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'Border' is a touching meditation on lives shaped by geographic boundaries

After 25 years away, memoirist Kapka Kassabova returns to her childhood home where Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey intersect.

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Border:
A Journey to the Edge of Europe
By Kapka Kassabova
Graywolf Press
400 pp.

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Border. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a line separating two countries.” But there is more to it. A border is a line between you and others. It is a reminder of differences.  A border is a hypothetical line and on each side of this line, there are people. There are lives. Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe is the narration of those lives.

Kassabova was born and raised in Bulgaria. In 1990, at the age of 17, she emigrated with her family to New Zealand. In her book Kassabova examines the border of her country, Bulgaria, "the last border of Europe." She travels to where Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey intersect. Hers is a circular journey which begins at the mountain range of Strandja in Bulgaria, goes along the historical area of the Thrace, the Greek-Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains, and ends on the mirror side of Strandja in Turkey.

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In her book Kassabova writes about the people – Germans, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Chechens, and Bulgarians – who tried to cross the border over the course of the cold war. She portrays the lives of those who were somehow forced by the regimes to crossed the border, including the Bulgarian Turks.

By the 1980s the Bulgarian state was concerned that the Muslims of Bulgaria would outnumber the Christians, so they came up with the solution: rename Turks – ironically similar to the 1934 Turkification of surnames in Turkey which among many applied to Bulgarians and Greeks – Christianize them, and ban mosques. Those who didn’t obey, were forced to leave. As a result, more than 300,000 Bulgarian Turks left their homeland, including Ahmed. “That summer of 1989, the militia came and said, you have three days to leave,” he recalls. “My dad kept saying, the money’s gone, the house is gone.”

Kassabova shows how borders makes life difficult for those who live by the border. When Ventsi, a restaurant owner in the Bulgarian town of Svilengrad drives to the Turkish city of Edirne on the other side of the border to buy some tomatoes, on his way back border guards stop his car for search. He has to take out every single box, and then put them all back in again. “They know me by name! They know my restaurant!” he says. And by the time he gets back to his restaurant, after a day in the heat, all the tomatoes are spoiled. “Now here’s a title of your books,” he tells Kassabova. “What Have Borders Ever Done for Us, question mark.”

But despite all the geo-political efforts, borders can’t eliminate the ways that people and their habitat converge and complete one another, including Edirne and Svilengrad: “They were twins because what you couldn’t get in Edirne (alcohol, sex, casinos) you could get in Svilengrad, and vice versa (good shopping, infrastructure, family values). In Svilengrad, you could almost hear Edirne’s chanting imams, and in Edirne, the beat of Svilengrad’s nightclubs.”

Kassabova is a poet and therefore “Border" is a touching meditation on the people living near and affected by the border. She’s so delicate with words that one minor language misunderstanding doesn’t pass unnoticed. She starts one chapter with the Turkish word for Homeland, "Memleket." Analyzing it she says the word is derived from the Turkish word "meme" (breast). But in fact, "memleket"is an Arabic word derived from infinitive "malak" (to govern), and means a state that is governed by a king (malek).

"Border” is a very well researched book. Kassabova tries her best to give voice to all sides of the story – those who live by the border, those who cross it, and those who protect it.  And she’s not after a culprit. To her even the now retired border guard who people say had executed "a couple of Czechs or maybe Poles" is not a culprit, but somehow a victim. “Men like him, honest fanatics, Frankensteinian monsters of the totalitarian regime were cursed to carry the Iron Curtain in their hearts, so that men of leisure could sip whiskey and reminisce about the golden days.”

Kassabova is local enough to dig out the details, and at the same time detached enough to see things without judging them. She observes, listens, and narrates without distorting the story with her opinion. She’s a messenger. A very fair one.

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In the current state of the world’s refugee crisis, “Border" is a reminder that those who cross the borders are not just numbers. They are people, and bearers of stories that deserve to be heard.