Journalists, photographers and townspeople have all gathered in Fikrie and Ahmed’s nuptial bedroom. The matron hands out the party sweets. The children wait outside, chewing sweets with their hands in their pockets. When the imam has finished reciting all his verses, the private ceremony will begin, and after three days and nights Fikrie will come out veiled and officially a married woman.
In some areas of Bulgaria, bordering the Pirin and Rhodope mountains the traditions of one of the minorities of the country are still preserved: those of the Pomaks. Although there are various controversial theories about their origin in the Balkan region their distinctive features are well defined: they are Slavs and they are Muslim.
“My people are the last real Muslims in Bulgaria”, says Ali. “We still preserve our natural cultures, as well as our food, clothes, parties and weddings” Ali Nevse Boshnakovi, called Valeri in communist times, is a Pomak. He is from Ribnovo, a small mountainous locality in the province of Blagoevgrad, in the southeast of Bulgaria.
He speaks Spanish, and like other Spanish speaking Bulgarians he differentiates between the b sound and the v sound. “We lead a normal life here, we study and work… Those of us who can stay here, those who can’t go to Greece, Spain, Germany…” Ali migrated to Valencia, in Spain, eight years ago, but this weekend he is in his village with his wife Mila and his son Ali. “When winter arrives we all get together for the wedding season” The streets are packed with people, the cafes and bars are overflowing, and there is barely any space for the wood piles on the pavements.
Funa, Ali’s mother, has received the honorary request from the bride, to be the one to paint her face during next Sunday’s ceremony. “It is very important for us to preserve our traditions”, she repeated whilst looking warily at Ali’s wife, who joined the conversation happily in her sporty tracksuit. There was silence, and Ali had no option but to explain. “We didn’t marry the traditional way. We didn’t have enough time to prepare the wedding” Tradition has it that the bride cakes her face with a thick layer of face-cream, and covers it with sequins in every possible colour. It is said that this symbolises fertility.
Ribnovo is full of cafes and grocery stores. Two mosques jut out of the mountain side on which the pomaks live. There is also a school attended by Muslim and Christian students from other villages. There is no hospital, but instead there are two doctors who treat their patients from house to house in the old- fashioned way.
The bride is known in the village because her father is Doctor Bindje. Theirs is a well-known family and thus they must maintain the traditions. Weddings are very important ceremonies, and Fikrie knows it. Her face shows signs of nervousness and unease, fearing she will not be able to measure up to expectations. But her mother accompanies her, instructing her in each of her steps, she knows the rules of the game.
The identity of the Pomaks was denied for more than forty years under the principles of “equality” and “secularism”. The Communist regime Christianised their names, proscribed their traditional celebrations, put peasants’ berets on the men and stole the women’s veils. “When our people didn’t want to wear the clothes that the Government gave them they had acid thrown at them”, the family informed us. They celebrated the first day of democracy in their own way: in the queue for the official registry.
Ribnovo. Saturday 10:00
Fikrie’s dowry shines in front of her childhood home. A bed with Turkish embroidery. Cuddly toys. Blankets for winter. A fifty inch plasma television. While the women gossip about the displayed items, a shepherd crosses the scene with his sheep. The wedding is about to begin.
The first important event of the celebrations is the display of her possessions. With no thought of humility, the dowry is shown off with its latest technologies to the delight of the nosiest old women. “The mugs aren’t made of porcelain” ”This fabric isn’t imported” “Where is the DVD?” “And what about the blender?” The fall of the Berlin Wall has also cracked the borders of this culture. Traditions are powerfully affirmed under the unstoppable influence of modernisation. “The couple are old to be getting married”, the majority agrees. “They should have had the wedding years ago”.
Fikrie is twenty-three years old and Ahmed is twenty-four. They met in a Physics class at the American University in the capital. They are not a traditional couple; they interact with the intimacy and complicity of having spent time together. Even if the bride has her doubts about the celebrations and being painted, the townsfolk are all ready. The band will play all day and night for the whole weekend. The lambs have been lined up. The fabrics and dyes have been chosen.
It is a party for the whole town to join in. The celebrations mainly take place in the town square: music and a banquet for everyone. The Balkan melody of the zurna brings harmony to the hubbub of dozens of inhabitants milling around the band. The little ones rummage in their grandmothers’ pockets looking for popcorn cornets. The women come out to dance in their pantaloons and veils specially put together for these occasions. The men accompany them dressed in designer suits. But the teenagers are the ones that last the longest; the girls wear out the end of their stiletto heels, whilst the boys watch them nervously, only sometimes losing their shyness.
Single women can take their veils off when going into the bar “if they are looking for a partner”, the people of this mountainous village explain to us. The Pomaks of Ribnovo are not fussy about the number of guests or religious guidelines. The banqueting tables await the guests laden with lamb, soft drinks and also beer.
Ribnovo. Saturday 19.00
The band has stopped playing for today. Photographers, journalists and townspeople have gathered in the bride’s parents’ house. In the centre of the lounge there is a bowl with natural dyes. The women paint their hands and fingers while the men watch.
Outside, the rain melts the first snow of the winter. Tomorrow is the big day.
On the dawn of the second day, the groom’s family assembles their contribution to the wedding in the town square. The chipped walls of the central cafe are covered with suits, mirrors, trinkets, more fabrics and blankets. All the effects are spread out on wooden structures ready and waiting for the nuptial ritual: the pilgrimage to the bride’s house. The townsfolk and the band follow the groom to his rendezvous.
Before this innocent rendezvous, the girls and women share a few last moments with the wife-to-be in the room that saw her grow. Pink wallpaper. A bed full of cuddly toys and childish embroideries. Nervous giggles and sexual jokes. Fikrie is no longer a girl.
Ribnovo. Sunday 19.00
The bride’s house. The celebration has given way to the most important ritual of all. Next to the dowry now lie the groom’s possessions. The bride’s face and body are covered from the groom’s gaze. She has left her childhood room behind her. With barely a second thought, the possessions are being loaded into the removal van. The journey of marriage begins for the couple.
The villagers escort them to their new apartment. The music and dancing keeps on. Night has fallen; they measure their last steps in the dark. Once they have been blessed by the imam the bride’s face will be cleaned by her husband in their own intimacy. The cream will be wiped off with milk and, for the first time, they will share a bed.
During the night people in the town whisper “It’s probably not the first time they sleep have slept together”, but it doesn’t matter. The wedding has been celebrated. The family name has not been shamed. Ribnovo’s traditions are safe. Weddings will be held until the last snows melt, and the new winter snows will stand in mute witness to this event that is so full of tradition, culture, religion, and affirmation as well.