HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
We Do Not Want You Here
Writer, Journalist, Press Secretary for PEN Center Bulgaria (Defending human rights and freedom of expression)
When Fatima and Faheem Djaber from Aleppo settled in Bulgaria, their case raised the issues of tolerance, humanism and attitude toward migrants. The local society in the small town of Elin Pelin, near the Bulgarian capital city of Sofia, does not want to allow the Syrian couple to stay. There were protests, and on top of everything the Djabers were denied Social Security numbers and ID cards. The case is even more absurd from a legal point of view because both Djabers had already received humanitarian refugee status by the State Refugee Agency. In February 2017, they rented an apartment in the town of Elin Pelin; Fatima and Faheem liked the place, they wanted to find a job, and they applied for ID cards. By law, the Elin Pelin municipality is obliged to provide the family with ID cards and social security numbers. But the mayor and the chairman of the municipal council refuse to do so. They both were elected from one of the national-populist parties in Bulgaria that recently have gained increasing public affiliation. Most of the local population reacted negatively against the Djabers, protesting against their settlement and organizing rallies under the slogan: “We do not want you here!”
In March 2017, the local population in Belene (a town located by the Danube river in Bulgaria) marched in protest against another Syrian refugee family that was sheltered by a Catholic church. Again, the slogan was: “We do not want you here!” The Syrian family decided to just leave the town. Father Cortese, the Catholic priest who sheltered the refugees, was threatened; there was a real danger for his life, and subsequently he left Bulgaria for good. The church was intentionally burned down on the night of April 1st.
And it is terrifying to know that the same nationalists who burn churches and kick out refugees right now are participating to form a coalition formula for the new Bulgarian government – because they achieved nearly ten percent of the votes during the elections held on March 26th 2017, and now they are holding the key to a majority in Parliament. This is the same group who were captured by world media at the very moment they were terrorizing a helpless elderly Muslim woman at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. At the same time, a district court in South-East Bulgaria acquitted a person accused of being a private man-hunter. This man was caught on camera arresting refugees in Bulgarian mountains near the border with Turkey. He is neither a policeman nor any kind of authorized personnel; he is just a local nationalist with big muscles and no constant job. He is not authorized to perform any arrests, and says he is “just a volunteer patriot who wants to protect his motherland”. He was filmed brutally pushing people to the ground and tying their hands behind their backs with a special kind of cable ties, popularly known in Bulgaria as “pig tails”. These acts of humiliation was broadcast all over different media. And in the case of Belene, it is a worthy reminder that it is associated with the worst pages written by the Communist regime in Bulgaria.
Belene was the location of a concentration camp where a lot of dissidents were tortured and killed. The corpses of dead dissidents were thrown in the prison swine farm so the pigs could eat them. There was a trial in the 1990s against the Belene concentration camp former guards and warders – with no result. A key witness was brutally killed, and in the end no one was sentenced, even though communist regime crimes are included in the Penal Code of the new Bulgaria. Today, in the same town, locals are showing extreme xenophobia against the refugees and kicking them out of Belene. This might be a good point to remind readers that Belene is also the site for the Russian-designed and partially built nuclear power plant, which became a controversial and scandal political issue in the new history of Bulgaria – there were allegations of corruption, misuse of public funds, and lobbyist activities by Russian energy companies.
All these negative developments have their cause and explanation. There is a new tendency in Bulgarian media, politics and social life. Conspiracy theories are found everywhere. This conspiracy is blamed for most contemporary evils, and it is particularly “modern” to talk and write against America, the World Bank, IMF and Open Society Fund as sources of colonization, refugees, migrant waves, oppression, and destruction of society. Very often, certain other factors are intentionally added to that blacklist, in order to additionally brainwash the public; it is all blamed on western intelligence services, some secret societies, human rights activists, NGOs, environmental organizations, or international media.
Democratic and liberal parties become less and less popular. Moreover, they are divided (the key question here is: “Who controls their constant destruction and fragmentation? Is this the former Bulgarian State Security that still pulls the strings?”) and thus they are losing strength. There is populism in the left, in the right, and in the center of political life. There are total chains of powerful media that blast post-truths on a daily basis, and these particular media enjoy the biggest turnover and profit. Pro-Russian rhetoric has recently become more frequent among all major political parties in Bulgaria, and not only those with leftist, nationalist or populist orientation, but even among those who claim to be center-right.
The question is: “Who?” Who has the interest of brainwashing the public in this particular direction? Who wants to see Bulgaria redirected from the values of freedom, human rights, and open society? Who would demand for Bulgaria to leave NATO and EU? Who perceives Bulgaria as their long-term economic, political, and cultural colony? As a writer and journalist, this is the best I could do – to raise awareness by pen and not by gun. I truly believe that the propaganda, post-truth, and information war originating from Russian sources literally brainwashes the public, poisons the media, and generates ignorance. That is why Socrates once said: “Ignorance kills.”
Is there a critical mass in contemporary Bulgarian society and politics that can successfully resist populism, xenophobia, and hate speech? What is the level of tolerance, democratic thinking, and need for freedom? It turned out that democracy appeared to be a too complex and hardly understandable mechanism for the masses in Bulgaria. They are typically possessed by some kind of totalitarian instinct and reflex. The lack of civil tradition and responsible behavior are obvious, leading toward fear of free society and a basic “escape from freedom” attitude, just like in Erich Fromm’s work of the same name.
This phenomena has been termed by some national psychological analyses as a “guardian mentality” – everybody protects their own perimeter while at the same time wishing to be “something better” than the person standing next to them. This is particularly true for Bulgarian bureaucrats, but has validity for other areas such as services, trade, and tourism. This “guardian mentality” prevents the building of a true civil and open society. It diminishes humanism; it is the ground for intolerance and xenophobia. That is why Bulgaria has so many cases of local feudalism and corruption in business, local authorities, politics, media, and the distribution of EU funds for agriculture and infrastructure. That is why the attitude toward Roma people has recently become even less tolerant, with more hate speech, and brutal cases of violence.
The above-mentioned totalitarian instinct is inherited and it is a double one – it is a result of the crossing of two dark shadows over Bulgarian history – the shadows of Hitler and Stalin. The systems created by the two world monsters have been in power too long and have deformed the way of thinking of several generations. Those dark shadows continue to be the source of vapidity, because they have forcefully replaced the will of the free mind, they have extirpated free thinking, and because they have subjugated individual destiny to the arbitrariness of an oppressive, anti-humanistic and ruthless system. On the top of everything, there is yet another centuries-long inherited Bulgarian reflex – a chieftain riding a horse leads the tribe and he is the one that commands everything – therefore, most of the people do not understand in-depth the role of the parliament, court of law, civil organizations and NGOs, guilds, human rights activists etc. In general, the average Bulgarian respects personal power, and not the institutional one. Thus, modern feudalism endures in our country and, as a result, a long-term power is provided for the evil camarilla of corrupted mayors, councilors, local authorities or regional top gangsters. Quite often it is specifically some of these who organize wild campaigns against migrants, refugees, or the Roma community.
All of the above creates high pliability to populist manipulation and low reflex toward sense of freedom, as well as susceptibility to authoritarian control, regional and central feudalism; people seek a “cosy comfort” of an eventual totalitarian environment. I am sad to see how we are gradually moving away from the modern thinking and how different retrograde coordination systems attract us – Euro-Asian (Kremlin – based), Mid-Asian, or even Mid-Eastern. It is good to remember that, in democratic systems, the near future is directly shaped by the status of the present. So, in the case of Bulgaria, it is easy to predict there is a danger that the choice in favor of vapidity might at some point bring to power a nationalistic-populist-authoritarian style of leadership that would push for reduction of liberties, free economic initiative, and freedom of expression. The influences of civil society and civil courage have lost most of their power in Bulgaria. More and more, individual values are sacrificed in the name of some collective values, just like it was dictated by the system before 1989, and just like it was analyzed and predicted by Albert Schweitzer.
If there is something at least a little positive in the Djaber’s whole story, it is the fact that there was a counter-demonstration in their defense. It was not a crowded event, it attracted not many people, yet still gives some hope that among the local community there are those who care about tolerance and humanism, and are sensitive toward the cases of prejudice, xenophobia and hate speech. But, worryingly, their voice becomes less and less heard in Bulgaria.
Svet Di-Nahum was born in 1970 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and is of Jewish ancestry. He is a graduate of the Department of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University and currently lives in New York City, Sofia, Vienna, and Frankfurt. He has published short stories in numerous literary magazines in Bulgaria and throughout Europe; his work has been translated into English, German, Russian, Serbian, Turkish, Spanish, and French. His fiction has appeared in US literary magazines such as Drunken Boat, Gloom Cupboard, Danse Macabre, and Audience. Di-Nahum is the author of The Wolf’s Howl (Short Novel, 1994); The Unicorn in Captivity (Collection of Short Stories, 2007), RAPTUS (Novel, 2009) Nicola Against Nicola (Short Novel & Screenplay, 2012), The Doctrinaire (Novel, 2015), and The Hangman and the Clown (Stage Play, 2017). RAPTUS was a nominee for the Elias Canetti National Literary Award and was subsequently published in the United States by Hammer & Anvil Books (Las Vegas, 2013). His collection of short stories, Mozart in Prague, is in press with Cervena Barva Press, in Boston, MA. Di Nahum serves as Press Secretary for PEN Center Bulgaria. Screenplays: The Second Life of Michael Jackson (2011), The Unicorn In Captivity (2012), Rays (2013) In 2012, Svet won a BTV competition for sitcom episode (TV comedy series Home Arrest).Svet won the Essay Competition for World Noble Peace Prize Laureates 2013 in Warsaw (and Lech Walesa Foundation) with his essay ‘Solidarity Restarted’.