Roses, Tobacco and Places in Between : Kapka Kassabova’s Border

“Today, the Valley of Roses near the main rose-producing [Bulgarian] town of Kazanlak (from the Turkish kazan, cauldron) still produces fifty per cent of the world’s rose attar… The other fifty per cent is produced by Turkey. Like Oriental tobacco, the rose is a bitter love story between Bulgaria and Turkey. When Bulgaria broke away from the Ottomans in the 1870s, workers from the rose industry travelled south across the border with cuttings from the Valley of Roses and planted them in the soil of Anatolia. They must have really loved their roses.”

The story of rose damascena is one of many shared by Kapka Kassabova in her odyssey across the borders on Europe’s southern edge, between Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. In the times of ever hardening borders reinforced by barbwire and prejudice, reading Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (public library) is an unsettling experience. How can mere lines on the map have the capacity to cut into people’s lives and haunt their thoughts?

That borders haunt is something I’ve experienced myself. I’ve been fascinated with maps ever since I was a child, sleeping under a large map of the world. A large part on it, colored dark pink, was the Soviet Union, with Ukraine, a jagged diamond sitting on its western border.  “Ukraine” meant “the borderland.” I was born in Kyiv, and finding the city in the middle of the diamond, my finger traced a journey west–Lviv, Krakow, Prague, Vienna. But past Lviv, near the village of Shehyni, a thicker line started, and the dark pink space yielded to a mosaic of colors. I may not have understood the post-WWII arrangement, spheres of influence and the Iron Walls, but I knew one thing with certainty–I couldn’t cross the line at Shehyni. The border was there to keep me in. The more I became aware of it, the more I wanted to see what was happening za kordonom, behind the border. The more I was deterred, the more it entranced me.

The irony of the border, an entity that’s supposed to be solid and immovable, is its duality. Depending on which side you live, the border is either soft or hard, alluring or dangerous, roses or tobacco. Kassabova came of age in the communist Bulgaria of the 1980s, around the same time as I did in Soviet Ukraine, so she understands the border psychology well. The borders that kept us in have grown softer over the years–Bulgaria became part of the EU, and Ukraine was recently granted the visa-free regime in the Schengen zone. What remains is the sense of uncertainty. Once you’ve lived for years with a wall, you carry it with you whenever you go. Every time I cross  the border, any border, I still worry that I might bump into an iron wall.

Kassabova crosses the borders between Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, and explores how strange of a construct the border is–man made but filled with ghosts. In one village, for instance, she follows the “ancestral tourists,” grandchildren of the Greeks, Turks and Bulgarians who were resettled after the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. The word “resettled” hides a bloody mess under its sleek facade. A century later the descendants make pilgrimages to their ancestral villages and claim to see balls of fire.

The ball of fire phenomenon can be explained by natural causes, but what can explain the fire worshiping rituals that have survived in that part where the borderlands of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece overlap, and many other mystical sightings, of which Kassabova too becomes aware? “Suffering,” says one woman the author meets. I was reminded of a historian of Ukraine, Kate Brown, who wrote that it’s impossible to write the history of the borderlands without believing in divine apparitions, at least temporarily. “Ghosts, miracles, occurrences that today cannot be explained, made up a major part of everyday life there.”

In her search for ghosts, Kassabova explores history that leaves its scars in the region. One such tragedy took place in 1989, in the waning days of the communist regime. The Bulgarian government, looking for a scapegoat, forced the Bulgarian Turks to “find their true roots.” The Bulgarian Turks were a legacy of the five centuries of the Ottoman empire, some of whom were of Turkish descent, and some Slavs who converted to Islam, but all were living in Bulgaria for generations.

The process of searching for the true roots of the Bulgarian Turks was called “the Revival.” It involved forced name changes, rape, persecution, and for more than 300,000 people, an exile to Turkey. Even the dead weren’t safe as Turkic and Arabic names were erased from tombstones. And that’s where Kassabova tells her story of roses and tobacco. Rose growers departed in the 19th century, while tobacco growers left in the 20th. Bulgaria used to be the world’s biggest tobacco exporter, but by 1990 the industry collapsed.  The growers of the fragrant Oriental tobacco were the exiled Bulgarian Turks.

Kassabova’s book could be read as a warning against raising too many walls, and arriving as it did during the EU’s immigration debates, the Brexit and the US travel ban, it’s timely. The main reason I found Border moving, however, is because Kassabova gives the people of the borderlands the voice they lack. As a personal odyssey, it’s a poignant and multifaceted work.

Reading Border one is left with the sense of desolation of living on the margins. The closer one finds oneself to liminal zones like borders, the less protected one becomes. But are the borderlands by necessity sordid? Places where different people meet, with their various creeds, languages and affinities, have always produced a unique melanges of culture. People may not always live in perfect harmony, but they learn to coexist. In today’s world that seeks neat labels and classification, and the corresponding divisions to return to the pure mythical past, such a borderland holds more attraction to me than a gated community. In Tony Judt’s words, I prefer the edge.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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59 Comments

  • James: I’ve placed an order for this book. Thank you for an excellent review. July 26, 2017 at 7:44am Reply

  • Karen A: Thank you for such a beautiful and thought provoking article. The book is on my must-read list. July 26, 2017 at 7:50am Reply

    • Victoria: This book is going to be one of my favorites from this year. Hope that you can find it. July 26, 2017 at 12:27pm Reply

      • Karen A: It’s on order at our library and I am first on the list! Hopefully it comes in soon! July 26, 2017 at 6:51pm Reply

        • Victoria: Please let me know what you think. I wonder if you’ve traveled through the areas of Turkey the author does; they sound fascinating. July 27, 2017 at 1:50am Reply

  • Sandra: Putting this on my list! Thank you Victoria.

    Reading your comments makes me keep my heart and eyes wide open. July 26, 2017 at 8:27am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Sandra. July 26, 2017 at 12:27pm Reply

  • Tamara K: I’ve seen a review in the Guardian (I think?), but yours made me call my library. Luckily, they already have a copy. I hope to start it this weekend. July 26, 2017 at 8:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Wonderful! Enjoy your reading. July 26, 2017 at 12:28pm Reply

  • Danaki: I’m buying the book!

    This morning I was reading my Lebanese newspaper and the headlines all concerned the recent developments (albeit mostly militarily) on the Lebano-Syria border; the town of Irsal and the hills surrounding it. Beneath the military accounts and victorious species lies the border. The people and villages on either side are allowed to say little, their stories and lives – caught up in or deliberately plunged into the recent events – only merely mentioned.

    Picking up the story of this book is timely. So its going on my reading list. July 26, 2017 at 9:08am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s terrible what’s going on, but also heartbreaking how little we hear the voices of those who are affected by the military developments, etc. The reason I liked Kassabova’s book as much as I did is that it’s quite nuanced, and the stories it shares have many layers. And in the end, it doesn’t reduce people to merely victims or villains. Anyway, it’s highly recommended. July 26, 2017 at 12:31pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Most interesting, I must read the book. It is so very sad to see/read that so many people from one ethnic group are forced to leave a land where the have been living for centuries. This phenomenon goes on and on, leaving so much sorrow, poverty, lost chances, broken families, lost homes, “heimweh” in its wake. The endless (civil) wars in the Middle East at this moment is just another example.
    Reading Claudia Roden’s exemplary book “The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York” with its many touching photos and anecdotes also shows how the colourful ethnic fabric is endlessly ripped apart, and yet how many shadows or ghosts from those days are still around! July 26, 2017 at 11:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Indeed! July 26, 2017 at 12:37pm Reply

    • Carla: Claudia Roden is wonderful – sounds like this is a memoir and not a cookbook?
      A thoughtful, in depth review Victoria! July 26, 2017 at 3:20pm Reply

      • Victoria: It’s heavy on recipes, but it has little inserts explaining stories of different Jewish communities around the world. July 27, 2017 at 1:31am Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: It gives, in my view, an excellent overview of Jewish cookery and culinary customs over the whole world, i.e. small Indian enclave; the Jews in Persia; the Jewish influence in say the Greek town of Thessaloniki; cooking in Bagdad etc. The book is interspersed with photos from Poland to Jemen. I cannt recommend the book more highly, it is so much more than a book of recipes! July 27, 2017 at 11:16am Reply

        • Victoria: My only qualm with that book is that it doesn’t represent the Ashkenazi cuisine well, and since we have a number of excellent cooks in the family, I don’t buy Roden’s explanation that it’s because the Ashkenazi Jewish women had no time for cooking. But still, the book is excellent and is a gold standard for many food writers. There is another interesting book coming out this year called King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World by Joan Nathan. I’m curious to take a look. July 27, 2017 at 11:58am Reply

        • Carla: Sounds like a wonderful compilation thank goodness there are people like Roden out there documenting these cultural treasures July 27, 2017 at 1:00pm Reply

  • Steve L.: I’m fortunate never to have been blocked by a border. I think I could deal with being kept “out,” but to be locked “in” is another matter entirely. My sympathies have always been aroused by people who find themselves in that situation. It seems to be people who do not live near a border who have the strongest opinions about them. July 26, 2017 at 11:40am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s often how it happens, isn’t it?
      My stepfather wanted to go to Bulgaria in the 80s, but the local KGB branch wouldn’t let him go for some reason and then put him on a “barred from travel” list. He ended up learning several languages and poured energy into acquiring samizdat to read, just to feel free. Sometimes a border can influence one this way too. July 26, 2017 at 12:39pm Reply

      • Steve L.: There is a line of decisions whereby the U.S has denied passports to certain citizens in an effort to muzzle their speech on foreign soil. The singer / actor / civil rights activist Paul Robeson was an early target. So while hearing that the KGB curtailed travel comes as no shock, some might be surprised to learn that the practice is (or at least has been) more widespread than that. July 26, 2017 at 6:31pm Reply

        • Victoria: The story of Paul Robeson is very sad.
          Unfortunately, it continues today. The Mexican-Americans living along the U.S.-Mexico border are routinely denied passports by The U.S. Department of State, in many cases even if they have the US birth certificates. July 27, 2017 at 1:50am Reply

  • Maria: Thanks for a wonderful review Victoria! July 26, 2017 at 12:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad you liked it. July 26, 2017 at 12:39pm Reply

  • Helen Frost: ooh, intersting. will probably read after the adventurous history of nutmeg by Giles Milton July 26, 2017 at 1:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: Have you started Milton’s book already? July 27, 2017 at 1:25am Reply

  • Kate: Thank you for the thought-provoking review, which makes me want to read the book (or at least put it on my ever-lengthening list!)

    I grew up in Ireland during the Troubles, which inoculated me against nationalisms of any stripe. I find the recent rise in isolationism and nationalisms very depressing. When you know people have sacrificed so much for freedom and openness, it is worrying to witness a fear-inspired regression to their opposite. July 26, 2017 at 2:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I feel the same way. Moreover, as history teaches us, the most successful societies are those open to all and that give an opportunity to everyone to contribute. July 27, 2017 at 1:27am Reply

    • SilverMoon: Kate, I couldn’t agree more with you. Nationalism can be so destructive of everything else that is precious about a society or culture. As someone whose immediate family (parents and spouse) are from three different continents and from different cultures and religions, I am extremely uncomfortable with nationalism.

      The book is certainly timely in a world where politicians talk about building walls and closing borders (in other words, the free movement of people) as if they are purely economic decisions. Thanks for calling attention to it, Victoria. July 30, 2017 at 10:12am Reply

      • Victoria: I’m glad that it was relevant. It’s such a timely publication. August 1, 2017 at 2:37am Reply

  • Henry: As a librarian it’s exciting to see the WorldCat link! Public libraries in the US can request material from other libraries — your tax dollars at work! If in state, there is usually no charge. Thank you for promoting this service and also for discussing so many fascinating subjects/ideas. July 26, 2017 at 2:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: And thank you for your comment. Librarians have a very important role, and I can’t imagine where I would have been without libraries, especially when I was an impecunious student.

      Your point to requesting materials from other libraries is a good reminder. I’ve lived in small towns in the US where libraries could request pretty much anything that existed in the US-wide system. Free of charge and very fast. So, it’s worth to patronize one’s library and keep this service going. July 27, 2017 at 1:30am Reply

  • maja: I have been stopped at various borders too many a time to be able to cross them without unease or fear.
    Your wonderful article reminded me of Yuri Lotman’s semiotic theories about how two semiospheres, two cultures in this case, are most likely to generate meaning and ideas at their respective peripheries, in contact with each other. The real nature of a border is a flexible, dynamic space where exchange happens more quickly. Walls are deadly. July 26, 2017 at 4:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t agree more. My theory on why Ukraine has such a rich culture, despite its bitter and tragic history of a country on the cross-roads, is because it absorbed influences from all sides. But the same can be said about many other places in the world, and you can see elements of it in “Border” and its stories. July 27, 2017 at 1:35am Reply

  • behemot: Wonderful post. Ordering the book.Thank you:) July 27, 2017 at 12:50am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! I’m happy to share. July 27, 2017 at 1:51am Reply

  • Ani Ilieva: Dearest Victoria, I love you for this post.
    I grew in that region of Bulgaria, near the borders, and I remember all of the dramatic events in the 80s. Your review really moved me, now I must read the book 🙂 July 27, 2017 at 2:27am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your comment. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to live through that period, even as an observer. July 27, 2017 at 11:50am Reply

  • Kapka: Books like “Border” could be very painful for me to read, for they open old wounds and make my heart ache. During those events in the 80’s in Bulgaria I lost many friends and classmates who were forced to leave their homes and birthplace. It took me more than 20 years to find some of them and some are lost forever. And to find my answers of what have happened. Today I can see them ,connect with them and what we have realised is that beyond political games and historical turmoils there is this human line that is unbreakable and bind us together on a personal level for it is our love and mutual respect that connects us as friends. Thank you for your post,Victoria . July 27, 2017 at 5:54am Reply

    • Victoria: I can see why it would be painful. I’m glad that you were able to find some of your friends.
      Thank you for your comment and for sharing your story. July 27, 2017 at 11:52am Reply

    • Marilyn stanonis: Kapka – my heart aches for you and for those you lost! July 27, 2017 at 12:27pm Reply

  • Marilyn stanonis: Oh, Victoria, what a marvelous book review! I haven’t even finished today’s comments; as soon as finish this to you I will order the book.
    The only border that concerns me is the one between Kentucky and Indiana, and that happens to be the Ohio river — all we do is drive across the bridge any time we want to. Even so, whenever I travel in the states I think about how fortunate we are here NOT to have “borders”! And I’ve traveled just enough in Europe, some in Eastern Europe, to have quite a consciousness about the whole subject. I hope I always remember the creepy feeling I got years ago in Vienna when I realized how very close we were to “the other side”!
    I no longer keep a reading list because my interests keep changing, so this book is next in my reading. Thank you so much!
    (Didn’t mean to go on and on; in fact, I’ve used considerable restraint. Lucky you!) July 27, 2017 at 10:11am Reply

    • Victoria: Please do take a look at it! It will take you on a journey.
      (No worries, I’m happy to read any comment, long or short. 🙂 July 27, 2017 at 11:54am Reply

  • Alexandra Fraser: Thanks for a great review – and reminder ( I meant to read it when it came out but somehow it slipped out of my mental pile).
    I find the whole idea of borders fascinating, intimidating and in some locations disturbing – look at a world map – where are the straight lines drawn? – the impositions of colonisation!
    As an islander ( and living on an island very far from the rest of the world) our most obvious borders are the coast and surrounding ocean. I think islanders can develop a different mindset from having to negotiate ‘the tyranny of distance’ rather than the non-islanders’ needing to negotiate the possible tyrannies of neighbours
    Anyway – Great review – and I had thought all tobacco was the same – nice to learn something new before 7.00am July 27, 2017 at 3:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: I loved your comment on the tyranny of distance vs the tyranny of neighbors. And you’re right, the islanders definitely have a different outlook on the borders.

      It’s worth picking up. There are many excellent books out this year, but Borders is one of the most memorable. July 30, 2017 at 6:32am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you so much for a fascinating review. The story of the Turkish Bulgarians having to leave reminds me of the exodus of French Protestants in the seventeenth century, often to England. What Louis XIV had not foreseen is that France was thus losing some of its most skilled workers, for eg in the textile industry enriching the ‘enemy’. Tolerance makes economic as well as moral sense. July 27, 2017 at 3:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: It does, doesn’t it! Same in the Low Countries. Antwerp’s loss was Amsterdam’s gain. July 30, 2017 at 6:33am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Victoria, I’ve learned so many other things from you besides perfume. Your writing is so descriptive, I can picture what you write. Thanks again for yet another thought-provoking post. July 27, 2017 at 9:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your warm words, Phyllis. July 30, 2017 at 6:34am Reply

  • CC: This is excellent and I must have picked it up here some months ago. Thank you for such great recommendations and worldly perspective. I enjoyed KK’s refreshing take on a very rooted rootlessness and somehow am reminded of Chatwin’s non-judgmental but high-empathy travels. July 29, 2017 at 1:09am Reply

    • Victoria: She also is able to weave stories into the discussions of history and present different perspectives. A fascinating book. July 30, 2017 at 6:41am Reply

  • Austenfan: I had been meaning to add some really profound and thoughtful comments to your lovely post, but somehow I don’t seem to be able to organise my thoughts about borders. Still I will add some of my usual rambles on this fascinating subject.
    I’ve always been fascinated by cultural differences between countries, regions, cities etc. As I’ve been privileged enough to have lived in the Netherlands for most of my life, borders to me have always been associated with positive things. Not barriers, but roads giving access to different perspectives. I grew up near the German border and have been living very close to Belgium for the past 15 years. I love to skip across the almost non-existant border with Belgium and to be surrounded by a world that is similar to but not identical with my own. Like putting on different clothes (of perfume for that matter). But I always go back so I never have to adapt for very long. So, I too love borders in my own way. August 2, 2017 at 6:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: I suppose for the Netherlands, it’s the natural borders with the sea that form its psyche to the greater extent than the borders with other countries. For Belgium, borders haven’t always been so benign, especially in the 20th century, but as part of the EU, it’s now in a position not to be as concerned about them. Belgium to me is the perfect example of a borderland country, with all of the complexities and advantages of such a situation.

      I also love visiting the Netherlands. It feels different enough from Belgium. I still have Delft on my list. August 3, 2017 at 1:41am Reply

      • Austenfan: I think not necessarily the sea in particular but our battle with water in general. Water as a common enemy must have shaped us as a nation, as it has forced us to work together and to compromise, which these days is our middle name. Plus the organisations dealing with water were the first democratic structures in the Netherlands.
        Personally, I’ve spent most of my life as far removed from the sea as one can possible be within my tiny country, although my paternal ancestors were fishermen. August 3, 2017 at 5:39am Reply

        • Victoria: On a slightly different but related topic. Do you enjoy the sea? Or do you prefer the mountains? Maybe because I’ve always lived in the flat countries, I’m fascinated with the mountains. I’ve scaled a few peaks over the past year, and I’ve discovered how much I enjoyed it. August 3, 2017 at 10:37am Reply

          • Austenfan: I like both but have a preference for mountains. When I was little we spent our summer holidays in Norway and went skiing in winter (in France). Because my country is so flat mountains are exotic and therefore more attractive, I guess. Hiking is wonderful, even though I sugger quite badly from vertigo. August 3, 2017 at 10:58am Reply

            • Austenfan: I meant suffer of course. August 3, 2017 at 11:06am Reply

            • Victoria: Norway is a place I have yet to explore. August 7, 2017 at 1:15pm Reply

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