The lavish celebrations of the 1300th Anniversary of the Founding of the so-called First Bulgarian Empire was a curious, very un-socialist matter, steeped in myth and nationalist lore. It appears that an inspiration for this anniversary came directly from the 1971 celebrations of the 2,500th Anniversary of the Founding of the Persian Empire held under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s (1919-1980) auspices in monarchical Iran. The Bulgarian leader, Todor Zhivkov (1911-1998) was invited to Iran on the strength of a hypothetical presence of Turkic-speaking Bulgars in Persia’s Bactria (now in Afghanistan and Tajikistan) during the times of Alexander the Great. But Zhivkov refused to attend, perhaps due to Tehran’s too all intimate relations with the United States. Bulgaria, as a member state of the Soviet bloc, used to pride itself on being the most loyal ally of the Soviet Union. Sending an official delegation could be read at the Kremlin as akin to treason, leading to the swift removal of Zhivkov from the post of the General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
The salaryman has to hurry. The last train home is leaving in an hour or so. But on the way to the railway station Boqin likes lingering in what remains of the old quarter, now surrounded by the high rises. Soon the remnants of the old times will be razed, giving way to modernity and progress. In the place’s final days the authorities let it be. A Buddhist monk has evaded their watchfulness and stands still at the street corner with the begging bowl extended in his handsome hand, his shaven head bowed in quiet humility. The monk’s orange robe – faded and fraying at the bottom – billows gently around his unmoving lanky legs, his feet in blue plastic sandals. Under the limbs of the large maple tree, the reddish shock of its autumnal leaves camouflages the monk in the scene’s background.
Few commuters choose this shortcut. Unless they know the winding alleys well, they may get lost. ‘Perhaps losing yourself is not so bad,’ thinks Boqin, glancing sideways at the monk. He puts a two-yuan bill in the monk’s bowl without interrupting his leisurely stroll. In such moments Boqin sees himself as a flâneur, one of these fancy French words they were taught to despise. Even now, he prefers not to utter it. His no-nonsense wife left Boqin on account of his dreaminess. She would not put up with such irresponsible behavior. Anyway Boqin is unsure how to pronounce the word correctly. The image of the term’s Western letters is better left encased in his mind.
These letters remind Boqin of a gentle wind, whose rare quicker blows now and again raise fine dust particles and a plastic bag from the crooked pavement. They dance for a while in a circle, before collapsing onto the potholed tarmac. The unceasing din of rush-hour traffic feels as though coming from behind a huge glass window. Boqin smiles at the thought that he and the monk are peers. They could have attended the same elementary school. But their lives couldn’t be more different.
Milk is frothily hitting the bottom of the bowl with a loud ting. Conchita has poured the still warm liquid from a wooden pail into the old tin bowl that wears thin. This bowl is battered from use and rough storage in the small cowshed, where she has now found some privacy. It is the only metal vessel surviving in the hacienda, apart from the large blackened pan in the kitchen.
After a while the circles on the surface of the milk smooth out and it becomes calm, delicate in its creamy stillness. Conchita feels ridiculous and has to fight a sudden urge to drink as much as her stomach might hold and throw away the rest. In the late afternoon sun thrusting its burning rays through the open door, her tanned face is visible as a vague reddened hue reflected in the milk’s white. Conchita has not seen a proper mirror for some years now. During the previous wet season the thin silver foil on the looking glass shard that she had preserved for so long had become grainy and flaked off the piece of glass. Hot damp air disagreed with it. Now she can only gaze at the reflection of her face in a pail filled to the brim with water from a well, or in the calm ponds that proliferate across the fields and meadows in the wake of the long weeks of rain during the wet season.
The ponds remind her of dew droplets on a deep green blade of grass. In her long gone careless childhood, she loved running with the gauchos’ wily sons. They taught her to pick grass blades in their prime that had sharp, well-defined edges. Not too soft or stiff with age, and on this account prone to break into tatters when blown too hard. When firmly placed between the thumbs put together, the blade metamorphoses into the membrane of a powerful makeshift whistle. The screeching sound carries far, startling animals fearful of an invisible bird of prey about to pounce.
Only rarely is the question posed about the scientific character of linguistics. When it is asked, it is usually with the aim of ‘proving’ that linguistics is a science, or in order to overhaul it into a ‘proper science.’ The latter is the case of Leonard Bloomfield’s seminal 1926 article ‘A Set of Postulates for the Science of Language’ (Language, Vol 2, No 3, pp 153–164). ‘Scientific’ in this case means governed by general and unchangeable laws of ‘nature’ (Universe, the material reality), as in the case of laws of matter, which are discovered by physicists or chemists. Furthermore, such scientific character of a research subject may be limited to a system smaller than the Universe, for instance, to life on Earth, when researched by biologists. Only recently did they find the scientific basis of their discipline of biology in DNA and the theory of evolution.
In 2009 I published my monograph on the history of nationalisms and language politics in modern central Europe. Four years later, in 2013 Andrea Graziosi invited me to the international conference on ‘States, Peoples, Languages: A Comparative Political History of Ukrainian, 1863‒2013,’ held at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Like earlier I had done in my book, we were now to have a synoptic look at the 19th and 20th-century history of central and eastern Europe, which was unprecedentedly tragic mainly due to the imperial-cum-nationalist-cum-totalitarian project of fitting linguistically defined groups of people (‘nations’) to ‘their’ territories (‘nation-states’). The process also entailed constructing, unmaking or re-fashioning ‘languages’ so that they would serve ‘more appropriately’ the national projects at hand. As a result, a person moved between countries without ever leaving one’s village. In the morning after another declaration of independence, a subject of a suddenly defunct empire discovered she lived in a state that was not hers. Even worse, because of some half-remembered religion her husband was declared an ‘alien,’ though his family had lived in their home town for centuries. Another unexpected border change, and a civil servant found out that he was actually illiterate, because now the administration was to be conducted in a language and script of which he had no command. In this new brave modern world all and sundry were compelled to finish elementary school. A peasant daughter came back home crying, because the teacher had derided her that she was speaking her national language incorrectly. At the same time, in the distant capital the government commissioned a team of besuited professors to work out yet another sweeping reform, this time to rid the national language of ‘ugly foreign’ words, phrases, pronunciations, syntactical constructs and spellings that were ‘totally alien’ to the ‘true character’ of ‘our’ national language.
The University of St Andrews, located in the picturesque old capital of Scotland, thrives on its ‘internationality.’ This bureaucratic term of higher education ranking tables means that the university’s students and staff come from well over a hundred states from all corners of the world. Half of them are from Britain, while the students and scholars from the European Union (EU) (together with those from the United Kingdom) account for two-thirds of the university’s studying and teaching population. The second largest cohort originates from North America. They amount to over a sixth of the university’s scholars and students.
In recognition of these demographic data, for five years I ran a small-scale experiment in my tutorial groups with the first-year students. As part of induction to the tutorial I asked them about how many states are in the United States (US) and in the European Union. The sequence of posing these two questions is crucial. Practically all the students when inquired about the United States, immediately shot back with the correct answer that this federal polity is now composed of 50 states. Their reply was automatic, like a reflex. Such generalized knowledge on the US is a matter of course on both sides of the Atlantic.
When the sun shone bright in the blue skies, and winter was all but forgotten in May, we didn’t care to remember that after summer, with its luscious meadows of juicy grass and forests of pleasantly cool shadows, the fall would come. Intermittent rains changed top soil into mud that flowed in rivulets down the broad hill slope along which our village extended. The external walls of the better houses built of concrete and brick got soiled. Dirt permanently streaked the clean white or radiant blue of the whitewash that had been painstakingly applied in the spring. It squeezed its way through cracks into the wooden houses that the gadjos called ‘sheds.’ Those who lived at the foot of the hill were the worst off. Their houses stood inundated for weeks on end. To prevent liquid mud from flooding the interior, they cut the bottoms off their entrance doors and put in an additional layer of bricks. With time, several steps led up to the doors that were too low for an average adult to walk through without bending deeply. ‘Bow, bow lower to your rahy, lord,’ cheeky kids screamed and laughed at the helpless exasperation of the chorikanes, poor people.
Sadness gathered and it was magnified by the cold. Few people had enough money for even the cheapest kind of coal or for a gas cylinder to heat their homes properly. Women and children who didn’t go to school roamed the vicinity collecting dry twigs, scrap wood and paper. Each year they had to venture farther away, as the area around the village had already turned into a barren steppe. Kako, or Uncle, kept telling us that when he had been a chkhavo, a boy, there had been many trees around here. Families had kept one or two cows for milk and used dried cowpats for fuel.