Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Q&A with Kapka Kassabova

Kapka Kassabova, photo by Marti Friedlander
Kapka Kassabova is the author of the new book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, which focuses on the border between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. Her other books include the novel Villa Pacifica and the memoir Street Without a Name. She lives in Scotland.

Q: Why did you decide to write Border, and over how long a period did you work on it?

A: The journeying, research and writing took about three years. Why write Border? As a child growing up in Bulgaria in the last years of the Cold War, I had an acute awareness of the word “border.” It was something dangerous, something that you crossed at a price or not at all.

Since then, I have remained obsessed with borders, their physical reality and their impact on people’s minds and lives. Especially this border, which was the last stretch of the Iron Curtain and in whose shadow two generations grew up.

After a visit to a remote village in the mountains that straddle the border of Bulgaria and Turkey, I was struck by the extraordinary quality of the secrets, wounds and insights held by different people of the border. I decided to travel to similar villages and towns on each side and listen to what border people had to say about life and death.

Q: You describe the border where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey meet as “the last border of Europe.” What are some of the reasons you characterize it that way?

A: This border marks the line between the European Union and Turkey, which makes it the only land route into Europe for war refugees and others seeking access to Europe.

During the Cold War, this border was a forested, mountainous Berlin Wall – electrified, and full of decoys and false leads, to confuse fugitives – and a demarcation line between NATO members Turkey and Greece, and Warsaw Pact member Bulgaria. Many East Europeans attempted to cross it, and many lost their lives.

And lastly, the southeastern Balkans where this border passes are Europe’s last great natural wilderness. This area has always been a great continental confluence between Europe and Asia, a civilisational melting pot. The people I met are a reflection of this rich, ongoing history.

Q: What impact has the current refugee crisis had on the area you explore in the book, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: The land corridors used today by refugees and people traffickers are the same as during the Cold War, only the direction has changed.

It is wild, difficult terrain to cross on foot, or even by car. I encountered people on each side of the border predicament: refugees, border guards, villagers, forest rangers, travellers, and a former people smuggler on the Bulgarian-Greek border.

Those among the locals who are descendants of refugees from a hundred years ago, when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated and large masses of people were forcibly moved across borders, look at today’s refugees passing by their houses with a sense of deja-vu. They know that today’s refugees are only the latest chapter of a long history.

The ironies, echoes, mirror effects, in short the tricks that history plays on us all sooner or later – all this is acutely felt along this border, right now.

Q: What did you find particularly surprising or enlightening as you wrote this book?

A: Resilience, ingenuity and the overwhelming will for freedom are some of the qualities that hard borders like this one bring out in people, and there was plenty of that.

But I was also struck by the lasting tyranny of fear over people’s psyches, also the work of hard borders over time. Borders begin in our minds, and also end up there. Even I experienced moments of dread – the area still holds the ghosts of past events and injustices.

I was also surprised by the archetypal dimensions of some of the people I met – as if this border has created its own mythology. The way someone told me the story of his life was moving and interesting, and it struck me that the very act of story-making, of narrating yourself to a stranger, has a value beyond the moment and also beyond the pages of this book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a similarly layered journey that zooms in on another fascinating corner of the Balkans – Macedonia.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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