Silent Ali was once a talented journalist. In the early 1980s, he used to write for Literature, a Bulgarian newspaper, and was one of its most promising contributors. His career was cut short by the Revival Process, the brutal nationalistic campaign waged by the communist government between 1984 and 1989 against the country’s Turkish-Bulgarian minority. The aim was simple but vicious enough: to erase the cultural identity of Bulgarian Turks (about 10 percent of the population and once citizens of the Ottoman Empire) by replacing their Muslim names with “pure” Bulgarian ones. Ali refused to lose his heritage and so instead he lost his job at the newspaper. He was lucky, of course: others were thrown in prison at the time and sent to labor camps for their resistance, some were murdered in cold blood. Even tombstones were not spared, the ancestors forcefully renamed in their death.
Watching events unfold, Ali gradually withdrew into himself, stopped talking to people, and moved to a small village in the Rhodope Mountains, where he took up beekeeping. Soon, he became known among his neighbors as a recluse, the Silent Ali. But that didn’t mean he had given up writing. Over the years he kept a meticulous journal of his life and thoughts, a historical record of his personal tragedy: the way a government turns against its own people and takes away their voices and their names, the way life’s absurdities pile upon one another until they become just normal life. To keep his journal and typewriter safe, Ali had to hide them inside one of his beehives – and it was there that another person found them years later, embalmed like an ancient mummy.
That story is not true: it is fiction, the rough plot of the novel Under the Chestnuts by Ismail Yakup, a 71-year old Turkish-Bulgarian writer and president of the beekeeper society in Krumovgrad, a small town in the Rhodope Mountains of southeast Bulgaria. Like any good fiction, however, it is not false either.
Ismail’s career was cut short by the Revival Process. He used to be the head of the local Nar-Coop, a state-run cooperative, but in 1985, during the worst repressions, he was fired from the job and given a new, Bulgarian-sounding name: Vladimir Yankulov. His brother, Muharem, did not fare that well. He was sent away to the most notorious labor camp in Bulgaria, an island on the Danube River called Belene, for writing a poem against the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.
“It was like the story about the man beating his donkey, trying to turn it into a horse,” Ismail tells me, remembering the Revival Process. “You can’t change nature with violence.”
These days, the repression against Bulgarian Turks is a shameful thing of the past. Ismail has taken back his old name and writes his books without fear of censorship. Bulgaria is a democratic state, and part of the European Union. Yet, the local community and its traditions are in danger once again, as violence against nature has resumed, this time literally.
A Canadian mining company, Dundee Precious Metals (DPM), has made plans to open a big open-pit gold mine on a prominent hill called Ada Tepe against the protestations of the overwhelming majority of residents. Their fear is that the mining project could very likely pollute the water and soils in the region with extremely toxic arsenic, which is found in high concentration in the probes. DPM has tried to assure people that the arsenic is non-soluble and will not affect their health or environment, but few are buying the arguments. Even the promises of 230 new jobs in this economically-depressed region are not enough to sway opinion. The feeling among many locals is that the government in Sofia, though nominally democratic, is in cahoots with the mining company and deliberately ignores the voice of the Krumovgrad community, just like the Communist dictatorship did in the 1980s. Except that today the driving engine of repression is not ideology but money.
Ismail is especially worried for his bees. Apart from writing, they are his favorite pastime: a source of income and solace. He bought his first hive on May 31, 1976 – he remembers that important date with perfect clarity – and today has expanded his operation to about 70 hives. He has a whole library of beekeeping books and his reputation among his colleagues is such that he was elected head of the local beekeeping society (there are currently 226 beekeepers in the Krumovgrad municipality, with about 3000 hives total). With his snow-white, receding hair and deeply furrowed forehead, Ismail has the air of experience and knowledge that has not come for free.
“I’m not against gold mining in principle, but I’m very worried about the pollution of soils, water and air,” Ismail tells me over breakfast with bread, honey and milk at his house. “Bees are the cleanest creatures — they can feel every little change in the environment and are very susceptible to pollution. If our bees die, the plants will die, and you can be sure that humanity will follow soon after.”
When the mining company began exploration drilling a couple of years ago, the water in many of the wells muddied up and bees began dying en masse, Ismail says. He is not sure if there is any kind of direct relationship between the two events, but such are the observable facts.
“The mine will negatively affect honey production in the region. Even if there is no pollution, which is difficult to believe, the psychological factor will affect people’s buying habits,” he says with a sigh. “Our benefits will be significantly smaller than the damages we’ll incur.”
On my way out of the house, Ismail gives me a signed copy of his novel Under the Chestnuts. Then he takes me to the nearby field to show me his beehives: blue and yellow and green boxes scattered like giant Easter eggs in the grass. But it is autumn here in the Rhodope Mountains, the air has turned crisp, and most of the bees are already wintering, warming each other in their hives. I ask Ismail about the most interesting bee story he remembers.
“Once, a lizard crawled inside one of the hives. I was worried at first, but I knew that the bees should be able to defend themselves against the intruder. And indeed, a few days later, when I opened the hive, I saw only the skeleton of the lizard, all covered in resinous propolis. It looked like the mummy of Lenin.”