One of the best things about crossing the Greek-Turkish border by train before February 2011 was the grid-iron bridge that spanned the Maritsa or Meriç River. On each support beam, Turkey’s white star and crescent on a panel of red flashed red and white until, suddenly, a stripe of red appeared next to the blue on the central beam, and then a monarchy-era Greek flag with a single white cross on blue flashed by blue and white. The change in colours over the river meant that we had seamlessly crossed into Europe, with nothing but a passport check from Greek and English-shouting border guards to delay us. I often wondered what that border crossing really meant, and how it was that you could divide up what began and ended with a line drawn through the river. The fish and birds needed no passports, and yet the divisions that I often saw between Greece and Turkey, in all my years of living in Istanbul, were ones of language and religion.
Kapka Kassabova’s travelogue and memoir, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, was written after that time. When I passed through with the Dostluk-Filia (from the words for ‘friendship’ in Turkish and Greek) Express train, from as early as 2009, the European Union was a creaky whole, the Arab Spring and the subsequent war in Syria had yet to emerge, and Brexit was not even a suggested idea. Far more likely at that time was talk of kicking out one of the so-called ‘PIGS’ – Portugal, Italy, Greece, or Spain –than the United Kingdom electing to bow out. But in the years since, the European economic and world economic crisis, as well as the spill-over of the war in Syria, and many other conflicts around the world, has created a renewed sense of the fraught nature of the beginning and end of one country into the next. Enter Kassabova’s book, which has won the 2017 Saltire Society Book of the Year Award, one of the highest literary honours in Scotland.
Kassabova, a poet and writer born in Bulgaria, but now based in Scotland, doesn’t question the existence of borders in her haunting travelogue that is infused with history, myth and folklore, but rather she examines their very nature, specifically along southern Bulgaria. The culture, traditions, liminality, eeriness, schisms, and unifications of the people and the land around borders is what interests her the most and is what the reader too gets quickly caught up in, as the writer returns to Bulgaria 25 years after her family’s move to New Zealand.
For those who have lived in and loved any of the countries Kassabova travels to – Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey – her journey and findings will be familiar: A confirmation that the lands around the border are where, just as she writes, ‘something like Europe begins and something else ends which isn’t quite Asia’, a transition zone that is neither Europe nor the Middle East. Even to call the land (which is easily and handily located with the book’s supplied map) simply ‘Balkan’ is to do it a disservice. A border in Kassabova’s hands is something mystical, a place to be reborn if you are lucky, a place to die if you are not. For those trying to escape communism in Kassabova’s childhood this was certainly true, and sadly also as true, she recognizes, with the refugee crisis.
The legacy of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Balkan Wars, and communism are all there in Borders, and you get a real sense of the human cost of these conflicts, through Kassabova’s vivid vignettes and characterizations of the people she encounters. In reading, you believe that they’re all real, from the owner of a café-bar in the town of Strandja, Bulgaria, the ‘slender Minka, a woman of few words … [who] put your order on the table with a blunt, fatalistic “Enjoy”’, to the story of Ayshe, the Muslim Bulgarian considered to be Turkish by Bulgarians and Bulgarian by Turks, forced to emigrate with her family to Turkey in 1989 at the age of eight; to the increasingly sinister undertones of Kassabova’s journey with Ziko, a former smuggler, and to many, many others. To love this part of the world is to have experienced chance encounters that illuminate your surroundings so much that they feel fated, and this is exactly what Kassabova brings the reader into while also retelling the area’s painful history that is usually unknown by outsiders.
As Kassabova says in an interview with The Paris Review:
Traumas, or very powerful, primal experiences, especially when they’re experienced by large numbers of people, have a tendency to affect everything they touch. At that border, it wasn’t just one person who died. It was many, untold numbers—mouths full of earth. I think when you have a massive collective experience like that, the trauma remains in the earth. I think the earth has a memory, trees have a memory, rivers have a memory. If we’re a little bit open to it, we pick it up.
Kassabova indeed picks up the traumas of the land in her haunting travel narrative, and her skill is so great that we, too, feel as if we’ve picked up a bit of it as well, and are better able to understand the human condition. After all, so many borders and nations have been created by trauma and displacement. To believe that the land an ancestor once inhabited is somehow still infused with the knowledge of a group’s forced departure doesn’t seem odd at all. What’s odd is how we don’t recognize the pain and passion in borderlands that this wonderful and touching book captures so well.