Sunday, February 18, 2018

Borders - what are they good for?

One day arriving at the office in Macedonia, my assistant informed that my Roma cleaning lady had been in touch. Under the mat outside my flat, she had found an 'object'. The intention of the object (whose character remained undescribed) was malevolent but rest assured, though she did not think it meant for me but the flat's owner, it had been dealt with safely! It was one of a number of tangential encounters with a world of magic that came my way living in 'the Balkans' including a memorable storyline about the 'evil eye' (equally, thankfully, not directed at me).

I was reminded of this reading Kapka Kassabova's "Border: A Journey on the Edge of Europe". Her exploration takes her further east than mine - to the place where Greece, Turkey and her native Bulgaria meet. It is a place - in her account - that remains 'apart' - depopulated by the shiftings of border, culture and economics - and saturated in both the edges of the known - ghosts, fire walkers, treasure hunters, healers - and the sharp edges of history.

The sharp edge of history because here the borders (and populations) have shifted in the flowing course of conquest and strife and, most recently, have first demarcated the boundary between east and west in the Cold War and now between west and the rest in the refugee crisis.

In the former case, the boundary was considered, erroneously, as a softer touch than the "Berlin Wall" and 'tourists' from the Eastern Bloc flocked to Bulgaria to try their luck on what was thought of as simply forest and a barbed wire fence.

Haunting are Kassabova's stories of those that failed slipping into a landscape complex even to locals of dense trees, ravines, fast flowing rivers -and guards helped by a population whose interiorised fear made them likely to turn you in (or face their own uncertain consequence) - and, of course, fencing. Many were killed, most returned to differing periods of imprisonment. None of them received any form of justice or recompense from their encounter with tyranny.

In the latter, the tables are now turned. The trial is not getting out of Bulgaria but of getting in.

Haunting too are the tales of people stranded on the Turkish side waiting for their opportunity, watching their savings dwindle on simply living or on the depredations of the trafficker who promises all and guarantees nothing. At least (for the time being) no one gets shot, 'simply' arrested and returned in an endless of loop of trial and failure that sometimes breaks down into 'freedom' - the uncertainties of Europe as a refugee.

Borders, in this part of the narrative, imposed by nation states seem intent on fracturing the complex mix of people's into the simplicities of a national identity but history and the people within it are more complex - at once more united in their common humanity and more multiple in their actual identities.

This painful narrative in itself would make the book valuable - as a witness and a reminder that borders have sharp edges and fences rarely make good neighbours.

But, for me, the book's deepest interest is of a part of the world open to another kind of border - betwixt the comfortably known and the perplexing strange.

Kassabova, though a sceptical witness, is always an open one; and, you are gently introduced to a world that may just be more different, strange than one imagines. The healer, she meets, at the end, for example, may indeed do what she claims just in the way that my Roma cleaner preserved me from accidental attack.  The fire walkers do dance on the embers. The treasure buried in the hills is sometimes found. The ghosts linger.

Through these edges, Kassabova is a fascinating companion with whom to travel and you encounter both wonderful (and eccentric and sometimes disturbing) people and sympathetically listen to their stories - the German survivor of an attempted escape who becomes an artist in Berlin, the shepherd and his wife hoping against hope for the revitalisation of their village; and, the disturbing opportunistic trafficker who appears to have a heart (and who has seen the monastery with a solitary ancient monk that is only heard of by others and seems to have an ability to apparently disappear and reappear with ease)!

The border as a liminal space, the border as a historical space, the border as simply a fact of life - all explored with an adventurous and attentive eye.

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