The city of Rousse through the eyes of the Iranian writer Farid Ghadami
A chapter of Farid Ghadami’s novel called “The Commune of the Dead or An Elegy to Sofia’s Bloody Shirt” which is based on his experiences in Bulgaria, mingled with other stories about Mayakovski, Vaptsarov, Nenko Balkanski, Stalin, James Joyce and a Bulgarian girl named Sofia in the 11th century who joins Assassins (Hashashin) in Iran. This novel will be published in Iran in May 2020, in Persian.
It is on the morning of the13th of August that Yana, with her son, comes to pick me up for Russe: a five-hour drive through the lush mountains of the Balkans. At the invitation of the International Elias Canetti Association, I will give a speech in Russe on the anniversary of Canetti’s death, and luckily for me, Yana and her son want to go to a Metallica concert in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, which is an hour and a half away from Russe, and they are going to drop me off in Russe first and cross the Bridge of Friendship between the two countries and go to Bucharest.
Yana’s son is fourteen years old, smart, talkative, and tall. He speaks excellent English and is much older than fourteen in every way. As soon as I sit down, he hands me a Coca-Cola as a compliment, and I say thank you but I don’t drink it. Yana says that it’s absolutely impossible that Farid drinks an American beverage, no way! Ask him anything but this! Well, it’s the picture I’ve painted of myself in the past two weeks. Coca-Cola is one of the most terrifying things you can drink, it’s absolutely poisonous! Special food for cancer cells! (I know at this point you would say, so, it’s a health discourse that the writer has been affected by, but no, wait a minute.) Interestingly, in Bulgaria, there is not such an idea about Coca-Cola at all. Some even drink Coke because of its health benefits, the same ones who do not smoke because of its harmful effects! But Velina Minkova, who is a heavy smoker, is also fascinated by Coca-Cola, and not because she likes its taste, but for the sake of her health! Velina is the only Bulgarian writer who does not drink alcohol at all (I call him a real Muslim), but she is a believer of St. Coca-Cola and believes that this is the only black Saint in the world to heal people! This is not the first time I’ve heard of this: I had a friend in Paris who didn’t like the taste of Coca-Cola at all, but he drank a pint of it every day for its benefits! Even with a simple Google search, you can see what Coke can do to human intestines and guts, I don’t know where these strange ideas about it came from! It seems that Coke has become one of the religions of pop culture: people believe in it and one should respect the beliefs and religions: the beliefs of the believers of the St. Coca-Cola Church! (Conclusion: If you like the taste of Coca-Cola, drink it, enjoy it, but don’t get involved in its Church, please!)
I spend the entire trip from Sofia to Russe fascinated by the big sunflower fields, the not-so-tall and lush mountains of the Balkans, the villages that play their last rural games to become small towns, town-village, narrow roads between trees and fields, sometimes crossing a river, and at some point Yana shows me the way leading to her mother’s village. We decide to collect beautiful stones from the river to decorate our garden on the way back to Sofia, but we will forget.
Yana’s son, a big fan of James Hatfield, is very happy to be going to a Metallica concert. I ask Yana if she remembered to buy cotton for her ears to bear the time of the concert. Yana also brought us banitsa, one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten: simple food that Bulgarians often eat for breakfast: bread, cheese, and yogurt, which are baked together and can be eaten both hot and cold. There are many different types: with different vegetables and different flavors. In my opinion, the Bulgarians are not very aware of the importance of banitsa. There are many potential political benefits to be gained from it. For example, world leaders can be invited to Sofia, and banitsa could be served to them, and they could sign contracts which can transform the Bulgarian economy: the person who has banitsa can sign any contract, so damn delicious it is.
I first heard the name of this dish from Yanitsa Radeva: she said that in school sometimes children were kidding her by calling her Banitsa. I think the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry should also consider arranging for Banitsa Refugees: people who come to Bulgaria from all over the world because they can no longer tolerate the lack of banitsa and apply for asylum: under the Banitsa Shelter.
Eating banitsa and immersed in green Bulgarian landscapes, we come to Russe: a city which at first glance reminds me of the nineteenth century: as if after a distance of 300 km from Sofia, it’s not another city but another century we have stepped into: Baroque architecture, the splendor of Rococo. Russe is called “Little Vienna” by Bulgarians. For Bulgarians, however, Russe is the city of the bourgeoisie: a city that has long been the western port of Bulgaria because of the Danube River: a port for communication with Western Europe: a peephole into the West, something like St. Petersburg for the Russians. Russe is also the Bulgarian city of “firsts”: the first Bulgarian railway connected Russe to Varna, the first Bulgarian private bank was established in Russe, the first Bulgarian printing house was opened in Russe, all in the second half of the nineteenth century. There are many legends about the name of this city: Some say it comes from the word Rosalia, the Rose Festival at the Roman Empire; some say that it comes from the name of a woman who built this city, a woman named Russa.
Citizens of Russe also have special a behavior and manner: bourgeois who understand the meaning of art: serene and dignified, absolutely unlike the universal Americanized culture (a culture I call the Unholy Trinity of Pop, Porn, and Popcorn). I guess Russe is the only city in the world where McDonald’s was founded and then immediately went bankrupt and ran away! The Ruse citizens aren’t the kind of people who go and sit down and eat McDonald’s rubbish: they sit in their own restaurants and cafés, stylish and affordable, on the city’s main streets and squares, chatting and enjoying food and talk.
Yana drops me off to the front of the hotel: the Splendid Hotel that the Canetti Association has booked a room in for me. The hotel receptionist doesn’t speak English. I say a Здравейте! and hear a Здравейте! in return; I take the key and go to my room on the third floor. The hotel elevator has the fastest reaction in the world of elevators: as soon as you touch the floor button, the elevator goes up: the first time I was shocked and then I got used to it. I leave my belongings in my room and go out to have lunch with Yana and her son in an open-air restaurant less than a hundred steps away from the hotel, in the main square of the city, Freedom Square, with the Statue of Liberty in the middle, which is the work of an Italian sculptor in the early twentieth century and has now become a symbol of the city.
There are several cafés and restaurants around Freedom Square, and the office of the Canetti Association is located there, in the Austrian Library, where I am going to talk tomorrow about “Writing as translating: literary communism.” Using the term “communism” in a positive sense could endanger your life in Bulgaria, especially in Russe, which is the most bourgeois city in Bulgaria! Penka Angelova, the president of the Elias Canetti Association, joins us along with her very young assistant, Victor, who is also her English translator: Victor is also a believer of St. Coca-Cola’s temple. Angelova is a professor of German literature and does not speak English. My sense is that in Russe, people are not even interested in the language of America: they prefer their foreign language to be German or French. Angelova is an almost sixty-year-old woman, elegant and delicate, with short boyish hair and a vast knowledge of literature and philosophy: very sophisticated, smiling and cheerful. Definitely more cheerful than thirty-year-old McDonald’s-eaters and the young believers faithful to St. Coca-Cola’s American Church for sure! In this case, Angelova is a stubborn atheist: I haven’t seen her even give a kiss to Coca-Cola, but she drinks beer and smokes one cigarette after the other. Shortly afterward, a new young friend, the one to whom I owe my presence in Russe as it was at his suggestion, joins us: Vladimir Mitev, a journalist who has studied Iranian studies at Sofia University, also speaks Persian to some extent, and during his student days has traveled to Iran and has now devoted all his attention to the friendship of our nations and has a website in Bulgarian, Romanian and English. He is considering adding Persian to his personal blog one day.
We have lunch and say goodbye to Yana and her son, who are on their way to Bucharest. So after tomorrow, August 15th, they’ll come back to pick me up and we’ll go back to Sofia. After talking about tomorrow’s presentation with Angelova, I go back to the hotel, shave and take a short bath, then join Vladimir again at Freedom Square as he has volunteered to show me the city and guide me all the time during my stay in Russe.
I haven’t had tea since morning and I’m on the verge of a terrible headache. I think tea is one of the problems Iranians face in their foreign travels: we’re so addicted to tea without even knowing it: we can’t stay away from it, and coffee and its derivatives don’t help us at all. I ask Vladimir to take me to a café where I can drink a cup of tea. We enter a café that, like all the cafés I have seen in Bulgaria, is warm, beautiful, and cozy. The café is in fact a mekhana. Mekhana is the same as the Persian for pub, meykhaneh. I order tea. The waiter says he doesn’t know if they have tea. He leaves and returns ten minutes later. I think he has found one of those disgusting tea bags in the trash, threw it in the lukewarm water, and has brought it to me. I can’t even taste it: it tastes like anything but tea. Its color is more like the urine of a person who has drunk two or three cups of tea an hour ago.
I’m dying to see Danube: the river that is tied in my mind to Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz. Although it’s getting a little late at night, we’re heading to the Danube. Rarely anybody takes a taxi in Russe, and there aren’t many cars on the streets: most people walk around. It is hard for me to believe that such an amazing city could exist in the 21st century: a modern city, full of magnificent buildings, libraries, theaters, museums, and amazing restaurants and cafes, but without taxis and cars, without McDonald’s and KFC. I can’t believe a journalist has been killed in this city a year ago, Victoria Marinova. A murder, some say, may be linked to the revelation of corruption related to EU financial funds, and some have linked it to widespread violence against women. Prior to her death, Victoria Marinova had appeared on television discussing this issue, and her body was found in a park shortly afterward: she had been killed after a brutal rape.
Russe is also known for his mosquitoes: perhaps because of the proximity of the Danube River and its humidity. The city is full of mosquitoes, mosquitoes as powerful as bees in their biting. Of course, I am lucky not to be bitten even once: Bulgarian mosquitoes are also very hospitable and have nothing against foreigners: hats off to them!
Sometimes we speak Persian with Vladimir and when he gets tired we start speaking English. He loves Iran and knows it very well, a great interest that has amazed me. Without Vladimir, I would not have been able to see and Russe: he is my socialist angel in Russe. Contrary to what he shows at first glance, he is very pessimistic and, of course, clever, he sees everything in the most critical way possible, but at the same time very receptive and kind.
When we reach the Danube it is dark, but I dream of seeing the ghost of the river from the Pridunavski Boulevard: the dream of mermaids who suddenly emerge from the Danube River, flutes and horns in their hands, as well as violins to play the waltz of Johann Strauss, mermaids who emerge out of the blue river, whispering:
Die Nixen auf dem Grund,
die geben’s flüsternd kund,
was Alles du erschaut,
seit dem über dir der Himmel blaut.
Drum schon in alter Zeit
ward dir manch’ Lied geweiht;
und mit dem hellsten Klang
preist immer auf’s Neu’ dich unser Sang.
We walk along the Pridunavski Boulevard and eat fish and drink beer in a café near the Danube. We go to the old city center, to the Aleksander Battenberg Square. The square is large and beautiful like Freedom Square, surrounded by magnificent Baroque mansions, like the Russe Historical Museum and the Karavelov Library. Aleksandrovska Street, one of the most beautiful streets in Russe, is marvelous for walking, connecting the two old and new centers of the city. The building of Bulgaria’s first private bank is located on the same Aleksandrovska Street: Гирдап, Girdap – originally Persian, the same Gerdaab in Persian means “whirlpool,” a white, three-story building with a clock above it. Freedom Square is more lively and crowded, Battenberg Square is more cozy and quiet.
Around midnight, we are talking together with Vladimir in Persian and walking. A girl and a boy who are walking behind us shout and ask: “What language are you talking in that is so beautiful?” I say, “Persian.”
In the Old Town Square, I say good-night to Vladimir and walk back to Freedom Square through Aleksandrovska Street, drowning in the dream of Russe.
Cafés are open here on Freedom Square until about 11 p.m., and now that it’s past midnight, I’m almost alone and the square is empty: around Freedom Square, in front of the beautiful Dohodno Zdaniye Mansion, the Sava Ognianov Theater, whose magnificent architecture drives my eyes crazy, I stand smoking a late-night cigarette. I don’t want to leave all this beauty to itself and go back to my hotel room. Russe is like a strange drug to me: a drug that takes you to dreams and ecstasy.
I stare at the Statue of Liberty for a few minutes: it seems to be a woman holding a sword with her hand on a pillar, with two roaring lions down next to a war cannon: freedom is achieved only with the cannon and the sword: it is as if she wants to tell us precisely that. The Bulgarians understand this better than anyone: they have been at war for hundreds of years for their freedom, against the Ottomans, fascism, and Stalinism. I have to go to bed early so that I can see Vladimir again tomorrow morning and take a tour of the city with him: in the city of statues, monuments, and magnificent buildings.
Translated from the Persian by the author
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