Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Convert to Islam, or else

(Warning: long post)
Recently, two Fox News journalists, while doing their work in Gaza, were kidnapped. They were released two days ago, but only after saying on video that they had converted to Islam. They later said they were forced to "convert" at gunpoint. There is talk that ransom has also been paid for their release. For details, see e.g. http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=24104.
The other thing which inspired me to write this post was Non-blogging's opinion about whether conversion to Islam, required for a non-Muslim man if he wants to marry a Muslim woman, is acceptable: "Converting because it's demanded should perhaps be between acceptable and unacceptable... Unacceptable because that would mean lying to an imam, maybe lots of genuinely believing relatives and last but not least to all honest Muslims who have said their creed believing every word of it." (http://lonehighlander.blogspot.com/2006/08/mr.html#comments). Reading this, I was amazed how a non-Muslim, pressed by Muslims to convert, still would think he does wrong to these Muslims because his conversion is not sincere! So I'll write a post about conversions to Islam in Bulgarian history and we'll see whether the sincerety of conversion mattered.
When Ottoman Turks defeated the divided Bulgarian ministates in 1393-1396 and included them in the Ottoman Empire, they didn't impose Turkish feudals everywhere. Some of the Bulgarian feudals were offered and agreed to convert to Islam. Having fulfilled this condition, they were allowed to continue to rule over their land, or at least part of it. Among them was the son of Ivan Shishman, the last pre-Ottoman Bulgarian king.
Throughout the nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule, ambitious individuals were voluntarily converting to Islam in order to make a career in the Ottoman society. However, there were many more Bulgarians who were forced to convert. The first among them were women who were made invaders' wives against their will. There is a saying that "not a single Turkish woman ever crossed from Asia to Europe". It's an exaggeration, but contains much truth. It is also consistent with the logic of the Islamic family model. In a monogamous society, any massive conquest could easily lead to demographic collapse at home, because many women would either remain without husbands or have to follow their husbands to the newly conquered land, depopulating the old territory. Poligamy solves the problem. Any Ottoman or other Muslim ruler could send as many as three quarters of his men to conquer new lands and there would still be partners for all women. The remaining quarter of men could take 4 wives each and children would continue to be born in the old territory. In the new territories, the soldiers turning into settlers could take local wives. Of course, this model can work only if the woman is kept in subhuman position, otherwise the wife coming from a hostile population could bring up children with dubious loyalty. This was the case - women were "letters without voice". Who cared whether they really believed that Mohammed was God's prophet? Turks continued to take Bulgarian wives up to the very liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 and never had any problems with pro-Bulgarian sentiments of the children of such marriages.
Another important group of converts were the Janissaries; you can read about them in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janissary, although this article seems to me rather inaccurate. Like other Christian nations of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgarians were forced to pay "blood tax" - a proportion of the boys aged around 10 (the strongest were selected) were taken from their parents, converted to Islam and brought up to be Sultan's elite soldiers. This practice changed the life of one of my great-grandparents. The Turkish authorities of his town, Bansko, once announced that landowners were hiring young boys as farm hands. Many families sent one or more of their sons to earn some money. Several adults, including that my ancestor, were sent to accompany the boys. However, when the group reached the destination, it was encircled by soldiers who said that the boys were in fact needed to be recruited as Janissaries. The adult Bulgarians were left to go home. When they arrived and brought the catastrophic news, the public turned against them with anger. The parents were of course shocked by the loss of their sons and needed to blame somebody. It was unsafe to speak against the Turks, so the returning adult companions were blamed, as if they could have done anything in this situation. My great-grandfather left the town and moved to the village of Shipka, hundreds of kilometers away.
There were also many "casual" conversions. Here I'll cite again the experience of my great-grandfather (descendant of the above mentioned man who moved from Bansko to Shipka). His closest friend once committed an offense (I've forgotten what exactly, but it was a minor one). He was caught by the authorities and threatened with death, unless he converted to Islam. So he became a Muslim. At first, the two men continued to be friends. It was logical, the convert was in fact the same person, wasn't he? What happened to him wasn't his fault and could have happened to anybody. But, as time passed, my great-grandfather severed the ties with the convert, telling to his family that his ex-friend had "begun to smell like a Turk". I can speculate that if the story had happened not to that friend but to the other, I could be a Muslim now.
All types of conversion described above were confined to individuals taken from communities which continued to be Christian. However, there were also mass conversions. They were done in strategic regions - the Rhodopa mountain (today in Southern Bulgaria) and the Dobrudja plain which formed the north-east border of the Ottoman Empire (today - the corresponding border of Bulgaria). In rare cases, the authorities awaited a suitable moment to push for a quasi-voluntary conversion. So in the Chepinsko area of the Rhodopa mountain, the population agreed to convert to Islam in exchange for food aid during famine. However, the typical scenario was as follows: Ottoman troops encircling the village, giving the residents the choice of conversion or death, then leaving an imam and several officials to spy on the converts and help them become real pious Muslims.
There was no way out. In theory, the converts could emigrate and revert to Christianity, but those villagers didn't have the resources and knowledge needed to reach an immigrant-friendly land. So they became ancestors of today's Bulgarian Muslims. They often proceeded further to become Turkish-speaking. Sources differ about whether this change was also forced by the Ottoman authorities. I tend to think that in most cases it's likely to have been voluntary. Religion was used by Bulgarians as a national identifier. The terms "Christianity" and "Islam" were rarely used; instead, people were talking about "the Bulgarian faith" and "the Turkish faith". So those who were Muslims but Bulgarian-speaking were in the inconvenient position of people belonging nowhere; for many of them, it was logical to switch to Turkish.
The Bulgarian population was never able to mount effective resistance. If only they had wanted, the Turks could easily convert (or exterminate) the entire Bulgarian nation. However, this wouldn't be good for the economy. In the Ottoman empire, agriculture, crafts and other productive activities were largely reserved for non-Muslims who paid almost all taxes. The Muslims, especially the Turks, were soldiers, administrators and judges. It is clear that excessive conversion would destabilize this host-parasite relationship, although many converts retained their old lifestyle. So the partition between trusted "citizens" and productive second-class subjects saved the national identity of Bulgarians and other subjugated Christian nations. In the same time, it prevented the Ottoman Empire from becoming a modern state.
The relationship between Christian Bulgarians and the converts were uneasy. The latter were included in the Basibozuk - irregular troops responsible for the worst atrocities after quashing Christian Bulgarian uprisings. When Bulgarian statehood was restored by the Russia's 1877-78 war, the rich and powerful Turks fled to the territories remaining in the Ottoman Empire while the Bulgarian Muslims and the poorer Turks (presumably the converts) remained where they were. I guess there were many acts of revenge against them, but my sources say little about this.
One could expect that many Bulgarian Muslims and ethnic Turks after 1878 would convert (revert) to Christianity. After all, the Muslim faith had been imposed in most cases by force. Besides, as any cynic would mention, once Christians were in a favourable position, you should expect that many Muslims would remember their Christian roots... Some Muslim individuals indeed became Christians, but they were surprisingly few. Mass conversions in Rhodopa and Dobrudja had largely ended by the beginning of the 19th century, so three or more generations separated that event from the 1878 liberation. The memory of the original Christian faith had faded. The brutal force had paid, as usually in history.
Therefore, I think that Highlander is a little irrelevant when she writes (about the Fox News journalists), "I have to stress that I strongly condemn kidnappings of this sort. I was especially appalled that they were forced to convert to Islam on TV while in captivity.Those two moves are so stupid and if the perpetrators are hoping to be garnering sympathy to the Palestinian cause - or any cause for that matter- then they are failing miserably and further disfiguring the image of Islam." (http://lonehighlander.blogspot.com/2006/08/unreachable-just-cause-i-had-one-of.html) I don't think that the Islamist captors were so stupid. Islam has always been promoted this way and so it has not only survived but become No. 2 (now possibly No. 1) religion in the world.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Water regime, or how to create and perpetuate misery

(Warning: long post)
Last Saturday we went to my mother in-law's summer house in the village of Rasnik. There was no supply of running water and we were not surprised, because water in Rasnik is often stopped, especially during summer weekends. My husband's aunt, who had been there since the middle of the week, said, "They had let the water (run), but many people watered their gardens, so the water was stopped again."
"Oh, don't buy this explanation," I replied. "Are people expected NOT to water their gardens? After all, they pay for the water they use! This is a village, people grow vegetables and depend on them. Remember how during socialism everything was in short supply and the authorities kept telling that commodities don't suffice because we are consuming them!"
Because water was not expected to return before Monday, we depended on several liters we had brought from Sofia, plus a public fountain several hundred meters away. I took no part in the water-supplying expeditions because my doctor had forbidden me to lift weights and to walk under the sun. However, on Sunday I had to go there once. My little boy, who is only beginning his toilet training, had a bowel movement in his pants. So I cleaned him with wet wipes as I could and went to the fountain to wash his clothes. I was a bit ashamed of the "perfume" cloud spreading around me. Happily, I saw nobody - everyone was hiding from the sun; it was the hottest time of the day forecasted to be the hottest for 2006.
The man maintaining the water pipes in Rasnik receives orders from the water company to stop the supply every time when there is some problem. As you can guess, the company needn't seek additional water sources or minimize transit losses. Why care that plenty of water leaks into the earth through the old porous pipes? If this makes the pressure fall, the company can always stop the water and so will have no problem - all problems are for the consumers.
And because nobody controls whether that man lets the water run again when he must, he can leave his fellow villagers without water for much longer than due. I'm sure he feels almighty, he is happy that a simple movement of his hand can keep hundreds withouth running water. He prefers to stop the water on weekends, because then many people from the cities of Sofia and Pernik come to Rasnik. To cap it all, he is an alcoholic and often gets so drunk that he forgets to release the water. For this reason, the village sometimes stays dry for a week or longer.
The villagers are old and poor. They cannot wage protests and legal battles. They even don't think of beating up the alcoholic (which I think would be quite acceptable in the situation). Instead, they have invested in wells in their yards so that to have some independence from the water company. The fact that everybody can dig a well and obtain water directly from his backyard shows that there is no real problem with the water availability in the region, all problems come from the water monopolist's impunity and the people's helplessness.
A number of cities and many towns and villages in Bulgaria suffer such regular stopping of water for hours and days. This is called rezhim na vodata (water regime); I don't know whether the word regime has such a meaning in English, because I have never read about a similar phenomenon in another country! I don't know how many Bulgarians live under water regime - tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions? My city Sofia is spared from it, except in early 1995. At that time, some empowered people wanted to fill their pockets by a project to capture the water of the small river Skakavitsa. But they first needed to prove that the city was short of water. For that purpose, they first let masses of water flow out of the main water supply for Sofia - the Iskar dam lake, in the summer of 1994. Then the dam lake was declared empty, water regime was endorced on Sofia and the Skakavitsa project was approved. Residents of the little town of Sapareva Banya protested, because they obtained their water from Skakavitsa. Anti-terrorist police was sent to "occupy" the town and beat the protesting grandmothers. In Sofia, the deaths of two babies from intestinal infections were attributed to the water regime. I don't know whether the Skakavitsa pipeline is still maintained and in use; it has served its function.
In earlier years, Bulgaria had also electricity regime - planned periodic blackouts. It was usually for several hours a day, but the most severe case followed the scheme "3 hours with electricity - 3 hours without it". That was in the 1984-85 winter when the Communists forcibly renamed the Bulgarian Turks. The electricity regime seems to have had no technological or economic reason and its aim is believed to have been political - to distract attention from the renaming. (Of course those who were losing their names cared little about the elecricity, but the Communist government apparently feared solidarity protests by other citizens.)
In later years, we occasionally suffered electricity regime. It was meant either to distract attention from different government failures or to convince the public that we need more nuclear power generators. There was never true shortage of electricity - actually, all the time Bulgaria was selling it to neighbouring countries, usually at lower prices than those we were paying for it. When in 1990 or 1991 my brother had his appendix removed, he didn't return from the hospital straight home. Instead, my mother took him to a cafe and they spent an hour, waiting for the electricity to return (my mother's apartment is at the 7th floor - too high to climb if the lift doesn't work and you have had recent surgery).
And at some later time things changed. Once I was attending an opposition rally (the party I had voted for was in opposition, as usual). The speaker was talking about the government's attempts to distract attention from its failures. I said to those nearest to me, "They can't fool me even in they impose electricity regime again."
"There will never again be electricity regime in Bulgaria," a young man replied.
"Why do you think so?" I asked, surprised.
"Because we already have a powerful banking system. The banks will never allow their computers to be subjected to arbitrary blackouts and power surges."
I remembered his words. He was right - planned blackouts never happened again. Both water and electricity regimes existed without objective reason, just because they were tolerated. Banks stopped tolerating electricity regime and it was abandoned. But citizens continue to tolerate water regime and it remains at many places. When Bulgarians criticize their own national psyche, one of the charges heard most often is that they have "sheep mentality" (ovchedushie). Alas, there is much truth in this statement.
Water (and electricity) regime is an example of misery. I want to differentiate misery from poverty, although they are interconnected and highly correlated. Poverty simply means having little resources. Misery is mainly about being helpless, at the hands of some Big Brother who feels free to take decisions about your life. It would be poverty if the water prices were too high for the people's incomes. You are not quite helpless in this situation - you can try to manage your daily life with less water consumption. In the misery of the water regime, it doesn't matter how economically you are using the water on Friday - your tap will anyway be dry on Saturday. Also, the individual at least in theory can make his way out of poverty by hard work, ingenuity or luck. Misery is always nation-scale, although it is felt in some places harder than in others. You can escape it only by emigration and even this usually doesn't help: by the time you decide to emigrate, misery has penetrated and engulfed your mind and you bring it with yourself wherever you go.
Misery was deliberately introduced in Bulgaria with socialism. A well-known instruction of the Stalin's governments to the Soviet occupation authorities in Bulgaria in the late 1940s includes, among many other things, orders to centralize electric and water supply and to destroy local water sources and power generations. Also, the Socialist idea of housing were ugly multi-storey apartment blocks. Have you mentioned how every totalitarian government tries its best to accommodate its subjects inside such blocks? A friend of mine calls them "hen-houses"; she hates them very much because as a child she lived in a real house, then it was demolished to build a block on the spot and her family was "compensated" with an apartment. In an individual house with a yard, you always retain some control over your life. You need no lift, you can install solar batteries or a small power generator, you can try and dig a well or at least a water-independent toilet of the type people have used for millenia (a hole in the ground with a wooden shelter over it; we have such one in Rasnik). In an apartment, you are completely helpless.
And because these days I seem unable to write a text without any mention of you-know-what conflict, let me finally connect the Bulgarian to the Palestinian experience. When Israel was pulling out of Gaza, I wasn't at all surprised to read that the Palestinian Authority intended to demolish the pretty houses left by the Jewish settlers and build instead multy-storey apartment blocks. Isn't it logical? If you want to prevent your subjects from growing into thinking, independent, freedom-loving human beings, lock them in hen-houses and keep repeating that you have "built homes" for them. You can rest assured that the misery surrounding them will reside in their souls.

Monday, August 21, 2006

A Bulgarian-Libyan nightmare

I had to do blood and urine tests this morning, so last night I prepared for it - asked my mother in-law to look after my son, put inside the bag the "redirection papers" from my doctor. Then I blogged till late at night, in fact till early morning. The last person I exchanged comments with was Libyan girl Highlander.
Falling asleep, I was still thinking about the tests and the "conversation" with Highlander. The combination "blood testing - Libya" produced one of these dreams which, while far from the logic of the awakened state, have a logic and insight of their own. I dreamed I was already in the medical center, sitting on a chair and preparing to give a blood sample. I was looking what the nurse was doing. In reality, I never do this - I prefer to look in another direction while people are drawing my blood, because I don't endure the sight very well. But that was not reality.
The nurse was holding a syringe and reached out to take a needle. But the needles were not in the neat individual sterile packages they had to be. Instead, there was a transparent plastic box of the type ice-cream is sold in. Bulgarian housewives often wash and reuse these boxes. This one was full of needles. They didn't even look very clean. The upper ones had attached pieces of what looked like fruit cake. The bottom of the box was covered by a thin layer of syrup. (I know needles are expected to be contaminated with blood. Don't ask me why it was syrup.)
I said, "But you must use disposable sterile needles! These here have been used and then haven't been sterilized, they haven't even been washed!"
The nurse opened a drawer, took out two needles in sterile packages and showed them to me.
"See, this is all we have," she said. "And we keep them, in case a foreigner or another important patient comes."
I opened my mouth to ask why I was considered unimportant, but at this point my brain decided enough was enough and I awakened.
One needn't be Freud to interpret this dream. It was derived from the event everybody thinks about when Bulgaria and Libya are mentioned together: the infection of more than 400 Libyan children with HIV, thought to be a result of reusing syringes, needles and other blood-handling equipment without sterilization. (Except in Libya, where the Q-man convinced most people that the infection was deliberately induced by six Bulgarian medics and a Palestinian doctor - it's amazing how Libyans still trust him.)
If you ask whether the nightmare had any prognostic value - no, it hadn't. When I actually went to the medical center, there were no dirty needles in ice-cream boxes.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Vote if you want the Twin Towers rebuilt

As far as I know, the project for a new World Trade Center is already approved and doesn't resemble the old one. However, today I saw by chance an online petition by The Twin Towers Alliance to rebuild the towers. If you support the idea, you can express your opinion at http://www.twintowersalliance.com/petition/.
Although nothing can bring back the lost lives, I would feel a bit better if I could see the towers again at their place. I still feel pain in the heart when their image appears in some old movie.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The war aborted, and why not to trust Margarita Mihneva

(Caution: long post)
The war between Hezbollah/Lebanon and Israel I wrote about on July 29 was aborted. The enemy claims they won and Israel lost. In a sense, they are right: without finding the kidnapped soldiers, Israel agreed to a cease-fire and so used the simplest and most reliable way to lose - left the battlefield. Has Israel caught from old Europe the virus of unwillingness to survive?
However, it would be wrong to blame Israeli leadership alone. I cannot imagine the war led logically, i.e. spreading to Hezbollah sponsors Iran and maybe Syria, without the help of the USA. And instead of helping, the Americans were pressing Israel to step back. Somebody rightly described Bush as "all talk, no walk".
Of course it was just a stage in the ongoing global war and, as such, it produced some benefits: revealed the arsenal and capabilities of Hezbollah, the attitudes of key world players and the so-called world opinion (about the latter and how much it costs, read a good essay at http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=23635). However, this knowledge will be useful only if somebody really intends to resume the fight.
As for the Lebanese, it seems that what sympathy I had for them was largely undeserved and the support for Hezbollah actually is much stronger than I thought. I'm translating information by Netinfo: "The (Lebanese) government hasn't even considered disarming Hezbollah, which is one of the basic requirements in the UN Security Council cease-fire resolution... The pro-Syrian president Emil Lahud said it would be a shame to insist for disarming the national resistance (Hezbollah), the only force in the Arab world that stood against Israel..." (http://news.netinfo.bg/?tid=40&oid=923890).
Hezbollah ringleader Hassan Nasrallah became a hero of the Muslim world because of his successes in kidnapping soldiers and shelling Israeli cities and villages. These same Muslims who hail a thug for deliberate killings of civilians are angry when we say they are bad people... I recently commented on Highlander's blog, "Can the Muslim world reach a deeper point in moral degradation? I cannot imagine, but let's wait and see, every time when I think this is impossible they manage to make another step downward. If the Devil exists and makes list of the souls who belong to him, I pity the poor fellow, he must already have arthritis from the too-intensive writing or typing."
Or possibly I'm too pessimistic. Perhaps, when things become much worse, the civilized world will awaken from its lethargy and take care of itself. And at least our media will stop working as enemy PR. Last night, I watched the TV show "Neudobnite (The Inconvenient)". It's broadcasted by cable TV Channel 3 and its host is one of the best known Bulgarian journalists, Margarita Mihneva. She had invited two Lebanese who offered plenty of anti-Israel talk and put photos of killed Lebanese children under our noses (as if the Israeli children killed on Friday are expected, like Jesus Christ, to be alive again on Sunday).
I liked just one of the questions asked by Mihneva: what the ordinary Lebanese think about Hezbollah. The Lebanese guests said that the lack of support of Lebanese to Hezbollah is US media disinformation, in fact all Hezbollah fighters are Lebanese and the population supports them. Unfortunately, Mihneva offered no comment and no further questions to clarify this important issue.
All the time Mihneva was saying that she will present the Jewish viewpoint as well. Only during the last minutes we heard a Bulgarian Jewish intellectual, Jacob Dzherasi. However, he was not in the studio, his voice was taped. And he was not discussing the current conflict but something completely unrelated - the architecture and history of a particular house at Oborishte street in Sofia! She used him just to wash her hands. So much about the honest representation of opposite viewpoints.
Finally, let me quote a different Arab voice, like a beam of light in a realm of darkness: Libyan reformist writer Dr. Muhammad Al-Huni and his article "The lexicon of resistance", presented by MEMRI (http://www.memri.org/bin/opener_latest.cgi?ID=SD125306#_edn1):
"The word 'resistance' has come to be constantly used in the killing fields known as the Middle East... When Shi'ites kill Sunnis and Sunnis kill Shi'ites in Iraq merely for their [sectarian] identity, it is called 'resistance.' When Janjaweed gangs murder unarmed civilians in Darfour, it is called 'resistance.' When year after year, Hamas and Islamic Jihad extinguish any spark of peace which can end the suffering of the Palestinian people, it is called 'resistance.' When Hizbullah takes an entire people hostage and refuses to obey the elected [authorities], dragging Lebanon into destruction, it is called 'resistance.' The war which is being waged by the new global terrorism under the command of bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri and Al-Zarqawi is called 'resistance'... What is common to these types of resistance is that they all present themselves as 'Islamic'... The project of these resistance [groups] has had its day in the Arab world. It made the most noise and the most bloodshed, and therefore its dreadful collapse is highly imminent. They betted on a wild horse, and have left not a single seed that can sprout, nor a single bud that can open. They are the murderers of the future, and therefore they have no future."
Read the whole text, it's worth it. I hope Highlander will see it, too, because it's by her fellow countryman not very likely to be published in Jamahiriya or any other Libyan newspaper. I hope his prognosis will come true.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The map of Israel as a message

This post, like the previous one, will be about one of my students.
At the beginning of the second semester, I had a group of freshmen whom I was meeting for first time. Among them there was a boy with a strange piece of metal hanging from his neck. Its shape was roughly triangular and seemed familiar to me, though I couldn't recognize it.
Checking the students' files, I saw that boy had Arab name. I asked him where he was from. He answered, "Palestine".
When I heard this, I figured out what the strange metal object was. I felt physical discomfort, some kind of pressure in the stomach. But I still had to check to be sure. When I returned to my room, I launched Google Image Search and typed two words: "israel map". The roughly triangular shape appeared: it was the map of Israel plus the Territories, "the whole Palestine".
You would ask what I did then? Nothing. If I were a fellow student of the boy, I would say, "What the hell you think you are doing, walking around with this map of Israel? Doesn't it come to your head that I could be a Jew and have in Israel a brother, a sister-in-law and two little nieces? Do you think that only you in this world have feelings, wishes and rights?" But I was his teacher and my lips were closed, as if I didn't see the stupid little thing.
Once I supported the Palestinians because I believed all they wanted was a state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza. This was what their leaders said, wasn't it? They were just making fools of us. But even fools cannot be made fools indefinitely.
Another detail about that student: He spoke excellent Bulgarian. I asked him whether he had something Bulgarian in his origin and he said "Yes", without elaborating. I guess his mother was a Bulgarian. He also said he had attended secondary school here (the Iraqi school in Sofia, I'll write a separate post about it some day). I wouldn't be surprised if he had been born and spent his entire life in Bulgaria. Yet his behaviour and performance didn't show a single element of influence by Bulgarian culture, except the ability to speak the language. I think this resistance to integration can teach us a lot.

Friday, August 04, 2006

My Turkish student Eva, the Islamist students and the choice of civilization

(Caution: long post)
In recent time, the mosque in Sofia made headlines. Ataka activists (I've wrote about these idiots at http://mayas-corner.blogspot.com/2006/04/volen-siderov.html) suddenly decided that the summon for prayer disturbs non-Muslims and began a petition to force the imam to use only his voice, no loudspeakers. Tensions accumulated, somebody broke a window of the mosque, somebody set the mosque in the town of Kazanlak on fire. Happily, the damage was small (both mosques are historical buildings, remained from the Ottoman era).
So much from me about this controversy, I don’t want to cover in detail Ataka and their heroic deeds. I'm myself an Islamophobe, now if I criticize Islam, the opponent may well ask me where I was in the night when the window was broken :-). We Bulgarians often praise ourselves for our tolerance, we’d better let others judge it. I prefer to write something else about this mosque, or rather about some worshippers.
During the 2005-06 academic year, I had no classes with the foreign students of the preparatory year (when they learn Bulgarian and some high school-level basic facts). I was glad that I hadn't. These students are always difficult, but this year they were the worst audience we've ever had. So said my colleagues who lectured to them. Once I entered briefly the lecture room and saw for myself. The students were speaking loudly in their native languages and were playing with their cellular phones, not even pretending to listen.
A significant part of these students were Turks. We've had many students from Turkey and they all looked quite secular. These ones were Islamists. All the girls wore headscarves and characteristic dresses designed to hide the body outline, to protect the woman's virtue and to facilitate fractures. My colleague complained that, when he was explaining evolution, the Turkish students interrupted indignantly: "This is not true! It is Allah who created all species! And how dare you say that we are descendants of monkeys and apes?"
These students also refused to come to class before 3 PM on Fridays, because they wanted to pray in the above mentioned mosque. I remember one Friday when my colleague was awaiting them nervously. "I have to lecture about meiosis," she said. "How can I explain it in so little time?"
(Meiosis is the most complex type of cell division.)
"Don't trouble," I replied. "Lecture only as long as you are due, not a minute more. If after that the students still have questions about meiosis, let them go to the mosque and ask the imam. Allah will give him the necessary inspiration to clarify meiosis."
So different were these kids from my student Eva that it was hard to believe they belonged to the same nation. Let me now write about Eva. She was a regular 1st year student in my group. Her first name was an Old Testament name acceptable for a Turk but more common in the Western world (I'm using another Old Testament name, Eva, to preserve her anonymity - I haven't taken her permission to blog about her.) Her second and family name were Turkish but with the characteristic Bulgarian ending -va. Her Bulgarian was perfect, so I naturally assumed that she was born and raised in Bulgaria, an ethnic Turk or a Bulgarian Muslim. We have a few such students every year and I'm always happy for them, because it's not easy for them to become our students. Not that they are discriminated, as somebody might think. It would be impossible because our Medical University, like all serious Bulgarian universities, has a strictly reglamented anonymous entry exam. But these kids typically grow in small towns or villages, usually don't go to the best schools and, if they are ethnic Turks, have to do the exam in their second language. So, on the average, it is more difficult for them to succeed in education.
Once I looked at Eva's faculty number and saw it was of a foreign student. I was disappointed. Because the above mentioned candidate student exam is very difficult, some bypass it, usually by spending a semester or a whole academic year in a foreign university and then transfering to our Medical University. These students are usually children of renowned doctors, politicians or rich people. They can be recognized because, although they are Bulgarians, they have faculty numbers as if they were foreigners. I don't like this sneaking into the University through the back door, I wouldn't allow it if it depended on me. So you understand why I thought sadly, "The girl couldn't do the exam. Or possibly she could but her parents didn't want to take the chance? What a pity." Of course I voiced none of these thoughts. At any rate, no matter how she got there, Eva fully deserved to be in the University. She was one of my best students.
Once I had to call Eva's group for an additional class. I proposed to see them at 1.30 PM. Most agreed, but Eva said, "I cannot come at 1.30. I have to attend a lesson of Bulgarian exactly at this time." "I'm surprised that you attend Bulgarian classes," I said. "I was sure you were from Bulgaria." Eva laughed and thanked for this compliment to her Bulgarian language skills. So I realized by chance that Eva was a real foreign student. Had she been educated in Bulgaria, she wouldn't have to learn Bulgarian in the university.
Later she told me more about herself. Her family was originally from Bulgaria, but emigrated to Turkey. Some of their relations remained in Bulgaria and Eva visited them every summer, so she kept her Bulgarian in good shape. She graduated a secondary school in Turkey and even studied philosophy in Istanbul for a year before coming to Sofia to study medicine.
I thought about Eva and her parents and wondered. Why did these people care for her daughter to speak good Bulgarian, why did they send her to study here? If you don't know it yet, Bulgaria is a miserable country. Moreover, in the last years of Communists rule in Bulgaria (1984-1989) ethnic Turks suffered terrible wrongs: their names were forcibly changed to Bulgarian ones. So why did this family keep such close ties with Bulgaria?
My guess: because they felt belonging to the Western civilization and Bulgaria, however miserable, was their only direct connection to this civilization. When Bulgaria was joining NATO, Peter Stoyanov, Bulgarian President at that time, said this was "civilizational choice". So Eva's family also made their choice of civilization.
I think that the main force keeping a civilization alive and advancing is the feeling of people that they belong to it. There are always some who have grown in it but dislike it, they are a disintegrating force acting from inside. Among the outsiders, some will like the civilization, some will dislike it. I feel fully belonging to the Western civilization and convinced in its values. I don't understand why so many people outside it, instead of trying to join it, make efforts to ruin it. Maybe these enemies can be subdued by force, I don't know. Maybe they’ll succeed. But why are they against it in the first place? Why are our troops forced to fight them, why don't they just drop their arms?
During the last academic year, I saw about a dozen Turkish students spending the Friday in the mosque - and just one Eva. The balance is quite grim, isn't it? As the proverb says, one swallow makes no spring. Or possibly there are many more Western-minded Turks like Eva's parents, but they have more money and send their kids directly to Cambridge? Let's hope so :-). But I doubt.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Black Sea coast: newspapers are telling the truth

Last week, we went to the sea resort of Primorsko for a vacation. We had been there 4 years ago. Now I couldn't recognize the place, so much new hotels had been built. The out-of-control construction works at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast are often reported in our newspapers. I had the opportunity to see for myself that newspapers had written nothing but the truth.
There were so many and densely distributed newly-biult hotels and hotels in construction that, despite evident efforts to make their architecture diverse, the overall impression was very poor. My husband rightly said that it looked like Lyulin (this is one of the Sofia districts built for the working class during the socialist era, all in ugly multy-storey buildings).
I wonder how the numerous investors get their construction permits. In fact, everybody knows: by bribing the buraucrats. And of course nobody cares to protect the coast against landslides, to take care of the sewage waters etc. All the mad new construction is overlaid on the fragile infrastructure of the old, village-like town. Small wonder that a week or two before we arrived, an ordinary rain caused overflow of the sewage system and the streets were immersed in contaminated water. I am even afraid to think what happens with the sewage of those new hotels that are nearest to the beach. I bet it goes directly into the sea. Happily, none of us suffered any gastrointestinal infection, as I feared.
Neither my husband nor I want to go to Primorsko again. I hope next time we'll find some small town or village that has mostly escaped development, doesn't look like a socialist suburb and has no water jets. I'm afraid no such place has remained.