Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria

Article excerpt

Kristen Ghodsee. Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria. Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. xvi, 252 pp. Illustrations. Tables. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $65.00, cloth. $ 24.95, paper.

Kristen Ghodsee' s second book reveals the same interest in the social and personal facets of Bulgaria's postsocialist transition that defined her first work, The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism and Postsocialism on the Black Sea (2005). Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe is a riveting ethnographic study of Pomaks (Bulgarian-speaking Muslims) residing in the formerly bustling southern towns of Madan and Rudozem. During the socialist years the local mines employed more than 20,000 men, bringing wealth and secular modernity to this traditionally agricultural and poor Muslim region. Once touted as symbols of socialism's success, in the last decade these communities have attracted negative national press for their unexpected embrace of "orthodox" (mostly Saudi-inspired) Islam. Ghodsee's aim is to explain the appeal of foreign, often radical Islam in secular Eastern Europe without resorting to platitudinal references to anti-Western sentiments.

Her subjects are the Pomak men and women who had to piece their lives back together after the implosion of the socialist project. For them, socialism begot mixed blessings. On the one side, it brought an unprecedented mobility to the area. Miners were some of the best paid workers in socialist Bulgaria. Their high wages and new needs attracted schools, kindergartens, apartment buildings, cinemas, sports facilities and cultural institutions. All of these promoted an "atheist worldview" (p. 62) that altered the status of local women, who received education and gained employment and financial independence as teachers, nurses and white-collar workers. These changes were accepted, Ghodsee argues, because traditional male dominance was preserved through the higher pay and social status of male miners. The improvement in quality of life was so marked that Pomaks even reconciled with the authorities' attack on their religious identity. A renaming campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s (which acquired international notoriety in 1984-1985 when it targeted Bulgarian Turks) forced them to adopt Christian names and erase their Muslim past (chapter 1).

Like many other Bulgarians, the Pomaks of Madan never expected to mourn socialism when it collapsed in 1989. Yet the stories of their lives reveal the calamity the transition to capitalism wrought in small settlements that relied exclusively on a single industry (chapter 3). Over the course of the 1990s, the miners saw a dramatic loss of status, income and ultimately jobs, leaving the communities with 40% unemployment by 1999. They found no understanding and support from national political and religious institutions. …