"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Greeks and Bulgarians, Macedonians and Muslims

A priest I know, upon hearing that a particular parish was formed by Bulgarians and Macedonians, immediately crossed himself and thanked God he was spared the task of leading such a place composed, he thought, of people who would get along like oil and water. The Bulgarians, he said, would spend all their time trying to convince the Macedonians that the latter's language was but an illegitimate dialect of Bulgarian; while the Macedonians, in turn, would try to impress upon the Bulgarians the latter's inferiority in every way to the superior Greek heritage--linguistic and otherwise--of the Macedonians. The poor pastor, trying to get everyone to focus on the universal Word who is Jesus Christ, would be forever caught in the ethno-linguistic cross-fire.

But such is the often maddening world of Eastern Christianity, where "ethnicity" and "religion" (those highly suspect, polyvalent modern categories) are often so intertwined that the answer to either question is so often the same. This same priest once told me that, in asking his grandparents about their background, he expected them to say "I'm Romanian" or "We're from Serbia" but instead received the simple reply from the one, "Orthodox" and the other "Catholic." To many of us today in the West such answers would not be what we expected to hear, but to many, perhaps most, in the Christian East (and beyond) such answers would be unremarkable for most of history, especially prior to the invention of that modern pestilence known as nationalism.

Two new books come out to take a look at such issues: Theodora Dragostinova, Between Two Motherlands: Nationality and Emigration among the Greeks of Bulgaria, 1900-1949 (Cornell University Press, 2011), 304pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In 1900, some 100,000 people living in Bulgaria—2 percent of the country’s population—could be described as Greek, whether by nationality, language, or religion. The complex identities of the population—proud heirs of ancient Hellenic colonists, loyal citizens of their Bulgarian homeland, members of a wider Greek diasporic community, devout followers of the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, and reluctant supporters of the Greek government in Athens—became entangled in the growing national tensions between Bulgaria and Greece during the first half of the twentieth century.

In Between Two Motherlands, Theodora Dragostinova explores the shifting allegiances of this Greek minority in Bulgaria. Diverse social groups contested the meaning of the nation, shaping and reshaping what it meant to be Greek and Bulgarian during the slow and painful transition from empire to nation-states in the Balkans. In these decades, the region was racked by a series of upheavals (the Balkan Wars, World War I, interwar population exchanges, World War II, and Communist revolutions). The Bulgarian Greeks were caught between the competing agendas of two states increasingly bent on establishing national homogeneity.

Based on extensive research in the archives of Bulgaria and Greece, as well as fieldwork in the two countries, Dragostinova shows that the Greek population did not blindly follow Greek nationalist leaders but was torn between identification with the land of their birth and loyalty to the Greek cause. Many emigrated to Greece in response to nationalist pressures; others sought to maintain their Greek identity and traditions within Bulgaria; some even switched sides when it suited their personal interests. National loyalties remained fluid despite state efforts to fix ethnic and political borders by such means as population movements, minority treaties, and stringent citizenship rules. The lessons of a case such as this continue to reverberate wherever and whenever states try to adjust national borders in regions long inhabited by mixed populations.
The second such book is by Mary Neuburger, The Orient Within: Muslim Minorities and the Negotiation of Nationhood in Modern Bulgaria (Cornell University Press, 2011), 242pp.

Originally published in 2004, and here reissued in paperback, this book concerns itself with
Bulgaria as a Slavic nation, Orthodox in faith but with a sizable Muslim minority. That minority is divided into various ethnic groups, including the most numerically significant Turks and the so-called Pomaks, Bulgarian-speaking men and women who have converted to Islam. Mary Neuburger explores how Muslim minorities were integral to Bulgaria's struggle to extricate itself from its Ottoman past and develop a national identity, a process complicated by its geographic and historical positioning between evolving and imagined parameters of East and West.

The Orient Within examines the Slavic majority's efforts to conceptualize and manage Turkish and Pomak identities and bodies through gendered dress practices, renaming of people and places, and land reclamation projects. Neuburger shows that the relationship between Muslims and the Bulgarian majority has run the gamut from accommodation to forced removal to total assimilation from 1878, when Bulgaria acquired autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, to 1989, when Bulgaria's Communist dictatorship collapsed. Neuburger subjects the concept of Orientalism to an important critique, showing its relevance and complexity in the Bulgarian context, where national identity and modernity were brokered in the shadow of Western Europe, Russia/USSR, and Turkey.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...