The Arab Culture Forum is a Bulgarian-based NGO dedicated to Arab culture, history, traditions, and modernism. Its founder, Ruslan Trad (@ruslantrad), is a Bulgarian-Syrian freelancer in Sofia who also manages the first Bulgarian blog about the Middle East. Muftah recently had the opportunity to talk with Ruslan about the parallels between Eastern Europe and the Middle East region, the challenges facing Eastern European journalists, and the importance of educating Bulgarians about Arab culture. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
You are the first blogger to write about the Middle East in Bulgarian. What first drew you to this region?
Ruslan Tran (RT): I started my blog in 2009 and decided to focus on Palestine. Five years ago, few people in Bulgaria spoke about the Arab world. If it was talked about, then the comments were only related to Iraq and the participation of Bulgarian troops in the war there. Other than this, the Middle East remained “terra incognita” for many people in Eastern Europe and my country. Although there are centuries of connections between Europe and the Middle East, Europeans are not fully aware of this part of the world.
The lack of information about the Middle East bothered me. I thought there must be a space to discuss this topic, so I created a blog. Today, I largely focus on Syria and Iraq. Bulgaria is currently faced with a refugee wave from Syria, and I saw how the lack of information between government authorities and the people led to tension.
Now, the topic of the Middle East and the Arab world is much more familiar to the Bulgarian reader. This is progress.
What was the inspiration for founding the Arab Culture Forum?
RT: The inspiration for the Arab Culture Forum is similar to the reasons that led me to start my blog. This may be a cliché, but there is much truth in the idea of sharing information to break down stereotypes. Through the Arab Culture Forum, we are trying to draw a bridge between Bulgarian and Middle Eastern societies.
What parallels do you see between the Middle East and Eastern Europe? What can people in these regions learn from each others’ political, cultural, and economic experiences?
RT: Interesting question. Did you know that Bulgarian experts advised the Tunisian political elite after the overthrow of president Ben Ali in 2011? This is indicative. Bulgaria and Eastern European countries have already experienced a “transition period.” This is a time when the state is broken, there are no existing institutions, no real power, the borders are unstable – but the society has enthusiasm for change.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Eastern Europe have evolved differently throughout history, but politically they are very similar. They have something to learn from each other. Economically, the countries of the MENA region are more interesting for the Western investor. In both parts of the world, however, there is danger that the “transition period” will lead to rising chaos – in Eastern Europe, we saw that in 1990s when the mafia created the alternative economy of the “underworld.”
In both cases there is a common political problem: the attempt by old elites to influence new realities. No one should be naive enough to believe that when a dictator is removed, it will be the end of slavery. In fact, the hardest part only begins then. We saw this in Eastern Europe. We will see it in the Arab world, too. Of course, the Arab regimes are much more severe and brutal than those regimes, which governed Eastern Europe until 1989. But the political consequences are identical.
Bulgaria is Europe’s lowest-ranked country in terms of media freedom. What sort of challenges do you face as a journalist in Bulgaria? How do these pressures affect your work?
RT: Some topics are difficult to discuss – for example, the role of the mafia and the oligarchy in government. When my colleagues try to cover these topics, they receive a lot of negative pressure from their bosses. This is unacceptable. It reflects a trend in Bulgarian journalism that has persisted over the past 25 years: self-censorship, pressure from above, abuse and even physical violence.
At the moment, I focus on Iraq, Syria, the Islamic State, and refugee waves. There is a growing interest in the Middle East, and many people have questions for which they expect answers. I try to write to these people. At times it is hard to write, though, because local opinions are manipulated by politicians who capitalize on the lack of information.
I face similar obstacles to all my colleagues in Bulgaria, but I have one advantage – I work as a freelance journalist. This gives me freedom. Less money, perhaps, but more freedom.
What is the most pressing challenge facing Eastern Europe today? How does this societal challenge affect the obstacles you experience as a journalist?
RT: The oligarchy is the biggest problem in Eastern Europe today. Oligarchy is everywhere – in the media, in government, in the supermarket. Since 1990, this has been one of the worst consequences of the changes in Eastern Europe’s social system. Political transitions in countries, such as Bulgaria, have continued for a quarter century. But there can be no meaningful change when the oligarchy puts so much pressure on civil society.
Today we see strong political apathy, lack of interest in voting, and lack of trust in institutions. The European Union does not help – because the problems of Eastern Europe can be solved only by those who live in Eastern Europe.
How can these problems be resolved in Eastern Europe?
RT: First and foremost, we need political will. It is important for civil society to operate and be able to push its ideas forward. It is necessary that people have the right to exercise their role as regulators of government. Currently, in Eastern Europe, people are completely excluded from the state’s decision-making process, with the exception of the Czech Republic and Poland.
Besides economic and political problems, there are philosophical challenges as well to do with the status quo in Eastern Europe. Only when the status quo changes, stability is achieved, and political apathy abandoned can countries in the region achieve their full potential.
What role does the Arab Culture Forum play in Bulgarian society? Why is it relevant to Bulgarians?
RT: Since 2009, we have implemented several exhibitions, and our organization has participated in the MENAR film festival promoting movies from the Middle East. We organize literary gatherings, and have translated the works of Naguib Mahfouz and Mahmoud Darwish. These efforts have been welcomed by Bulgarians. Our organization has also been involved in humanitarian work. For two years, we have supported initiatives assisting refugees in Bulgaria.
Many people have applauded the work of the Arab Culture Forum. Lots of people contact us when they have questions or are just curious about the Middle East. Bulgaria is on the border of the European Union, just a twenty-four hour drive from Aleppo. If you do not understand the Middle East, you close a door to a vast culture and a different world that is, in fact, not so far away. We can’t risk closing that door.