Left: Kassabova. Photo: Marti Friedlander. Right: the cover of Border.
Borders, both physical and metaphoric, are reductive; you can be on one side of a boundary or the other, under this jurisdiction or that. The Balkan Peninsula has seen it’s fair share of imposed binaries; since antiquity, lines have been drawn and redrawn, separating Latin from Greek, East from West, and Communist from Capitalist.
In her new book, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kapka Kassabova is less concerned about which side of the border her subjects fall than she is with how they fall. Beginning on a Black Sea beach, Kassabova travels westward to small villages along the triple border of Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, meeting lonely shepherds, forest rangers, former border guards, refugees, and human traffickers. The places she visits have been tragic and busy in recent decades—and all have deep ancient histories. Border features a myriad of characters and locations, but the situations stack up and echo, like a Greek chorus, into an unflinching portrait of those who exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, identities, and epochs.
Our conversation took place over Skype; Kassabova was in a beautiful, lakeside town in Macedonia, researching her next book, and I was sitting on the floor in the hallway outside The Paris Review’s office. Kassabova was eager to answer questions but hesitant to pass judgment, which put me, a poor student of Balkan history, at ease.
What did you have in mind when you started Border?
As I started on this pilgrimage, I didn’t know what I was going to find. I started from a position of relative emptiness and ignorance, with a gut sense that there was something rich to tell. As soon as I started hearing people’s stories, it became obvious to me that this book was also going to be about how people narrate their lives, about how we all narrate our lives. In a place like that border, where extreme things have happened and there’s a great saturation of human experience, it’s particularly interesting to see how people survive their story.
Were you on a personal quest? There are so many individual and national identities uncorked in this book, it seems impossible for something not to hit close to home.
I didn’t have a preconceived agenda. I had no idea what I was going to find or how I was going to tell it. I simply wanted to find gold. And I wanted to be as truthful to it as possible. The most daunting aspect of this book, and the journey itself, was that I wanted to honor the people of this border. So, no, I didn’t set out with a question of national identity, or really any identity, either about the people I was to meet or about myself.
It seems to me that untold histories that come from a very pure place of suffering and survival contain truth. Everything else is subject to question, really. Anything that comes to us through an official source—especially an official source attached to a national or religious agenda, or any of those other identity politics that seem to bedevil the world at the moment—is questioned. I felt that the voices I was hearing, the places from which these stories came to me, were genuine and, therefore, very precious. The stories in themselves contained both the questions and the answers about identity, or about what borders do to people and how they survive.
How did you find your way through the weeds while researching?
There were an awful lot of weeds, especially when it came to Balkan history, which is very tangled. The Balkans are a complex area to explore, speaking languages other than English, like Bulgarian. The broader histories were difficult to research simply because there’s nothing written on them. For example, the expulsion of the Bulgarian ethnic Turks in the late 1980s, at the very end of the Cold War. There are some academic articles by Bulgarians and Turks, but there seems to be nothing in the Western sphere about it. The episode caused a seismic demographic shift. Over three hundred thousand people were forced to cross a border during peacetime. Because it happened during the last years of the Cold War, the Western media didn’t report it. It was entirely an issue between Bulgaria and Turkey, and I suppose it may always be.
How are those kinds of trauma dealt with?
Traumas, or very powerful, primal experiences, especially when they’re experienced by large numbers of people, have a tendency to affect everything they touch. At that border, it wasn’t just one person who died. It was many, untold numbers—mouths full of earth. I think when you have a massive collective experience like that, the trauma remains in the earth. I think the earth has a memory, trees have a memory, rivers have a memory. If we’re a little bit open to it, we pick it up.
Many of these places are particularly haunted precisely because of those “mouths full of earth.” So many tragedies have not been uttered, not been spoken, not been written. It’s been a silent scream. Those histories remain unwritten, they remain buried, and that adds to the hauntedness. In some old Balkan rituals used for exorcising demons from the mentally ill, you had to do it through the mouth. You had to speak it.
A map of the Bulgarian, Turkey, and Greek border area.
Many travel books tend to hang history off of a present narrative. Border is the opposite—its feet are planted directly in the past, and history is pushing it along. How did you manage that?
My primary material was the oral stories. I relied primarily on encounters with strangers. I didn’t contact any officials because I didn’t want anybody to tell me the official story. I was hoping for chance encounters. It’s true that I planned where to go in advance, and I planned it according to where I felt, regionally, there would be interest—like the Pomak villages in the Rhodope Mountains on the Greek Bulgarian border. Perhaps it feels rooted in direct and living histories because I started with what people gave me and when I sensed there was a story I wanted to tell, then I would research the wider context later.
Can you tell me more about the Pomaks?
They are such an integral part of Balkan culture. The Pomaks were indigenous Muslims, people who settled in the region and then at some point converted from Christianity to Islam. They were not newcomers, like the Turks, the Ottoman Turks. They exist in all Balkan countries. They are not really known in Western Europe or in the Western world.
The understanding the Western world has of Muslims is very, very limited at the moment. There is a rich vein of domestic Islam in the Balkans that has been present for six centuries and is still very much here. Right now, I’m in a town by a lake in Macedonia where there are six functioning mosques. It’s part of everyday life in the Balkans. It’s a rich human story, this cohabitation.
How did you know when you had enough stories?
It felt as though I had found a place that was out of time and the journey could continue potentially forever. I could have just kept going round and round in ever deeper loops. It was a kind of vortex. One story generated another story, and another story and another story.
So you had more than you could work with?
I would say that. The book is perhaps almost too dense. In a way, those regions are too dense, too rich. You have to masticate them for a long time. It is the nature of these border regions, and was since before the borders were there.
Because of the convergence of history?
The southeast Balkan Peninsula is a confluence of histories, of cultures, of now-defunct civilizations that existed for thousands of years, like the ancient Thracians and the ancient Greeks. It’s been inhabited for a very long time, that part of the world. The first crafted gold, and other such artifacts, are found not far from that border. People still dig up golden statuettes that are five thousand years old. It’s that kind of a place.
But also, the twentieth century has been extremely busy in that part of Europe, and these great migrations that I tried to describe were overwhelming cataclysms. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to swap countries at the end of the Balkan wars and just as World War I was about to begin. That was a hundred years ago, but that’s almost yesterday in historic terms, isn’t it?
I enjoyed the short chapters, the ones with word definitions, throughout the book. Why did you lead your narratives with those?
I was talking to people in languages other than English. Some of the terms, the culturally specific words, and concepts were untranslatable. I would have undermined myself had I tried. So I came up with the idea to simply introduce the words as a thing of the border region. Like česma, which are the ubiquitous public drinking fountains that the Ottomans brought with them. You find them on every road in the Balkans. They’re the living legacy of Ottoman culture. Locals don’t notice them, they take them for granted. But if you come in from a slightly outside perspective, you see how beautiful and how human it is to have a drinking fountain of mineral water in the middle of an old forgotten road or in the middle of a depopulated village. The people have gone, but the water is still there and it’s telling its own story.
Photo by Nedret Benzet.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the people of these borders?
They seem to define themselves by what they love rather than by any political identity, or by any labels. Like the mountain ranger in the Rhode mountains—she’s in love with the mountains, and that is what gives her her identity. And then there was the last shepherd, who loves his sheep and newborn lambs. I felt these people were exceptional in some way.
Do you think people being defined by what they love makes for a stronger community?
I suppose it does, doesn’t it? But because so many of these border places have been depopulated through the sheer brutality of politics, economics communities are precious. People long to have others there, like the shepherd and his wife who are the last people in their village, they long to have at least one other family there. That would be a community to them. Just one other family, one other house with the windows lit up at night, would be enough.
The communities in these plundered places are particularly strong because people help each other. There is nobody else to help them, really. They are forgotten by all, you know. Forgotten by authority, by justice, by history—and they help each other. This was especially noticeable on the Bulgarian side of the Strandzha mountain, the place where people see the ball of fire in the sky. This collective imagination, this act of collective storytelling, is an act of the communal will to survive together. In as far as the imagination goes, this kind of storytelling is a form of love.
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