Thursday 11 May 2017

Street without a Name by Kapka Kassabova; Book Note

Street without a Name by Kapka Kassabova: Book Note

In 1990 I visited what was then still the Soviet Union, as part of an exchange of American with Soviet human rights scholars (I am not American, but the delegation needed a woman, which I am). While there a Russian member of Amnesty International invited us to her apartment. This was a very big deal, as only a short time previously this woman would have been arrested for being in AI, let alone inviting us to her apartment. 

The apartment was in a very ugly block of high-rises in a suburb of Moscow. I noticed long, uncut grass around the blocks, providing a nice refuge for rats. Also there were no street names.  Our hostess explained that the authorities thought if there were street names, the CIA would be able to use them for its nefarious purposes. But you could find where you were going as the authorities had recently decided to paint different-colored decorations on the different blocks, so you could tell your visitors, for example, to visit the blue block.

I thought of this when I recently (April 2017) read Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2009). Kassabova was born in 1973 and lived in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, until 1990, when her parents emigrated with her and her sister to New Zealand. The first half of the book recounts her childhood, and the second half her visits back to Bulgaria in the early 2000s. 

Kapka Kassabova
Like my Soviet host, Kassabova lived on a street without a name. Her parents, a professional couple, were interested in literature, arts, politics—all the usual “bourgeois” preoccupations of European intelligentsia—but knew better than to speak their minds about the Bulgarian dictatorship. In extremely cramped quarters, with neighbours who could hear everything and who might very well be spies, it was best to keep one’s own counsel. The price for minimal material security was political silence.

The poverty is pervasive and all-consuming. Kassabova’s father spends six months at a university in the Netherlands on an exchange program. Later, some Dutch colleagues come to visit. They comment that the the shops display many goods, and the Kassabova family does not explain that these are for display only: to get any of those goods requires connections and long wait times. At one point they all visit a rural village, and the Dutch colleagues suggest having a barbeque. Knowing that meat is very expensive for Bulgarians, they suggest that Kassabova’s parents bring potatoes. There is a mad scramble for the potatoes, eventually supplied by the hosts at the cottage where they are staying, as the family doesn’t want to admit to the Dutch people that even potatoes are scarce. The Dutch visitors, meanwhile, have given up on their idea of camping in Bulgaria after they discover how filthy the campground toilets are.

Kassabova glosses over some significant incidents in her life. In 1986 she was hospitalized for some time after contracting a “mysterious” immunodeficiency disease. This was, not coincidentally, just after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. When she returned home in the early 2000s, she learned than several people she’d known as a child, including fellow schoolchildren, had died of cancer.

Kassabova also discusses a little-noticed incident in Bulgaria’s history, shortly before the fall of communism in 1989. This was the de facto expulsion of about 300,000 ethnic Turks from Bulgaria in the 1980s. As Kassabova says (p. 114) “The ethnic Turks were the tobacco-growers, the agricultural workers, the humble workforce that buzzed away in the background, propping up the diseased body of the State.” In principle, there was no need to go into exile: the government was demanding that all ethnic Turks change their names to Bulgarian ones: you couldn’t register your baby at birth, for example, if you hadn’t changed your name. But those who didn’t want to do so fled to Turkey. This expulsion was a precursor of the ethnic wars in former-Yugoslavia, which started only a few years later.

On one of her trips home Kassabova meets a woman on a train who tells her that she was one of the 1,643 infant and child prisoners in Bulgaria’s communist prison camps. According to her account (pp. 315-17) when her mother was being sent to the camp a guard grabbed her baby and dumped her into a pail of dirty water, since children would not be able to survive in the camps. Another guard fished her out and gave her back to her mother. This woman was trying to obtain compensation, so far unsuccessfully. She described the camp to Kassabova as equivalent to Nazi concentration camps for Jews, which I have no difficulty believing, although Communist camps were not overtly exterminationist. But then she told Kassabova that this was only for comparative purposes, as the Jews hadn’t really been exterminated and the Holocaust was a Zionist conspiracy. It’s a shame she knew so little about Bulgaria’s own history, as it was one of the few countries in Europe that refused to deport Jews during WWII.

I didn’t know anything about Bulgaria before I read this book, and I am terrible at geography, so I sat with an old hard-copy atlas beside me (National Geographic 1975!) while I read this memoir. Bulgaria is in South-east Europe, very close to Turkey: it has an extremely long history and in earlier times profited from the confluence of civilizations, Muslims mixing with Sephardic Jews and Armenians as well as with ethnic Bulgarians and Gypsies (as Kassabova refers to them).  Now it’s Bulgarians and Gypsies, the latter far worse off than the former. It’s a shame that in this otherwise engrossing and intelligent book, Kassabova seems rather insensitive to the plight of Bulgarian Roma.