The Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize-winning author of Border, Kapka Kassabova, on how the legacies of the Cold War play out at the southeastern edge of Europe where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey meet.
Nominations are open for the 2020 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding. Complete the online nomination form to submit an outstanding non-fiction book that contributes to public understanding of world cultures.
I grew up behind the Iron Curtain
I’ve been obsessed with borders, because it affected me in such a profound way in my childhood, growing up behind the ultimate hard border. I always knew that I would write about that particular border in some way.
The history of this border has not really been told properly
I left Bulgaria as a teenager, but I felt that the time had come to go back and dig up these secret histories. I felt a sense of urgency, of time running out. I’m in my forties, so the generation below me have no memory of what it was like to live with the Iron Curtain. They read about it in history books, but they only get the big-history version of those events. I wanted to talk to people who have experienced that border first-hand. The people who remembered, the old border guards from the Cold War for example, were dying out and I wanted to hear those stories.
I was very struck by how much the people on all three sides of the border shared
Even though they were divided by the cruellest of borders, they still shared a basic vocabulary and a basic worldview and some of these strangely poetic, archaic practices. This region holds the only two communities in Europe where full-on, ritualised, seasonal fire worship is still practiced on such a scale. In the midst of the brutality of the politics, it’s very striking that people could still commune with nature. This area is one of the last wildernesses of Europe, so the landscape is spectacular.
I wouldn’t have had the confidence to embark on this journey if I hadn’t spent a few years living in the Scottish Highlands
Living here as a lifelong city person, moving to the Scottish Highlands has been a really eye-opening experience, and I think it opened me up to other explorations like the one required for Border. It reconnected me with wilderness, with natural forces rather than man-made forces, and with this sense of being on the periphery, away from the centres of power. The periphery, I’ve discovered, can be a very powerful place, and certainly full of secret histories. I think that’s just as true in Scotland. It is just that in the Balkans, there is a tremendous amount of unprocessed trauma from recent history, and I am interested in how a landscape - with and without its people - is affected by traumatic events.
The border zone is an archetypal place
A border like this one has guardians, transgressors, border-crossers, which I found very interesting psychologically. I met quite a lot of the protectors of the border, border police as well as former border soldiers, but I wanted to tell only one of each type of story. I didn't want to have a book full of guards because that would not be a fair portrayal of the border area. One of the big challenges was how to do justice to this place, by portraying it in all its magnificent and often quite devastated diversity. The light and the dark, the humour and the tragedy, all of that is there and I wanted to capture it all.
I’m still haunted by the paradox of these beautiful but dying villages and towns in Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria
One of the things that was really striking in the border area was how depopulated it is. As one Turkish shepherd living in the border region said to me, why is it so difficult to have a couple of families move into these empty houses, bring some life to this place and help with the flocks? We have this huge stream of people going west because life pushes them to do so. This includes the continuing brain drain from countries like Bulgaria and Greece. There is a bitter paradox in that, especially if you visit these depopulated places and see how stunningly beautiful and livable they are. But equally, I can see that if you’re growing up in a small place it’s very difficult to stay there, difficult not to leave. That’s a global problem.
Refugees from the Middle East are using the same forest paths that the fugitives of the Cold War used in their dangerous attempts to leave the Soviet bloc
I was struck when a local told me that the smugglers are all the same families. Generations of people smugglers, on every side of the border. They’re the same families that know all the paths, all the secret ways. I was very shaken by the sight of people coming in, all the way from Syria, via Turkey, with just these small rucksacks, looking like they’ve lost everything, walking those abandoned roads of the Cold War where only military tracks used to go. When I set out on my journey in 2013, it was just the beginning, people were only trickling in but I just felt, this is history on the ground. I have to write about this.
Sometimes history’s backwaters throw more light on our present than the centres of power
The border is a microcosm of a global world, with its paradoxes of connectedness and separation. It’s almost as if those are the two major forces in our world today, war and peace: a kind of hyper-connectedness through digital means and at the same time, this discourse of division in politics, which is going on everywhere. What we need more than ever is a bit of wisdom, a bit of humanity and to be reminded again and again that everything we do, in our own bubble, our own microcosms, affects the world at large, sooner or later.
Being multilingual is having a kind of cultural power, that nothing can replace
I don’t think there is any substitute for reading and verbal communication. When you go to a country where you don’t speak the language, you feel helpless, almost blind and deaf, because you can’t decode the meaning of things. When you do speak a language, it opens doors onto dazzling new worlds.
I hope the book falls into the hands of politicians, so they learn a thing or two about places they never go.
Not just policy-makers of those three countries of the border but more broadly, because these issues affect the whole world. The people of this border have something to teach us; their stories are inspiring, instructive and can also serve as a warning. This border demonstrates both the damage done by the politics of conflict and division, which is what it symbolised during the Cold War, and the healing power within that we all carry. Our destiny is to be connected and to help each other, that’s what the border taught me.
Kapka Kassabova is the author of several poetry collections, a novel and two acclaimed memoirs. Her book 'Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe' was the winner of our 2018 Al-Rodhan Prize. Find out more about how to nominate for the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize 2019.