The Borderlands of Europe

Infinite forests and horses grazing in fields of wheat, shimmering stars, streams in the snow, villages and flocks of geese at sunset, icons in penumbra, the scent of birch and incense, the songs of shepherds and boatmen, the murmur of prayers, trains that stop in the middle of nowhere, cemeteries of forgotten or vanished peoples, and rivers flowing in the moonlight. Enchanted peripheries, marked by History.

Eastern Europe is a near yet entirely unfamiliar land. Newspapers barely mention it. Take the Ukraine, for example. Only a day’s drive from Italy, yet its stunning countryside, its rolling hills are unknown to ‘Western’ tourists. Although the Iron Curtain no longer keeps these lands apart, the borders of the European Fortress remain. To cross them still makes the heart skip a beat. They have become centres of countless traffics and exchange. It is in the plastic bags of elderly women, bulging with chocolate and bicycle wheel spokes, on board the rickety local buses and trains, that most of the merchandise moves around the extraordinary market of the East.

If you go simply as a traveller, the police get suspicious. Custom officers rummage for hours through your luggage and camera bags, scrupulously check your diaries and passport. They order you to take off your hat and sunglasses, to put them back on, to repeat the names of your parents. But they don’t listen to your answers. They are simply bothered that your eyes don’t betray a time-honoured fear. If you succeed in venturing further, however, you will find yourself travelling back in time. There, changes happen at a slower pace than elsewhere. Eastern Europe – between the Baltic and the Black Seas – is a unique reservoir of yesteryear. It is as though the Berlin Wall had only just fallen, as though the horrors of the twentieth century had not swept through these territories with all their unspeakable violence. These countries are not just the peripheries of Europe. They are also the peripheries of faith. They are unique places, where today’s conflicting monotheistic religions generate – quite surprisingly – areas of cohabitation. It is a mystery how these very territories, devastated by massacres and deportations, have managed to create possibilities of encounter that seem impossible elsewhere. We can witness here passionate faiths that the acolytes of Islam, Christianity and Judaism dismiss as superstitions. Popular faiths, rooted in the ground, in the essence of the water and the woods, in the graves of prophets and saints. But also faiths capable of breaking down the implacable borders of religion: a formidable, miraculous and often ignored resource.

I started my travels in the winter of 1985, on the Eastern border of Poland, which I had crossed on foot, travelling from South to North, across fields and woods. I lived with charismatic Pentecostal peasants who, in moments of ecstasy, could overcome all linguistic and cultural barriers. In the frozen, empty house where the great poet Czeslaw Milosz once lived, I found a Pole who had been adopted by Gypsies and who had now become the custodian of the secrets of the Romany – a population that does not reveal itself to anyone. And then there were the books, the crosses, the sacred artefacts in the houses of the “Old Believers”, the ultra orthodox schismatics who rejected the Russian liturgic reforms of the seventeenth century. People who have remained attached to medieval faiths, persecuted, burnt at stake, expelled, and dispersed throughout Poland, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Siberia, and the most disparate corners of the world. Since then, I have never stopped my search and my journey through the peripheries of Europe became a journey amongst the peoples of God. What started as an exploration of the physical borders between populations, minorities and confessions, with time became a voyage into the metaphysical, even magical frontiers at which these populations and their religions have managed to come together, despite the horrific memories that separate them.

It has been a journey into a labyrinth of wonders, too complex perhaps for a highly mediatised world that tends to extreme simplification. What do we know today of the descendents of Tatar warriors, observant Muslims and yet fervent Polish patriots? Or of the graves of the great zaddiq, where even today Chassidim Jews come from all over the world, uttering supplications, but hurriedly, still fearful in that land that became their burial site under totalitarian regimes? In the depths of the forest – home to a great millenary and apocalyptic movement in the nineteen-thirties – we met a poet. He knew Marx’s “Capital” by heart, and made grooming equipment for cows while awaiting the arrival of the Messiah at the end of all time. His place in the forest was an orchestra of sounds; the wind blew at bells arranged to deter wild boars, and he welcomed me like the angel sent from his prophet Elijah, a charismatic peasant taken away to a Soviet gulag. In the forgotten Carpathian Mountains between Slovakia and Poland, we found the Lemki, a Ukrainian minority of orthodox and Greek-Catholic religion. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Lemki were persecuted by successive regimes, interned in concentration and forced labour camps, swallowed up by someone else’s war, deported on cattle cars to lands worn out by war, pogrom or famine. Their only fault? Having an ‘unclear genealogy’, and living in a place that Stalin wanted to render ethnically pure. Today, an artificial lake has erased their wooden domes, shaped like a blazing flame, along with a history of their cohabitation. Here, high amongst the oak trees, lived the Jews; on the slippery steep meadows, the Lemki; at the bottom, along the unruly river, the Gypsies. Centuries of cohabitation, of hybrid music at wedding celebrations, of rituals, fairy tales and myths, merged together in the absolute unawareness of other people’s signs and symbols. What remains now are only overgrown plum trees; in the ruins of a cemetery, statues of Christ with the head broken off. Or the Jewish tombstones with which the Nazi occupiers built bridges and roads. Lions, winged griffon vultures, broken candelabras; a cry enclosed in calligraphy of curves, circles and dots on stones smoothed by torrents. Only after years of travels, on foot, bicycle, sledge and tractor, sleeping on wooden beds, hay stacks and in stables, can you begin to discern these borders of faith; to yearn with anticipation to speak with the last remaining elders, before they too disappear with their load of memories. You learn, also, to identify – from hardly noticeable signs – the existence of worlds that have been lost for ever.

My journey continues in Carpathian monasteries and hermitages, in mountains blackened by the candles of the Armenians and the Hutzuli, the genial musicians and healers of the Eastern Carpathians. And it goes even further, the physical horizon widening in a fog of ignored places, to the Caspian Sea and beyond, in the midst of the Caucasus Mountains of blazing stones, the border of Europe par excellence.
And the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria: devastated by Communism, yet a place where you can still hear thousands of bagpipes resound under the stars. The journey continues to the “Second Rome”, where the Bosporus strait pulls you, like a funnel, to the most secret sites of Istanbul, where Judaism, Eastern Christianity and Islam have generated hybrid and unrepeatable forms of devotion – an open faith, much older than the reforms of Ataturk, daughter of a great nomad spirit, born in the great steppes between Central Asia and the Anatolian highlands.
The role of the Romany people, scattered throughout this world between the Baltic and Black Seas, naturally becomes an underlying thread of this nomadic trip. It is entwined with histories of deportation and persecution, of reciprocal penetration and suffered cohabitation. The stories are often tainted with a sense of religious adoption. They are never, however, stories of indifference. The estrangement between nomadic and autochthonous peoples is definite and definitive – even when the Rom have been sedentary for generations.

It is by following this thread that we discover still other worlds, in the infinite fields between the Tisza and the Danube, where Emir Kusturica set his films full of metaphor and folly; in the great Delta, a labyrinth of fleeing birds and peoples. The solitary monasteries of Bukovina, in Western Romania, brim with paintings, on the outside as well as in the interior. And just a little further, in the Ukraine, in the places where Bruno Schulz painted and wrote, and where Martin Buber spent his childhood, there are the woods – in ancient times, a bastion against the Tartars. Today, in a monastery like that of Pocajev, a Catholic and almost Bavarian architecture combines with a more ancient, passionate orthodoxy. The Christian church of the East is an inexhaustible source of spirituality. Although its hierarchy was seriously compromised by Communism and a nationalist drive, a magic force of great attraction emanates at a popular level. Heresies and schisms seem to be a key useful to discover the most important themes of its history, which are often difficult to contextualize. Breaking its consolidated structure and measured regularity, we seem to unveil the most relevant features of the religious unconscious. We find a melting pot of distinct worlds, which penetrate and interact with one another, with diffidence and compassion, with indifference or fear. The murmuring of prayers, the kissing of books, icons, relics and crosses. We follow a path amidst sacred mountains, through prostrations, processions and pilgrimages. The need for the sacred. Intemperate, inordinate. Made up of soul and body. “The people of God, a journey in Another Europe”, introduction to the exibition  (English translation by Anna Bissanti)

Monika Bulaj’s journey in the spiritual lands of yiddishkeit and in the residual and re-born territories of Chassidism, accomplished over and over again in these times of ours, of atrocious dictatorship, of money and global coarseness, is almost a miracle. Her narrative unravels with marvelous and overwhelming human accents, just beyond the borders of the conformist skin of ours, lost and arrogant Westerns. After eighty years we find in the pages of “Genti di Dio” the “journalistic” pace and the literary passion of the great Joseph Roth’s “Juden auf Wandershaft”, the mythical reportage that spoke about the Ostjudentum, living and throbbing in the frame of a heartbreaking and melancholic twilight, just on the edge of its extinction. As a rhabdomancer, Monika can catch in an image, in a single word, the spiritual relentless energy that comes out from the “rest”, from the vital density of the few who survived the hurbn, the annihilation of all Jews perpetrated by the Nazis and cowardly accepted by Europe. The ecstatic, laic, and unrelenting fibrillation that one guesses in Bulaj’s performances, both shots and words, stems from a powerful energy, the dybbuk of Polish Hebraism made into ashes, which still possesses her. Monika becomes a relentless evocator of this terrible crime, even now perceived with feelings of intolerance, even now taken into account with badly hidden irritation and nuisance by many of her fellow citizens. On the contrary, she aims almost at giving new life to her Pole Jews with a personal yizkor, the mandatory duty to comply with the Bible order: “Bear in mind!”.

“People of God” will mess up my nights and my days for long, because it makes possible to foresee that one day, not so far in itself, the European territory could be flooded with the souls of the wiped out, pressed by the unyielding soul of Monika, adamant witness of the mystic zeal of radical Jews who never give up searching the Torah for the absent God, who has not a place of his own, who is invisible, who cannot be heard unless in silence, whose name cannot be pronounced, and whose whole existence can only be referred to through the spasms of an extremely human “folly”. “Monika’s Journey”, Moni Ovadia, introduction to the book “God’s People. A travel into another Europe”

Monika Bulaj is a photographer who chases semidarkness rather than light. It could not be otherwise: shadow is the elected place of the sacred, the mystery hidden behind an iconostasis, out of seen among crypts and catacombs, away from branched candlesticks and haze of incense. Light is the God of religious education, of codified religions. Shadow is distinctive, is different, and is the home of the elusive Entity. Monika has only deduced its consequences.

In order to investigate the vibrations in the semidarkness, this Pole, daughter of the Great Cold, manages to enter as furtive as a weasel in the most internal places, without making a noise, soft-footed. She enters bridal chambers, stables, homes. She is a perfect “burglar”. But here’s the extraordinary fact: people “robbed” by her accept Monika without hesitation, welcome her, trust her, give hospitality to her, and reciprocate her interest with their respect. For this purpose it’s enough her slight smile that says thank you and sorry at the same time, before getting wider and opening into a huge smile of curiosity even when she meets the last of the least, in the furthest village.

Beyond the pure beauty of her pictures her pursuit for pictorial beauty, even in hellish places inhabited by dispossessed and desperate people, is extremely distant from the trends of the tabloids of these days. Her prompt approach impresses you. It does not matter where this may happen: it happens everywhere, all the time. Iranian and Sudanese welcome her. Pale Byelorussians and bronze Bengali. Ultra-orthodox Jews of Israel and mystic Moroccans of Islam. Turks of the plateaus beyond the River Tigris and Albanians of the wild mountains. Pannonians of the great rivers and Tuareg of the desert in the remote lands of Libya.

In Monika Bulaj’s pictures mellow yellow dominates, along with the warm color of candles. The same primeval fire enlightens Christians, Jews, Muslims, and in that golden-yellow the three monotheisms reveal all their impressive similarities. Genuflections, whispering, reading of venerable texts, litanies, rosaries. Through this exceptional reportage, the three faiths disclose to be living in the same space. Similar to pagurians, residents of shells that Nature does not want to leave empty.

All the tales that she narrates through images take place in the time frame between day and night, and vice versa. Monika gets up before daybreak, and stops working when everybody is up. Sometimes she falls asleep soon after sunset, and sleeps everywhere, as farmers do. When she has to, she stays up all night, for instance in the Holy Sepulcher, to watch the pilgrims exhausted and tired. Or in Sfat, for instance, the holy city of Orthodox Jews, lit up by bonfires, blackish with black hats.

To travel with her means to unlock new exploration spaces, makes easier to understand and see, really see. You can catch sunrise from Mount Nebo, like Moses in agony in his quest of the Promised Land. You can experiment the fire of a sancta sanctorum full of incense, at the first sunray, early morning. You can feel the vibrations of a millenary song coming out from a crypt. You can fix in your memory the marvelous moment of that plum evening on the plateaus facing Iran, when farmers go off in a corner for their prayers. And to travel amid all this helps us to understand where our Christian roots are. They are not in the West, as too many people say, but in the land where the Light rises and where God lives in the darkness.  Paolo Rumiz, «La Repubblica» 

Maciej Wasielewski, «Teatr”  (in Polish language)

Attilio Scarpellini, Rai Radiotre  (in Italian language)

Carl-Wilhelm Macke, “Eine polnische Nomadin” (in German language)