"Kapka Kassabova is no stranger to borders—to crossing them, and to the estrangement that ensues when you do"by Tanjil Rashid / March 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Granta, £14.99)
A Bulgarian-born poet, educated in New Zealand and writing in her third language, Kapka Kassabova is no stranger to borders—to crossing them, and to the estrangement that ensues when you do. These are the experiences that inspired her poetry collections All Roads Lead to the Sea and Geography for the Lost, titles that presage her latest work: Border. The themes are much the same as before, but it’s the form that’s new: a travelogue that combines reportage, oral history and the literary essay.
The titular border is the one running between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, which since antiquity has represented so much. When Kassabova was a child, it formed part of the Iron Curtain dividing communism and capitalism. Now it is the border between Islam and the west.
Whether she’s visiting Muslim cemeteries in Greece or translating the folksongs of the 17th-century Ottoman Evliya Çelebi, Kassabova explores an Islamic culture that has long been native to Europe. There are also trippy accounts of the region’s Slavic and Sufi spirituality. She even meets Europe’s last fire-worshippers.
This diversity is a legacy of a time when the border of Border didn’t exist. That was under the Ottoman caliphate, whose demise unleashed the region’s first migrant crisis. Kassabova writes beautifully about the millions of refugees exchanged between Greece and Turkey. Now, from across the sea, another so-called caliphate, the Islamic State, sends refugees daily, driving Europe’s current crisis. The problems blighting this borderland seem as insurmountable as the Balkan mountains that overlook it.