Some months ago, I wrote that it can seem to me that all roads lead to Bulgaria in a mysterious, six degrees of separation sort of way. It is of course a matter of interpretation, of if not looking for such connections then of being open to observe them when they happen. Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel talks not of six degrees of separation but instead of six chance happenings. Six fortuities. Things just happen to have happened, things that could “just as well be otherwise,” but afterwards seem to have been in some way fateful and even inexorably to lead to a fixed point.
Thus when I first saw the classic film Casablanca, I never noticed that Rick’s silent fixing of the roulette game is for a Bulgarian couple. I didn’t notice because I hadn’t yet met the Bulgarian whom I would marry and Bulgaria meant nothing to me. Now I can’t help but notice—particularly when these Bulgarian chance happenings occur entirely unexpectedly in places that seem rather more than six degrees of separation away.
I was reading Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, a contemplative, sometimes melancholic, and often beautiful memoir of his family, his father’s disappearance, and the dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Trained as an architect, Matar muses on downtown Benghazi and its development under Italian colonization in the 1920s and 1930s. The Italians in fact gave the name “Libya” to the colony it ruled.
The Roman Catholic Benghazi Cathedral (left above), he notes, was designed by Guido Ferrazza who led a life far from his birth in the small Italian Alpine village of Bocenago. And where did Ferrazza go after graduating from university in Milan? To Bulgaria, to consult on the already decades-long project of building the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (right above) in Sofia, Bulgaria. That Cathedral honored a 13th century Russian prince and that in turned honored the Russians who had freed Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War.
Just a few years before Ferraza left Italy for Sofia, Italian sculptor Arnaldo Zocchi did the same. Zocchi designed the enormous equestrian statue and monument to the Russian Tzar known as Alexander the Liberator. Zocchi had won earlier commissions in Bulgaria, and though now largely forgotten once was admired by Bulgarians as “The Divine Florentine.”
Bulgaria had its own connection with Libya apart from Guido Ferraza’s peripatetic cathedral involvement. Because Muammar Qaddafi styled himself as something of a socialist, he developed relationships with the Soviet Union. That relationship, according to the U.S. State Department, “involved massive Libyan arms purchases from the Soviet bloc and the presence of thousands of east bloc advisers.” On Christmas Day 1976 (a day neither country presumably celebrated), Libya and Bulgaria signed five agreements on trade, economic, scientific, and political cooperation at the end of a four‐day visit to Libya by Todor ZhIvkov, Communist leader of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria from 1954 to 1989. It was such a delightful visit that Zhivkov repeated it, though he appears somewhat awkward as he attempts to recline on the pillows placed on the ground for the reunion.
Later and in quick succession, there was Libya’s 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and in 1989, the collapse of the East Bloc. Perhaps, however, because of the existing longstanding relationship, Bulgaria did not seem to view Libya as a pariah state in the same way as most did in the West. The Bulgarian state-owned company Expomed recruited doctors and nurses to work at a Libyan hospital at generous salaries relative to what they were receiving at home. Other Bulgarian healthcare providers also found what seemed to be attractive positions in Libya. Most began their work in the port city of Benghazi in February 1998. Throughout his book, Hisham Matar longingly describes the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea as it is seen from Libya’s coast.
In November, the first news came of a HIV health crisis at the El-Fatih Children’s Hospital in Benghazi. Ultimately, over 400 children were affected. International experts from myriad organizations and the most renowned HIV specialists in the world pointed the finger at poor hygiene practices in the hospital that predated the arrival of the Bulgarian medics by at least a year. But the families of the children needed someone to blame and Qaddafi needed to deflect that blame. In March 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and a colleague, a Palestinian doctor, were arrested (initially more were detained, all but these six released) and tortured into confessing that they purposely injected the children with the virus. Sentenced first to death and then to life imprisonment, their case became an international scandal.
In April 1999, Libya fulfilled one of the United Nations Security Council requirements by surrendering for trial two Libyans suspected in connection with the Pan Am bombing. That began a long but sure process of easing relations with many countries, but for the Benghazi Six the suffering had just begun. It took over eight years before their final release was obtained with no admission from Libya that they were in fact innocent or that they had been in any way wronged. Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Muammar Qaddafi’s eight children did, however, concede that there had been some coercion of confessions after the Benghazi Six began sharing their painful stories upon their 2007 return to Bulgaria.
Just one year later, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Qaddafi signed the 2008 Friendship Treaty between their two countries. There was much talk about a “special relationship,” “reciprocal economic interests,” and recognition of Libya’s “gradual and prudent reform.”
In October 2011, Qaddafi’s over four-decade dictatorship ended when he was killed in his hometown of Sirte. In November 2011, scandal-ridden Berlusconi announced from Rome his resignation as prime minister.
Far from signing a treaty, Bulgaria instead warned its citizens against all travel to Libya and strongly recommended Bulgarians currently in Libya leave. Benghazi’s Mediterranean Sea locale has little to recommend it when Bulgarians can safely enjoy their own Black Sea coast. Kundera notwithstanding, it could not be otherwise.