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‘It’s A Sad Day When Nationalism Becomes The Lesser Evil’

‘It’s a sad day when nationalism becomes the lesser evil’

‘It’s a sad day when nationalism becomes the lesser evil’

A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kapka Kassabova (Graywolf Pr, 2017)

Kapka Kassabova is a gorgeous lunàdiga born in Sofia, Bulgaria, even if her origins are rooted in the Ohrid lake waters. Its perimeter is divided between the borders of the Republic of North Macedonia, Greece and Albania. As a child, Kapka spent the holidays in the Black Sea, in the ‘Red Riviera’, where it’s possible to reach Turkey by swimming: a Bulgarian beach near to the electrified barrier whose barbwire, during the Cold War, pointed inwards and not outwards, it seemed to want to prohibit going out, rather than deter getting in. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kapka emigrated to New Zealand and now she lives in Scotland.

We decided to review Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (Graywolf Pr, 2017), a narrative report that won many literary and journalistic prizes. This is a brave work which deconstructs the concept of the border, denouncing its artificiality, starting with the description of the border between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, in the wooded places that the ancients called ‘Thrace’, where the epic poet Orpheus engages in an arduous challenge on the threshold between life and death. That border separated Warsaw Pact countries (Bulgaria) from NATO members (Turkey and Greece).

In her 40s, Kapka crossed those liminal lands in the southern Balkans, a border that is less militarised and rigid than in her childhood days, but which still constitutes a purulent and bleeding scar in today’s migration routes (especially from Syria) and chronic environmental crises. There are scarred landscapes, ecosystems subjected to intensive exploitation, archaeological sites violated by looting, whose artefacts often travel in diplomatic briefcases of unsuspected state corps (the gold of the last Bulgarian tsar of the 14th century or the treasures of Alexander the Great’ successor).

Balkan wars, two world wars, the Cold War and warm wars not always explicitly declared, civil wars, crossing for espionage and smuggling, coups d’état, ‘population exchanges’ (Bulgarian populations forced to move to Turkey and the Greek-speaking Pontic populations forced to move around Thessaloniki) and ‘name-changing’ (e.g. to Christianise the indigenous Turks, as it happened in 1986, when the Islamic population in Bulgaria, the legacy of five centuries of Ottoman intermingling, approached 10% of the total population due to decreased birth-rate).

And again: deportations and more or less forced exoduses (including the Sephardic “Jewish thread” – the Jews expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century and now settled here – ‘pulled out from the complex ethnic tapestry of the eastern Balkans’, as Mary Neuburger wrote with eloquent metaphor in Balkan Smoke). And above all: border control, in the name of a purity of the nation to be reaffirmed, to be corrected, to be restored in language and genealogies, but which populations somehow always escape, voluntarily or involuntarily. Simply by nature. That’s because borders don’t exist in nature: fifty thousand storks pass through these skies every year on their seasonal migrations; rivers flow through these lands, such as the Veleka, into whose waters women have, since time immemorial, immersed icons, just as their ancestors offered the images of older goddesses to purifications, goddesses of local cults that are refusing to die out despite Christianity, Islam or the dialectical materialism of Soviet dogma. By constructing her narrative from oral testimonies in order to restore the point of view and imagination of her interlocutors (using a method of investigation that can be traced back to Herodotus and Ryszard Kapuściński), Kapka allows a perception of places and a conception of her own identity and roots to emerge from the words of the inhabitants that is very different from that of Official History (or rather Official Histories, because each nationalism has rewritten history in its own way). ‘It is a sad day when nationalism becomes the lesser evil’ (p. 143). And almost every family is aware of having a mestizo identity. Villages where half of the participants in the Easter mass are Muslim, amidst songs and prayers that mix Greek and Old Bulgarian: people who feel both Bulgarian and Greek and Turkish and Macedonian and Albanian. But also Romanians, Russians, Armenians.

Every community of those borderlands has its histories of desperate crossings, for the most varied reasons: troubled loves, draft evasion, family conflicts, low social mobility. Not only Bulgarian (most of them) but also GDR Germans, Czechoslovak, Polish, Hungarian, Chechen thought it easier to cross these dark forests and vineyards than the heavily guarded Berlin Wall. Many killed and buried in anonymous graves, others arrested (and others who made it). The shepherd who greets another shepherd across the border, in a simple gesture of instinctive and elementary humanity, and is arrested as a traitor. Because during the Cold War it was in central Thrace that the armies of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey were concentrated, because that area was the most obvious corridor for an invasion.

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.  […]a buffer zone for half a century, this was the point where one ideology ended and another began.

We propose this book envisaging that part of our community can inattentively receive it because it doesn’t talk about parenthood, family or children. We’re aware. But do expect some surprises.

During this journey, in which Kapka thinks she’s a ‘citizen of the world’ but feels the ties with her homeland reconnecting (through subterranean currents that reconnect her to the mystique of places, certainly not according to pure, artificial and post-human national identities), the writer meets other free and globetrotting women who dedicate themselves to study and research: Ioanna, who grew up in Athens, a student of Anglo-American literature in Belgrade, until the US bombed the city during the Kosovo conflict. Like many other students, she didn’t complete her studies and for a short period of time, she was a teacher in Salonicco,

until she found that teaching wasn’t for her, nor was the family life with Sunday lunches with the  in-lows that loomed on the ever-shrinking horizon. Ioanna had been married with a city lawyer who liked it that the future was foretold. «I was thirty and suddenly I saw that I was not living my own life. I was living some  generic life  already lived by millions of women»

Kapka perfectly understand what those women feel like:

I could, because in the eyes of the café-dwelling local men, I saw that they couldn’t place me: I was not a  mother-wife and I wasn’t a whore, so what was I?

And then the meeting with Zora.

Zora was forty-one, the same age of me and Ioanna. «I became conscious at twenty, got married at thirty, and was widowed before I was  forty», she said matter-of-factly […] She and her husband hadn’t had children. It would have been nice, but you can’t force nature, she said, and it’s ok to pass through life  without leaving a trace, isn’t it?

Pass through life freely, as a world without borders, without expecting to leave in one’s children the trace of one’s own (non-existent) purity and an identity at the service of the new nationalisms. It is here, in these very brief, lightning-fast passages, that Kapka Kassabova’s work allows a radical, feminist and decolonial vision to shine through, in which women are free not to generate children who prolong a terrible, abstract, homologising concept of nationhood, at the service of new and terrible wars or iron curtains.

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