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Balkan Jigsaw

February 13, 2010 by · No comments

Ivan Hristov


(created as part of the Word Express Project organised by Literature Across Frontiers with support from the British Council and the Culture Programme of the European Union, translated from the original by Angela Rodel)

Why did we have to read in a MALL? Maybe it would’ve been more interesting to read in the crypt of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral or in Sofia University’s Mirror Hall. In Istanbul we read in a 2,000-year-old basilica. It was amazing. Despite the fact that malls and poetry don’t really go together too well, everything was fine. Overall, our whole stay in Sofia went very well – minus the part where I had to take the Armenian writer Anahit Hayrapetyan to the passport office at the Interior Ministry.

This is what happened: Anahit had gone to the Bulgarian Embassy in Yerevan and when they saw she had a Schengen visa because she studies in Denmark, they told her that she didn’t need another visa to go to Bulgaria. When she crossed the border, however, they told her that she could only stay in the country for 36 hours. And so the clock started ticking, Anahit. Entry into Bulgaria at 6 a.m. Stopover for one day. Stopover for a second day, leaving in the morning of the third day. All that adds up to a little more than 36 hours. As soon as I heard of this problem, I set about trying to solve it. After all, we were both part of the Eastern Bloc, communist countries, OK, so Bulgaria wasn’t part of the USSR, but we’re Orthodox Christians, too…

Only our language is different. I can’t understand a single word of Armenian. Here the puzzle pieces didn’t fit together, but what can you do? We had to help each other out. At the passport office they explained to me that those are the rules, only 36 hours and it’s not their problem, it’s the Border Police’s problem. At the Border Police’s headquarters, they told me that they couldn’t do anything about it and that we should go to the passport office. We went back to the passport office and there they told us that it was the Border Police’s problem…

Actually, we found out that Anahit would be fined at the border. She could leave the country without paying, but if she wanted to come back to Bulgaria she’d have to pay. So that’s what Anahit did. We got back on the express for the next stop – Thessaloniki – and at the border Anahit was fined, but didn’t pay.

On the train our conversation centered around the topic of genocide. Anahit from Armenia argued with Bariş Müstecaplioğlu from Turkey. When she blamed Bariş for what his great-grandfathers had done to hers, he turned to me and said: “What about what Bulgarians did to the Turks?” It made me stop and think – not a bad argument at all… Everything was great in Thessaloniki.

We’re Orthodox, we’ve got shared history – both Bulgaria and Greece were part of the Ottoman Empire. OK, so they didn’t live through communism and speak a different language, but we did take on Christianity from them. We’ll fit the puzzle pieces together somehow. Except for the fact that I was worried the whole time. I was supposed to read, but I’d forgotten the print-outs of my poetry in Bulgaria.

All I had were the English versions. When I mentioned this to Christos Chrysopoulos, our Greek host, he told me not to worry, because the chance of a Bulgarian being at the reading was practically nil, so nobody would have any idea what exactly I was reading.

I had a book by another Bulgarian poet, Georgi Gospodinov, with me and I toyed with the idea of reading something from it, but then I figured that would be pushing it, so in the end I decided to translate my own poems from English back into Bulgarian. I was reading with two of my fellow poets from Greece – Giorgos Chantzis and Vassilis Amanatidis.

Their poems sounded so light and rhythmic, it was as if Cavafy and Seferis were reading next to me, while I sounded like an archeologist trying to decipher Ancient Greek to get back to Proto-Bulgarian. Immediately after the reading a slightly swarthy, chubby man came up to me and exclaimed ecstatically: “I’m from Bulgaria! Your poems were fantastic!” Well yes, theirs is theirs, ours is ours.

We got back on the express and crossed over into Turkey fine-free. So this is Istanbul – the mythical city. We share a history. We were part of the Ottoman Empire. We have common words and common cuisine. OK, so they are Muslims and speak a different language, and were never under communism, besides.

I noticed that when you take a cab you can pile five or six people in it without anyone batting an eyelash. That’s not allowed in Bulgaria. In Bulgaria you can get away with not wearing your seat belt. At Kadir Has University we had writers’ workshops every day. The idea was for us to write, translate each other’s work and talk about literature. Gökçenur Çelebioğu had translated my poems into Turkish, but since he was very busy, I had to discuss the translation with Bariş Müstecaplioğlu instead.

The situation was a bit perplexing – how could I discuss the translation with someone who wasn’t the translator himself? Bariş asked me some very probing questions about the ideas behind my work, listened to my answers carefully, and then announced: “The translation is excellent!” And I took his word for it. After all, I don’t know any Turkish.

The evening before we were flying back home, Olga Tokarczuk invited me to meet up with her group of friends, but with great reluctance I turned the invitation down because I wanted to say a proper goodbye to my friends from Word Express. The organizers of the Istanbul Book Fair had given each writer a bottle of RAKI as a going-away present.

It sounds like Bulgarian RAKIA, but tastes like Greek UZO. We decided to celebrate our final evening together on the terrace of our hotel. When the clerk at the reception desk saw us with that much alcohol, he almost fainted. We had to call the hotel owner to get permission to use the terrace. That RAKI was the same color as the moon.

My friends had already learned that I play the kaval (wooden flute). As we sat quietly sipping moon under the enchanting Istanbul sky, someone suddenly told me to go get my flute. Owen from Wales grabbed a guitar, Marko from Croatia found a tambourine and we all started playing. I think the jigsaw puzzle fit together this time. OK, so Marko Pogacar is Catholic, and Owen Martell isn’t from the Balkans, but that really doesn’t matter anymore.

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