Reconnecting Cultures in the Balkans

Reconnecting Cultures in the Balkans

In the villages that nestle amid southern Bulgaria’s remote, scenically spectacular, economically underdeveloped Pirin and Rhodope Mountains, Pomaks—Bulgarian Muslims—are reclaiming their name. Marginalized under 45 years of communism, they saw Pomak become “a word you had to feel guilty about,” says Mehmed Boyukli, a leading Pomak analyst. Now, he says, “with the Internet, the term has become acceptable. It has become a symbol of all the cultural heritage we have preserved.”

(Photo: Boryana Katsarova)

And although they are the largest of the several Balkan Muslim communities, Pomaks are not the only ones using open borders and, more recently, social media to rediscover common cultures in the Balkan nations that were carved out of the Ottoman Empire following World War i.

With the opening of borders in the late 1980’s and the advent of social media, young people like Saleika Groshar of Breznitsa, Bulgaria—who is 22 and has never known communist rule—are forging newly pan-Balkan Muslim identities. She adores traditional folk music, and she administers the Facebook group “Pomaks, Torbeshi and Gorani: Three Names, One People.” She has made friends among Gorani—a Muslim ethnic group living in southern Kosovo and northern Albania—with whom she chats and exchanges audio files of local folk music. “They are learning Bulgarian and I’m learning Gorani,” she says.

Though it is early for such claims, these cultural shifts appear to be reknitting ties that were cut in the late 19th- and early 20th-century transformations of the western Ottoman Empire into the nation-states of Bulgaria, Albania and Yugoslavia. Before then, Ottoman governance had been based on the concept of millet—communities defined by their Muslim, Jewish or Christian faith and allowed to govern themselves according to their own laws. Their respective millets provided Ottoman subjects with their primary source of identity until they began gaining national identities in the 19th century. Within the Ottoman Empire all Muslims—whether Turks or Albanians, Arabs or Slavs—belonged to the Muslim millet, and their language, geographic origin and ethnicity were secondary.

The establishment of new Christian Balkan states in the 1800’s left the Muslims in those territories isolated, and they were seen by the new governments as potentially subversive minorities. In the 20th century, communism brought at least four forced-assimilation campaigns in Bulgaria alone, the first in 1912, the last only in 1989, promulgated under the guise of “restoring” Christian identities to people assumed to have become Muslims centuries ago under Ottoman duress. But following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the opening of borders by the expanding European Union, it is now on-line social media tools that are most powerfully changing how Balkan Muslims see themselves and how they relate to each other.

“All of a sudden the borders opened all around us, and we discovered that there were other islands of cultures just like ours, with people who are just like us,” says Boyukli, who also lives in Breznitsa, a town well known for both its traditional Pomak culture and its online Pomak activism. “We realized we weren’t alone.”

Boyukli says that the more Balkan Muslims learn about each other, the more the names for Muslim ethnic groups feel artificial. Pomaks, for example, live not only in Bulgaria, but also in northern Greece and in western Turkey, where they are largely assimilated. The Pomaks residing in Bulgaria speak Bulgarian, and diaspora groups speak the languages of their new countries.

In Kosovo and Albania, Torbeshi and Gorani both speak Nashenski, a south Slavic language that Bulgarian-speakers can partially understand. Torbeshi live in Kosovo and Macedonia; Gorani live in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. In Bosnia, there are also Muslim “Bosniaks,” who are seen as cousins, distant both linguistically and culturally; they identify themselves as Bosnians first, rather than as Muslims.

Outsiders are generally unaware of the nuances of such distinctions. Officially, Gorani means simply the people living in the province of Gora, which was divided in 1928 between Albania and Yugoslavia. Torbeshi and Gorani have a common language and think of themselves as the same people, distinguishing between Torbeshi and Gorani only when speaking with outsiders. The name of their language, Nashenski, literally means “ours-ish,” from nash, meaning “our.” They call an individual of either group a nashenets—“one of ours.” According to Bulgarian ethnographer Veselka Toncheva, the weight of marginalization is unmistakable: To define oneself as “us” means viewing everyone else as “them.” But this distinction is starting to change.

reznitsa, in the Pirin foothills, is famous not only for the activist preservation of Pomak culture but also for the beauty of its singing, weaving, dress and Islamic traditions. Its population of around 3500 is about 90 percent Muslim. Old-fashioned wood and mud-brick buildings rub up against modern houses made of concrete. An “Easy Credit” shop in an aluminum shack offers instant consumer loans. Internet cafés have closed, because almost every home now has its own on-line connection.

Economically, the people of Breznitsa have been moving away from traditional tobacco farming after communism as opportunities in construction have opened, drawing men to Bulgarian cities and abroad. Many of the women work at one of the village’s two textile factories, whose production is exported to Germany: One makes designer suits for men and the other produces dirndls, Bavarian women’s folk dresses.

During the communist era, Bulgaria’s forced-assimilation campaigns against its Muslim population, including ethnic Turks and Roma (Gypsies), meant that Islamic dress, music and culture and even Muslim names were banned. Everyone had to take new Bulgarian names—often those of flowers and birds.

“The idea was that we had no culture, and that we had to change our entire way of life, our names and even our songs,” says Boyukli, born and raised in Breznitsa and a plasterer by profession. In the dark years of communism, he recalls, a Yugoslav vinyl record of Gorani music smuggled into the village brought great joy, because it sounded exactly like local music. “When we understood that there were others like us somewhere else, it legitimized our culture,” he says.

The end of communism saw Bulgarian Muslims take back their names amid a rush of enthusiasm for expressions of Muslim identity. Now, 20 years later, the excitement has cooled as a new hybrid traditional-modern culture is taking shape.

Nowhere does this show more clearly than at weddings, where Muslims throughout the Balkans have maintained a rich variety of Ottoman-era traditions. Many are identical to those practiced in Muslim communities in different countries, despite 45 years of Cold War divisions that kept Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania separated by hostile borders.

Musa Darakchi is getting married tomorrow. He’s 27, and he has taken advantage of the open borders to work for five years in flower fields outside Düsseldorf, Germany to pay for his new home in Breznitsa and the wedding with upward of 500 guests.

“It’s important for me to know that the traditions will continue for future generations,” he says. “Compared to my father and grandfather, I know less about the traditions, but I want to pass something on.”

The next morning, the wedding is announced at 8:30 in the town square by the wailing of zurnas—stubby, Ottoman-era clarinets with the tone of a kazoo and the force of alto saxophones. When the four zurnas and three tupans (drums) start up, no other notification is needed.

The groom’s brother, a lanky young man in a flashy silver suit, leads the procession, waving a pole with the red wedding flag. In the corner of the flag, where a crescent and star once signified the Muslim millet, there is a heart made out of sequins. “The communists didn’t like the crescent and star, but they let us keep the flag because it was red,” says Boyukli.

During the assimilation campaigns, even musicians had to give up their zurnas, because the instrument was considered “too Turkish.” They had to take up accordions or saxophones, and they could play only Bulgarian or Russian music.

When the groom comes out of his house, he has a crisp €50 banknote pinned to his lapel, along with a white rose. He leads the procession slowly, stopping from time to time to dance. By the time it arrives at the bride’s house, a large crowd is following him. The front gate is held shut by hands inside. Banknotes pass and discussion follows. The orchestra is too loud for the crowd to hear the negotiations.

Finally the gates open and the guests press inside. The couple poses for pictures in front of the cheiz, or dowry, given by the bride’s family: a stack of carpets and blankets as tall as the couple themselves, surrounded by piles of kitchen goods, from a dish rack and bowls to fluffy pillows and a teddy bear. It’s a literal and symbolic representation of the new family’s wealth.

When the crowd thins, the cheiz is lowered piece by piece from the third-floor balcony to a truck waiting in the street. The back of the truck is an open metal frame over which the cheiz is displayed, and it forms the centerpiece of the procession that rolls slowly to the square for celebratory folk dancing.

Breznitsa’s unofficial ethnographer is 36-year-old Salih Bukovyan, the village financial director. He likes to think about the big questions facing Pomak culture. He also has one of the largest collections of traditional clothes and songs in the region.

“If our women stop wearing the clothes which make us different, the assimilation will be successful,” Bukovyan says. “Women are the ones who carry and preserve our identity, and if they lose it, we all lose a lot.”

Bukovyan says he was drawn to folklore as a boy by his grandmother. He felt the harmony she sought in the songs she sang­­—the same harmony she wove with bright colors and geometrical designs into her daughter’s cheiz. “In short, she loved beauty,” Bukovyan says. “She died with a song in her mouth.”

While women in Breznitsa still weave and knit, some of the stitches are being forgotten. So Bukovyan documents stitches and designs using Excel spreadsheets, listing the colors and motifs. In addition, he has written down 10,000 lines of traditional songs and poetry. He also has a blog with a small online ethnographic museum, and someday he hopes to build Bulgaria’s first Pomak brick-and-mortar ethnographic museum.

Like many curious Balkan Muslims, Bukovyan spends much free time online with friends in Bulgaria, as well as in Macedonia, Kosovo and Turkey. Balkan Muslims’ mutual acquaintance is at an early stage, he notes.

“If we succeed in consolidating Pomaks in Bulgaria as a single cultural group, we might also speak of Torbeshi and Gorani as members of the same community in different states,” says Bukovyan. “Then there wouldn’t be Pomaks in Bulgaria or Torbeshi in Macedonia any more. We will have a new name with which we will all identify.” And that name, he adds, would be nashentski, the same “us” used by the Gorani and Torbeshi to refer to themselves.

The cable television company in Breznitsa also serves as a local news service. Almost everyone in the village subscribes, and it’s the leading public forum. Callers request songs and make dedications, which appear as text on screen, for birthdays, births, deaths, anniversaries and upcoming weddings.

Owner Ismail Groshar says that, in recent years, mainstream Bulgarian music has been losing popularity in favor of traditional local folk music, and he estimates that two-thirds of the requests are now for traditional folk songs. As well, a Gorani folk group from Kosovo, Braca Muska (“Muska Brothers”), has become popular in Breznitsa, ever since Mehmed Boyukli brought MP3s of the group to the station. Groshar says that local musicians are now playing their songs at celebrations. They include titles such as “Vo Kafana” (In the Café), “Cerno Oko Sareno” (Shiny Black Eyes) and “Tudzina je Mlogo Teska” (It’s Very Sad Abroad).

Nineteen-year-old Zeynep Sakali is a Braca Muska fan who sings in the Gaitani folk group, one of two ensembles in Breznitsa. She says about half the young people in her town are interested in traditional music. When she’s under stress, she says, “I don’t want to watch a movie. I prefer to listen to folk music and weave.”

Her friend and fellow Gaitani member, Saleika Groshar, considers herself fortunate to be one of the first Pomaks to visit Kosovo: Her ensemble performed there last year. “I didn’t expect them to take so many pictures. They really loved our nosi [traditional clothes],” Groshar says. In return, she has invited Braca Muska to Breznitsa. “It’s our dream for them to come,” she says.

six-hour drive into Kosovo, in Prizren, lives Raif Kasi, a Torbesh journalist working for the Bosnian-language service of Kosovo Radio and Television. One of the key online movers among Nashentsi, he uses the Internet to network with Muslims across the Balkans, do research and help arrange connections across borders. He also attends regional meetings and conferences on Balkan Muslim issues.

His hometown of Prizren, in southern Kosovo, might well be the most Ottoman city in the Balkans, not just in architecture but in its multicultural spirit. The city has no ethnic majority and you can freely speak any language—Serbian, Albanian, Turkish, English or Nashenski. Like much of the former Yugoslavia, Prizren has a distinctly southern-European café culture. The macchiato is creamy and masterful.

“We’re very similar people, with a very similar culture and faith, but with a different language,” Kasi explains, sitting in an outdoor café. “A hundred years ago we all spoke the same language [Nashenski], but it’s changed since then.”

Gorani, who are defined as the Nashenski-speaking Muslims living in the south Kosovo province of Gora, are one of the six official ethnicities of Kosovo. Torbeshi, however, are not, as they have always felt pressed to identify publicly as Bosniaks, a much larger group that speaks Bosnian (formerly known as Serbo-Croatian) and within which the Torbeshi minority could find greater political inclusion. For all official business and education, Torbeshi today speak Bosnian, reserving Nashenski to speak at home.

Miftar Ademi is hoping to change that. He has come to the café with the Nashenski grammar book he wrote and published. He also created an alphabet called Nashenitsa—based on Latin letters with diacritical marks for sounds special to the language. His son Anando, a medical student, designed a font for the script. “It’s easy to install in Windows,” Anando says. The goal is to make writing Nashenski more “natural and authentic.”

Ademi speaks of the beauty of Nashenski like a connoisseur of rare languages. “It’s an archaic language, very archaic, but also a living language,” he says. It was the basis for other South Slavic languages like Serbian and Bulgarian. “Our language is the trunk and the other regional languages are the branches,” he explains. “It was never a literary language,” he says factually, without shame or pride. He says there are only about 15 books published in Nashenski, but he hopes the number will increase.

cross the border, in northeast Albania, there are nine Gorani villages and about 15,000 Gorani. During the communist era, they lived in almost complete isolation. In the car on the way to Kukës, Albania, to meet Nazif Dokle, a respected scholar of Nashenski language and culture, Kasi recalls his first trip across the border in 2000.

The village of Borya, he recalls, was holding its first cultural festival. Kasi was one of the first Nashentsi to visit from Kosovo. “I grew up 32 kilometers from this border and no Yugoslavs could cross it,” he says. “It was hermetically sealed, so it was always very interesting to me.”

We pass a muddy field that in 1999, a year before his visit, had been filled with refugees from the Kosovo War. Today it’s raining heavily. The gray sky melts into wet asphalt and colorless mountains, all blending and blurring like the complicated mix of Balkan identities.

Dokle, who has written more than 20 books about Nashenski language, literature, history and culture, is home when we arrive. As a school inspector during the communist period, he traveled extensively in the region, combining business with research on the sly. “I asked people everywhere in the Gorani villages about words. My aim was to make a dictionary.”

His Albanian–Nashenski dictionary is the first Nashenski dictionary of any kind. Dokle takes yellowing notepads from a shelf and shows me decades of fieldwork from the days when interest in Gorani culture—or any minority culture—was dangerous. “I worked in secret. No one ever caught me,” he says.

Dokle says that writing in Nashenski is only meant to preserve the language for scientific purposes—not to be read. “Many scientists have concluded that Gorani and Torbeshi are musical people with a musical culture. It’s true. At weddings, it doesn’t matter whether you have a nice voice or talent. Everyone sings,” he says. The oral tradition is so strong that he uses the words “poem” and “song” interchangeably.

e return to Kosovo to meet Braca Muska, the traditional Gorani musical group newly popular in Breznitsa and across the Balkans, thanks to social media, digital audio and Web sites. The road to their village of Restelica, in the southern tip of Gora, passes by the western slopes of the sharp and jagged Šar Mountains (pronounced shar). Many locals see the mountains as physically representing their spirit. Indeed, Kasi posts photographs of the Šar on Facebook from an endless variety of angles and seasons, as if they were members of his family.

“I want Pomaks, Gorani and Torbeshi to establish a cultural core so we can better develop our culture, songs and traditions,” Kasi says. “There was so little information before. Even I as a journalist didn’t know there were other people like us Torbeshi.”

The streets in Restelica are clean and steep. The exteriors of the houses look flawless, for Gorani have earned their livings abroad for decades in other former Yugoslav republics, Italy and Switzerland. Construction has replaced sheep herding as a traditional profession. Women in the street wear formal, long black satin coats as they visit friends before tomorrow’s Kurban Bayram, or Feast of the Sacrifice, known in Arabic as ‘Id al-Adha.

At the home of Murat Muska, one of the three Muska brothers, the singer explains that their music sounds sad because it is realistic. “I live in Restelica, and yet I have no work here,” he says. “Our songs are about precisely this: the kind of life we live. Some are based on the memories of our people from the time we were shepherds. But the new songs are about more modern themes, like immigrant life in Italy or Switzerland and things like visas.”

Restelica is also home to Radio Bambus, the village station. While its fm signal only reaches about 15 kilometers (9 mi), it has been streamed on the Internet since 2009. Manager Nesim Hodja says the station often has 500 to 600 on-line listeners at any given time, many of them emigrants living in western Europe and other Balkan countries.

Hodja says the mission of the station is to help Nashentsi learn more about each other. The Internet offers easy connections never before possible among Balkan Muslims separated by borders and long distances. Hodja takes out his cell phone and plays a recording: It’s a broadcast phone call from a Pomak in Bulgaria who requested a song. “I have a huge collection of many varieties of Nashenski music now,” Hodja says. He adds that just as residents of Breznitsa make song requests for Braska Muska, here in Restelica locals continue to ask for the songs of Gaitani, who came here from Breznitsa last year.

When we arrive at Kasi’s house in Ljubinje at 6:30 a.m., the deep blue sky is just starting to lighten behind the peaks of the Šar Mountains. “We need to get there early to get a good spot,” he says, setting out for the local mosque.

The streets are crowded with men walking purposefully in the same direction. The mosque was built in 1979 in a Yugoslav futuristic style, looking as though it had been constructed by people who were quietly confident about the future. The main prayer area has sent its overflow of worshipers to adjoining hallways, upstairs balconies and a classroom, where “Happy Holiday” is written on a blackboard in Arabic, Turkish and Nashenski.

After the prayers, the men walk to the cemetery. Islamic traditions are such a basic part of life here that they seem to be practiced through instinct. Kasi kneels to pray silently by a simple concrete rectangle with grass on top: the grave of his grandmother and grandfather. Then he walks to the grave of his wife’s mother. “This is how we have always done it, for every Bayram,” he says.

After a large Bayram lunch, we visit the home of Selma Shaipi, a young bride. “It’s a source of great happiness to maintain the traditions,” Shaipi says as we watch a video of her wedding. “At the same time, every year something new is thought up.”

Her wedding shows many of the same elements found in Bulgarian Pomak weddings: the cheiz of carpets, weavings and textiles stacked up high for public display; the zurnas and drums announcing the wedding; the gift economy of chorapi, or handmade woolen socks, which seem to be given in large quantities on every occasion; and the towels on the shoulders of male members of the wedding party, symbolizing hygiene in the new home.

Shaipi says there are “big differences” between her mother’s wedding and hers. Her mother, she says, rode on a horse, and everyone ate from the same dish, for example. While Shaipi wore her bright, colorful, traditional clothes during the pre-wedding ceremonies, she was married in a western-style white dress. Her mother was married while wearing her traditional nosi. “It’s a great thing to wear these beautiful clothes when you are so happy,” she says. The greatest difference is that her mother was married while painted—literally.

The ritual of bride-painting, in which the bride’s face and hands are painted white and decorated with elaborate designs of brightly colored sequins and henna, used to be common among Muslims across the Balkans. Although the tradition dates back to the Ottoman era or earlier, its origins are uncertain. In Kosovo, only one elderly woman in a nearby village still practices the art; in Bulgaria, there are only three villages where brides may still on occasion be painted.

In the video, Shaipi is surrounded by female friends singing to her. The married women wear bright red-and-yellow traditional clothes, while the unmarried women wear white. Shaipi is crying loudly and genuinely because she will soon have to say goodbye to her family. Her sadness does not seem tempered by the fact that her new house—that of her husband and his family—is only about two minutes’ walk from her parents’ house.

Her girlfriends sing, “Until now you have listened to your mother. Now you will have to listen to your mother-in-law.”

“Does she listen?” I ask her mother-in-law, who is sitting across from her in the living room. “Yes, she listens,” she says, with equal measures of seriousness and pride.

“I listen,” Shaipi says playfully. “I have ears.”

Another important part of the Kurban Bayram celebration—the traditional sacrifice—is under way in the nearby village of Nebregoste, where houses seem to spill down the steep streets with the Šar Mountains towering in the background. There’s a lot of activity in the central square. About 30 men in camouflage and yellow rain suits, with knives, ropes and plastic bags, are getting organized. A large grill is being set up in the bus stop to cook the meat of seven bulls, donated by local Nashentsi émigrés in Switzerland.

The slaughter is efficient and according to Islamic principles. There are scales to weigh the meat and plastic bags to divide it for distribution among the poor. Soon a man is walking around offering freshly grilled kidneys on a cutting board.

Ismailj Zulji is framing the scene with his smartphone, sending live video to his family in Zurich. A general contractor, he is nearing retirement, and he drives back to his village here several times a year. He helps raise funds for projects like fixing up the central square or buying cattle for the Bayram.

The Nashentsi community in Zurich is united and well organized, he says, normally gathering 1500 people for celebrations at a place called Sports Club Šar. “It’s important for our children to know as much as possible about our culture and to know where their roots are,” Zulji says. There are countless such Balkan diaspora communities, the first generation of which dates back to the socialist Yugoslav period.

While Zulji’s grandfathers herded flocks of sheep on Šar Mountain every summer and drove them down to the lowlands of Thessaloniki every winter, his children are educated and no longer have traditional professions. Social media, he believes, help them develop both personally and as a community. “My son reads about Pomaks in Bulgaria on the Internet,” he says.

The Internet has helped strengthen the connections. “Not only do we have nonstop communication, but we even have marriages between Gorani in Gora and Gorani in Switzerland who met on the Internet,” he says. “Some children are so connected that it’s like they are here.”

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