Gray Area

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe BY Kapka Kassabova. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 400 pages. $16.

There is an essential arbitrariness to borders. Whether enforced by walls and fences or through less material means—visa requirements, travel bans—they are always at least partly abstract: imaginary lines. Kapka Kassabova’s travelogue Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe explores the spiritual, psychological, and emotional qualities of the area around the shared frontiers of Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria, roaming this “back door to Europe” in an effort to find out, up close, what borders do to people, and vice versa. Her book is a deconstruction of the looming, nonspecific anxiety that comes from continually having to justify your right to exist on one or another side of a line. Through the stories of the people, the landmarks, and the wildernesses she encounters, Kassabova makes a chilling point that has proved true through the ages: “The closer you got to the border, the less your life was worth.”

Kassabova’s interest in the subject began when she was a child in Soviet-allied Bulgaria: While on the beach with her family at age ten, she recalls, she gazed at an older blond boy from East Berlin who, like her, gave off “the whiff of Nivea cream and pre-pubescent longing,” and she wished she could escape with him to neighboring Turkey or follow him home. It began to dawn on her that the nearby border, with its armed guards and barbed-wire fences, was there specifically “so that people like us couldn’t leave.” The insight changed her: “If innocence is the sense that the world is a safe and fair place, that summer I began to lose mine.” She remembers noticing for the first time that when you are in close proximity to a checkpoint you cannot cross, you develop “a permanent border-like feeling inside you, like indigestion.” Thirty years after this realization, Kassabova returns to the scene of her awakening for a road trip. She wants to understand why she still finds border crossings stressful “on a cellular level. Even with the right passport, in plain daylight, with nothing to declare.”

Kassabova sets off from the Strandja Mountains region, which “begins at the Black Sea to the east and tapers out into the Thracian plains to the west,” covering parts of southeastern Bulgaria and the European side of Turkey. She stays in a small, overgrown town she calls the Village in the Valley, which since the end of Communist rule has lost most of its population for lack of jobs and infrastructure. The village is in Bulgaria’s border zone, which under Communism meant that its residents needed special permission to stay there, and were not allowed to live or work anywhere else in the country; just by virtue of their location, they were treated as though they were practically foreigners. In fact, they had been foreigners not long before that. The area was predominantly Greek-speaking until the Balkan Wars of the early twentieth century, after which an “exchange of populations” (or, depending on how you look at it, a kind of ethnic cleansing) took place. Under the terms of agreements made in 1923, the Greeks in the region went to Thessaloniki, Bulgarians previously living in Turkey moved in and took their places, and Muslims from all over had to find new homes farther east. “This civilian catastrophe was just one refrain in the long threnody of the Ottoman Empire,” Kassabova writes, calling the whole situation a “mirthless merry-go-round.”

Then came the upheavals of industrialization and deindustrialization: By the time Kassabova visited, only a few locals and a handful of seasonal tourists were left. “There were no champagne socialists in the Village in the Valley, no anti-globalists, no anti-communists, no anti-capitalists. Just survivors. The women were old, the men were lonely, and the children were gone.” Nowadays, the village’s main attraction is the Disco, a restaurant where a silent waitress serves food while locals gossip and brawl.

Kassabova sees traces of the region’s violent history wherever she goes. “When the Ottoman Empire was slowly dismembered and the Balkan Wars ripped people from the land, they were forced to cross this border under pain of death,” she writes. “Then for half a century, they were prohibited from crossing it under pain of death.” This legacy is what draws Kassabova to the area; it’s also what pushes her to seek out antidotes to the misery she finds there, in the form of rites and rituals, superstitions and spirits. She drinks from a spring called Kreynero, which is believed to make anyone who imbibes its cold, heavy water “keep returning even if you don’t know why.” Sure enough, she finds herself delaying her departure multiple times. On day trips outside the village, she attends a traditional fire-walking ceremony, nominally Christian but emitting the scent of paganism, “unmistakable under the burning incense of Orthodoxy.” At Mishkova Niva, a nearby Thracian burial site, she observes how the place “emanated its own high-pitched energy,” and she veers so close to Turkey that “a message popped up on my phone: ‘Turkcell Welcomes You To Turkey.’” National boundaries cannot contain a collective, supranational subconscious—nor, apparently, can they keep up with mobile-phone technology.

Along her way, Kassobova meets smugglers and border guards, refugees and migrants, townspeople, visitors, a onetime East German border crosser who is now an artist in Berlin. A group called the Pomaks emerge as a telling symbol of the constant political turmoil that’s come to define these borderlands. Pomaks are Bulgarians whose Christian ancestors converted to Islam under Ottoman rule and who, in the early twentieth century, were “Christianised at gunpoint by the independent Bulgarian state with the official aim of giving them back their Christian roots,” as Kassabova explains, noting what a strange concept it is that one’s supposed roots could or should be forcibly reestablished. Many Pomaks fled to Turkey; others reconverted to Islam (or is it deconverted?); still others moved to Greece, only to find themselves doubly hated, this time on account of their language and apparent Bulgarianness. Kassabova pithily sums up their lot: They were “Hellenised and Slavicised, exoticised and demonised, homogenised and revised by South and North. . . . Nationalism is like that—it won’t just let people be.”

Kassabova writes with particular curiosity about the men and women who are or have been complicit in the violence that takes place at borders, and she is often shocked at the ruthlessness they express. When one of her guides, a man of twenty-five, tells her about the unmarked collective “bandit graves” that dot the forest paths in the mountains, he implies that anyone killed there must have done something to deserve it. “I checked, but he wasn’t joking,” Kassabova recalls. “According to this logic, if he were to shoot me and bury me on the spot now, it would be my fault.” Later, she hires a smuggler named Ziko to help her cross into Greece. Having grown up seeing “wire on one side, and Greece on the other,” Ziko feels he has a duty “to carve out a road for people.” When Kassabova realizes that he may have more sinister—and potentially violent—intentions, she makes a run for it. The experience shakes her, reinforcing her sense that once you get too close to the border, death is everywhere.

Kassabova’s writing isn’t partisan or prescriptive, but it does raise political questions and gives them a deep emotional resonance. How can anyone be “from” anywhere in a place where villages have frequently swapped names and populations? What’s it like to be permanently on a side you haven’t chosen? The lines demarking nations may well be imaginary but, of course, their effects are very real. Kassabova’s journey took place in 2014, when illegal border crossings from the east were becoming increasingly common, and many of the interactions she has in the book hint at the scale of the crisis nearby. In Bulgaria, she meets a family of Kurdish refugees from Iraq who have been in immigration limbo for months: unable to stay, unable to leave, unable to work. “This is a prison,” the mother says. “This is not Europe.” The conversation takes Kassabova back to her childhood in Sofia, to “our family’s deepest winter of the soul, the winter of waiting for emigration visas in 1991”—and once again she feels “the sensation of being invisible, unwanted, speechless, a disembodied soul waiting in one of history’s drafty corridors.”

As you read, you can feel Kassabova working out her own relationship with the “bitter beloved borderless Balkans” (clumsy alliteration and all). The trip she describes in Border marks the longest period she’s spent in Bulgaria since she left with her family in 1992. Before embarking this time, she’d “worried that I was at heart a deracinated, drifting person, despite my delusion of being at home everywhere. That although I no longer belonged here . . . it was where I secretly belonged the most.” In conversation with a Belgian Irishman who spends summers in the Village in the Valley, she asks why he’s there. “Once you lose your roots, it doesn’t really matter where you go, does it,” he answers. Kassabova disagrees. “It’s precisely when you have lost your roots that everywhere you go matters hugely.” This is a feeling that many border crossers know well, and Kassabova conveys it splendidly, without the clichéd sentimentality that so often accompanies any discussion of home.

Running through her narrative is a vivid sense of the wildness of the place. Kassabova taps into atmospheric tensions; she’s so attuned to the hum of leaves and moss and rocks that if she claimed to have been a witch in a past life, you’d probably believe her. She ends her book with a plea to preserve these forests. Border does occasionally verge on the florid, but it’s also sharp and stuffed with information—it’s hard to imagine a more original and compelling introduction to a virtually unknown region. Kassabova’s historical, environmental, and anthropological excavations of the borderlands do not fit neatly into the categories of reportage or polemic, nor do they tell the story from a particular side of the fence. Ultimately, that is her point: You could just as easily have found yourself on one side as on the other.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a journalist and the author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, 2015).