center for Research and Policy Making, Skopje

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