Syrian Chronicles: Liftoff from Communist Bulgaria

To many people, Syria is just a Warzone on the map, but not me.

I wanted to write about Syria for a long time, but the feeling grew stronger for the past month, after Sofia Platform’s conference on the Generation of Transition, where I caught myself explaining in short my life in that country terribly difficult. There are quite a few stories, laying dormant for nearly thirty years. I was eleven, simply a child when I first arrived in Aleppo, in January of 1990. I came back to Bulgaria just a mere two years later, yet it felt like eons of cultural layers that I still unearth, with many mixed feelings. Hundreds of people, which I never saw after, no matter how hard I tried to find them on social media. Since the war broke off I catch myself constantly asking how many of them have moved to Europe and how many are still alive and started their families. I hope that some will find these stories and contact me.

The reasons for me to start writing this series were several, but maybe the most pressing one was Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, citing his delusional idea that ISIS was defeated. Last week I was at a party when a friend retweeted about this, and suddenly I couldn’t have fun anymore. I drank two more cocktails, danced barefoot, but couldn’t shake the feeling like a frosted glass jar had suddenly dropped on me. I didn’t have any really close friends at the party, or anyone that could remotely understand what kind of memories the news unleashed.

That complete moron sitting now behind the resolute desk is a total waste to humanity and I honestly have no desire to visit the USA during his presidency. So many of his actions scare me, he truly represents an all time low of all the leaders of this great nation that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I’ve been following his climb right after the Brexit vote, something else which was completely unnecessary.

My time in Syria feels like being on another planet for several reasons: I changed four schools and five groups of classmates for two years. I saw the panic of the Gulf War and its effects on the region. I had to write and speak in five languages — Bulgarian, Russian, English, French and Arabic. The last two I had never touched before and at that time I found out it was easy for me to learn new things, quickly adapt to changes and how far apart from Christianity Islam was, with all its restrictions on Art, Architecture, women, and society in general. I had to connect with new people almost instantly. To a certain degree however, loneliness became part of my life. I felt alien or at least many treated me that way on many occasions. As hard as I try to brush off these assumptions to this day, I guess it has become a part of my appearance like a bumper sticker on my forehead. Haha.

What Bulgaria was like in 1989

During that summer, like many before, there were power shortages, meaning there wasn’t enough electricity being produced to maintain all the households, or at least we were told. The Communist regime had many problems and even a kid like me could see it. I was starting to ask questions why do such silly things happen, what was the cause for this and that and my father simply told me to not ask and just be quiet. Much later I understood about the workings of the state police. In the beginning of October, my dad flew to Aleppo, than shortly after the Berlin wall fell and the whole Communist regime in Eastern Europe collapsed. It was the time of Perestroika, some great changes in the lives of many Bulgarians when on the 10-th of November the last Bulgarian Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov was forced to resign. It’s going to be 30 years in 2019, just one more reason to write about those memories.

My dad wrote several letters about his journey and the first few months in Syria. What I can recall is how they gathered with his colleagues to listen to Radio Free Europe, which was banned in Bulgaria, like all Western Media. Maybe I’ll dig those sheets from somewhere, his explanations were quite literal, but yet fun to read. I don’t remember, if I wrote back, but mom sure did. It was for quite a short time — several months, but many of his words were very vivid and reflected the reality in Syria. He was eager to learn exactly what was going on in Sofia, since the information on the radio was quite scarce. I recall too little from the reports on state TV and media in Bulgaria, there were many gatherings in the center, but since I was a kid and my mom didn’t take part in any of them, I wasn’t a first hand witness and remember far too little.

Why we moved

My father took a job in Aleppo, the second largest city of the country back then, close to 1.6 million people in 1990. He was part of a group of Bulgarian Hydro Engineers, working on a contract to design the systems of the biggest dam, which was on the Euphrates river. Since Bulgaria has many (currently over 3000 dams), there was quite a lot of experience and a group of almost 15 specialists went, most of them brought their families. During that period, my mom was a housewife, mostly and taking a break from her architectural practice. She’s actually a good architect, now retired and when we came back continued to work, but she mostly painted and had too little creative things going on during her stay. Which was OK, since she took a much needed break.

My life in Bulgaria in the 5-th grade

I was starting to develop a real passion for drawing, which was something I inherited from both my parents, as well as reading. We have a library of several hundred books, mostly fiction and sci-fi. I personally liked adventure stories with Indians, myths and short tales from all around the world. There were almost no comic books sold, but I still keep a stash of PIFs (French) and maybe I have a few Daga (Rainbow), which were Bulgarian and quite good actually. One of the artists, Peter Stanimirov, lived with his family very close and I was friends with his two sons.

It was the first time that at school we were starting to get interested in girls. At my 11th birthday, I had the biggest party yet, lots of my classmates came (around twenty, giving that we were about 30 in total). I had spent nearly five years with most of them, since the first grade. Two years later, after we came back from Syria, I had lost the connection with almost all of them, except a few guys from the neighbourhood. Puberty, and a new highschool were part of the reasons. The school which I finished in 1995 still has the same name, but I couldn’t make many lasting friends there either. There were a few nerds, but still I didn’t have a date for prom, didn’t dance that night, no alcohol and so many other things happened way slower for me.

Why I’m writing in English

Sharing these stories is long time overdue and I’ve decided to start the whole process not in my native language, since I’m Bulgarian, but actually in my third language, which I learned after Russian, which was mandatory in almost all Bulgarian schools. Although I was taking English lessons for nearly six years, my parents signed me to the International School of Aleppo, which had many Americans and was one of the main reasons for us to move there. They believed that a different kind of education would give me more opportunities and to a certain extent, I knew they were right, so I’m very grateful. That school was the place I really started using English freely and spoke it during most of the day, but it was also a place I was shown a window to Western and American culture through the people, textbooks and an amazing library, filled with beautiful books and magazines the likes of which I had never seen before. I had some other Bulgarian friends close to my age, and a few Russian ones too, but I’ll be trying to recover the memories of all the people, sights, flavours, objects and feelings that I had back then. It was one of the most emotional and challenging periods of my life and comes flashing back at me every now and then.

I started writing last week, took some notes and there are 10–15 different stories, so I will try to publish a new post on a weekly basis and complete all of them until my birthday in March. It will be a relief from all the other things I have going on, and hopefully will find some pictures to illustrate the whole thing.