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FEATURE 14 Jul 17

Sweet Aromas Linger on Bulgarian Capital’s ‘Arab Street’

Bulgarian nationalists may protest against the vivid mix of peoples on Tsar Simeon Street in Sofia  – but many Bulgarians come from afar to savour the rich Middle Eastern delicacies on offer. 

Mariya Cheresheva
Sofia's Tsar Simeon Street. Photo: BIRN

The stifling summer morning is unusually calm on Tsar Simeon street in the centre of Sofia.

A few people can be seen on the cobblestoned pavement – mostly shopkeepers, chatting and having a coffee and a smoke in front of their colourful stores, or foreign tourists, exploring the secrets of this old quarter of Bulgaria’s capital.

Named after Simeon the Great – the tsar, or emperor who presided over the expansion of the Bulgarian Empire between 893 and 972AD – today Tsar Simeon’s street is known as “the Arab street”.

It is not hard to figure out why, seeing the shop signs, which carry the names of Middle Eastern cities such as Baghdad, Erbil and Jenin, and offer a large variety of foods and goods from the Arab world.

“There are people from everywhere here: Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Kurds, but also Turks and Bulgarians,” Haled from Palestine, who works at a grocery store in the street, told BIRN.

Many oriental products can be found in the street's various shops. Photo: BIRN

He explained that while many of them, like him, emigrated to Bulgaria decades ago, some of the street’s inhabitants arrived much more recently, as part of the global refugee crisis.

This migration has not gone unnoticed by nationalist groups in Sofia who have held several protests against the “de-Bulgarisation” of the neighbourhood since 2013, when the refugee influx reached Bulgaria’s borders.

However, a peek into history shows that ethnic diversity is nothing new for the area around Tsar Simeon Street.

Its historic name is Yuchbunar. Occupying the western part of the centre of Sofia, it was home to a Jewish community in the late 1880s, after Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman Turkish rule following the Russo-Turkish war in 1877-1878.

The Jewish community was resettled there from its previous neighbourhood by the then mayor, Dimitar Petkov.

Together with the Jews, parcels of this formerly unattractive area were granted to other underprivileged groups such as refugees, homeless people and workers.

Noting its poverty, the Bulgarian writer Chavdar Mutafov in 1941 called Yuchbunar “a country of misery”.

“Spending all his life at the doors of the capital, he [the citizen of Yuchbunar], is as distant to us as the outcast at the doors of the temple,” he wrote.

Once on the outskirts of Sofia, today Yuchbunar - often called the “Women’s market” area because of the popular food market located there - has moved from the outskirts closer to the city’s heart following over a century of growth.

But its controversial image has remained the same, and Tsar Simeon Street has become a symbol of its controversy.

“Simeon is a very long street with different parts – from car maintenance shops to all kinds of Middle Eastern gastronomical surprises, to hairdressers, call centres, the oldest and most exquisite restaurant in Sofia [L’Etranger], hipster bars and independent cultural spaces,” Bistra Ivanova, chair of Multi Kulti Collective, a NGO which works for community development and the integration of refugees and migrants, told BIRN.

“People either love or hate Tsar Simeon … Somehow it divides society into two,” she added.

For the street’s inhabitants, however, it is simply the place where they make their living.

Selim, a Bulgarian from Turkish origin, has run a halal meat shop there for over 25 years.

“We have Arabic, Turkish, Bulgarian customers. They all love our halal meat,” he said.

However, he complained that business is worse now than 25 years ago, when he first opened.

“We have far less work. People are not coming here anymore – they have left the country,” he noted, adding that he is here to stay.

Tafwaz, Iraqi Kurd, in the bakery he works for. Photo: BIRN

Unlike him, Tafwaz, a 23-year-old refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan, had no desire to live in Bulgaria.

He reached the country 10 months ago, planning to continue his route to Germany, like many other asylum seekers.

But, after the Bulgarian authorities took his fingerprints and registered him as an asylum seeker, he felt obliged to stay because he feared he would be deported from Germany.

“I am staying here; I can’t go now,” he said, passing me a piece of hot samoon, a type of yeast bread consumed mainly in Iraq.

Just like his two friends, refugees from Syria and Iraq, he has found work in an Iraqi bakery on Tsar Simeon Street, which serves a variety of pastries baked on a traditional stone oven.

“I have friends here, the job is OK,” Tafwaz said.

According to Bistra Ivanova, as a result of the refugee crisis, the Tsar Simeon area has become even а greater hot spot for Arabs.

“New businesses have opened – food stores, restaurants, hairdressers and shops,” she added, explaining that this entrepreneurial activity is no surprise.

Refugees and migrants flourish best in cities or neighbourhoods where some “diversity” and “difference” already exists, she said.

 “The area became more unattractive for ethnic Bulgarians and many of the old buildings were emptied,” she recalled.

“The neighbourhood has become a symbol of all Bulgarians’ fears and a scapegoat for the so-called ‘Patriots,’” she noted, referring to the far-right nationalists’ name for themselves.

Haled, the Palestinian grocer, said the refugee crisis had badly affected the local businesses.

“Due to fears, maybe, because large groups [of refugees] were gathering here, fewer people started coming,” he said.

However, he added that most of his clients remain Bulgarians who like Arab food.

Freddy Benjamin in front of his restaurant Ashurbanipal. Photo: BIRN

A walk on Tsar Simeon is never complete without a turn at Tsar Boris, one of the intersections, and a stop for a traditional Iraqi lunch at Ashurbanipal – a tiny restaurant named after the one of the greatest leaders of the Assyrian empire.

It is run by Fredi Benjamin, an Iraqi Catholic who fled Baghdad in 2001 together with his Orthodox Christian wife, Linda, and their two children.

Since then, he has become a legend of the neighbourhood because of his delicious cooking.

“After so much suffering, we were waiting for a single smile and nothing else - and unexpectedly we found it here,” he told “I am a migrant”, a blog.

“We liked Bulgaria. I saw love in these people. We could stay and work here,” he added.

But Freddie prefers to talk about his cooking rather than about the hard life his family had back in Iraq.

“I try to prepare things in a way that Bulgarian and European clients like,” he told BIRN, explaining that only a minority of his clients are of Arabic origin.

To meet the tastes of his more Western clients, he has changed the traditional Iraqi recipes, preparing less spicy and more vegetarian dishes.

“Many people come for my biriyani rice, and for the hummus I make every day,” he said.

“I come early in the morning, I shop from the market and start cooking at 6.30am. I always serve fresh meat and never freeze it,” he said.

His diners come from far and wide. “I have clients who come from far away – from Plovdiv and Varna. I am proud to work like this and to have not clients but friends, who appreciate my cuisine,” he concluded.

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