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Friday, 23 November 2018

In Belief is Power

In Belief is Power by Hristina Tasheva is an intelligent and self-aware book that links the history of Bulgaria with the mystery of Bulgarian identity and contemporary and historical responses to migration and invasion respectively.

The idea for the book came about from Tasheva's shame at Bulgarian responses to the migration crisis of 2015.

This is what Tasheva says in her introduction to the book.

what provokes one’s fear of foreigners; what is the life and history of the local population who live near the border, where different political interests intersect; what is the “Bulgarian” identity exactly made up of; how does the border region reflect what is happening across Europe; is there a "beautiful" nationalism that would help a vanishing nation preserve itself (Bulgaria is said to be the fastest disappearing nation in the world); and, finally, what connects us as people?

So nothing's simple there. The very question of what the Bulgarian people are and where they come from is contested (because it's not a simple answer ).

And that comes out in the book in archival images, contemporary images, handwritten text (in Bulgarian with an English translation at the back), and in sketches.

Bulgaria is shown to be a contested country, a border country where identity comes from resistance to outside forces, in particular resistance against invasion by the Ottoman Empire, the subjugation of christianity and churches (which is very visible in Bulgarian chapels), the defeat of the Turks, the Bulgarian revival, Bulgaria's Communist period, all the way through to the present day where you still have a border country that doesn't quite know who it is or what it is or where it's going. Same as everybody really but with a history that is genuinely on the edge of everything.

The book is about all that. It comes from an autobiographical moment, the dilemma of a country where economically survival means migration - so going abroad as Tasheva has done. And survival means sending money home and supporting the domestic economy. What happens to your identity then, what happens to your community. Money cannot replace the human loss of empty villages and empty cities.

So you manufacture your identity, as something emerging from ancient peoples like the Bulgars and the Thracians. It's all a bit vague, but then nationalist agendas are vague. And that vagueness is complicated by its conflation with religious, political and regional loyalities, all of which create a maelstrom of conflicting perspectives that enable nationalism to flourish, in the place that's best for it,  in the arena of aggressively stated vagueness.

And those agendas come with expectations against emigrants, that you 'don't criticise, you build a house,'

Tasheva intersperses her images - a mix of her own and archive images - with snippets of conversation that overlap with and amplify the text, that confirm and contradict expectation, that create patterns of interference that add to the general air of vagueness and uncertainty.

There's racism, against muslims because they're not christian, against roma because they're the wrong type of  christian. They're evangelical, they're  too pagan.

But then rites with a pagan flavour are shown as a central element of Bulgarian identity. As is religion and its trappings, and those trappings include head coverings (but not that kind of head covering is the anticipated response). There are images of churches and  chapels, the accompanying text showing these places of worship are sites for Bulgarians to be granted access to - or not depending on their intentions. Tasheva's intentions, we learn, are not always seen to be good.

The images show fences, newly built to defend against the latest invaders, then there are swords, Nazi salutes, frescoes showing christians being massacred by muslims, artisans, priests and livestock.

Ther'e's an awareness of history, of foreign policy, of political and economic imperatives in the snippets of conversation (much of it hostile to Tasheva's project) captured.

First you go one way, and then you go another until you get the feeling that history is repeating itself, that there is no identity, that (as one comment in the book has it) we are all refugees and that the home that we manufacture for ourself is ultimately arbitrary. Necessary but arbitrary and as such perhaps we should manufacture our home with a little bit of kindness to those who are living there or those who are passing through. Is that too much to ask.

Buy the book here. 

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