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Bowdoin Books

Introduction - Connecting Lives, Texts, and Social Change

Banya Mosque

Silvi, a Bulgarian Muslim and an Avon lady,1 always worried about her roots. Not where she came from, nor who her great-grandparents were. Silvi obsessed about the roots of her hair—how many millimeters of white she could stand before she had to dye it again. When I met her in the small Bulgarian city of Madan in 2005, Silvi was in her late forties and had thick jet-black hair that hung all the way down her back. Over the years the gray had taken over, and it was only nine days after each dye that she could see the silvery sheen glistening at her temples once again. Silvi had been born with the name Aysel, which she was told means “moonlight” in Turkish. She did not care that the communists had made her change her name as she was a rather secular Muslim and really only cared about selling Avon products, which she had been doing for almost ten years. Silvi, short for Silvia, is a Western-sounding name whereas Aysel is Muslim. Since so many Bulgarians associated Muslims with rural life and tobacco growing, it was hard for someone with a Turkish name to project the aura of glamor needed to sell beauty products.“Women will buy more toiletries from ‘Silvi’ than they will from ‘Aysel,’” she told me.

In recent months, there had been a growing trend that disturbed her: an increasing number of young women were dressing head to toe in a new Islamic style imported from abroad. Some of her best-selling Avon products were anticellulite and bust-firming creams, and Silvi wondered if the market for them would shrink as fewer and fewer young women wore the once ubiquitous combination of micro-miniskirts and ample décolletage. “If ugly old women wear a ku•rpa [kerchief ], it does not matter. No one wants to see them anyway. But young girls?” She told me this as we walked to the center of town. She pointed to the big mosque. “Those Taran Mosquefanatitsi [fanatics] will be bad for business.” Silvi then began reciting a list of things that were changing in her home city of Madan: restaurants had stopped serving pork—once a staple of the local diet; some women were no longer allowed to leave their homes without their husbands’ permission—something unheard of before 1989; men who went to the mosque were being given preference for local jobs; and old people who should be venerated were now being chastised as “bad” Muslims for carrying on local traditions practiced in the region since before the Second World War. 

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