“Our Bitter Beloved Borderless Balkans”: Kapka Kassabova’s Border – by Dorian Stuber

Kapka Kassabova

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

2017 (UK: Granta Books; US: Graywolf Press)

Halfway through her exhilarating narrative of travels through the borderlands of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, Kapka Kassabova tells the story of the Spring of the White-Legged Maiden, popularized in a nineteenth century poem but dating back much earlier.

The spring is properly speaking a chesma,

“the pan-Balkan roadside drinking fountain where you tie your horse, fill your goatskin with water, slice a watermelon, drop your rubbish in the vicinity of the public bin. … the chesma is hospitality without a host, the Balkans without borders.”

It is the best of the place, in other words. Yet despite the idea of hospitality promised by the chesma—almost but not quite idealized (note the wry observation about the rubbish)—Kassabova recognizes there is no such thing as the Balkans without borders. And borders, Kassabova warns, are never without menace. They are places “where the fabric is thin,” where death is close to life.

The story of this particular chesma, near the town of Harmanli, in southern Bulgaria, goes like this: A young woman named Gergana agreed to meet her lover at the spring. But when she got there, she found that a vizier traveling to Istanbul had set up camp. “Gergana washed her legs in the spring and the vizier was seized with lust.” He invited her to come with him, promising her the riches of the harem.

But Gergana preferred to stay:

“From my window I can see my garden with all my flowers in it, and I also have a sweetheart.”

The vizier chided her for throwing up the chance of a lifetime. Days passed—he grew more desperate, started to beg, told her she could bring her family with her. But Gergana continued to refuse. Eventually the vizier, moved by her modesty and steadfastness, left for the city. Before doing so, he ordered a fountain with twelve stone basins be built on the spot, so that, as Kassabova puts it, “Gergana could wash her legs amid opulence and remember him.”

Although Kassabova tells Gergana’s story only briefly, the girl is the hero of her book, its presiding spirit. Her gentle defiance of authority is unexpectedly—and, given what we learn about the history of the region, unusually—triumphant. What Kassabova appreciates most of all about Gergana is the girl’s willingness to be satisfied with what she has. She is “a sage in a maiden’s disguise: she already had everything she wanted.” Taking Gergana as a model, Kassabova repeatedly praises the values of modesty, persistence, and self-sufficiency that she finds stubbornly persisting in this forgotten corner of Europe.

Such values matter because they resist totalizing ways of organizing society, whether communist, fascist, or late capitalist. Invariably such systems are centralizing, not just ideologically but geographically. By contrast, Border is a book about the periphery, places where resistance to centralized authority often succeeds, though usually at the cost of poverty and marginalization.

The borders Kassabova refers to are of course literal: she moves between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey regularly, if not quite with ease (her car is taken apart a few times, though in the end her British passport disposes of any real difficulties). But more importantly her borders are metaphorical. A border is always someone’s idea of separating things that could go together. Kassabova is alive to the shifts of topography—the way that the Rhodope and Strandja mountain ranges become the plains of Thrace—but she isn’t concerned with natural boundaries. For her, borders are always artificial and almost always ruinous. And yet the very idea of separation carries within it its undoing. Borders draw together as much as they divide. They call out to be crossed. The result is a mixture of people and ideas that is nothing less than civilization. True urbanity, Kassabova suggests, comes only in those rural, forgotten places far from urban centers.

Yet Kassabova never romanticizes the situations she is describing. Reflecting on the streets of Harmanli, the town near Gergana’s spring, now filled not with stalwart maidens and chastened viziers but with refugees from Syrian and Iraq, Kassabova wonders:

“Can the shabby periphery be a cosmopolis? If so, it [would be] a strange cosmopolis of people who had embarked on a forced adventure, and their roads had converged here, at the point between opportunity and catastrophe.”

Kassabova admires those who inhabit that uncomfortable point. She is always more curious about others than about herself. And indeed, she is a better travel writer than a memoirist. Border is more compelling than her memoir of growing up in the last years of communist Bulgaria, Street without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (2009). Writers are usually best at describing their childhood and the worlds that made it. But Kassabova prefers to tell others’ stories rather than her own. Yet she is no mere recorder; her depictions are always accompanied by thoughtful commentary, a little lyrical, a little philosophical. Here, for example, she describes a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan, stuck with her family in legal limbo in Bulgaria:

“Alal was a broad woman who moved like a royal frigate in her free-flowing dress and bare feet. She carried her uncovered head high, her gaze hard and unflinching, her skin a bit pale after the long Balkan winter of waiting and smoking, cooking, and hoping. When she walked into a room, something else entered with her: a sense that everyone would be looked after and everything would come right, even if things were desperate, utterly desperate now.”

Kassabova’s description of what Alal looks like (the “broad woman” in “free-flowing dress and bare feet”) becomes an assessment of her personality and her role in the family (head held high, gaze hard and unflinching). We see Alal’s pride, her confidence. We see too the gifts of comfort and certainty she gives those around her, gifts that come at a cost hinted at in Kassabova’s repetition of “desperate.”

Kassabova is similarly shrewd in summarizing the dilemma experienced by Alal’s daughters:

“I looked at the skinny girls next to me and felt everything with them: the humiliation, the injustice, the mindfuck of having to hate where you come from but having nothing new to love.”

Her sympathy here stems from her own experiences seeking a new life in England and New Zealand after the fall of Communism. Which is to say that she doesn’t efface herself entirely. At the end of a summer in a village in the Bulgarian side of the Strandja, a dying town next to an abandoned uranium mine that exerts an inertial fascination on her, she half-wonders, half-worries

“that although I no longer belonged here, in the broken country of my youth, it was where I secretly belonged the most.”

Can she be an observer if she is in fact a participant? In the end, Kassabova answers this question by deciding that her participation takes the form of observation.

One drawback to this solution is that her inclusion of history—the things that happened before her lifetime and on which she therefore cannot comment in the same way—is less successful. These are the weakest parts of the book, sometimes rote and always dutiful, cribbed from sources she freely acknowledges. Her transitions into and out of the historical material are clunky, as when she moves abruptly from a conversation with an impassioned Turkish diplomat who insists on the primacy of Turkish suffering into a consideration of the Ottoman past:

“Emotion aside, one of the most interesting policies of the Ottomans was the sowing and nurturing of human talent regardless of class or race.”

Kassabova is better at reflecting on history than on telling it. I will remember her observation about how history is experienced in the region—

“Whichever way you turned, something was behind you and nothing ahead of you. Perhaps that’s what history is”

—much longer than any of the facts she retells. Kassabova’s readers learn the most when she isn’t trying to teach them something.

Those lessons come through most powerfully in a series of indelible scenes usually involving extraordinary people. Take, for example, Ziko, a former people smuggler and general ne’er-do-well, who takes Kassabova along the hairpin curves of the roads and paths of the Rhodope mountain range straddling Bulgaria and Greece. Ziko claims to have left behind his illegal ways, but it’s unclear whether he can be trusted. Their time together ends when she gets separated from him in a remote, sinister landscape—“There is no silence like the silence of abandoned human dwellings”—and is overwhelmed by panic that sends her running heedlessly and lost in the wilderness. She hears him calling but suddenly wonders whether he is rescuing her or chasing her. Kassabova vividly conveys the terror of the moment, which has lasting ramifications. The two later find each other and return to the remote inn from which they had set out that morning, but they remain unreconciled. Ziko tells her,

“What really hurts is that in the end, I wanted you to feel safe with me, but you just couldn’t trust me, could you?”

The failure here might not be Kassabova’s but the very landscape she is exploring. It isn’t, in fact, safe, the rugged terrain compounded by the ghosts of historical trauma. At one point she finds herself in a forest in which the trunks of almost every tree are inscribed with names and dates carved by those desperate to pass through the Iron Curtain and willing to risk death on the heavily militarized frontier with its electrified and alarmed fences. (In one chapter, she travels to Berlin to interview an artist whose attempt to escape in the early 1970s failed: he was arrested, thrown into solitary confinement, and psychologically tortured, a trauma he has yet to recover from.) But such suffering isn’t just in the past. Today those most desperate to cross the border are heading the other direction, in search of asylum in Europe. Just as vivid as the silent forest are the dignity, anger, and helplessness of refugees in a camp in southern Bulgaria.

Even situations that we might at first think of as hopeful are imbued with loss. She meets Tako, a Roma man who has taken it upon himself to watch over the ruined monastery of Saint Nicholas on the Black Sea. For thirty years he has sat on a plastic chair, watching over wedding parties and picking up trash. But what will happen when he dies? Perhaps what has happened to the family that for three generations tended a lighthouse on the Black Sea, recently made redundant when the lighthouse was made fully automatic. The last keeper, “a tall, bald man of fifty with watery blue eyes and a soft body that had caved in, as if from a blow,” recalls his childhood when the gas signal needed tending every two hours. “Nobody ever missed a shift.” The family still lives nearby, unable to tear themselves away.

Further up the coast, she meets a married couple keeping a similar vigil for a past way of life. Mustafa and Feride live in an abandoned village. They begged the authorities to reconnect the electricity, but they wouldn’t only connect it to the house, not the streetlights. At night theirs is the only light for miles around. Mustafa is a shepherd; the life is hard, especially for Feride, alone in the house except for desperate refugees dropped off by callous traffickers in the dark. But the lambing season has been good; the flock is thriving. She wants to take a farewell picture of the man, but

“Mustafa kept placing the lambs in front of him to be photographed. One after the other.”

If Kassabova ever allows herself to be sentimental it is in her depictions of people like these. She concludes:

“The rougher the history, the tougher the terrain, the more exceptional the people. They seem to know what others don’t: kindness is the one thing that matters in the end.”

As the escapade with Ziko suggests, however, it’s not always possible to recognize kindness. Kassabova recognizes the ambivalence, sometimes writing of the region as a primordial place that is not so much magical as malignant. After all, the borderlands are full of ruins and ruins are more fun to visit than to live in. Yet the lessons of modesty and persistence offered by what she calls in her most characteristic phrase “our bitter beloved borderless Balkans” aren’t to be disparaged.

In this regard, I’m reminded of another travelogue of Eastern Europe written in English, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey on foot from Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s. Fermor also traveled through Bulgaria, though he skirted the territory covered by Kassabova. Yet his book too was a paean to cultural diversity and open hospitality in the face of encroaching authoritarianism. We can only hope that Kassabova’s book will not presage a similar dark time. Admittedly, her encounters with the refugees of our own time suggests otherwise. Yet as Kapka Kassabova suggests in this fascinating and often beautiful book, if we can learn to accept the wisdom of Gergana, we would all be better off. Today the vizier’s fountain is crumbled and the area around it filled with litter, but “the spouts continue to chatter.” It is said that you can sometimes hear a flute in the hills, and on those nights the figure of a young maiden comes to bathe her legs. Border is a book about a journey through a land where nothing ever goes away.

Dorian Stuber

Kassabova Border 2

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Kapka Kassabova (born 1973  in Sofia) is a poet and writer of travel, history, and fiction. After leaving Bulgaria with her family as a teenager, she lived in New Zealand for a number of years where she studied French, Russian and English Literature and published her first poetry and fiction, before moving to Scotland in 2005. Her debut poetry collection All roads lead to the sea won a NZ Montana Book Award and her debut novel Reconnaissance won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Asia Pacific. In 2008, Kassabova published the memoir Street Without a Name which Misha Glenny in The Guardian called a “profound meditation on the depth of change triggered by the events of 1989 throughout eastern Europe”. Kassabova’s tango biography Twelve Minutes of Love (2011), was shortlisted for the Scottish Book Awards. In 2017, her work Border: a journey to the edge of Europe was published in the UK. Border was named 2017 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year and 2017 Saltire Society Book of the Year in Scotland, and won the inaugural Highland Book Prize in 2018. It was shortlisted for various literary awards in the UK and the USA. Kassabova writes in English.

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Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, USA and has published reviews in Words without Borders, Open Letters Monthly, and Numéro Cinq. He blogs about books at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

Photo credits: Slowking/Wikipedia; Becca Bona

This blog post is part of #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

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