Dissecting a complex concept down to etymology isn’t going to answer any questions most of the time, but the Serbs set themselves apart here as well. ‘Inat’ is a word of Turkish origin, an expression that translates as ‘stubbornness’, ‘obstinacy’ or ‘spite’. All these translations correlate with Serbian Inat, but none of them truly come close to conveying the idea.
It has been said that the closest translation of Inat (pronounced EE-nat) is the phrase ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’, but even that falls short. In simple terms, Inat is doing something in spite of the consequences, the somewhat reckless desire to touch something purely because it comes with a sticker saying ‘Do Not Touch’, the immediate compelling feeling to do something because it is forbidden.
The Serbian national consciousness was formed in a situation along these lines. Much of the national myth is centred around the famous Battle of Kosovo in 1389, a battle that has been treated like a loss despite actually being more of a draw. The Serbs did battle with the Ottomans in an unwinnable situation, choosing to die on the battlefield and gain a kingdom in heaven instead of negotiating and living in slavery.
The sense of sacrifice and defiance continued during the occupation. One of the features of the Ottoman Empire was the forced conversion of the Christians of the Balkans, giving the people of Serbia, Bosnia and the rest, the options of converting to Islam or dying. Many throughout Bosnia, Albania and others chose to convert—the majority of Serbs chose the ‘death’ option.
Living a normal life in the face of adversity is a common string throughout the world, but few nations have taken it to the extremes that the Serbs did in 1999. The last year of the 20th-century saw Serbia (then Yugoslavia) attacked by NATO, as the international organisation dropped bomb after bomb on Serbian and Montenegrin cities, towns and villages for 78 days.
Did the Serbs spend these two and a half months bunkered underground, waiting for the war to be over? Or did they get out of town as quickly as possible? No, and further no. It may have been some sort of national hysteria, but the Serbs decided instead to live a hyper-normal life. This meant holding BBQs on rooftops as bombs fell around them, openly wearing shirts with targets emblazoned on the back.
It meant turning out for the annual Belgrade fun run in record numbers, despite the pouring rain and the potential death by artillery strike. It meant taking extra time to walk across bridges even though they were open targets for NATO bombers. The Serbs were in many ways daring NATO to murder them. Some may call that insanity, when the reality is Inat.
The Serbs are unlikely to ever find a way to market and sell Inat like the Danish did with Hygge, but that is another example of this peculiar way of life. This attitude of proud defiance is almost always at odds with what is best for the nation, but it has the contradictory knock-on of holding the nation together in the most difficult times.
So what is Inat? It is a mother shouting at their child for bad behaviour, but secretly being proud of the kid for whatever it is he or she did. It is taking the wrong road, but ploughing forward regardless. It is having a BBQ on a roof or going out for a run as bombs fall around you, the ultimate middle finger to seemingly unsurmountable odds.