Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe,  by Kapka Kassabova







Neste site, escrevi já sobre os anteriores livros de Kapka Kassabova, Street without a name e Twelve minutes of love – A Tango Story. Nasceu ela em 1973 na Bulgária, onde ficou até aos 17 anos. Com os pais, emigrou para a Nova Zelândia, de onde partiu de vez por volta dos 30 anos. Vive com o seu companheiro nas Highlands – Escócia.  Escreve com alguma regularidade no jornal Guardian.

A Bulgária é um país relativamente pequeno, pouco maior que Portugal, com 7 milhões de habitantes. Tem fronteiras com a Roménia, a Sérvia, a Macedónia, a Grécia e a Turquia.  A Autora porém descreve paisagens, factos e personagens apenas das fronteiras com a Grécia e a Turquia.

A fronteira, e o seu atravessar (ou a proibição de o fazer) dão origem a inúmeros episódios que ela conta com a vivacidade que lhe é habitual. Personagens  muito importantes nas fronteiras são os “passadores”, que ela refere frequentemente.

Inicia e termina o livro na Strandja, zona próxima do Mar Negro no sul da País. Descreve os personagens de uma localidade que chama “The Vilage in the Valley”, que não identifica, ao contrário do que acontece com quase todas as outras cidades e aldeias que podemos localizar no mapa.

Dedica muita atenção  à dupla fronteira da Bulgaria com a Turquia e a Grécia junto da cidade búlgara de Slivengrad e da cidade turca de Edirne.

Multiplica os personagens do livro que descreve sempre com muito calor.

O livro teve a sua origem numa viagem feita pela Autora durante dois anos, nas fronteiras a sul da Bulgária. Mas o seu estilo é muito vivo e vai muito para além de um livro de viagens, até porque insere na narrativa os seus próprios sentimentos e emoções. O livro é mais literário e mais trabalhado que a sua autobiografia (parcial) Street without a name.

O livro lê-se com muito agrado. Acho que a escrita da Autora é particularmente conseguida quando narra episódios autobiográficos, o que faz no livro de vez em quando, como no capítulo “Girl between languages”.

Esperamos por mais.






Wednesday 8 February 2017 

Border by Kapka Kassabova review – magic in the corner of Europe

This is a marvellous, personal account of the border zone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, from the Ottomans to cold war menace and beyond


Mark Mazower


Kapka Kassabova has written a marvellous book about a magical part of the world. In Europe’s southeastern corner, where Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey meet, modernity seems to peter out in the ancient forests. The low mountains that give the Balkans their name force most of the traffic between Europe and Asia to run either side of them, while providing shelter and sanctuary over the centuries in their secluded valleys, and not only to the bears and wolves that still roam them. Strange rites and superstitions survive, customs and beliefs that have vanished elsewhere. Deep in the roadless uplands there are remote Bektashi temples, the remnants of that humane and mystical strain of Sufi Islam that accompanied the Ottoman armies centuries ago. High in the mountains of Thrace each August, crowds gather to watch the great wrestling bouts in the meadows.

Thirty years ago, when Bulgaria lay on the other side of the iron curtain, the easiest way into these mountains was from the south, a flight into Salonica and then the eastbound train that ran towards Istanbul. It rumbled slowly along the beautiful Nestos valley, curving inland away from the sea because that was how the Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid II had instructed the engineers when it was built. Eventually you would arrive at Xanthi, a quiet old tobacco town that had seen better days: the market did a lively trade in locally produced Ralph Lauren rip-offs. The Muslim quarter, its mansions largely unchanged since Ottoman times, climbed the hill behind the new town, and behind it, the road ran up into the Rhodope forests.

The first time I drove that way I thought it was perhaps the most beautiful part of Greece. The romance of it was, if anything, reinforced by the small military checkpoint that awaited anyone heading up to the Bulgarian border: throughout the cold war, those remote valleys were a security zone that required a special pass to enter. Beyond the guards lay the steep green slopes where some of the finest tobacco in the world was grown, flanked by the dwellings of their Muslim farmers. Greece was by this time close to 99% Christian but here they were Pomaks – Slavic-speaking Muslims who had reputedly converted from Christianity around the time of the Ottoman invasions, and their minority status seemed to reinforce their isolation. Once the car crested the rise, the dense forest dropped away and pencil-thin village minarets rose from hidden valleys far below. It felt like a Balkan Shangri-La.

Except that it wasn’t. The area was heavy with surveillance and suspicion. Not only were the tourists kept out, the local inhabitants were kept in. The only investment in infrastructure the region had seen for decades was military. The border, as everywhere along the iron curtain, exerted its malign influence. The region slept, but it was the sleep of nightmares and neglect.

Kassabova’s story starts on the other side of that border, over the hill in Bulgaria, and it is full of restlessness. It shows more starkly than anything else I have read what the border did to the people who lived along it, and how its legacy endures. Her journey was made recently, but the memory of the years of the cold war remains strong in the minds of the people she lived with. They remember the soldiers and their officers, and the unfortunates who tried to thread their way southwards through the forest paths out of communism to the free world on the other side. She sees the initials of voyagers carved in trees, and her travels bring her into contact both with survivors of the perilous crossing, and with those who patrolled it and intercepted them, often with fatal results.

There was a hopeless irony bound up with those borders. The 20th century had been a time of fighting over land – the more land the better was the assumption. Yet by the 1960s, the villages either side of the iron curtain were haemorrhaging young people. Real land – even the most fertile – was losing its hold; depopulation was happening everywhere in Europe. Balkan states had made a special effort to ensure their border villages were well stocked: in earlier decades they had settled migrants there and tried to turn them into prosperous farmers – there were plenty of cold war schemes to resettle abandoned villages with peasants from elsewhere. But with the exception of the tobacco growers, they mostly left for better jobs and an easier life down in the plains. Tourism transformed the coasts of Bulgaria and northern Greece. Ghost villages proliferated up in the hills. The only people happy to head for the borders were those trying to cross them.

Kassabova is excellent on such ironies, which are rich in this area where states go head to head with nature, and nature usually ends up winning. As the villages age and decay, the forests thrive. Even the mines gradually decay; the massive bunkers that once guarded the mountain passes south into Greece are now crumbling. Eco-tourism beckons, and Kassabova, a poet, writes lyrically and effectively about the astonishing natural beauty of much of the area. But she spends enough time talking to local people and hearing their stories to give us a real sense of the psychic dramas they carry with them as well. As the narrative unfolds, an undercurrent of menace creeps in, for this is an environment that does not spare the unlucky or the vulnerable. One detects in the background the trade in drugs and prostitution that now forms a sizeable part of the real economy in provincial towns blighted by years of neoliberalism and economic crisis. In the foreground are the refugees – Syrians, Kurds, north Africans – the latest in the long line of migrations that have swept over the area through the centuries.

In retrospect, the cold war was a parenthesis, an oddity: people in those years were fleeing from north to south. They were coming in from East Germany, Poland and Hungary, but today, those countries are in the EU, the promised land, and the flow is the other way. The locals come across, for the most part, as astonishingly generous – as indeed are the refugees. And in many cases that is because the locals too were once refugees, caught up in one or more of the innumerable movements of populations that followed the collapse of the Ottoman empire nearly a century ago. For well over 100 years, western travellers have turned the Balkans into a land of exotic, larger than life, beliefs. Border offers the reader a large helping of strange inexplicable occurrences and compelling characters, but its author is engaged in something more personal and more engaging than most of her predecessors. Her origins, after all, lie in this part of the world, and her wanderings in the mountains are more a way for her to ruminate on the meaning of home than they are a source of fantasy. Or perhaps it would be better to say that home and fantasy start to blur, as she arcs across countries and centuries in an effort to free herself from the enchantment of this strangest of regions. In the end she leaves, but the spell remains.

Mark Mazower’s books include Inside Hitler’s Greece and The BalkansBorder is published by Granta. 








Sunday 5 February 2017 

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova – review

This study of a conflict-strewn corner of Europe, where minorities have frequently been oppressed, is highly topical


Sara Wheeler


This is a book about that shadowy region where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey converge and diverge. During “half a century of cold war hardness”, writes Kapka Kassabova in this thoughtful and impressive volume, the zone was “a forested Berlin Wall darkened by the armies of three countries”. She says it remains “prickly with dread”.

Born in 1973 under Pontic skies, Kassabova, whose previous books include Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria, now lives in Scotland. `In Border, she arranges her material broadly geographically, starting and ending on the Black Sea at the edge of the Strandja ranges where Mediterranean and Balkan currents meet. She mixes memoir with travelogue, journeying mostly in an old Renault, directed by “freakish serendipities” and with topographical description, literary references, reflection on what the concept of “border” means, and above all, long quotations from people she encounters on her travels, oral history style.

For her composite picture, Kassabova draws artfully on Slavic folklore, ancient customs such as fire walking, myths involving Uzbek-bred vipers and snippets of history, though she never falls into the trap of rehashing the whole damn political tragedy. She also focuses on key words exemplifying her themes, such as memleket (homeland) from the Turkish meme (breast).

She has an old-fashioned gift for storytelling. A chapter begins: “One evening, when mist had risen from the river, chill and clammy on the skin like a ghost, a Belgian guy arrived in the village in the valley.” One admires her diligence, both as a traveller and a researcher. I know how tempting it is at the end of a long day on the road not to go the extra mile. But Kassabova always does. And after the journey she goes to enormous lengths to track down survivors, people who have popped up in the stories, often travelling great distances to meet them.

Take Felix, who fled East Berlin as an 18-year-old in an attempt to escape the communist bloc via Bulgaria. He endured more than most human spirits could bear (not least because GDR-manufactured maps of Warsaw Pact countries featured deliberately false borders). The author interviews him in a cold flat in Berlin, “the carpets full of cigarette ash and old sorrows”.

The prose is imaginative – a young woman from a village on the Veleka river has “skin [that] was a golden galaxy, her hair a river of wheat”. A nasty, old-style German informer lives in a house that is “a fine example of gangster-baroque”, his wife lounging by the pool in – this a delicious tautology and linguistic throwback – a “two-piece bikini”.

I learned a lot. Take Thrace. How much do you know about it? It once occupied a geographical swath across what is today northern Greece, the European part of Turkey and all of Bulgaria; across the Danube, it covered Romania up to the Carpathian mountains and some of Serbia and Macedonia. The ancient Thracians never formed an empire, which is why we know so little about them, but much remains of their rich civilisation. Kassabova is an excellent guide.

As one might expect in a book that focuses on the human story, there is much on ethnicity and religion in these pages. Early converts to Islam included Balkan landowning nobility, among them Serbs, Byzantine Greeks and Venetians, as well as Bulgars. Then there were the heretical Bogomils, members of a movement that spread west to Bosnia, Italy and France and eventually “morphed” into the Cathar church. Border brilliantly reveals the effects of a millennium of kaleidoscopic shifting.

In her examination of these Islamic groups, Kassabova homes in on a Pomak couple who run a successful guesthouse in a mountain village where “labyrinthine passages carved out cathedrals and entire cities inside the cliffs”; a bear crossed the author’s path as she ate a jar of sheep’s yoghurt there, “fatty like double cream”. It turns out that the ethnic minorities of the border zone fell under double suspicion during the communist era: first, on account of their status as “other” (how easy that is to understand today), and second, because in the early years of the Soviet regime, thousands of Germans raced across the border while they still could and Pomak communities (for example) mounted armed resistance and possibly assisted those benighted “bandits”.

That didn’t last long. The authorities soon learned how to terrorise the Pomaks and keep them down. “As a human symbol of the Ottoman past,” Kassabova writes, “the Pomaks absorbed the collective angst about residual orientalism as if they personally stood in the way of Europe.” One of the guesthouse owners remembers: “We were so brainwashed, it was unthinkable to see a stranger and not raise the alarm.” How many unrecorded graves lie in that beautiful region that came to embody fear and horror?

Kassabova is deeply involved in her past – it runs through her and Border like woodgrain. Perhaps that is true of all of us. There is talk of “plucking up courage”, but you get the sense that she had to write this book, to chase down phantoms. After an unsettling experience in northern Greece, she admits she can no longer trust herself. “I was undergoing some kind of profound change,” she writes about halfway through and it doesn’t matter that it is never quite clear what that involved.

This is a topical book, with Europe on the cusp of turmoil again. Kassabova claims the region she describes is “the last border of Europe”; time, regrettably, has overtaken that statement. The essential border for us Britons is now our coastline, as it was 2,000 years ago. And what a disaster that development might prove to be.




JUNE 14, 2017


Heavy happiness



Kapka Kassabova was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1973, and emigrated with her family to New Zealand after the fall of the Berlin Wall; she now lives in Scotland. Her childhood summers were spent on the “red Riviera”, the southern beaches of Bulgaria on the Black Sea, where “every second barman was in the service of the Bulgarian State Security” and Stasi agents disguised themselves as holidaymakers to spy on East Germans. At night, people would attempt to cross the border, on foot or by water, into Turkey, and many paid with their lives. The forest was full of soldiers, and warning signs posted in two languages. “Once near a border”, she says, “it is impossible not to be involved, not to want to exorcise or transgress something. Just by being there, the border is an invitation.” Kassabova is drawn back thirty years later to a crossroads where the hard borders (between Bulgaria and Greece, now EU member states) have become soft, and soft borders (between Greece and Turkey) have been hardened by Europe’s attempt to control an influx of peoples displaced by recent wars. It is this attraction to the forbidden places of her youth that drives her riveting, beautifully written account of travels in Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, Border: A journey to the edge of Europe.

For Kassabova, the past, and childhood especially, really is a foreign country. Doubly so, of course, for an émigrée who grew up under another political system. The Berlin Wall continues to divide the eras of her life. But it is this sort of dissonance that can make for a good writer, someone always on the outside, always observing. Kassabova, a poet and novelist as well as an essayist, is ideally placed to take us on a journey to a corner of Europe that even today seems exotic and little known, the shifting zone between East and West, North and South, Europe and not-Europe, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, Christianity and Islam, Balkan and Mediterranean – a region overlapping with the vague ancient expanse known as Thrace. Thrace, as Kassabova points out, was where Orpheus was torn to pieces by raving Maenads, his singing head floating down the River Hebrus (Evros).

Kassabova’s travels form a circle, taking her from the Black Sea summer resort of her childhood to the mountain range of Strandja and on through the plains of Thrace, the Rhodope range and Greece, and then back to Strandja. In this region nearly everyone is at only one or two generational removes from exile and displacement, scattered among three alphabets and several nations; and along the way Kassabova meets treasure-hunters, refugees, retired spies, smugglers, hunters, botanists, healers, artists, Gypsies (Roma), forest rangers and border guards. She brings to her account a deep understanding of the region’s Byzantine (literally and figuratively) and Ottoman history, wearing her learning lightly.

The Balkan peoples are perhaps not renowned for a sense of humour, though a fatalistic sense of the absurd is endemic. Kassabova, though, is funny; her wry wit leavens the narrative and keeps it from collapsing under the weight of cumulative tragedy. “It is hard to identify one strand of this story as the kookiest, but the Uzbek-bred vipers are hard to beat”, she writes at one point. “Back in the house, Ziko and Nikos were in the late stages of lachrymose male bonding”, she writes at another. An affectless waitress always plonks down food for customers with the grim exhortation “Enjoy”; a kleptocrat’s villa is categorized as “gangsterbaroque”. And Kassabova has a novelist’s flair for character sketch; there is, for example, the “lost-looking Dutchman out of a Graham Greene novel” who “seemed to drift towards the East, dressed in light linens”.

Kassabova begins in Strandja, the “last mountain range of south-east Europe”, whose forest, having escaped the Ice Age, preserves “a veritable open-air museum of relic species” from the Tertiary age. She settles in a place she calls simply “the Village in the Valley”, a beautiful but underinhabited place. The village is dying; there is no work, few visitors and no children, though the mayor has aspirationally constructed a school. The village had been Greek before the Balkan Wars (1912–13); in the euphemistic “exchange of populations”, the resident Greeks had been moved to the villages around Thessaloníki, and the vacated village resettled by Bulgarian refugees from Turkey. Again and again in her travels, Kassabova encounters peoples who have been arbitrarily uprooted and moved to “an empty house in a foreign country with the kitchen pots still warm”. (Besides the population exchanges of the Balkan wars, Kassabova mentions a more recent but perhaps lesser-known incident, the expulsion of 340,000 ethnic Turks from Bulgaria in 1989.) It emerges here that empires, despite their problems, are in some ways the lesser of two evils, mixers of ethnicities, languages and faiths; nation states, by contrast, have been catastrophic centrifuges, “unmixers” of peoples, particularly in the Balkans.

Kassabova describes, among other colourful episodes, witnessing Greek and Bulgarian fire walkers (in an ecstatic rite involving walking over live coals), and placing herself in the hands of smugglers on the “Road to Freedom”, crossing into Greece on foot without a passport. She also relates a bizarre legend-cumconspiracy-theory straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, involving a secret ancient Egyptian pyramid, radiation, Nazis, Soviets, a clairvoyant and the Bulgarian Minister of Culture. Poetic interludes define words from different languages or tell short allegories: agiasma is Greek for “curative spring”; klyon, the nickname Bulgarian border soldiers gave the razor-wire fence; zmey, “In Slavic folk mythology, a shape-shifting dragon that embodies protection and possession”; chesma, Turkish for a road-side public fountain; uroki, Bulgarian for the evil eye. The vocabulary of food and drink bridges cultures. Turks are amused when Kassabova calls parsley maydanoz “because it’s one of those Turkish food words that have seeped into Balkan mouths permanently. The words for food can’t be ethnically purged”. (In Greek it is Maïdanos, possibly a corruption of a word meaning “Macedonian”.)

The West tends to view Greece as relatively poor, and politically insignificant except for its nuisance value. It is easy to forget that within the region, Greece is relatively prosperous, with a GDP of more than all of her Northern neighbours – Albania, Bulgaria and the (once Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia – combined. Greece also has a cultural prestige that is the envy of the area. It was where the West drew the line in the Cold War; indeed, the Greek–Bulgarian border is arguably the first and front line of that frozen conflict.

In the 1990s, as Bulgaria’s economy collapsed into “hyper-inflation and mega-unemployment”, Bulgarians crossed the border into Greece looking for work, the options for women essentially limited to menial labour, caring for the elderly (with their generous pensions, Greeks could afford to hire private help) and sex work. Kassabova goes searching for one Bulgarian woman in Greece – Zora – after she comes across her name carved in Cyrillic on a tree (the carving commemorated Zora’s arrival). It turns out that Zora had attempted the border crossing four times: caught once by Greek border guards, another time barely escaping being sold into sex work; finally she paid a smuggler $500, and “walked for a week” through the treacherous forest without food, drinking rainwater from the hoofprints of cows. A widow the same age as the author, forty-one, Zora had been married to a Greek man (whose family were themselves refugees from Smyrna). She was afraid even now to apply for a Greek passport in case her dodgy immigration story came up in her files.

The book has its concerns and themes, but it is never tendentious. Open to things she doesn’t fully understand, Kassabova has a poet’s gift of negative capability, even to the point of undergoing some almost mystical experiences; there is an unexplained fireball of light in the Village in the Valley, and an episode of pure panic in the mountains. She is a collector of stories, as the botanist she meets is a collector of rare plants. But it is the landscape that haunts her. The beauties of the mountains fill her with a “heavy happiness”. She also writes of the depredated rivers, however, and of the mountains being gnawed away for their marble or their veins of gold – and comes to the conclusion that “there are beautiful places on earth where nobody is spared”.

This is travel writing with lexical precision (“transhumance”, “karst”) and a sense of adventure, but with a distinctively female slant. As a fortysomething woman travelling alone, Kassabova has a particular effect on those she observes; she can be categorized neither as a “mother-wife” nor a whore after the Balkan fashion, and she is attracted herself to strong women characters – widows, healers, forest rangers – who live difficult lives but on their own terms. With the best of travel writers, Kapka Kassabova is an explorer, viewing everything with the eyes of discovery, even as she uncovers strata of history and legend. She makes us long to peer closely at the map, and see these wondrous places for ourselves.



    The Herald




4th February 2017

Author Kapka Kassabova on Borders, Brexit and her life in Scotland





Take a map of Europe. Follow your finger down and to the right from Scotland to where Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria converge. Terra Incognita? Borderlands on the edge of Europe, lapped by the Black Sea. Much of it wilderness. A remote expanse of mountain and forest, where bears and wolves roam.

And yet history has happened here too. This is the site of ancient Thrace. This is a land of Cold War borders where men and women died; actually, let's not be coy, were killed trying to escape. This is a place of repression, resistance, religious persecution, exile and repatriation.

"There are so many unmarked graves and buried secrets in that zone," Kapka Kassabova points out. She knows because she has sought to uncover them.

Born in 1973 when the Iron Curtain covered half of Europe, Kassabova is a Bulgarian poet and author who lives in the Scottish Highlands. A woman with a hunger for stories. That hunger and a fascination with this little known region has resulted in Border, one of those books that elevates the idea of travel writing to art (one reviewer has even suggested Kassabova is a better guide to the region than the much-lauded Patrick Leigh Fermor).

Between 2013 and 2015 Kassabova travelled to the border region and met the people who live in an area that has undergone gradual depopulation. The result is a harsh, often tragic narrative. Time and again stories of resistance and repression fill these pages. As recently as 1989 some 340,000 Bulgarian Turks were forcibly resettled in Turkey. Many didn't speak Turkish.

It's a little known story. As is that of the outlaw Goranyi, forest bandits in Bulgaria, whose resistance to the Communist regime was, she says, the largest, longest-sustained resistance movement against Soviet state terror in Eastern Europe. No one knows how many of them were killed, but now, Kassabova writes, "their mouths are full of earth."

And yet there are also encounters with people who are full of life and hope; like the Turkish shepherd and his wife who live in a completely depopulated village who felt to Kassabova like figures from the Bible. "Those people I met who really believe in whatever they are trying to protect or to preserve – I found that very moving."

On her journey she met peasants and businessmen, former border guards and the victims of border guards, hunters and hunted, traffickers and trafficked, firewalkers conducting their ancient rituals and refugees carrying their lives in a plastic bag.

And from a certain angle, it's her story too. "It ended up feeling a little bit like an attempt at exorcism," Kassabova admits, "as if I needed to name the bones."

There speaks a child of the Cold War. What is striking reading the book is how the people of the region engage – or rather don't engage – with the legacy of the Cold War. The Iron Curtain has lifted physically but perhaps not psychologically. It feels, I suggest, that the wound of those years remains open.

"Yeah, absolutely. It seems that it takes a couple of generations before certain things can be named. People kind of avoid your eyes when they talk about it. It's just too raw still."

History, of course, keeps happening. As she searched out stories for the book the area began to feel the fallout from the Greek austerity crisis and the impact of people fleeing for their lives from the conflict in Syria. As one of her guides tells her: "When people cross a border, they don't run from good. Kapi. They run from bad. Sometimes very bad."

"It wasn't very visible when I first started going there in 2013," she says now. "I didn't know at the start how big a part those narratives would play in the book. But by the time I returned some months later already it was becoming a kind of crisis.

"As you pass through that area, those post-communist towns already look looted and post-apocalyptic. And then you see these people with plastic bags. It brought another dimension to what I was already interested in which was really suffering and resilience and survival."

And where is Kassabova in all this? She is at times threatened, fearful, inspired by the people she meets. "It's my journey very clearly and from the beginning I was very emotionally invested in this journey. I had strong emotions associated with the border. There was anger and there was also almost an enchantment. Like a fateful attraction and repulsion.

"But I guess these encounters were very intense and these stories were great gifts from people. You can't really remain an observer. I felt very emotionally involved with every story I heard, even though it wasn't my story. I guess that's why the border is so richly metaphoric. Every story reflects another story and another story and you end up seeing your own reflection. It's a kind of maze, a human maze of all these stories."

These days Kassabova lives 20 minutes outside Inverness. She moved from Edinburgh to be with her partner. "I love it up here. I thought I might miss Edinburgh and city life, but I don't.

"I love the landscape and I love the people. It's a very chilled place. It's a naturally decluttered way of living."

Is she herself peripatetic? After all, she's journeyed from Bulgaria to New Zealand and now to Scotland.

"I don't think I am a nomad. I was ejected from Bulgaria by economic and historical forces. I was looking for a place that I felt was right.

"I guess I feel quite settled in Scotland rather than looking beyond the horizon. I really think I've arrived home in Scotland. You can't always rationalise that feeling. The relationship between an individual and a place, there's something mysterious about it."

Mystery, of course, is at the heart of her book. The mystery of marginal points and marginal people. At one point a Bulgarian hotel owner suggests a title for the book she is working on might be What Have Borders Ever Done For Us?

"I'm not sure he was aware of Monty Python," Kassabova laughs. "I don't think so."

It's a fair question though. Now, having written this book, what does she think? What have borders ever done for us?

"All borders fail, especially hard borders," she says. Does she think we in the UK have grasped that? "Being an island, do you mean? Perhaps not in a physical sense.

"Island or mainland, I don't think that's so important. I think it's more the state of mind that western Europeans have been in since World War Two. Borders have not been a threat to western Europeans, whereas people of the ex-Soviet world have a different experience of borders.

"The idea in the public consciousness in Britain post-Brexit is that borders are there to protect you against 'them'. But if you were on the other side of the Iron Curtain the border was something that stopped you leaving. So the border was the oppressor, which is how the refugees of today are experiencing the borders of the EU. It's an oppressor.

"So I don't know, but I think in Britain we are about to discover how awkward borders are."









Thursday 23 February 2017

Book review: Border, by Kapka Kassabova





Kapka Kassabova is a journalist and award-wining travel writer. Born and brought up in Bulgaria, she came of age when the Berlin Wall came down and the Communist regime collapsed with the withdrawal of Soviet support. She now lives in Scotland, in the Highlands, where, watching and depressed by what she calls “the era of the corporate bureaucrat with the human face” – an ironic echo of late-Communist Bulgaria – she became curious about her native Balkan periphery, the border where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey cagily or suspiciously meet. This rich and well-written book is a record of her journey, an account of what she found and a meditation on the significance of borders. It’s a book for our time of “global movement and global barricading, new internationalism and old nationalisms” – what she calls “the systemic sickness at the heart of our world”. This may make it sound grim; it’s anything but that. On the contrary, her response to the beauty of the natural world and her lively interest in the people she meets make it both informative and exhilarating.

She is alert to the madness of politics and officialdom. How about this? “State security special forces patrolled the area until 1989. Some locals say there was an additional ‘live fence’ of thousands of vipers specially bred for the purpose by Uzbeks along the southern Black Sea, under something called decree number 56. Why Uzbeks? Why vipers? Did decree number 56 read: ‘Let us fulfil the five-year snake plan in one year’? The roads to madness are many.” Indeed, yes. There’s a lot of this sort of stuff, enough to have one admiring the resilience of ordinary people in the face of brute stupidity and cruelty. It helps to have a lively sense of humour and a capacity for scorn, attributes which Kassabova and many of those she meets possess.

Her borderland is rich in mythology and history. It was in the Rhodope mountains that Orpheus descended to the Underworld in search of Eurydice, here too that he was torn apart by Maenads when he had transferred his allegiance from Dionysus to Apollo. Herodotus was fascinated by the shores of the Black Sea and by the military prowess of the Thracians who sent a contingent of cavalry to Troy to fight against the invading Greeks. The Thracians were great warriors – Spartacus the leader of the great slave rebellion against Rome was a Thracian warrior – but they were not empire-builders. When Thrace was conquered by the Emperor Trajan and annexed to the Roman empire, Thracians served in the legions – there are records of Thracian legionaries posted to Hadrian’s Wall.

Kassabova’s family lost their farm when the Communists came to power – stolen, she says, correctly – when it became part of a collective farm. Now the Borderland has suffered depopulation, many villages all but deserted, and the remaining or returned inhabitants are poor and often suffering from depression. This is wretched in a country rich in fruit trees and vines. Like many peripheral regions, it suffers from neglect by the government, though arguably this is preferable to the bureaucrats’ domination it endured in Communist times.

Much of the book consists of conversations with locals and the occasional tourist. Some are lively, more mournful. As ever, when reading a travel book one wonders how authentic such conversations are, how much has been reconstructed some time later from what the author recalls. The same might be said of course about the work of many of the best travel writers – Patrick Leigh Fermor and Colin Thubron, for instance. The art is to make these conversations seem authentic, and Kassabova succeeds in doing so.

Norman Douglas, another master of the travel book, said that the reader should be offered two journeys or voyages: the first into the country that is the subject of the author’s book, the second into the author’s mind. It followed, he said, that the author should have sufficiently interesting mind to be worth spending time with. Kassabova happily passes both tests, with merit. There’s a third test I would add: does the book make you want to go there, to follow in the writer’s footsteps. Here the answer is again “yes”.





The Economist






Feb 11th 2017

A writer explores Europe’s south-eastern border

Mapping history

A walk through the continent’s mountainous south-eastern corner


Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. By Kapka Kassabova. Granta; 379 pages;


TRAGEDIES and mistakes are strewn across Europe’s borderlands. Nowhere more so than in the continent’s mountainous south-eastern corner, where the Iron Curtain once divided communist Bulgaria from capitalist Greece and Turkey. The land is haunted by that divide, and by vanished kingdoms, peoples and wars. Kapka Kassabova’s poignant, erudite and witty third book, “Border”, brings hidden history vividly to light. 

The central theme of the book, topically, is frontiers. Lines on the map that are drawn and policed by the powerful, protect one sort of interests while severing others. “An actively policed border is always aggressive,” she writes. “It is where power acquires a body, if not a human face, and an ideology.”

Some of the book’s most striking passages are about “well-oiled feudal barbarity”, the abominable treatment that was meted out to those who tried to escape: tricked and betrayed, beaten and jailed, or shot in cold blood and left to bleed to death. At a time when memories of the Soviet empire’s vast prison camp are fading, the story Ms Kassabova has to tell is important. She grew up in communist Bulgaria and remembers that system’s arbitrary cruelty, which finds echoes today in the mistreatment of refugees and migrants.

The post-communist era brought new problems: corruption, petty nationalist quarrels and environmental ruin. Ms Kassabova’s book drips with scorn for the spivs, goons and far-off politicians whose greed and carelessness wreak such mischief and misery. She was inspired to write it after witnessing the “roughshod levelling” of her adopted home in the Scottish Highlands, and later, when helping Bulgarians clean up after a flood caused by illegal logging and the looting of sand, she shouts, “Something must be done.” “It’s because you don’t live here…You still believe in justice,” comes the crushing retort.

A particular treat is her ear for lurid local myths. Extraterrestrial beacons, mysterious balls of fire, lost pyramids and a secret site guarded by specially bred Uzbek vipers all get a look in. The first account of the region was in the fifth century BC, by Herodotus. Ms Kassabova gamely takes up the first historian’s torch. Her writing also has echoes of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic tramp across the pre-war Balkans. But her sparse, ironic style lacks the self-conscious self-indulgence of Fermor’s prose, and is all the better for it.

She treads lightly but distinctly through the stories she tells, displaying an enviable mixture of rapport with her subjects and detachment from their peculiarities. Leaving her favourite valley in the Strandja mountains was “like pulling myself out with a corkscrew”, she writes. She highlights stories barely known outside the region, such as the communist Bulgarian regime’s vindictive deportation of 340,000 ethnic Turks in the 1980s and the doomed 15-year struggle of the Goryani (Woodlanders) against communist rule. Their fate is absent from Bulgaria’s modern history: their mouths, she writes, “are full of earth”.

Yet the author’s astringent approach to myths and falsehoods could be more evenly applied. Many might quibble with Ms Kassabova’s unsupported assertion that the Goryani were the “largest, longest-sustained resistance movement against Soviet state terror in eastern Europe” (Ukraine’s and Poland’s anti-communist guerrilla movements were the biggest, and the last Estonian partisan was on the run until 1978). The story of an East German family fleeing to the West in a home-made balloon is not, as she dismisses it, “apocryphal”: the briefest research reveals that it really happened, in 1979. Britain’s foreign espionage service is MI6, not MI5.

But these flaws pale against the strength of the book: its treatment of history’s blessings and curses. Past imperial ages—chiefly Byzantine and Ottoman—laid down complex, and mostly harmonious, layers of languages, ethnicities, cultures and religions, erased in the name of nation-building and tidiness. Communities with roots going back centuries were pulled up and dumped across borders that had once hardly mattered, into countries that they scarcely knew. It is a “melancholy miracle”, writes Ms Kassabova, that “odd ragged bits of this once-rich human tapestry” survive. They could have no better chronicler.





     DAILY NEWS    Turquia




Journey to the borderlands of Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr


Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe’ by Kapka Kassabova (Granta, 379 pages)


When Kapka Kassabova was growing up in Sofia, Bulgaria was on the frontline of the Cold War - the cut-off line between the Warsaw Pact countries of the Soviet bloc and NATO members Greece and Turkey. At the point where the Mediterranean and Balkan currents meet, the borderlands of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey have for centuries been a place of migration, ethno-religious mixing and bloodshed. 

“Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe” mixes memoir, travelogue and history. Kassabova, a poet and travel writer who today lives in Scotland, visits “the forbidden places of my childhood, the once-militarized border villages and towns, rivers and forests that had been out of bounds for two generations.” She wonders what it takes “to dwell in a borderland so infused with ancient and modern myth.” 

Kassabova travels around in an old Renault, uncovering surprising stories, sensitive to the many ironies in “the last outpost of Europe.” Back in the Cold War years, “the Turks were nervous about the Soviets and the Greeks, the Greeks were nervous about the Soviets and the Turks, and the Bulgarians were nervous about everyone,” she writes. “[It was] a military buffer zone for half a century ... the point where one ideology stopped and another began.”

The border was deadly. But it had a deceptively friendly reputation for being much easier to cross than the Berlin Wall. Thousands of fugitives headed to it from across Eastern Europe to escape from Bulgaria to Greece and Turkey. The topography of the border was falsified on GDR-made maps to confuse people, and hundreds were shot there over the course of the Cold War. Hundreds of others escaped.  

In one haunting chapter, Kassabova writes about a forested area between Greece and Bulgaria full of trees bearing initials carved by people trying to flee. “When you tuned in, you could almost hear them whispering,” she writes. “The most heavily carved decades were the 1940s, the decade of war and starvation for Greece, and the 1990s, the decade of paupery and starvation for Bulgaria. In between were the deadly 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s of the Iron Curtain.” Such was a system “where the real enemy was not abroad, but inward.” 

Of course, the region remains a crossroads today. It is a gateway for refugees heading in the other direction from Syria and Iraq, and there is now a huge “security wall” on the Bulgaria-Turkey border. “The corridors used in the Cold War remain the same. Only the direction of travel has changed,” writes Kassabova.

Expulsions and exodus have a long heritage in the Balkans. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 saw the Ottoman Empire lose its last territories in Europe, prompting an exodus of Muslims from their ancestral homes. Muslims were forced out of Bulgaria, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Serbia, with most ending up in Turkey. Millions of today’s Turkish citizens are their ancestors. A decade later, after the Turkish War of Independence, 1.5 million Greeks headed west, while 400,000 Greek Muslims headed the other way (and Greece simultaneously expelled half a million Bulgarian speakers). Centuries of coexistence were obliterated as hard, blood-soaked borders were thrown up.

The steady unravelling of complex ethnic tapestry has proceeded sporadically to today. Almost 100 years after the Balkan Wars, around 350,000 Turkish-origin Bulgarian citizens were effectively expelled from Bulgaria in summer 1989. This peacetime ethnic purge was based in an “asinine anachronism, invoking the ghost of ‘the Turkish yoke,’” Kassabova writes, “families, futures, and sometimes bodies were broken by their own state.” In a bitter irony, the expulsion took place just months before the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War was suddenly over, making it “a last cretinous crime of twilight totalitarianism.” Perhaps the largest movement of people in Europe since World War II, it is today barely remembered outside Turkey. Kassabova manages to track down many survivors of this exile, who still have warm memories and maintain human contact with their old life across the border. They are, she writes, the last remaining “odd ragged bits of a once-rich human tapestry.”

A recurring theme in “Border” is that this is a land of deep-rooted ancient rituals. The few decades of communism was just a brief interruption. An “undercurrent of mysticism” remains stubborn. In the Strandja, the mountainous forested region of the Bulgarian-Turkish border, even Christianity is just “a fig leaf for a primal spiritual practice.” 

A few decades of Soviet social engineering, Kassabova writes, “had made [people] scared and suspicious, but the land’s mysteries were still there. They spoke to those who could tune in.” She certainly can, and it makes for a splendid book.