The Life Story of an Actor from Razgrad


Local subcultures: the Razgrad Theater’s Youth Company

So, our nights will wear away like this past us? Obliterated under the feet of eternity… The generations will leave us behind, recalling just a name, which will be written down in water, not in ink. So, this is life? It’s just a past that’s washed away, all traces vanished; a present chasing after the past; a future that may only pass, and thus become a present or a past?

Sitting in the dark, I am listening to the chant-like monologue of the Stone Man based on poems by Gibran Kahlil, while following their translation in Bulgarian, provided in the program note. And I am thinking, will the “Nazhum Hikmet” Music and Drama Theater of Razgrad2 succeed in captivating the audience in Sofia with the drama “Devran (Fate)”1 and show something different from its hitherto known repertoire, based on Turkish folklore motifs. I am further asking myself, in what way are the young actors, Bulgarian Turks, different from the young people their age, how important do they deem “ethnicity”? Furthermore, are we really to concur that the conceptual framework of the Birmingham School has lost its relevance in the context of late modernity, or on the contrary, that stable youth subcultures are still being formed in the post-socialist societies, and that their self-identification is grounded not in consumption but in resistance?

In the Bulgarian context such an assumption finds grounds in the attempt of young Bulgarian Turks to change the stereotypical notion of “the ethnic” as a non-reflexive adoption of certain language-based and/or religious traditions. To this end, I will describe a local example of challenging the inherited from socialism notion of “the other ethnos” and minority culture as “foreign”, “dangerous”, “fanatic”, “pre-modern”, therefore “unattractive” and lacking the potential to mobilize a stable youth generation.


Fig. 1. The “Nazhum Hikmet” State Music and Drama Theater of Razgrad (Author’s photo archive)

Indeed, it turns out that the Razgrad Theater’s youth company set itself an ambitious task with “Devran”: the love story of Ali and Fatme from the village of Batin (near Ruse), built on musical and dance allegories, gives an account of what the Bulgarian Turks went through in the 1980s when the events of the so-called “Revival Process” were unfolding. In one of the central scenes, Ali’s dead body, wrapped in a white shroud, is lifted up in the hands of the whole community as a witness-bearing “body-victim”. In this way a symbolic-emotional relationship is established among the witnesses of the past events, as well as across the generations – including those who are not directly involved in the events. In this sense, “Devran” demonstrates a classical “memorial” approach to history. Its artistic use aims to give voice to the marginalized victims and to reinstate the rights of the “overpowered”. The plot, however, goes a step further and in the final scene implies that the trauma has been overcome, that a common future for the ethnic groups is possible – beyond the cultural differences and the obligations set by the past (Thompson 2006: 107-119). Thus, in fact, the “Nazhum Hikmet” State Musical and Drama Theater not only does successfully fulfill its mission of “preserving and popularizing the identity of the Turkish ethnos”3, but also exhibits a new approach to the issue of difference. Let me mention, for instance, that in addition to plays in Turkish (the most popular among which are the musicals “Ludogorie Pathways” and “The Flight of the Hearts”, based on Turkish folklore motifs from Northeastern Bulgaria), the program of the theater also includes children’s plays and classical plays in Bulgarian (“The Golden Girl”, “My Flower”, “Aladin and the Magic Lamp”, “Careerists” based on Ivan Vazov’s play, “Under the Plane-tree” based on Dimitar Podvarzachov’s play, and others). This aesthetic in its nature gesture aims to show that the performances are neither addressed to a stereotypically perceived as ethnically homogeneous audience, nor intended to turn identity into an object of “self-admiration”. This creates an impression of “simultaneity of differences”4 in the town, the latter being perceived not as a drawback but as a resource for “being together”, characteristic for the genuine “face-to-face” encounter of the cultures. In this sense, the program of the theater points to a real way of going beyond the hackneyed understanding of tolerance.



Fig. 2 and 3. Zehti Bamov on stage (Zehti's personal photo archive)

From my conversations with the young actors in the company, I find out that similarly to the older generation of Bulgarian Turks, they, too, hold firmly to their ethnic self-identification. The principle of differentiating “us” and “them” and the need for collective protectiveness, however, are no longer key to them. On the contrary, guided by the will to articulate their difference in a socially visible way, typical for any contemporary youth group (Gueorguieva 2009: 342-345), the young people tend to aestheticize the ethnic, giving up the idea of manifesting it only in the sphere of private life. They further abandon the notion of the ethnic as locally specific by adding new aspects to it as a consequence of their travels to neighboring Turkey or Europe, socialization with friends in social networks such as Facebook and Skype, and their interest in contemporary Turkish fiction, music and cinema. In this way the young actors renegotiate those characteristics, ascribed to them on account of their origin or that of their parents, on account of the place they live in, or the names that stigmatize them (Scott 2007).

Along the biographical tracks of ethnic identity

Let us now trace from a biographical micro-perspective (See Schütze 1991: 206-227) how the stage of the Turkish theater actually works as a symbolic field on which the ethno-religious factor is transformed from a “question of being” into a willingly chosen and situationally acquired social resource.5 For that purpose I will outline some aspects of the autobiographical story of one of the actors in the company, comprising elements from the inherited family tradition, as well as an (“alternative”) life story, opposing the stereotypical notions of ethnic identity. Let us see what “emblems” of differentiation the young actor is using, and what his messages to the “audience” are.6 In other words, the purpose of this peek “behind the curtain” is to see what the prime themes in his set of social “roles” are.7


Fig. 4. Zehti Bamov (Personal photo archive)

Zehti Bamov is 35 years old but he showed interest in art already at the age of 7-8 when he first started dancing. Folk dance has become his professional occupation today, and a motivation to continue his education in choreography in Varna. He draws inspiration not only from Turkish and Bulgarian folklore, but also from various contemporary dance styles (including Latin dances):

“I move in these circles so that I can learn, pick up something from everyone… And it happens sometimes, well, when I am out with friends, partying, or dancing at a wedding, they tell me: ‘Wait, your name is Zehti, how come you’re so good at folk dancing?’ And I tell them: ‘Well, I’ve been dancing in a folk ensemble for some twenty years already, since I was a kid.’ And they are kind of: ‘Bravo, bravo, bravo.’ They are all wondering… So, among forty Bulgarians I am the only one with the name Zehti. And they think highly of me. And when they found out that I was studying choreography, they are truly proud; they help me out a lot. So, they saw me in a different light.”

In the last five years Zehti has been working at the Razgrad Theater “Nazhum Hikmet”, and in his opinion its shows are not targeted only at a certain part of the population in the region. On the contrary, he confirms the hypothesis that the enthusiastic youth company is trying to present “the ethnic” mostly through the prism of its aesthetic values:

“We are trying to be tolerant to all; we are doing the things as they are; we have no hidden agenda. None at all. We just want to make art, no matter what it is. It might be Turkish dance, Bulgarian dance, any dance.”

That is why Zehti finds the definition “Turkish theater” not completely relevant:

“We do shows in Bulgarian, not only in Turkish. There is simultaneous translation when the show is in Turkish, because we have audience with VIP tickets – from the municipality, from here and there, you know, mayors who don’t understand, don’t speak Turkish. We have audiences from all ages.”

Zehti does not see Turkish language only as a way of marking ethnic belonging. For him it is rather a means for getting personal messages across to the others ( See Fotev 2009: 118-123); he therefore easily admits that he is still having difficulty with the literary Turkish, used in the plays staged by the theater, and that he is working hard on his pronunciation and language skills:

“I speak Turkish bad, I don’t speak it fluently, because I’ve always spoken Bulgarian, since I was a kid, and besides, that’s how it is in my circles. It was only in the last five years that I got myself started on Turkish literature, on reading Turkish literature, because I need it for my work. But I speak a dialect. Not everyone speaks literary Turkish fluently, as in Turkey, right. The way we speak it here – it is kind of adapted to Bulgarian, and it is hard, but we manage…”

The basic forms of self-expression for Zehti are nevertheless music and dance – not as a ritual and visual reassertion of ethnic difference but as a hand symbolically reaching out for co-participation to the others:

“And I learned as a kid not to set people apart. I want to learn everything. I just want to celebrate all sorts of occasions, go all places, and communicate with all kinds of people.”

The beginning of Zehti’s career at the theater correlates with his growing interest in religiosity. He is interested, however, not so much in the traditional Muslim practices, but in Islam mystics and Sufism. This fascination with the ecstatic, inexpressible in words feeling of the sacral, crosses the boundaries within which the generation of his parents professes its faith. It is part of a religious bricolage subjectively combining elements of different spiritual, including esoteric, traditions according to one’s personal preferences, which is typical for late modernity:

“I fall for strange things since I was a kid. I don’t fall for everyday stuff. I like walking on the edge between the real and the unreal. Shamanism, you know what the word means. The Turkish, the Oriental shamans – the dervishes – that’s how I got started on it. I hadn’t heard of it, you know, before that… I started collecting information, music. How it all started; who the founder of this order was. Later, in Turkey I saw, last year it was eight… years since the death of Jalal Ad-din Rumi, Mevlana, as they call him. So, in Konya where this order was founded, Konya – that is in Turkey, there is a sacred place where the Sufis gather, a lot Sufis from all over Turkey, and they perform a collective ritual called sema. It takes some twenty minutes, or thirty, perhaps even forty. These are mystics who fall in trance while spinning around. Their spinning is the spiral of life. Everything comes from up there… and goes by down there. Everything goes up and down. You are already connected, in some way connected to God Almighty… I have even done it. I have even performed this ritual. It is not exactly a ritual. I have rehearsed it, right. I have a costume like that in the theater. I’ve given it a try myself. So, I can spin around for twenty-three minutes straight without stopping. It is a very special way of spinning. One of your hands points upward to God, the other one points downward, you see. That is how the spinning comes out. They actually fall in trance… It is very strange. How to explain it? There is no language. It is all music there. You have to listen hard to the music. This flute, the nay flute, this Turkish flute which is used in these rituals – these are the words of God that you are actually hearing. You have to become so deeply absorbed in this music, nothing else, and so… It is very difficult. You have to start doing it from an early age. It is because I was curious whether it is possible… I don’t know how it actually feels for the Sufis. That I can’t experience. That I can’t experience.”

In Zehti’s account Islamic culture is experienced and revealed through the fascination with the far-away and the unknown, through the mystic experience:

“Well, the Orient itself is all about mystics. How are you then to survive in this desert, you see? It is very hot in the day, whereas in the night it is very cold. How do these people survive in these deserts? You need to be that strong psychically. You need to be that strong physically. And to be a believer. To believe in something. And to actually prove it with your life… The Orient is very beautiful, you know. If you haven’t been there, just… I’ve been to Syria, to Damascus.”

This explains Zehti’s willingness to take our small group from Sofia to the tomb (teke) of the most highly revered saint for the Shia Muslim population (the so-called Alians) in Northeastern Bulgaria – Demir Baba (located in the archaeological reserve Sboryanovo near Razgrad). As a pilgrimage site, the tomb attracted not only the Muslims but also the Christians from the nearby villages already in the late 19th century, and has become a sort of locus communis today – a place where confessional borders merge in a universal, sacral space-time, in a uniting mythologem:

“A lot of people gather here… at a sacred place like Demir Baba. That is in Turkish, in Bulgarian it translates as the Iron Man, or the Iron Father. The first inhabitants there were the Thracians. Their settlement was over there. The kingdom of the Geti tribe was there. There are also some sacred places where mystics later settled and started living their way of life. And later, the legend has it that a very, very tall man lived there. Two meters tall, maybe two and a half. As other legends go, there is a spring which has the same water temperature in the winter and in the summer, it doesn’t change. There are rocks and caves where these hermits lived. There are graves, very old ones; there are some very old graves. The place itself is mystical. It is a sanctuary. For all. You’ll see small pieces of cloth tied to the trees everywhere. It is done for health. You’ll see them all over the place.”

Unlike many young Bulgarian people his age, Zehti does not talk about conflicts with the parents’ generation, on the contrary – the family traditions, his respect and attachment to the elder reinforce his value system:

“I was brought up in this way: if you work, you will have. Maybe you won’t have much, but you will have. My mother and my father taught me: ‘Don’t lust for money. You should cherish the little things.’ So I always cherish the little things. I never turn my back on bigger ones either. They come to me naturally, you see. If you’re craving money, don’t go stealing, lying, or cheating for it. Money will come to you, you see?”

At the same time Zehti distances himself from certain stereotypical attitudes of the ethnic community, such as, for example, the traditional mistrust in mixed marriages:

“Well, I don’t agree with it. So, if I can live with a German woman, if I can live with an Italian woman, if I can live with a Greek woman; why is then this mistrust being instilled? It has been instilled generation after generation, instilled, you see… There are mixed marriages, there are lots of mixed marriages; but they decide by themselves and they live together so that no one would get in their way. And the older people are getting used to it. They start getting used to it. But it would take one more generation to break away from it completely.


Fig. 5. Zehti Bamov (Personal photo archive)

Judging by the themes Zehti touches upon all through his life story, I figure out that he actually does not perceive himself as an underprivileged social “performer”, whose role has been pre-scripted by the ethnic tradition. To my final question on how he would identify himself, how he would introduce himself when making acquaintance, he replies: “Well, a smile would do. A ‘hi’ would do. A smile tells a lot.” In this way Zehti reveals his own logic, according to which he is neither willing to stick firmly to the legitimization schemes of the community he was born in, nor willing to seek social acceptance by hiding his ethnic belonging. On the one hand, this position is more socially vulnerable and risky, since it needs constant personal reaffirmation. On the other hand, however, it protects the Turkish actor from collective mobilization, respectively – it leaves open space for belonging to other subcultural communities.

To the young Turkish man the presence of a hostile “other”, against whom to assert one’s standpoints and worldviews, is not a necessary prerequisite for self-identification. The reason is that he incorporates the ethnic in all dimensions of his biography – not as a non-reflexive gesture of belonging, but as a result of personal choice and as a source of inspiration. Public manifestation of ethnicity to him is not only a delicate way of challenging the status quo, but also a form of resistance against the dominant ethnic homogenization under socialism, as well as against the universalization of differences pursued by the project of modernity:

“Everyone lives his own life. So what if one is named Ali, another one – Alexander? We live in Bulgaria, we live in a place that many empires and many religions had passed through. It got all mixed up, so no one can tell I am such and such… I am often told that I have Greek features, a bit like the ancient Hellenes.”

It turns out that among today’s young Bulgarian Turks there are some whose strategy of self-identification neither stigmatizes, nor hyperbolizes ethnic difference, but acknowledges its value, not counting on external features. This strategy allows young Turkish people to move freely in various youth subcultures and popular lifestyle practices (just like other young people their age), at the same time offering them the guarantee of diachronic coherence and stability in the life trajectory, along with some kind of protection from the constant volatility of subcultural formations.

Gün olur devran döner. – One day things will come right.

The show of the Razgrad Theater on the Sofia stage ends on this note. The audience is applauding the inspired performance of the actors and the dancers who are conveying the optimism of a new generation for whom the predetermined life trajectory of the Bulgarian Turks is only a storyline from the past.


1. The show was on tour at the Youth Theater in Sofia on February 12th, 2009. It was produced with the financial support of the Ministry of Culture and the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Demographic Issues. Directed by Yusein Nuriev, scenography by Theodor Daskalov. Based on poems by Gibran Kahlil (1883-1931).

2. One of the two so-called “Turkish” theaters in Bulgaria, founded in 2003 by a resolution of the Ministry of Culture (See Fig. 1).

3. As per Article 4 of the theater’s statutes promulgated in the State Gazette (no. 65, July 22nd, 2003).

4. See Georg Simmel’s interpretation of this relation in Dubiel 1999: 132-134.

5. As Donald Horowitz claims, ethnic belonging can be described as a continuum – at one end of the continuum is voluntary belonging, at the other – belonging by birth (Horowitz 1985: 95-141).

6. Here I use the terms “audience”, “stage” and “roles” in the sense of Goffman’s dramaturgical sociology (Goffman 1959).

7. The interview was recorded in the course of anthropological fieldwork in Razgrad in the spring of 2008 as part of the MICROCON ( research programme funded by the European Commission. In the above-quoted excerpts from the interview the roughness and irregularities of the living speech are kept. On behalf of the entire project team I would like to thank Zehti for his responsiveness, for the time spared, and for the photos shared from his personal archive.


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