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Exploring Europe at the British Library

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12 July 2024

Bulgarian minorities’ culture in the 20th century

The Endangered Archives Programme project on Bulgarian minorities’ culture in the 20th century has created a digital archive which documents the traditions and customs of minority communities in Bulgaria.

Black and white photograph of a family in front of a dome shaped thatched cabin

Karakachan family in front of their 'Kaliva' thatched winter cabins in Karnobat region, Bulgaria. 1950. EAP500/1/1/2.

The objective of the project was to improve the accessibility and exposure of this digital archive to a wider audience of researchers and stakeholders.

Black and white photograph of four people sitting round a table outdoors, two of them clinking their glasses in a toast
A Tatar-Turkish family celebrates the national holiday May Day in pre-1989 Bulgaria on the 1st of May in their village of Vardim, located in the Svishtov region in 1957. Their daughter, looking on and dressed as a young pioneer in a red scarf, represents a new generation of Bulgarian people. EAP500/13/3/1.

The project focused on various ethnic and religious communities in Bulgaria, including Turks, Tatars, Pomaks, Jews, Armenians, Old Believers, Alevis, Aromanians, Karakachans, and Vlachs. This project continues the work initiated in the previous project, which was smaller in its scope.

Black and white photograph of five people sitting round a table outdoors eating and drinking

Turkish families celebrate the holiday of ‘Trifon Zarezan’, also known as the holiday of the grapes and wine. 1967. EAP500/13/3/11.

The captured documents serve as valuable sources of information regarding the cultures and traditions of the Bulgarian minority communities, which were often obscure beyond the confines of their respective regions.

Black and white photograph of a group of people in a vineyard holding bunches and trays of grapes

Turkish women during grape harvest in the village of Novgrad (mixed Bulgarian-Turkish village) in Svishtov region. 1963. EAP500/13/3/17.

The project’s investigations have uncovered these images in private and local government collections. The project established that local archives didn’t hold these types of records. This deficiency primarily stemmed from the mono-centric state policy, which historically prioritised Bulgarian ethnic tradition and culture to the exclusion of minority groups.

Black and white photograph of a group of women wearing traditional Turkish trousers and waistcoats

Traditional Turkish dresses presented by Turkish women part of the Turkish group ‘Berlik’. 1950s. EAP500/13/3/122.

These communities, both geographically and culturally isolated, frequently experienced marginalisation from mainstream Bulgarian society. Despite this, they continued to preserve numerous traditional elements of their culture, which are passed down through generations.

Black and white photograph of a group of people with the women wearing traditional Karakachans dresses and head-dresses

Karakachans' costumes in everyday life and festive tradition in Karnobat region, Southeast Bulgaria, during the 1950s through to the 1980s period. EAP500/3/1.

The project has surveyed underexplored and little-known aspects of the lifestyles, customs, and rituals of minority groups in Bulgaria. Many of these elements hold significant research value as they retain pre-industrial characteristics, often maintained and practised clandestinely during the socialist era in Bulgaria.

Black and white photograph of a four women tobacco-workers sitting outside a building

The photo presents Armenian tobacco workers from Haskovo city. 1930. EAP675/9/1/25.

Black and white photograph of a group of people, four older women in headscarves, a man with a beard, and two younger women in more modern dress
Russian Old Believers and their guests from Romania in Kazashko village. 1950s. EAP675/26/1/45.

Black and white photograph of four dancers wearing embroidered skirts and waistcoats

Alevi dancers in traditional costumes from Yablanovo village. 1970s. EAP675/1/1/13.

The geographic and cultural isolation experienced by these groups, who remained largely unaffected by modern influences, often resulted in their exclusion from mainstream Bulgarian society. Regardless of this, these communities diligently preserved numerous traditional elements of their culture, which have persistently endured and been passed down from one generation to the next.

Black and white photograph of a bride and groom sitting at a table with two bowls, with a crowd in the background

In Medovets, a Turkish wedding unfolds as the bride and groom patiently await at the table to receive congratulations, gifts, and monetary blessings from the wedding guests. 1980s. EAP500/12/1/269.

Black and white photograph of a couple loading bedding onto the back of a truck

The bride departs for her new home accompanied by her trousseau. 1970s. EAP675/7/1/49.

The project concluded that, prior to 1989, Bulgarian state policies were actively geared towards the forced assimilation of minorities. As a result, the project states, there has been a gradual erosion or deliberate destruction of photographs and photographic collections belonging to various minority communities, with a particular impact on the Muslim minority during the "Revival process" in Bulgaria from the 1960s to the 1980s.

During this period, the Bulgarian state implemented a policy of forced assimilation targeting Muslims, involving the destruction of all official, personal, and family documents verifying their minority identity. Despite these repressive measures and deliberate destruction of archival materials, the project reveals that many documents were covertly preserved, although frequently under unfavourable conditions and in a deteriorated state.

Black and white photograph of a group of protestors holding placards

The first public Evangelical protest by Protestants from different parts and churches of Bulgaria for the free manifestation of religion and religious practices in South Park in Sofia. One placard reads: “We want the Nativity of Christ and Easter as public holidays.” 1989. EAP675/47/1/62.

Black and white picture of a group of women wearing checked skirts and shawls, with a man in breeches and a waistcoat playing bagpipes

The photo presents Pomak traditional women's costumes from Yagodina village at the local folklore fair. 1970s-1980s. EAP675/46/1/52.  

The project has digitised documents that serve as invaluable sources of information about the cultures and traditions of these minority communities, which often remain scarcely known beyond the confines of their respective regions. The digitised copies of the material have been deposited in the Studii Romani Archive at the Institute of Ethnology and Folkloristic Studies and the Ethnographical Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia. The British Library also holds a digital copy of this valuable material.

Milan Grba, Curator South-Eastern European Collections

04 July 2024

In Memory of Ismail Kadare (28 January 1936 – 1 July 2024)

Ismail Kadare, the best-known contemporary Albanian writer and intellectual, one of the most remarkable European authors of his generation, died on 1 July 2024 at the age of 88.

Photograph of Ismail Kadare
Ismail Kadare (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

By coincidence, the news about Kadare’s death came when I was reading his novel Broken April (1978) about the moral responsibilities of intellectuals: “Your books, your art, they all smell of murder [...] you look here for beauty so as to deed your art. You don’t see that this is beauty that kills [...]”.

Cover of 'Broken April' with an illustration of mountains

Cover of Ismail Kadare's Broken April (London, 1990) Nov.1990/1482

Kadare’s body of work consists of over 80 titles translated into 45 languages. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 15 times and received numerous awards. However, my personal encounter with the author happened quite late in my life. I learned about him first in 2016 from the blog post by Christina Pribichevich Zorić, the former Chief of Conference and Language Services at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. But it was not until I got stuck for over six hours at Tirana International Airport, waiting for my flight to London and having plenty of time to read, that I finally had a chance to savour the mastery of his literary genres, narratives, themes and literary devices. The range of his works available in all major European languages at a small airport bookshop was impressive, and I ended up buying several of his books.

All of Kadare’s novels create imaginary worlds out of a wide variety of myths, legends (The Three Arched Bridge), and stories of the distant past (The Castle). He worked with political parables and satire (The Concert), antitotalitarian dystopias (The Palace of Dreams), offering commentary on the recent history (The General of the Dead Army, Broken April) and openly criticising Hoxha’s dictatorship and the regime that immediately succeeded it (Agamemnon's Daughter, The Successor). Having studied in the Soviet Union just before Albania's breaking of political and economic ties with the USSR, Kadare wrote a book of memoirs about his time in Moscow in the late 1950s in the style of political satire (Twilight of the Eastern Gods). His last novel, The Doll (2015, English translation – 2020), is also a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story. Whenever he wrote, he would always write about his beloved Albania. As he put it in one of his poems: “Me ka marre malli per Shqiperine tone” (“I was filled with longing for Albania”, translated by Robert Elsie).

Kadare, like the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha 28 years before him, was born in the museum-like town of Gjirokastër. Looking at the photo below, it is strange to think how Good and Evil could come from one place.

Colour photograph showing the hills and landscape around Gjirokastër

The city of Gjirokastër in Albania (Photograph by Katya Rogatchevskaia)

The earliest book by Kadare that I found in the British Library collections was his poem The Princess Argjiro, published first in Tirana in 1958 and later in 1967.

Cover of ‘Princesha Argjiro’, one of the earliest pieces by Ismail Kadare

Cover of Princesha Argjiro. (Tirana, 1967). Shelfmark X.950/15359

Page from ‘Princesha Argjiro’ with a poem with four four-line stanzas and an illustration of a castle on a hill

Page from Princesha Argjiro by Ismail Kadare

Based on a 15th-century local legend, the poem tells the story of a young princess who jumped with her child off the walls of the Gjirokastër Castle to avoid captivity by the Ottomans. As the spirit and message of the poem were not in line with the conventions of socialist realism and the Communist Party of Albania’s interpretation of the country’s history, the work was denounced, and Kadare was criticised for not following socialist literary principles.

Colour photograph of Gjirokastër Castle overlooking the town below

The Gjirokastër Castle (Photograph by Katya Rogatchevskaia)

But this was only the beginning of Kadare’s opposition to the political and aesthetic tenets of the Albanian dictatorship. Influenced by Kafka, Gogol, Sartre, Camus, Orwell and other writers and thinkers, he kept writing books that were banned, criticised and censored, while the author himself was once nearly shot. His international fame saved him many times, but even after Hoxha’s death, he had to flee from Albania and seek refuge in France in 1990 after criticising the new government. He later returned to Tirana and continued writing. Like Vaclav Havel, Kadare was invited by his people to become president, but unlike Havel, he declined.

The search on Kadare as an ‘author’ yields 257 entries in the British Library catalogue – we hold his books in Albanian, English, French, German, Bulgarian, Polish, Dutch, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and even Arabic.

Whether you are a devoted admirer of Kadare’s work or you are just at the beginning of your journey into his wonderful but challenging world, I would like to leave you with the author's reading of his 1961 poem Edhe Kur Kujtesa (And when my memory).

Ndarja erdhi,
Po iki larg prej teje.
Asgjë e jashtëzakonshme,
Veç ndonjë natë
Gishtat e dikujt do pleksen në flokët e tu
Me të largëtit gishtat e mi, me kilometra të gjatë.

The division came
I'm leaving you ...
Nothing extraordinary,
Except for one night
Someone's fingers will curl into your hair
With my fingers far, miles long ...

C'est l'heure de se séparer.
Je vais m'en aller loin de toi.
Rien là qui puisse étonner.
Pourtant, une autre nuit, les doigts
d'un autre dans tes cheveux viendront
s'entrelacer aux miens, mes doigts
de milliers de kilomètres de long.

Cover of ‘Anthology of Modern Albanian Poetry’ with a black double-headed eagle in a red background

Anthology of Modern Albanian Poetry, edited and translated by Robert Elsie (London: Forest Books, 1996)

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, East European Collections

Further reading:

Ismail Kadare obituary. The Guardian, 1 July 2024 

Peter Morgan. Ismail Kadare: the writer and the dictatorship, 1957-1990. (London, 2010) YC.2011.b.13

Ariane Eissen. Visages d'Ismail Kadaré. (Paris, [2015]) YF.2021.a.16497

Alessandro Scarsella, Giuseppina Turano. Leggere Kadare : critica, ricezione, bibliografia. (Milan, 2008) YF.2015.a.12980

Kadare dhe regjimi komunist : 101 dokumente nga aparati diktatorial shtetëror 1959-1991, compiled by Dashnor Kaloçi. (Tirana, 2018) YF.2021.a.11094

01 July 2024

Premio Strega 2024: behind the scenes

This year, I have been nominated as a judge for the Premio Strega 2024, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize. I had just over six weeks to read the dozzina, the best 12 books published in Italy in the past year, and help choose the winner.

Colour photograph of a pile of books nominated for the 2024 Strega Prize

12 books nominated for this year's Premio Strega Prize (Image from https://www.illibraio.it/)

On April 15, I received the link to download the books and felt immediately overwhelmed by the task. First to attract my attention was Valentina Mira, partly for the semi-homonymy with yours truly, but also because her both personal and political story Dalla stessa parte mi troverai had been accused of revisionism. 

Personal, almost biographical narratives feature heavily in this year’s dozzina. Melissa Panarello in Storia dei miei solid, mixes the story of her early literary fame with women’s taboo relation with money. Tommaso Giartosio astonishes with Autobiogrammatica, a bildungsroman and memoir about his relationship with language and a tribute to the 1963 Premio Strega winner, Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico Famigliare (first Italian edition at 10765.k.23., English translation, Family Sayings, YC.1987.a.5661). The most personal and brave of all is Antonella Lattanzi, who in Cose che non si raccontano tells her cruel story of missed maternity with unapologetic honesty; a cathartic act to raise awareness in hope to help all women. I hope this book will be translated into English very soon.

Part family history, part essay, Daniele Rielli’s Il fuoco invisibile. Storia umana di un disastro naturale is a blend of many genres. It is a choral novel with Puglia’s millenary olive trees threatened by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa as its protagonists. 

Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s L’età fragile is the favourite for this year. Like her last success, L’Arminuta, 2017 (first Italian edition at YF.2019.a.15048, English translation by Ann Goldstein, A Girl Returned, at ELD.DS.428465), this book talks about the relationship between mother and daughter and is set in her native region of Abruzzo, in a very rural environment which is echoed by her dry and simple writing style.

These works give a fantastic overview of the state of the art of Italian narrative and of the literary genres that evolve and intermix. They show an ageing country deeply affected by climate change, with younger generations abandoning the province and women and LGBTQ+ people fighting for their rights and their freedom. They tell of strong ancestral bonds and a passion for the Italian language and culture.

The winner will be announced on July 4, chosen by 700 jurors, 245 of which were nominated by the Italian Cultural Institutes worldwide for their interest in Italian language and literature.

Premio Strega was established in 1947, and among its winners are some of the best-known works of contemporary literature, such as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1959) and Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) (1981). Awarded authors include Cesare Pavese (1950), Alberto Moravia (1952), Elsa Morante (1957), Alessandro Barbero (1986), Antonio Pennacchi (2010), and Sandro Veronesi (2020).

Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections