Looking for the ‚Sandžak‘

A comparison of the linguistic and symbolic landscapes in Pljevlja, Rožaje, Prijepolje and Novi Pazar

The public space as place of group opinion shaping

Throughout the North of Montenegro and the South-West of Serbia, we can observe a multitude of words and symbols relating to the ‚Sandžak‘. Here, we offer a micro-look into ways the public space between four different communities – Pljevlja, Rožaje, Prijepolje and Novi Pazar – shapes the understanding of what the ‘Sandžak’ is and who belongs to it.

What is the ‘Sandžak’?

Over the course of time, what used to be a term for an administrative division during the Ottoman empire, the historical ‘sanjak of Novi Pazar’, became what is colloquially called today the ‘Sandžak’.

The ‘Sandžak’ is now neither the name of an administrative unit nor part of official geographic terminology; it is something that exists informally through the people: some living in northern Montenegro and the south-western Serbia spontaneously call the region ‘Sandžak’ and identify themselves as people who belong to it – the ‘Sandžaklije’.

However, what area the ‘Sandžak’ is and who is a ‘Sanžaklija‘ varies between places and sometimes singular persons, signalling that it isn’t a stable category, but a term that is being continually constructed between communities, among others in places such as the public space.

Why look at public spaces?

Signs in the public space – from giant billboards on the roadside to rouge stickers on the back of school chairs – have a potent effect on group beliefs and opinions; they not only direct our attention this or that way, to this or that issue or make us want to buy this or that brand of milk, but signs shape, alter or deconstruct our way of thought and feeling about people, events and concepts. In other words, they can shape, alter and deconstruct how things, people and places are.

Linguistic and symbolic landscaping, i.e. taking the time to look at how and where signs are put up and what these signs say, are potent analytical tools for investigating how public spaces potentially influence a people’s thinking and beliefs. 

With this in mind, we ventured into the cities: We collected visual material, i.e. we took photographs of political campaign posters, stickers, coasters, leaflets, merchandise in souvenir shops, monuments and anything else that contained words or images referencing the ‘Sandžak’. We then looked at the material gathered in four specific cities: Rožaje (MNE), Pljevlja (MNE), Prijepolje (SRB) and Novi Pazar (SRB), in order to see if we could see patterns and differences between them because of the different population composition with regard to ethnicity (see map).

Prijepolje and Pljevlja:

The different presences of Sandžak

In Pljevlja, the Serbian-majority city, ‘Sandžak’ only appears on a monument in the historical context the ZAVNOS (eng. National anti-fascist Council for the People’s Liberation of Sandžak, the highest governing institution of the anti-fascist resistance movement of the historical Sandžak) which had been founded in Pljevlja in 1943, and the 4th Sandžak brigade, a partisan fighter‘s group also founded in Pljevlja the same year. In Prijepolje, the mixed population city, only one example stands out: in the name of the highest religious and administrative organ of the Islamic community, the Meshihat of the Islamic Community of Sandžak.

On the other hand, Rožaje and especially Novi Pazar, the two Bosniak-majority cities, seem to have ‘Sandžak’ appear everywhere in different forms: from very clear but wordless symbols of lilies and coat of arms on the fences of houses and in graffiti, to names of fast food places and transportation agencies, from mentions on coasters in NGOs, table cloths in restaurants, maps of its territory, magnets and shirts in the souvenir shop Pazarnica to posters for exhibitions, titles of books and very direct political statements as seen on campaign posters and names of political parties.


What do the signs mean?

These different presences and absences of ‘Sandžak‘ seem to differ from each other in telling ways with regard to what ‘Sandžak’ is and who belongs to it.

In Novi Pazar, ‘Sandžak’ is a place with a clearly depicted, but not always same geography – on a coaster it reaches only the southern border of Serbia, in maps it includes places like Pljevlja.

In both Bosniak-majority city and in mixed-population Prijepolje, ‘Sandžak’ is closely associated with being Bosniak, with Islam and the Bosnian language. In Novi Pazar, the political signs and the strong presence of many political parties bearing ‘Sandžak’ in its name shape and reinforce this close association and so create a local identity. Pljevlja stand out as an example, however, – ‘Sandžak’ is constrained to communist partisan history, thereby not partaking, at least in the public space, in establishing, let alone reinforcing the association between contemporary Bosniaks or contemporary Pljevlja and the ‘Sandžak’.

When looking at these two conceptualizations – the unclear geography and the strong identification of Sandžak with a specific ethnicity, a religion and a language – we see that the landscape perpetuates an ethnically and religiously oriented understanding of territoriality and group belonging.

Many questions, however, remain open: who is the driving force in creating the understanding of what the Sandžak is (e.g. political parties with high profile signs or the local population with their multitude of public signs and symbols)?; how is the concept of ‘Sandžak’ exactly taken up by the public and perpetuated or contended?; In which ways exactly do the signs contribute to the public shaping of the ‚Sandžak’?  All these remain for now unanswered and should serve as an inspiration for further research projects

Novi Pazar:

Team: Mirza Čohadžić, Goranka Ćejvanović, Selma Đečević, Sead Šabotić, Sara Marenčić, Marko Milošević, Ana Мarija Pavlović

Text: Sara Marenčić