No More Hiding From the State

No More Hiding From the State

A Bulgarian village makes amends with its ethnic complexities

by Matthew Brunwasser

BREZNITSA —  From his quiet spot under the willow tree in the village square, between the church and the mosque, 66-year-old Mustafa Cholac has seen plenty of changes.

Bulgarian Muslims
Bulgarian Muslims
In 1972, Communist Party officials told Muslim men they would have to report to the community center on the square, and look through a book to choose Christian names for family members. Cholac was one of about 200 who gathered here to protest. They were brutally crushed in a crackdown that left eight dead. After communism fell in 1989, a bus left the square with men headed for the capital Sofia to demand their names back.

Today, things are a bit different. In the shadow of the media spotlight swirling around the violent ethnic hatred in the former Yugoslavia 100 miles away, Breznitsans are not trying to avenge the wrongs of the past- instead, they are concentrating on reconciliation. “We have gotten along well with Christians before and after the killings,” says Cholac. “We understood that the decision came from the communists, not from the Christian people. There is no hatred here.”

Names had been changed before. The first communist program to “Bulgarianize” the country’s Muslims came in 1963, as Communist leader Todor Zhivkov defended name changes as merely reversing the process the Turks started when they forcibly converted Christians to Islam. The names were changed back after one week because of poor organization and low popular support. Many Bulgarian Christians maintain the Muslims converted to Islam during the Ottoman era, with large numbers making the change in southwestern Bulgaria in the last quarter of the 17th century. Bulgarian Muslims do not support such claims. Over a period of 500 years, the Muslims say, a complex and politically motivated system of ethnic identification has misconstrued the true identities of the many peoples of the Ottoman Empire.

Bulgarian Muslims comprise between 8 and 9 percent of the country’s population of 8 million, and include ethnic Turks; Roma, half of whom are Muslim; and Bulgarian Muslims with Koranic names. The latter speak only Bulgarian, follow Koranic customs, and believe their ancestors came from somewhere else, but can’t agree on exactly where. Some say Anatolia or the Crimea, while others say they were Persian slaves brought by Alexander the Great.

Koranic Bulgarian Muslims and ethnic Turks are both Muslim by religion and Bulgarian by nationality, but they are ethnically and linguistically different peoples. Bulgarian Christians refer to Bulgarian-speaking Muslims with Koranic names as “pomaks,” an archaic word that has been very loosely translated in English as “traitors”-a term that the Muslims do not care for.


“In the past, we were always in a situation of defense, defending ourselves from all sides,” says Mehmed Boyukli, a construction worker and founder of the Pirin and Rhodope Regional Development Foundation, a non-governmental organization that engages in cultural and economic projects, the first in the Muslim region in southwest Bulgaria. “Now we have an [institution through which] to improve things and socialize our people for relations with the world outside our community.”

A recent festival celebrated the 10th anniversary of the day the villagers got their names back. One thousand people were brought by bus from other villages. Men stood at the back while women sat in front, showing their village of origin by the characteristic, colorful designs on their homespun head scarves, dresses, aprons, and traditional baggy shalvari pants. Musicians and singers performed Bulgarian folk music, its roots in both Christian Bulgarian and Muslim Turkish traditions.

“I am amazed that there is no hate here,” says Zheni Lozanova, a journalist from the Bulgarian National Television program “Voices.” It is only recently that mainstream Bulgarian media have become interested in the history and culture of Bulgarian Muslims. Lozanova says in the past, the state forced journalists to write how pleased Muslims were about their forced assimilation.

During communism, Muslims enjoyed the same minimal, but guaranteed, standard of living as other Bulgarian villagers. Food was cheap for everyone. But now, “the changes” have ended government social protections, and life for 90 percent of the population is much harder.

The main cash income in Breznitsa comes from farming low-quality Oriental tobacco, for which the market is rapidly disappearing. There have been few new opportunities. In recent years, Italian firms have bought wild mushrooms from locals for export to restaurants in Western Europe, paying up to $10 on the best day-almost twice the average daily wage for a state employee. A textile factory on the village square makes uniforms for German NATO soldiers-on contract from a German firm that subcontracts to a Greek firm, which in turn sub-subcontracts to a Bulgarian one.

The most successful private business in Breznitsa is an Islamic meat company-the only one in Bulgaria-owned by Shaban Hadjioliev the former hodja, or spiritual leader, of the local mosque. He can’t produce enough to meet demand, and says his success-and the investment it will mean for Breznitsa in the form of salaries and infrastructure improvements-is limited only by access to capital. Though business is booming for this Muslim company, Hadjioliev says some prejudices still linger and “I’ll never believe that a bank will give a loan to a former hodja.”

In Ahmed Molla’s kruchma-a combination bar, grill, cafe, and general store-a poster of movie star Jean Claude van Damme hangs on the wall in a gold-painted frame that once housed the portrait of Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s leader for 35 years. Molla’s customers are all men-mostly farmers, shepherds and physical laborers-who follow Muslim traditions but do not practice their religion. Their expressions soften as they drink more strong liquor. The air smells of cigarettes and sweat, the harsh light comes from two bare light bulbs, and heat is provided by a rickety wood-burning stove.

In the rough crossroads outside, a Mercedes waits for a mule-drawn cart to pass before it continues its slow slalom down the road between moguls of mud, rock, and animal waste. Save for the occasional luxury consumer good and black television cables running from house to house, it would be nearly impossible to tell if it was the 21st century or the 19th.

On 24 December 1989, Molla joined other men from Breznitsa going to Sofia to demand their names back. He spent five days and nights in the streets around the parliament, in three feet of snow, with 10,000 other Muslims, until a government representative announced their names would be returned and apologized “for the crimes of the past.” That day has been celebrated every year since.

“It was something so great it cannot be explained with words. You knew you were a small part of a history bigger than yourself,” says Molla. “We were fighting for the names given to our children by their mothers and the identity of our people.” Today, with help from social scientists from Sofia, many former protesters are trying to create programs to teach Bulgarian Muslims how to lobby the state instead of hide from it.

This summer, the village got its own high school. Last month, it participated in a regional economic development conference attended by a representative from the U.S. Embassy. One pressing goal is to find an English teacher to live in Breznitsa and teach the local children.

“Possibly more than anywhere else, Bulgarians saw the communist system as legitimate: economically, politically, and ideologically,” says Haralan Alexandrov, a social anthropologist who started doing field research in Breznitsa in 1993.

“But when the communist government started to conflict with established values-to maintain peaceful relations with your neighbors of different ethnic groups, a historical survival strategy-they lost credibility. The idea of a pure nation has never been popular here.”

Matthew Brunwasser is a freelance journalist who covers the Balkans.

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