The border and all it represented was not far from those sunny beaches and ‘every second barman was in the service of the Bulgarian State Security.’ Visiting such liminal places, ‘you develop a permanent border-like feeling inside you, like indigestion.’ Decades later, Kassabova decided to return. Her journey through the borderlands of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, to places still scarred by the ‘unfinished business of the Cold War’ and shaped by older histories of crossing and transgression, has resulted in an extraordinary book.
The temptation, perhaps, would have been to dwell on mighty geopolitical tropes and topics. Kassabova certainly writes well on the curious status of this buffer zone between competing political world views but she focuses on the individuals who conceptualised it, by turns, as a route of escape, a bastion to be defended, or simply a place in which to carve out an ordinary life. ‘What does it take,’ she asks, ‘to dwell in a borderland so infused with ancient and modern myth, so psychically magnetic?’
In an obscure Bulgarian village, Kassabova eats, drinks and chats with those who had to confront the ‘brutal free-fall of 1990s post-communism,’ when the border troops left and ‘collective heartbreak’ descended. Vibrancy can still be found there, from holy springs and fire dancers to wistful accordion players, but the place also seems haunted. A former state operative with a murky past is a genial host but, when Kassabova reveals she is a writer, the old paranoia bubbles up. ‘In the good old days,’ he mumbles, ‘we had methods for the likes of you... progressive types... who go around asking questions.’ An ex-corporal in the border army is, meanwhile, the subject of much local gossip: did he kill some of those who sought to flee? Perhaps, Kassabova muses, he has simply become a scapegoat: ‘a convenient repository of other people’s darkness.’
And darkness is never very far away as Kassabova travels across Thrace, to the Black Sea, and among the Rhodope mountains. She writes movingly of those who have suffered through the decades, not least the region’s indigenous Muslim population: victims of mistrust, ostracism and, as late as 1989, mass expulsions.
“One man remembers how Muslims were forced to adopt Slavic surnames: ‘at least you could chose the name by which your identity was destroyed.’”
All is not gloom, of course. There are moments of dynamism and hope in these pages, of coexistence and what’s known as komshulak, or neighbourliness. It’s the small, quotidian gestures, Kassabova writes, ‘that make human history... how it works, how it breaks down, how it is healed.’ Sadly, the region has enjoyed little respite and remains a place of exile and displacement. In a café near the European border, among the people traffickers, Kassabova had to pretend ‘it was no big deal to see smugglers sealing deals with the already-robbed of this world by robbing them further.’ In Harmanli, a Bulgarian town once known for its melons and tobacco, she finds refugees at a ‘point between opportunity and catastrophe.’ Elsewhere, she meets a loving Kurdish couple whose children, wrenched from home, are left ‘having to hate where you come from but having nothing new to love.’
There is a tendency to ‘sacrifice the periphery.’ Borders are where lines are drawn, nostrums barked, and hapless people left to suffer. The natural wonders of this part of the world are a well-kept secret but, for Kassabova, they could not alleviate ‘the new sensation under my skin’ that ‘there are beautiful places on Earth where nobody is spared.’ On her travels, someone advised her that writing can be a little like rock climbing: exhilarating, to be sure, but one false step and all is lost. ‘You must be careful not to get too addicted to story telling,’ she is warned. It’s to be hoped that Kassabova, with her glorious prose and open heart, always takes care but never abandons the quest.