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The Heart Underneath

It is made out of šajak-čoja, similar to homemade coarse woolen fabric. From the 15th to the 19th century, they were worn by šajkaši, the river warriors against the Turks on Danube and Tisa rivers. Later it became more popular, it became a unique national symbol, much more than a regular cap – the symbol of defiance and courage, the shape of tenderness and spite. One can never take it off, only in front of God in the church. Its only bad characteristic is that it turns into a hat in peace and prosperity, easily forgetting itself. The ones, who keep on wearing it, are the ones you can count on
From “Serbia – National Review” Archive Text: Momo Kapor (1937-2010) Photographs by: Željko Sinobad, Dragan Bosnić
Regardless of how wise or informed a foreigner may be, if he does not know the origin and essence of the Serbian folk cap – the šajkača – he will never understand Serbs. Namely, the šajkača is much more than a cap; it is a form of defiance, courage, tenderness and spite. For several centuries it has protected the heads of Serbian people from natural disasters and defeats in war. It presents a holy tie to the past and a bond to life.
During dangerous and hard times, the Serbian folk cap once again regains its fashionable status.
Hats, baseball caps and French berets sink into oblivion.
The šajkača, an unavoidable part of folk costumes during times of peace, is the only cap in the world that becomes a part of military uniforms in times of war.
And this is why Serbs, even in times of peace, always tend to look a bit like they’re at war.
The character of this cap is best witnessed by the fact that the šajkača is never taken off, except before Our Lord in church! People eat and work with this cap on their heads, and when sleeping men pull it over their faces to protect themselves from flies and create superficial night.

It originates from the 15th century when it was worn by boatmen who moved in rowboats with sharp iron bows and who spent centuries intercepting Turkish ships on the Danube and Tisa rivers. Though the homemade šajak-čoja, a type of heavy cloth similar to coarse woolen fabric, originates from a Turkish word, the word čajka means seagull in Russian and it is no surprise that the šajkača represents, in fact, the stylized shape of this most poetic bird.
No cap in the world can so readily reveal the character of the man who wears it on his head! Pulled down to the eyebrows, the šajkača sends a signal of danger and the necessity of being on guard; also, it can reveal the hot-tempered character of its owner. Tilted downside to the ear it discloses its owner’s bachelor mood and a tendency to drink and make marry; a readiness to surrender to exaggerated feelings, excess and emotional abandon.
Cut and darn“The twofold part of the šajkača, the one on the side, is coming over the ears during the winter. That is why that part is called uši (ears). The šajkača is made out of the same material as trousers which go with it. It sometimes happens that the trousers get torn on the back, because that part gets worn out first. Given that it is not very nice to wear torn trousers, pieces were cut from the šajkača and made for darning the back of the trousers. That is how the Serbs got the famous line: ‘Cut the ear, darn the rear!’. It refers to all things done out of trouble.” (Dragan Bosnić)

Should the owner tilt it towards the back of his head then we see a hidden ruffian or a confused man who is getting ready to do very hard work.
The oversized šajkača, which falls over the ears, tells us that its owner is negligent, that he gave up and reconciled to poverty and approaching misfortune.
God, how many varieties of šajkačas there are in Serbia! Wrinkled, sweated, greasy, pale from rain and wind, heat and snow; brand new šajkačas (worn only for patron saint’s day feast or just for spite), insolent and straight ones, as if inflammatory, and there are those collapsed from grief and sadness which cover the head like a dejected bird…
Freshly laid eggs and picked pears are carried in it for guests from the city.
When there is nothing else the šajkača is used for scooping water from a spring.
Beads of sweat on the forehead are wiped with the šajkača in the field.
A long awaited letter from a son serving in the army is stuck into it, to be seen by the whole village. Also, court summonses.

In this cap with its double sides, which can be pulled down over the ears in winter, a flower is stuck in summer or a given cigarette is put aside (to be smoked later).
During war, a needle and a ball of thread are placed in the šajkača should a button fall off one’s overcoat.
Where should a lottery ticket be but in the šajkača!
When we are making merry, we put large bills into the Dragačevo trumpeters’ šajkačas!
Of course we put coins into it for beggars on the church porch.
Anyhow, the šajkača is the most tolerant cap on the globe; it tranquilly puts up with other caps that conspire against the head it covers.
Regardless of the badges that are put on it – cockades, skull and crossbones or five-pointed stars – it is most beautiful without any emblem.
This is because the šajkača is much older than politics.
And wiser. And more durable. More lasting…
It does not fit with an urban suit and does not go well with sunglasses.
It is a sad thing to see in a souvenir shop.
For a half a century the šajkača patiently put up with the terrorism of Tito’s caps, whose shapes resembled caps that had been copied from foreign armies and police forces.
Those caps are so unnatural and so ugly on the heads of our soldiers that they would take them off at the first available opportunity so as not to ruin their hair; they were usually seen stuck under the belt. There was only the famous three-horned cap – about which there is a song:
I am Anka, a partisan-girl
I wear a three-horned cap
And I fight against God!

In contrast to these blasphemous caps and their kin, the šajkača can only be Orthodox.
It is not even taken off before the king, with whom the Serbian yeomen were on per tu from time immemorial!
The only bad trait of the šajkača is that during times of peace and prosperity it turns into a hat in a split second and easily forgets itself.
Those who wear it persistently are the ones you can count on…
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