UNDER THE YOKE OF STEREOTYPES

by Anthony Georgieff

Vagabond Media's new book provokes controversy, threats

One might have thought at the beginning of the 21st Century Bulgarians would have learned from past mistakes and come to appreciate all aspects of their own history in a balanced and objective manner, but the reactions prompted by Vagabond Media's latest book, The Turks of Bulgaria, seem to indicate otherwise. In fact, some might think that writing a book that in most European societies would be seen as pretty innocuous popular science can in fact be dangerous, in a Bulgaria whose government and people are becoming increasingly racist and increasingly sensitive to anything that might "smear" the idea of a beautiful and glorious past that they are trying to promote in order to escape the realities of a less-than-glorious present.

The book in question was meant to focus on some aspects of the history, culture and traditions of Bulgaria's biggest minority, the Turks. This topic is quite relevant: domestically, because several generations of Bulgarians have been brainwashed by Communist propaganda, and internationally, as Bulgaria is the EU member state with the largest proportion of non-immigrant Muslims.

Many scholars, intellectuals, foreign diplomats and readers both in and outside the country (the book was published simultaneously in Bulgarian and in English) were fascinated. One reason was that the book, written by half a dozen noted Bulgarian scholars – most of them university professors of history, linguistics, folklore, musicology, religion or ethnology – touched in an intelligent and balanced way upon issues that, for a variety of reasons, have been left out of the current Bulgarian debate. Another was the very fact that a book linking "Turks" and "Bulgaria" in its title was published at all.

Predictably, some Bulgarians saw red, and the mainstream media willingly followed.

One of the first was the Swedish-owned NOVA TV, a commercial station known for its reality shows of the Big Brother type. It invited Professor Yordanka Bibina, a contributor to The Turks of Bulgaria, on its morning show. The show was moderated by one Kalina Krumova, a sitting MP who had been elected on the Ataka nationalist party ticket. Notwithstanding the moral and legal implications of having a TV anchor who is concurrently a member of the Bulgarian parliament, Krumova had invited a kindred soul to "counter" what Professor Bibina had to say – Angel Dzhambazki, an activist for the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. The VMRO is a small but vocal anti-Turkish party that claims to be the heir to a 19th Century group that fought for the independence of Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire.

In this setup, there was no real debate in the studio. The VMRO man, nudged on by the Ataka anchor, used the standard set of nationalist charges to attack an academic over things she never said in a book he had not read.

First and foremost in the array of the Bulgarian nationalists' tools is the word "yoke." Anyone who dares to question that word being used to describe the 500-years of Ottoman domination of what is now Bulgaria is automatically a traitor, a Bulgarophobe, a denier of Bulgarian civilisation, a rebuker of the national creative genius – in short, guilty of high treason against the motherland. Any explanation of "yoke," or indeed the use of any of its synonyms incurs similar nationalist wrath.

Consequently, any talk in Bulgaria where VMRO or Ataka are in attendance comes down to using or not using the word "yoke" to describe a significant period of Bulgaria's history. There is no room for nuance or interpretation. There is no room for historical fact. Unless you say "yoke" quickly you are bound to end up in the position of an English schoolteacher standing accused of paedophilia – live on air.

Some newspapers picked up the NOVA TV show and turned it into a "news" item. Sega, a relatively independent newspaper often critical of the current government, decided to boost the number of clicks on its web page by creating a fictitious headline about the existence or non-existence of a Turkish "yoke," as allegedly put forward by Professor Bibina. Hundreds of readers were immediately enthralled. The majority of them attacked Professor Bibina and the other authors to the book, along with the publisher, for being agents of the CIA and for getting paid in Turkish lira to defile their own motherland. Many of the remedies suggested by enraged readers are unfit to print as they amount to verbal abuse and even calls for violence.

Duma, the organ of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, followed suit by labelling the book "yet another provocation to Bulgaria's ethnic peace." A Duma editor phoned Professor Bibina for a chat, only to reveal towards the end of the call that it would be used (very selectively) for a printed "interview" on the following day.

SKAT, the Burgas-based mouthpiece of an extremist organisation calling itself the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, was a lot more aggressive, and resorted to its usual ad hominem smear campaign.

A group on Facebook published, completely illegally and in violation of copyright rules set forth by FB itself, a collage of pictures of some of the authors describing them as "Bulgarians who deny the Turkish slavery."

The controversies and the potential dangers of tackling such a sensitive topic did not deter a number of intellectuals from speaking out on the issues generated by the public discussion. Writer and university professor Vladimir Levchev noted in an article: "The Turkish 'yoke' is a metaphor that we accept as a historical fact with some masochistic relish. Such an ideologically charged term is not used in either Serbia or Greece. In contrast to the United States or the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire did not use slave labour, least of all in the 19th Century, the Bulgarian Revival Period. Many of our 'slaves' went to study in Europe, and the less educated owned land and cattle."

Writing from Berlin, philosopher Zlatko Enev said: "We cannot hope to enter the modern age, the new century, the new way of thinking and action that is inclusive of all European nations without parting with our 150-year-old stereotypes... To do that, we must come round and stop writing off 500 years of our history, because by denigrating them we are denigrating ourselves."

Significantly, the word "yoke" is mentioned twice in The Turks of Bulgaria – both times in quoting the novel Under the Yoke by the 19th Century Bulgarian writer, Ivan Vazov.

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