Kapka Kassabova on borders: "A powerful political tool"

Kapka Kassabova captures cold war history and the current refugee crisis on the blurred borders of the Balkan peninsula. The poet and travel writer's beautiful, tragic and universal new book may just be the most important you read in this year of Brexit

Feature by Alan Bett | 23 Jan 2017

In 1982, a young unnamed East German fled the GDR through Bulgaria, trying to make it over the Iron Curtain to freedom. He climbed through barbed wire and high into the Rhodope mountains, then, mistakenly believing that he had reached the safety of Greece, rested upon a sunny meadow to eat some apples. He was soon spotted by a local shepherd and reported, captured and tortured to death. All for the mistake of believing he had crossed a line on a map.

Such moments hit like stealth bombs in Border; Kapka Kassabova’s part travelogue, part history of  the borderland between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece – rumoured to be the easiest Cold War crossing point into the West. “I was above all interested in what people’s experiences of that particular border might reveal about crossing borders, surviving borders, living with borders, protecting borders.” Kassabova tells us from a trip in Cambodia. Our conversations begin on email and end peering down a Skype camera across continents, and of course borders. But the book is even more than she suggests. Although now calling the Scottish Highlands home, Kassabova was born and raised in Soviet Bloc Bulgaria; “… a homeland that was essentially hostile to its own people, all dictatorships are,” she states. “I grew up in a border state of mind, so returning to the border of my childhood, for the book, was a symbolic act for me, and intensely emotional.” A truth brought into focus when a harmless check is run against her name by a naïve young borderguard: ‘an old chill crept in. The chill of being found out, hunted down, a searchlight shone on you. A border chill.’

Kassabova’s two-year odyssey lays bare the opposing injustices of empire and nationalism which have routed these lands over centuries. The former, uncaringly washing its human debris across the continent, leaving border lines as high watermarks of influence. The latter, setting hard borders around nation states like concrete. “They [borders] instantly acquire a symbolism as the outer limits of the national body,” says Kapka. "A border can create an instant sense of us and them. It's a very powerful political tool.” Consider the Brexit debate. Propaganda billboards warn of columns of migrants marching upon us. The message - 'take back control of our borders' - is later confirmed by Theresa May as the foremost prioirity of negotiations. “Borders serve a nationalist agenda, and often a centralist one,” says Kassabova, one who knows from experience. “I can’t think of any examples where the rise of nationalism or strengthening of national borders has made life better for a nation, in the longer run. So, I don’t expect to see the lives of people in Britain improve once we split off from the EU, and find it tragic that an avoidable path of suffering and disappointment has been taken.” 

“I suppose nations are a bit like individuals,” she wrote in an early email, a despondent shrug to be read somewhere between the lines. “They must travel their own journey, find their own truths, make their own mistakes, even when they are avoidable, in retrospect.” As an island, the UK has historically had little need to concentrate on borders. “Why would you?” Kapka asks, “… until you come to cross them with the wrong kind of passport or until they become heavily politicised and fortified in your own country, as we’ve seen in Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece and Eastern Europe lately. And of course borders are the main symbol of Brexit.” That referendum decision may herald the fading twilight of a borderless Europe. For those aged under 30, free movement feels a fundamental right. The idea you can’t cross a line on a map an alien concept. That until only recently, people were imprisoned, tortured or executed on the spot for attempting to do just that? It reads like dystopian fiction.

One man's story is testament it is not. He left his mark on a sign years later, a record of two lives forever changed on the clifftops of the Bulgarian coast: ‘Here on 21.9.1971 two men began their Calvary’. This was Felix S. Another young East German, who alongside his friend Dominik was captured during a misjudged attempt to cross. The topography of the border was falsified on GDR made maps, to confuse such people.  They were delivered to the Stasi and brutalised – Felix forced to mop up the blood of a suicidal fellow prisoner who had opened their arteries with a plastic knife. Kassabova managed to track Felix down – records at least were something the regime excelled at. He is now processing his trauma as an artist in Berlin. In many ways, this is a book of resilience. Of those like Felix whose lives were dictated by these borders, through crossing or simply living in the shadow of the wire. This reality is captured by Kassabova in the poetry of a single moment. Imagine, an elderly couple who have lived at the mercy of history, as empire nonchalantly sweeps its arm or nationalism balls its fist:

‘They had been married for sixty years, raised seven children, lost one, and to see them sitting together in the cherry dusk of this crumbling village, where they had created a world – through exile, military rule, border terror, poverty, and hard physical toil – well, it left me speechless.’

Just one of many intimate moments Kassabova frames with lyrical beauty. “Every encounter and acquaintance affected me,” she reveals, “… I was awed by what people can go through, individually and collectively, and still retain their dignity, their sense of humour, their generosity – and sometimes their illusions and prejudices too.” Some prejudices are reflected in us. Today the prevailing issue is refugees from the Middle East entering Europe. “But, actually during the Cold War half of Europe couldn’t exit.” Kassabova raises her eyebrows. “There is an awful historical symmetry to that reversal,” she says, someone who grew up unable to cross her own country's border. The modern border line is Turkey. The small mercy is that the journey now terminates in a refugee camp rather than at the end of a rifle. At one point Kassabova sits in a café called Ali’s, gathering stories – a ‘pressure cooker of human souls’ and gathering place for the ever-churning masses of refugees on the Turkish border. Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds are sucked through this corridor of land by the promise of a better life in Europe: ‘Istanbul was the great sieve – in the daily shake-up, some would go through, others would stay.’ Many end up in Harmanli, across the Bulgarian border – a town that does not need to travel as the world goes through it. It is home of The Chicken Shack, where, like in a mirror image of Ali’s, Kassabova hears further dead-end tales.

“The refugees of today have the troubling predicament of being dispossessed by the border,” Kassabova informs, as witness. “They can neither go back to what they were at home, nor become the new souls they need to be after crossing the Styx. They are trapped between two worlds. I felt that their stories need to be told not collectively, but individually, in order to bring us closer to their experience.” They could quite easily be us. “I was astonished by the degree to which borders are fate,” Kassabova agrees. She talks of redrawn borders in the wake of the Ottoman Empire. Over generations of political campaigns, names were forcefully Islamised, Hellenised or Balkanised by adding a letter or tone (a man in the book answered to Hairi-Hari-Zakhari over a single lifetime). Tribes of people were passed over the border, or remained still as the border passed over them. Customs and languages were bleached out, religion ground to dust. As if such things so easily scatter in the wind. “Do people have a strong identity?” Kapka ponders at this point. “That was one of the most interesting things for me on this journey, to realise just how blurred national identity is in that part of the world, very much subject to historical and political whims… these things are so manufactured, so artificial and so dangerous in the end. I guess that I'd like readers to feel the impact of these political vagaries, these constructed forms of nationalism that are dangerous illusions. I would love if readers connected with what nationalism means to them, in their own context.”

This is what makes Border such a timely work, as nationalism raises its head once more across Europe. It forces us to consider the very concept of hard borders. “The border is a place where acts of great cruelty, suffering, endurance, ingenuity and adventure, and self-reinvention have taken place. This is the reality of hard borders everywhere, beyond the slogans,” Kassabova concludes, then leaves us with a final sad truth. “Only the politically innocent or the politically cynical can be romantic or sanguine about borders, though these groups include an awful lot of people at the moment.”

Border is published by Granta Books on 2 Feb.