by Kapka Kassabova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Muslim village in southwestern Bulgaria maintains centuries-old traditions


They call it the Valley of Pink Pants. But this affectionate nickname of a toponym refers to just one village, set inside a pocket of the western Rhodope: Ribnovo. Ribnovo sits at 1,152 metres above sea level, but this is not the only reason for its image as a bit of a fortress and a destination for the culturally curious. As a friend put it before we visited: Ribnovo is another planet. He was from Breznitsa, a toned-down version of Ribnovo, right across the Mesta Valley, so he should know. We visited for the festivities of Kurban Bayram, the second largest festival in the Muslim calendar after Ramazan. The men looked ordinary, but the women and girls wore dazzling outfits in all the colours of the rainbow. Encoded in their dress are centuries of social and cultural meanings. Тhe characteristic Ribnovo head covering, the tulbe, is a white shawl reminiscent of the bonneted women painted by the Dutch masters. When married, a woman wears it over her hairline. Unmarried women who have come of age wear it loosely clipped to the hair. Girls wear floral scarves. They are also allowed to chose to go out bareheaded.

The most important day in the life of every girl of Ribnovo is when they get made up for their wedding day

The most important day in the life of every girl of Ribnovo is when they get made up for their wedding

The fertile region around the mid-basin of the Mesta River is home to a cluster of mountain villages where the population is predominantly or exclusively Pomak, or Bulgarian Muslims. The mayor of Ribnovo once told me that "it's in our genes to return.” This devotion to the homeland is interesting in the light of the complex identity politics surrounding the Pomaks. The majority of Bulgarians are ignorant about the Pomaks and their rich syncretic culture, which has often been used and even hijacked in the past for political reasons. Valya Balkanska, this country’s most famous folk singer of the past half-century, is a Pomak woman from a Rhodope village, but she had to swap her name and identity for worldly fame, under Communism. The Pomaks of the Mesta Valley generally prefer to identify as Muslims who are citizens of Bulgaria, sometimes as Pomaks, and sometimes simply as nashentsi, our people. Such and such is married to a nashenka. Or such and such married a Bulgarian (meaning non-Muslim). Which does happen, though in a minority of cases.

In recent years, Ribnovo has gained some notoriety through its spectacular traditional weddings that feature an antiquated form of face decoration and ritual dressing of the bride, complete with village-wide dances and mevlyut feasts – where the host family feeds all who happen to be around. Such weddings were common in the Pomak communities of Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Kosovo, but as a result of political terror during Communism and modernisation post-Communism, Ribnovo is the last bastion of the gelina, or decorated, bride tradition.

If the first things that strike the visitor is the steep road leading up to Ribnovo, the jaw-dropping views of Pirin Mountain and the austere amphitheatre layout of houses as you squeeze up the main street, the second thing is of course the women of Ribnovo.

Allah and His Prophet meet the Eiffel Tower: Sane spends her summers working on a farm in FranceSaneta Fikrieva spends her summers working on a French farm

They do wear pink baggy dimye, or shalvars, gathered by an elastic band halfway down the shins, and over the shalvars, a shiny embroidered round apron that is not meant for the kitchen, but for beauty. White stockings and smart semi-high heels complete the Ribnovo look. Even in the mud of a snowy winter’s day, because weddings take place in winter when the men return and there aren’t any outdoor chores. Traditionally, the head-scarves are flower-printed, but there is also a trend among the younger women for the raised, plain-coloured hijab. This is a recent import from Turkey and means to indicate piety, though in reality it signals fashion.

"We make our own fashion," you'll hear young women say. "Only the fabrics are from Turkey." And it's true. The Ribnovo look is unique. A knee-long blue mantle with embroidered edges is worn by married women. A bride wears a gorgeous version of this, misleadingly called feredzhe, a black embroidered velvet coat worthy of a medieval queen.

Ribnovo girls

The formidable reputation of Ribanki, as the girls of Ribnovo are called, precedes them. Ribanki marry five times, and the fifth time they remarry their first husband, you hear. They do what they please, they're crazy, mumble non-Ribanki, a little enviously. The clothes hang off Ribanki, they say, because they work themselves gaunt next to the men. It isn't uncommon to see a woman wielding an axe. Gaggles of women. Women live together, work together, and run households. If you talk to the men in the café, they'll tell you that "Greece is not abroad for us, it's just over there." For a remote community, they are well-travelled, including the younger women.

"Once we pass the sign saying 'Ribnovo', we change," a young married woman says.

She had invited me to an all-ladies gathering at her place, with women aged from 15 to 60. Everyone wears pink shalvars, but their styles are different. The oldest woman wears a head scarf she has hand-painted herself in the traditional red flowers. Her daughter is divorced, which she says is difficult in a community where "you can't afford to take a wrong step," but it is also increasingly common. And the youngest in the family is unmarried, her head uncovered. Mother and daughter worked as seamstresses in Manchester for two years. The daughter rose to a managerial position thanks to her English language skills, and now wants to study translation.

Ribnovo women

"But we always come back," they say. "There are only about 50 families permanently established abroad. The rest return."

"We just love our place," says one girl.

"Well," says another, "It's our destiny too."

The mayor of Ribnovo once told me that "it's in our genes to return."

Education is increasingly important, I learn. Even if most girls study pedagogy, explains my hostess, studying to be a teacher in the regional city of Blagoevgrad. The large school in Ribnovo is the only job opportunity for graduates.

The rest is poorly paid menial work: tobacco, a traditional crop now devalued to 5-7 leva per kilo and almost extinct; building for the men; and the penniless work of mushroom and herb gathering in summer. There are numerous sewing workshops in the region – but they too pay little for the long hours. Young women prefer to work in the farms of Western Europe for a few months a year, then return and live from those earnings. Until next summer.

A bride gets made over for her wedding day

A bride gets made over for her wedding day

"What's the point of studying when you might marry some fool who stops you in your tracks!" comments the grandmother.

"So?" say the younger women. "You divorce the fool and still have your degree."

While I am shown the contents of a traditional dowery – elsewhere an anachronism, but here part of everyday life – I realise that they are the contents of a woman's life. Or a woman's life as it's expected to be lived: from cradle to grave.

"When you have a girl, you start knitting and sewing for her dowery," says the mother from Manchester. The dowery needs to have everything a married couple will ever need in their house, from socks to towels. The elders here give you a house and fill it with goods, but you owe them your soul. It's the way of patriarchy, even if it's a matriarchy here – but the principle is the same and it's about generational power.

The girls of Ribnovo do not shy from menial work

The girls of Ribnovo do not shy from menial work

Virginity before marriage is still prized in theory, though the practice is quietly varied. When I ask about it, there is silence. Nobody wants to discuss their sex life in front of the mother and the grandmother – for they are the purveyors of public opinion. Even as they themselves have suffered from it, and bemoan the hypocrisy of village life.

There are thousands of leva worth of furnishings in my hostess's cupboards. A pair of embroidered velvet shalvars costs 90 leva and she has a hundred pairs of shalvars alone. But most of these items are untouched. She prefers the IKEA-style furnishings you'll see in many European living rooms.

Inside this modern living room, young women will gather of an evening, and knit and sew for their unborn babies and future husbands, while dreaming of Europe. Gold is worn on your person.

Fatme, age 16, prepares to go out with her mates

Fatme, age 16, prepares to go out with her mates

"I have six golden rings from my mum and grandma," the Manchester seamstress shows me her impressive hand. "This means that a guy who wants to marry me must get me at least six more."

Though in reality, he may be poor and she might not care about rings. And so long as the mother and grandmother approve, she would be free to marry whoever she likes.

"If they disapprove," she says archly, "They can destroy your marriage."

For the young women of Ribnovo, there is a fine balance between imposed tradition and individual choices; between community-controlled behaviour and the booking of flights for next year's summer on a French onion farm. Here, a woman’s future is foretold, but abroad, anything is possible.

"We want to be like other European women," my hostess says, and her friends agree.

Which is exactly what they are once they pass the sign that says "Ribnovo." 

The elaborate decorations on the Ribnovo traditional costume are handmade by the girls

The elaborate decorations on the Ribnovo traditional costume are handmade by the girls


The girls of Ribnovo always insist on wearing white socks

The girls of Ribnovo always insist on wearing white socks


An young mother carries her baby in the traditional way

An young mother carries her baby in the traditional way


An elderly woman watches on as the wedding horo dance progresses

An elderly woman watches on as the wedding horo dance progresses


The girls of Ribnovo enjoy their dances in rain or shine

The girls of Ribnovo enjoy their dances in rain or shine


Traditional henna hand decorations are a must for a Ribnovo wedding

Traditional henna hand decorations are a must for a Ribnovo wedding


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