Alex Jeffrey – Making States, Drinking Coffee

Buses rumble past the roadside café where our meeting is taking place. The waiter brings over two copper trays of Bosnian coffee: on each an ornate coffee pot (džezva) sits alongside a cup (fildzan) and a cluster of sugar lumps.

I am meeting Vesna, a member of a human rights organisation in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar and a keen advocate for establishing war crimes trials after the violence of the 1992–95 Bosnian war.

Gesticulating with her džezva, Vesna is frustrated with the pace of change and progress in her country, an exasperation I have witnessed on many occasions over the last 15 years of conducting research in Bosnia and Herzegovina: ‘People don’t speak with each other, politicians don’t work together; it is like they don’t live in the same country.’

Vesna’s is a common frustration. To establish a new country after a divisive and violent conflict is a profound geographical challenge. Violence is so often about making claims to space: about asserting ownership of a homeland and expelling those who do not fit this imagined ideal. This was certainly the case during the conflict, where nationalist military projects were based on the ‘cleansing’ of territory, a grotesque euphemism for the murder and expulsion of victim populations. These projects were in many ways endorsed by 1995’s Dayton Peace Accords, a resolution that ended the conflict but partitioned Bosnia into a byzantine array of devolved territories: entities, municipalities, cantons and even a site where many of these overlapped in the northern Bosnian town of Brc?ko.

In the face of this territorial fragmentation, my research has explored how the concept of a unified Bosnian state has been communicated after the war and with what political effects. But rather than explore this through the eyes of those attempting to convey what the state is (whether it be state officials, political parties, international agencies or civil servants), I have looked to those who are both the audience of – and assistants in – these processes: community associations, non-governmental organisations, youth groups and civil society agencies.

I have been guided by a sense that it is through the operations of these purportedly non-state actors that we see the challenge of demonstrating there is a coherent state. In doing so we can start to understand the ways in which imagined uniformity is disrupted and subverted, and we can also glimpse the means through which different ideas of the state can co-exist. 

But let’s go back to the coffee. Coffee has played a part in my research in a number of important ways. Taking a worm’s-eye view on state-building has meant undertaking periods of long-term residential fieldwork, where the methodology comprises talking to as many people as possible: sitting having coffee and allowing individuals and groups to discuss the emergence of the Bosnian state in their own terms.

The significance of coffee-shop meetings is not simply a methodological choice, it is also a reflection of the centrality of coffee to Bosnian (and before this, Yugoslav) culture; the ritual of drinking coffee is a public and private moment that builds solidarity and trust. In this sense sociologists see coffee-drinking as an important mechanism for building social capital. But in the post-war period the coffee landscape has mirrored the territory of the Bosnian state itself: in many parts of the country the coffee shop you drink in is interpreted as a signal of your ethnic identity. Social capital becomes aligned to group membership: blood, soil and coffee.

I look across at the mantelpiece of my room in Emmanuel House. There sits a džezva, a reminder of the significance of coffee to both the making and breaking of states. I sometimes get the džezva out in supervisions and make a coffee: what better way of bringing political geography to life than holding it in your hands?