A Tentative Return
After a six-month hiatus, I’ve decided to reactivate this site, in part due to the encouragement of a small circle of readers in New York, Luxembourg, Vienna, Sofia, and Istanbul. We’ll see how it goes…
A Long-Vanished Nightspot
A patch of pavement, a graffiti covered corrugated metal fence, and a rundown cottage from a past age on a main thoroughfare in Sofia, Bulgaria – the likely location of a nightclub once owned and run by Keva, a legendary Romani (Gypsy) vocalist in the years between the two world wars. In its day, Cafe Keva was a popular gathering-place for Sofia residents of diverse ethnicity and walks of life.
The prosaic stretch of sidewalk portrayed in the photo above is one of many subtle, non-monumental reminders of the presence, history, labor, and social and cultural contributions of the Roma (Gypsy) population of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. Over the past century, processes of nation-forming and of economic change, coupled with social and spatial segregation, have solidified and sustained the marginalization Roma. In parallel, the official historiography and anti-minority sentiments of Bulgaria’s self-styled mono-ethnic society and the pretensions of its post-communist monied classes have booted Roma out of their rightful places in urban consciousness and mainstream memory.
As mentioned in a previous post, a decade ago, at the behest of an obscure US congressional commission, I conducted an extensive survey of architectural monuments across present-day Bulgaria germain to the histories, lives, and identities of a number of “minority” religious and ethnic groups, Roma amongst them. Output included databases, background monographs, and a shortlist of sites worthy of conservation or restoration.
My recommendations for sites relevant to Roma history focused as much on spatiality as on edifices. For Sofia, my recommendations included a program of markers, urban walks, and print- and/or computer-based mapping that would identify relevant locations but also chart the progressive displacement of Roma from the interactivity of Sofia’s urban core to the isolation and apartheid of its urban – and, along with it, social and economic – periphery. I now debate implementing the project on my own. (Note: Some years previously, I had begun to map the outward displacement of the Jewish population of Sofia during the late-19th and early-twentieth centuries. Indeed, in the aftermath the selection of Sofia as the capital of newly-independent Bulgaria nearly a century and a half ago, neither Gypsies nor Jews were considered welcome in the city’s redeveloped, self-consciously “European”-style inner core and were exiled to its furthest-most reaches.)
A test for Sofiotes: Anyone who’d like to hazard a guess as to the exact location of the patch of sidewalk in the photo above is welcome to post a comment, as is anyone who would like to share more about Cafe Keva or any other markers of Romani life in Sofia, past or present. I should mention that the location portrayed above was pointed out to me years ago by Dimitar “Mitko” Georgiev, a resident of the Roma quarter of “Fakulteto” whose family has lived in Sofia for generations. If the location of Cafe Keva as portrayed in the photo is correct, he gets the credit; if it is wrong, I’ll take the blame.