The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of change, and 1989 became crucial for many of the then socialist states in Europe. That same year ended the era of one man’s domination, Todor Zhivkov, who in his thirty-five years of rule in Bulgaria became the longest-serving leader in any of the Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe. The assimilation program that Zhivkov introduced in 1984 to the Turkish minority and other Muslim communities did not bypass the Muslim Roma either. The introduced mechanism of mass repression forced them to change their names, Turkish or Arabic, in order to suppress their language, culture and Islamic faith. When this happened, Hristo Kyuchukov was a young man who worked as a teacher in a small village in Bulgaria, teaching students who had just been affected by the newly adopted measures. He himself saw the traumatic experience that the process of Bulgarization produced for his students, and even in the eyes of the children these changes did not go unnoticed. Years later, in a conversation with his American colleagues, they encouraged him to write a story for children observed precisely through the eyes of children. The book “My name was Hussein” is his first work of fiction for children which he wrote as a visiting professor in the United States of America.
Hussein is a little Roma boy living in Bulgaria who acquaints readers with the diversity of cultures and customs that his family has incorporated into their daily lives over the centuries. He lives a full boyish life when the army comes to his village and immediately introduces a series of measures – a ban on the Romani language to the villagers, going out at night, praying in the mosque. Destroying identity cards with their names and forcing them to take on new, Bulgarian names, however, is most difficult for the whole community. Actually the book is a reflection of my childhood, although it was written when I was already an adult, states Kyuchukov.
In Bulgaria during his childhood, in the 1960s and 1970s, the communist system was in its heyday, and the political conflict, namely the Cold War, was played out by all possible means. The majority of the Roma in the country was poor, and there were no educated Roma nor the Roma elite. Although the official policy towards the Roma had been labeled as friendly, as Kyuchukov calls it, the reality had shown that they had no rights at all to develop their own language and culture. Moreover, discussions on the Romani language, history, and connections with India were dangerous and forbidden, as well as were the teaching of the Romani language or gatherings for the purpose of nurturing one’s own culture.
From my childhood, I remember the hidden and also the open forms of discrimination. To be a ‘second-hand person’ was quite ‘normal’ and no one was thinking to react to the discriminatory policies toward Roma. The Roma knew that even if they react they will be not able to change the system.
Kyuchukov was already an adult when the name change took place, and in the years that followed he devoted himself to psycholinguistic researches with Roma and Turkish children, the linguistic and educational rights of Roma, as well as to the intercultural education of migrant and refugee children. Banning the use of Romani and Turkish languages in public places, punishing people for any form of demonstration of their ethnic and religious identity, and sending them to prison for expressing them were common at that time. Regulations have been passed on how minorities can celebrate their traditional holidays and events without the use of Romani music, songs, clothing, and the Romani language was used only in a family setting. Although this posed a danger, at home the Roma used their Muslim names.
The name is one of the most important features of our identity. Our names are given to us from our parents and no one has the right to break that rule and change the names of someone in a later stage of his life. It is a humiliation of the human dignity of that person.
This is the most tragic and embarrassing episode in Bulgaria’s modern history, continues Kyuchukov, who worked on the introduction of the programs in the Romani language for children in primary and secondary education in Bulgaria as early as at the end of the last century. The universal story of Hussein provides a picture of the plight of many ethnic minorities, who have been subjected to assimilation or continue to face it around the world. In the immediate aftermath of the democratic changes of the 1990s, one part of Muslims, Roma, and Turks regained their names, but many others were denied access because they did not have the opportunity to go through costly lawsuits. Fear of the different, but also the rise of Islamophobia in Europe and in the world is manifested through individual attitudes and behaviors, but also through the policies and practices of organizations and institutions, and assimilation programs rarely receive significant criticism in society and the media. Thus, the thinking aspect of Hussein’s observation of national identity and cultural memory is rounded off in the seemingly simple question that this young narrator asks at the end of the story: What would you call me?