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Bounds of possibility: writing at the edges of Europe

Watch tower veselina nikolaeva

The conflict-strewn past of the borderlands of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey belies a depth of human spirit poignantly captured by Kapka Kassabova

Europe used to be divided, apparently, neatly and cleanly by an east-west border – an internal line of barbed wire and concrete. It was quickly dubbed, first by Goebbels and then by Winston Churchill, an ‘iron curtain’, running, according to Churchill, from ‘Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’. Conversely, Daniel Trilling, author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (2018), recently described the current borders of ‘Fortress Europe’ via the metaphor of the zones used by London Transport: ‘Zone One comprises the wealthy states of northwestern Europe, Zone Two the poorer countries on the EU’s southern and eastern periphery, and Zone Three countries just outside the EU, such as Morocco, Libya, Turkey and Ukraine. The aim, as it were, is to prevent as many unwanted migrants as possible from reaching the inner core, while preserving the passport-free travel that most EU citizens enjoy under the Schengen Agreement.’ So ‘the frontline states of Zone Two, such as Spain, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria, patrol the EU’s external borders, largely with national border forces supported and co-ordinated by the Warsaw-based EU agency Frontex’. 

This relatively recent border, which runs through the mountains of the Balkans and across the Mediterranean, has by far exceeded the old one in terms of the number of deaths to which it has borne witness over the last few years. The Scottish-based Bulgarian poet and writer Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe is about one of the places where one of these zones meets another, focusing on the historical region of Thrace. It seems to set out to be one of the many books about the old Iron Curtain, but gradually becomes a more interesting account of life on the even-more-lethal border of Fortress Europe. In some ways, this is a conventional travel book, with Kassabova travelling around Thrace, staying in small towns, villages and hamlets, talking to residents, eating a lot of exotic food and walking the region’s current and historic borders – but the form is more ambitious than that implies, with short sections between the chapters under the title of a word in one of the many languages used in Thrace. 

‘We come to see the Cold War not as an anomaly, but one of several violent border-makings inflicted on these people over the last 100 years’

This mountainous area was picked to pieces first as the Ottoman Empire fell into decline with Greece and then Bulgaria becoming independent, then the new secular Turkish state retaining a large chunk of the historic region around the major city of Edirne. Rather than this now being a clearly divided place where Turks are here, Bulgarians there and Greeks there, Kassabova focuses on the grey areas and the people whose lives are defined by them, such as the Bulgarian Turks. This is one of the last sizeable minorities in an Eastern Europe ruthlessly homogenised in both World Wars, turning an area that once featured people speaking German, Ladino, Arabic and scores of local dialects, into one where Bulgarian, Greek and Turkish became dominant and contained within distinct borders. But people still slipped through the cracks. In Bulgaria, these groups only just survived a chauvinistic Revival Process programme in the 1980s, as the fading Communist regime turned nationalist. Bulgarian Turks were forced to change their names to more Slavic spellings, coerced to solely use Bulgarian, and tens of thousands were forced out of the country. As this happened, TV and film studios created epic films about battles against ‘the Turks’ in the 17th century, creating ‘a neurotic fixation on a doctored version of the distant past’. 

Kassabova begins the book by stressing how this was once an almost equally important, and equally brutally and ruthlessly policed, border to the Berlin Wall. As it ran through mountains and apparently hard-to-police areas – and as it couldn’t be visualised, unlike the stark concrete rampart that ran through their capital – East Germans holidaying in Bulgaria’s ‘Red Riviera’ Black Sea resorts often tried to slip through to Greece or Turkey, and were just as often captured or killed. The area is still scarred by this, and memories – sometimes fanciful – extend to ‘an additional “live fence” of thousands of vipers, specially bred for this purpose by Uzbeks along the southern Black Sea under something called decree number 56’.

Border map final 4 10 16

Border map final 4 10 16

Heavily policed borders and checkpoints ‘protecting’ the Balkan peninsula. Kassabova’s Borders focuses on the historical region of Thrace. Image © Emily Faccini, commissioned by Granta Books

There is an understandable but strident anti-communism at the start of the book that means Kassabova initially misses one of the most-crucial aspects of this border: people crossing from East to West Germany did so because they wanted to live in West Germany, but those crossing from the south of Bulgaria into northern Greece or western Turkey had no interest in settling in those countries – their main interest was using their new location in a NATO country to get into West Germany. This isn’t particularly surprising; during the Cold War, at least until the 1970s when the Greek ‘colonels dictatorship’ was overthrown, these three countries were all roughly on the same level, all undergoing rapid urbanisation and industrialisation – a little more planned in Bulgaria, a little more consumerist in Greece – and all under authoritarian, undemocratic regimes. One of Europe’s real gaps in understanding is between the southern countries that experienced right-wing dictatorships for most of the 20th century – Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey – and those that lived under dictatorships of the left in the continent’s east. As the book goes on, however, Kassabova gradually comes to realise this commonality – and it enriches her book hugely.

That comes especially in its focus on the marginalised groups living between the cracks of the border, and how their stories about how they’ve lived within these are recounted. We come to see the Cold War not as an anomaly, but one of several violent border-makings inflicted on these people over the last 100 years. This extends from Syrians and Kurds in the present day to the lives torn apart over a century ago as Thrace was parcelled between new self-contained nation states. Kassabova finds a people who, ‘when the Ottoman Empire was first dismembered and the Balkan Wars ripped people from the land, they were forced to cross this border under pain of death. Then, for half a century they were prohibited from crossing it under pain of death’.

Mfs ha ix 17587 seite 0265 bild 0001 mast

Mfs ha ix 17587 seite 0265 bild 0001 mast

Image credit to BStU, MfS, HA IX, Nr. 17587, Bl. 265

Mfs ha ix fo 2570 bild 0002 mast

Mfs ha ix fo 2570 bild 0002 mast

Approaching the border of Bulgaria in the Cold War, when those trying to escape were often killed in cold blood. Image credit to BStU, MfS, HA IX, Fo, Nr. 2570, Bild 2

Among the depopulated landscapes and villages, a multinational culture just about survives in pockets, in chaotic junk markets and small towns still defined by a mix of minarets and church spires. Kassabova even claims the secret of, if not eternal, at least very long, life can be found in yoghurt from the Rhodopes, with the region’s inhabitants being some of the longest-living people on the planet. Rather than a nowheresville evacuated of all particularity, Kassabova finds surviving fire-worshippers and Sufis, people who have somehow managed to survive not fitting into anybody’s club. There’s a certain romantic vision of the pre-industrial, pre-modern world in all this, but then modernity has tended to evacuate this area or cover it in fences.

Kassabova notes of the former ‘furrow of death’ where people tried to escape from Bulgaria to Turkey, ‘nothing grew, nobody visited, but the traffic kept passing over the hump of the stone bridge – lorries, Turkish Gastarbeiter on their way to and from West Germany, foreign tourists’. Talking to an old regime stalwart, she records her lament for this corner of socialist Bulgaria, now a zone of casinos and wastelands – ‘I was proud of what we achieved. The silk factories, the sesame oil, the watermelons, the star workers, the overproduction in our fertile region where everything grew. We were the vanguard of socialism, and now we’re the back door of Europe’. Such sentiments can easily slip into xenophobia, of course, but there’s also something better: not wanting just to be an interzone people step over en route elsewhere – or don’t – but a place that is proud of itself and of a history that can’t be fit into anybody’s national box, no matter how hard they try. Or, as someone tells her in one of the borderland villages of Strandzha, ‘You know, I studied in Manchester University for two years. But I can’t live in Manchester. No one can live in Manchester. So I came back’. 

Lead image: On the borders of Fortress Europe there are still reminders of the brutal authoritarian regimes that tore people’s lives apart in an effort to parcel off the new nation states. Image courtesy of Vesselina Nikolaeva

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today