text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Preface to The Turks of Bulgaria, Vagabond Media's most recent book

turks bulgaria.jpg

There were two reasons for starting on The Turks of Bulgaria, the logical follow-up to A Guide to Ottoman Bulgaria (Vagabond Media, Sofia, 2012 & 2012), and both are personal.

Firstly, there was the naivety with which I, along with many Bulgarians of my generation, perceived what was going on around us in the 1970s and 1980s.

Like many other Bulgarian children in those days, I had friends called Asen and Angelina. We went to school with the Asens and the Angelinas, then went out to play together and sometimes got into mischief. It took us years to realise that Asen had, in fact, been Ahmed, and that Angelina's real name was Ayshe. The Asens and the Angelinas belonged to that generation of Bulgarians, whose parents – acting a decade prior to the horrors of the so-called Revival Process – had decided to continue their lives as citizens and oppose history by becoming a part of it. They had renamed their sons and daughters from Ahmed to Asen and from Ayshe to Angelina to protect them from the mockery of their classmates at school, and the future discrimination and outright repression that they had been wise enough to foresee. How did Asen and Angelina feel during all those years when we were promoted to chavdarcheta and pionercheta, the Bulgarian Communist equivalent of elementary and secondary school boy scouts? How did they feel on 3 March, then not an official bank holiday, when we all had to collectively watch Under the Yoke, that black-and-white classic of early People's Republic of Bulgaria film-making? How did the 19th Century haydut hats we had to wear appear to their eyes, and how did the obligatory poems describing in gruesome detail the chopping-off of legs, arms and heads "because of our Christian faith" sound to them? Along with the poems extolling our "double liberators" from the other side of the Volga, these were compulsory features on the curriculum in Bulgarian schools at that time. The "Revival Process" was yet to come.

Secondly, there was the propaganda. Recently I met a doctor from northern Bulgaria. A well-known surgeon in a large city, the man was surprised to hear I planned to spend 10 days in the eastern Rhodope. "Why would you want to go there?" he asked.

"It's very interesting," I said. "I like travelling in Bulgaria."

"But there are Turks there."

"So what? Isn't that Bulgaria?"

"But they want independence, don't they? They are Islamic fundamentalists, aren't they?"

Unfortunately, the questions raised above have no unequivocal answers of the sort that Bulgarians of the early 21st Century have become used to. The reasons are many and varied.

On one side there is history. From the creation of the People's Republic of Bulgaria in 1945 until it changed its name in 1990, Bulgarian history textbooks as a rule presented the five hundred years of Ottoman domination in these lands as a series of mass murders, impalings and rivers of blood. Little was said about architecture, culture and social life, and nothing at all about the liberalism of the sultan, who cared more about the amount of taxes collected than the faith of his subjects. Owing to the state propaganda, which was very efficient, the literary fabrications presented in the Time of Parting as historical truth are even now largely accepted without question.

However, relations between Bulgar and Turk, and among the Bulgarians themselves, were not so simple and can be illustrated succinctly with the following two quotes.

One comes from an 18th Century French traveller. Writing in 1785, Count D'Autrive described life in the Shumen villages of Divdyadovo, Stanovets and Takach: "Now these are half Turkish, half Bulgarian; Muslims and Christians live side by side without detesting each other, marry between themselves, drink together bad wine, and violate both the ramazan and the Christian fast. They know, as their clerics do, only the sign of the cross or Allah; but that does not make them less honest people. Both the imams and the priests treat with equal tolerance the marriages between those belonging to the different religions. It is not a rare occurrence to see under the same roof both Muslim turbans and icons, the Qur'an and the Gospels right on top of one another. Two religions at such a great variance with one another are being preached with equal ease, and children are left to decide for themselves which one to subscribe to."

A Turkish wedding in the village of Lyulyakovo, near Ruen. Typically, civil weddings are held in village or town halls designed during the Communist period, with characteristic murals depicting love and fertility scenes

A Turkish wedding in the village of Lyulyakovo, near Ruen. Typically, civil weddings are held in village or town halls designed during the Communist period, with characteristic murals depicting love and fertility scenes

The second belongs to the Patriarch of Bulgarian Literature, Ivan Vazov, who wrote in his all-time bestseller Under the Yoke (1887-1888): "Consequently, notwithstanding all its evils, the yoke has a bright side: it makes people merry... A casket of wine gulped under the cool willow shade by the rambling crystal-clear brook makes you forget the yoke; a hodge-podge baked with purple aubergines, flavoursome parsley and fiery chilli peppers, eaten on the grass under the overhanging branches through which the high blue sky hovers, is kingdom come. Add a few fiddlers to play music and this is ultimate happiness on earth."

Unless we have a special interest, we hardly think about the Turkish words we use every day, or the Turkish dishes we eat at home or in restaurants. We never question the Turkish habits, such as eating sunflower seeds, that we have retained; and we impart Turkish tales and proverbs to our children. Direct vestiges of the Turkish legal system are still present in the Bulgarian courts. There is that Turkish culture of family connections and interdependencies among friends that every Bulgarian knows all so well; and then the Turkish weltanschauung, or worldview, which determines the way modern Bulgarians see their world a lot more than the concepts imported by the Communists from the cold, faraway North. Apart from the periods of the early Ottoman conquest in the 14th-15th centuries and the empire's painful disintegration the late 19th Century, Bulgar and Turk lived side by side in relative harmony unlike, for example, the Irish after Oliver Cromwell.

But the Irish, Bulgarian "patriots" will immediately interject, were "enslaved" by a "civilised nation"!

The parallel with Ireland is quite relevant, so let me elaborate. When the Ottomans left Bulgaria, Bulgarians still spoke Bulgarian and the economy was thriving, thanks to its lucrative contracts with the Ottoman Army. When the English left southern Ireland, Irish was almost defunct, and the Irish economy had been deliberately stifled to prevent any competition with British businesses. Just ask anyone whose forebears suffered in the Great Potato Famine about the "civilisation" of the conquerors...

Our attitude to our own history is not constructive. To outweigh the times of relative economic and cultural prosperity by the periods of suffering and rebellions does no good either to history, nor to the school children who study it, because they will develop into citizens who perceive the world in simple, black-and-white terms. This is an attempt to use the past as a means to escape from the realities of the present and the challenges of the future.

My 10 days in the eastern Rhodope were followed by 10 more days in the western Rhodope, then 10 days in northeastern Bulgaria, then 10 days in the Aytos Balkan, and then 10 more days in... What I encountered in these places as a traveller and photographer can hardly be expressed in words (which explains why this book contains so many images). The natural and completely spontaneous hospitality of these people, young and old, led to long evenings spent over coffee or rakiya in homes, where there were "under the same roof both Muslim turbans and icons." Hundreds of conversations about the life of politics and the politics of life, and thousands of Turkish words spoken by me to which my Turkish hosts replied in Bulgarian created a complex picture. These are the main elements.

The Turks of Bulgaria have an exceptionally strong attachment to their homeland because they have lived here for centuries, notwithstanding the turbulence of the first decades after Liberation, the Balkans wars, the waves of mass emigration, and the inconsequential and in their sunset stages cruel policies of Todor Zhivkov, Georgi Atanasov and the Communist establishment. In spite of it all, the Turks of Bulgaria have remained loyal to Bulgaria. At the same time, they think of themselves categorically as Turks. Not just Muslims, but "Turks." The Turks of Bulgaria. There is no contradiction between their self-identification as ethnic Turks and their loyalty to Bulgaria as Bulgarian citizens. For the Turks of Bulgaria, this is something of a matter of course, everyday. It is not for discussion.

Obviously, the Turks of Bulgaria feel best when relations between Bulgaria and Turkey are positive. They definitely do not want to be used as a bargaining chip, a tug-of-war of sorts in any bilateral dispute. Bilateral relations do not concern them much.

What does concern them greatly, however, is their own opportunity to develop and succeed as citizens. The Turks of Bulgaria are underrepresented in science, culture, sports, the civil service, the armed forces, the police and the local authorities. Even though speaking Turkish is not banned, just a few sentences uttered in Turkish, especially in the context of a political campaign, usually cause a media scandal. Various actions are periodically perpetrated against the Turks of Bulgaria, one example being the attack on the mosque in Sofia in May 2011. Another is the vociferous, but largely ineffective campaigns to stop the broadcasting of Turkish-language news on national television. The sometimes successful attempts by local authorities to change Turkish place names, continuously in use for centuries, prompt concerns that where the names of stones are being changed, so may the names of the people be, yet again.

The Turks of Bulgaria want their children to be given a real rather than just a theoretical opportunity to study Turkish at school. They are not willing to accept the excuses given by some local authorities why this cannot be implemented efficiently. They want to be able to attend the mosque without fear of discrimination in the workplace or in the media. Their greatest wish is to receive equal treatment by the authorities and the general public, just like everyone else. They are telling us: "You see that I am a Turk, but I am a Bulgarian citizen. Treat me accordingly."

Bulgaria is now a member of the EU. In fact, it is the member of the EU with proportionately the largest population of non-immigrant Muslims. It may be useful to remember that one of the reasons for the success of postwar Germany (which in absolute terms has a larger Turkish minority than Bulgaria, but it is exclusively immigrant) was the ability and the will of the German people to do something that cannot even be accurately translated into Bulgarian: Bewältigung der Vergangenheit, the ability to understand, accept and overcome the past. It is a difficult process both on the personal and the public level, but it is one of the things that Bulgarians must face if they want to succeed in their perceived wish to achieve a German standard of living (not only economically, but also politically and socially).

As I was putting pen to paper to write this, the world media broadcast a partly jocular, partly serious statement by former US Vice President Al Gore. I quote from memory: There will come a time when the EU will have to apply to be admitted to Turkey, not vice versa. Obviously, this is not a recipe for action, nor a policy directive, and in its original context it was voiced half-jokingly. Yet, I think the Bulgarians of the 21st Century might benefit from giving it some serious consideration.

I hope that The Turks of Bulgaria, which contains the opinions of noted Bulgarian researchers and experts of history, ethnology, religion, folklore, cuisine, philology and politics, will help to launch a balanced and serious debate about the questions related to our past and our present, as Bulgarians who are mature enough not to accept black-and-white answers.


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