On reading Kapka Kassabova‘s Border

41jW0pYDphL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_[1]I held Border in my hands and wondered about its closeness to another travelogue I had read not long ago – Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road. Patrick took you on his road from “the Iron Gates to Mt Athos” and you followed, enchanted by his stories of adventure, people, places and events.  A confident young man, he was secure in his identity and purpose, thus making the view of the worlds he described positive.

Kapka, unlike Fermor (who travelled through countries and borders freely) carries a fascination with “the border” from her youth, which at the time she was not allowed to approach.  So now, she goes back, drawn by its stories and its history.

Border is a very different book – Kapka is not the confident Fermor. For her, it is much more a voyage of discovery. She is looking for hidden and interesting places and people, who are below the radar. In most cases, she herself is going there for the first time. You watch her meet with people, whom she does not know, most of whom are willing to engage and tell her their stories, but some – like Ziko – take her out of her comfort zone.

She took me to places, some of which I had seen before, but it was her engagement with the people living there, that brought the new perspective for me. Kapka is excellent in drawing their images and allowing you, the reader, to feel her own perspective on them, their actions, opinions and their cherished birth-places.

The places we have in our hearts are very important to us – Kapka lets you know about her own memories and you compare them with those of her characters. She spends time with people, sleeps in their flats and mountains huts, eats and drinks with them, travels with them and lets them tell her their stories. She even returns to meet some of them at the end of her tour and tells you what the developments in their lives have been.

Like Virgil, who guides Dante through Hell, Kapka walks in front of you with a candle and throws light on Strandja Mountain and its secrets, its history and myths; the ancient people who populated it and the modern people, who are enchanted by it. Many of them are women – Marina, Zara and others. Men (Venzi, Ziko, Nikos, Nevzat) also lead her to various places and her light shines on their stories and their affiliation to the mountain, the forest and their attitude to the BORDER.

THE BORDER is a constant that everyone relates to, most of Kapka’s characters have stories to tell about it and they are SAD stories. They are stories of human perseverance, depravations, of divided families and broken love affairs, of extraordinary human behaviour with a backdrop of failing empires, the brutality of communist governments, exchanges of hapless populations, and self-imposed exile.

You read about the stories of a large number of East-Germans, killed on the Bulgarian side of the border in communist times, as well as those of some, who survive.  Kapka follows their stories to Germany and talks to Felix about his and his friend Dominik’s failed attempt to cross the border. He tells her what happened.

Kapka often explains terms, which the reader may not know or gives historical background to the events or places, which may help us understand her point better. She is also fascinated by unexplained events – like the ball of fire, the story of Bastet’s tomb, by stories of ghosts, dragons, the Strandja fire-walkers and many folk beliefs and superstitions. Her seamless movement from one displaced person to another and their tragedy, from one tale to another, is a skill few writers have.

But, as far as I was concerned the main character of this book is DISPLACEMENT. Kapka and I know displacement, we are on first name terms with it. A self-displaced person myself – for the love of a man I followed “to the other end of the world”, I have followed Kapka’s displacement since she was 17 years old.  So she knows and understands displacement and her light sends its rays over many people who were forced to leave their homes by a variety of historical events.

In Border, you can feel the pain of the displaced and their longing for their home, left behind.  You understand the adopted hatred of their children towards this displacement and their desire to remember what happened to the family some time back, despite the fact that by now, they have moved to the nearest town.  But, being born settled, the third generation decides to displace themselves, in search of better conditions of life. And the previous two generations understand this.

During the rule of large empires, it was the rulers, who moved populations on the principle of “divide and rule”.  Now, after their fall, minorities are no longer wanted by the states with indigenous populations and they undertake steps to expel them, or to anger them sufficiently, so that they will want to leave themselves – like the changing of the names of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. In even later times, advancing nationalistic armies, some with strong Muslim agendas, who are willing to shed bombs even on their own Muslim populations, have been the cause of the latest wave of immigrants.  Kapka talks to them, too and has found human stories, which touch our hearts and somehow make us feel guilty.

Whether her characters are Turks, Bulgarians, Syrian, Greeks or Pomak, Kapka finds in them the same feelings – dedication and love for the place of their birth– their hatred for the border, and its protective military forces, their enchantment by the Strandja Mountain, and their self-reliance, as well as the desire to establish some sort of meaningful existence in their new home.

This unusually structured book brought in my heart feelings, which I had not felt for a long time – it brought back the adopted memory of my own family’s displacement from southern Thrace to Bulgaria. I thoroughly recommend it.