Ben Sweeney’s Weblog

Got a Fulbright, living in Georgia for a year.

Some more on Tbilisi, part 1

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Well, I feel like I say this every time, but a lot has happened since my last post, both in my life and adventures here, but also in politics and local events.

Being here I really am getting a better sense of what is going on, by talking to locals, listening to friends and reading multiple news sources.  The positions here seem mostly unbiased, closer the facts and closer to the truth, which is not to say that there aren’t personal feelings or a lot of bias at times.

For example, this past Wednesday, I helped my friend Mats translate some interviews he did for a Swedish radio program.  So we sat in his hostel, I was translating crackling Russian into English and then him into Swedish.  He had just gone up to near Akhalgori, in South Ossetia, where Russian had only just pulled back to.  He had interviewed various IDPs about what was going on.  The stuff I translated was connected with schools mostly, that there had been 50 or 60 Georgian villages in the Akhalgori region, but not in one of them was a school open, although there was a Russian-language school open for South Ossetians, which teaches Ossetian as a subject.  The biggest problem according to the interviews was the fact that almost every family in South Ossetia is mixed to some extent with Georgian and South Ossetian members.  As a result of the conflict, people have been separated from their families, afraid to travel, even with the relative stability.

Thursday morning, after doing some research stuff (I am looking into the Soviet pension system, and what has happened since the collapse, especially recent pensioner protests in Russia), I met up with Stefano and Ian for coffee.  Stefano seemed a little phased, apparently he had been walking around Tbilisi, taking photos, when he was waylaid by a group of Georgian men.  They had sat him down at a table and poured him copious amounts of wine, vodka, and chacha.  Eventually he had managed to escape and after coffee, Ian went back to work, while Stefano and I set out to find the Fire Temple.  The Ashtega, as it is called is a remnant from when pre-Islamic Persia controlled parts of the Caucasus and built a Zoroastrian Fire Temple up on the hillside of Tbilisi.  Right now, it is run down, hard to find and there really is not much there.  This was enhanced by the fact that it was locked, but the trip looking for it was worth it.  We got to walk through some of the hoveliest hovels I have ever seen, with an incredible view of Tbilisi.  There were also other ancient churches, now just in people’s backyards, which was the case with the Fire Temple.  When I was there last year, I stumbled in after wandering around looking for it, and found myself in someone’s back yard.  I confirmed that it was indeed the Fire Temple, and chatted with a guy who lives there in the adjoining house.  He talked a little about the history, that it was one of the only Ashtegas left so far away from Iran, and certainly the one in the best condition, although, there were concerted efforts to conserve and then restore it.  The problem was the bricks, which were from a certain time and of a certain size.  We talked a bit and then he left me to poke around in the Fire Temple, which was just a small room with piles of the antique unique bricks found at ruins of different Persian buildings from around Georgia, as well as a small garden and a fig tree.  I ate an unripe fig and kept going, having beaten the Fire Temple Level of Tbilisi.  Actually, after this, I’ve been noticing these symbol of swirls all around the city – on coins and tokens, on sewer covers, and carved into old sites of the city.  They are some kind of Zoastrian symbolism which had an important effect in the city.

Anyways, this year, there was a new door to this guy’s yard, and correspondingly to the Fire Temple.  I knocked, but no one answered, so we had a look from the outside and decided to keep going.  Also a bit further up on the hillside is Narikala, this 4th-ish century fortress, so we went up there.  On the way, we passed one of Tbilisi’s most noticeable landmarks, this giant brushed aluminum statue of a lady, Mother Georgia.  As she looks out over the city, she holds a huge sword in one hand, and a cup of wine in the other.  I was always told this symbolized Georgian national character – warm friends, and ferocious enemies.  I’m just glad that they don’t play with swords while drunk – this hasn’t happened yet, but I can imagine the end of many scenarios beginning this way.

The fortress is kindof crumbling, but still pretty large, perched on the ridge of mountains looking over the city.  We entered behind a few girls, and pretty soon, Stefano elbowed me, saying they were hitting on us – I was too busy looking around to notice this.  Eventually we scrambled up to the very pinnacle of the fortress, and saw the girls there.  They started trying to talk to us in English, but sounded like parrots, repeating simple phrases like “Hello!” and “What is your name!”  Eventually I started talking to them in Russian, which one of them knew, but it was too windy to hear much, and some more interesting people came, this Israeli aid volunteer and a Georgian guy showing her around.  We chatted with them and got invited to Gori to see aid work and meet some more Israelis.

On the way down from the fortress, I talked with the Georgian girls some more, but mostly with the aid workers.  When we waved goodbye to the Georgian girls, one made the ‘I’ll call you’ hand gesture, which threw me cause we had not exchanged numbers.  The Israeli girl made her way to the Synagogue, because as I found out too late, it was Yom Kippur.  After a little shame, I made peace with my inner spirituality and went to a lecture on the origins of the conflict.

This lecture was incredibly informative, but a little biased, clearly from the Georgian perspective.  The first two speakers, important ministers in the Georgian government went over timelines of events and facts about the conflict.  They pointed out the minor contradictions and ways that Russia behaved illegally.  The third guy then got up and said something to the effect of, well, we can argue about details all we want, what happened at this time, and why that was bad, but in fact the real issue is that Russia sent troops into a sovereign country.  The lecture gave me a lot of insight into the Georgian decision making process, of why they engaged with Russia.  People asked interesting questions which were mostly answered, although sometimes in jargon.  I found out that the Georgian government had taken away arms from Georgians living in South Ossetia, and one of the questioners started yelling at one of the ministers.  The questioner felt that if they were armed, at least they would be able to protect their homes.  The speaker responded that, well, yeah, they’d be safe for a day or two until the Russians sent in heavier artillery to quash resistance.  This then could lead to the ‘Chechen-ization’ of the country, which was considered apparently.  There was a famous recent Saakashvili quote, that Georgia could have won the war, they’d just have to grow beards and go to the mountains.  But instead of turning the population into guerrillas, the government decided to appeal to the international community and go about things in a straightforward manner.

I’ve also been hearing a rumor that Georgian forces managed to capture the Roki Tunnel, the main passage way from Russia into South Ossetia, but that the Georgian troops were ordered to withdraw.  This issue was brought up a little, and I don’t think they said that it had been captured, but they talked about what could happen if it were captured.  While very strategic, the Russians had many other ways of sending troops in.  If any of you want to know more about the politics of this, just drop me a line, and it would be great to chat.  I’m not sure how much of the lecture was on the record (its not like they gave away state secrets though), but it would feel better to just have informal chats about it.

After the lecture, I saw some familiar faces in the crowd (and made new friends as well), and we went out to a huge dinner, complete with toasts and a little wine.  There is a guy here my age or so, half Georgian, half English, and his dad knew a professor here, but the kid was too young to have met him, having been born in Georgia.  It is quite rare to be brought up in these circumstances – the kid’s father was apparently one of the two foreigners living in Georgia during the 80’s, and it was quite a coincidence that the professor managed to recognize the kid and come along with us.

Friday morning I got up early, and was pretty busy, but it really is not worth mentioning here – I might write about it later though.  If you’re interested, I can keep you posted.  Anyways then, we went to this great restaurant, same from the previous night.  I’ve been eating a lot of these meat dumpling lately – khinkali.  I kinda got ‘khachapuri fatigue’ as I’ve heard it called, after eating so much of it, but I don’t know if I’ll get tired of these dumplings.  They are about the size of a small fist – meat wrapped in plain dough, bunched up at the top.  You pour pepper on them and take a small bite, and then suck out the delicious broth from them steaming.  Them you eat the rest, using the top bit as a handle, eating up to where it gets all bunched together.  I normally eat about 5 or so, but I can manage 10 at times.  This day was a 7 khinkali meal I reckon, washed down with a lot of coke.

Then I went did some more research until it was time for the weekly banya, which was as relaxing and entertaining as usual.  We talked about current events as well – people there are quite informed, but from all different kinds of perspectives.  I learned that Alkhagori, where my friend had been, had never been controlled by the Russians before, that it was an ethnically Georgian area.  The peace deal, brokered by Sarkozy was apparently quite vague, with liberal translations between French, Georgian, and Russian.  It called for a retreat of Russian forces to South Ossetia, to pre-conflict lines, which the Russian’s interpreted as to the borders of South Ossetia, so in many cases they extended their forces to places they had never held.  Akhalgori is interesting because it has one of the largest breweries of Georgia, people said that could be one reason the Russians have an interest in it.

After the banya, we went to a South Ossetian restaurant, and feasted again.  The amounts of food here are ridiculous (as well as ridiculously delicious).  I’m doing a lot of walking and other activity, but I’m going to have to start some kind of real exercise at some point.  I had more Khinkali, but passed on the plate of gullets that looked like soggy mushrooms, which some people found quite delicious.

I met up with my roommate and some friends at a bar, which was incredibly busy, so the service was sub-par, and despite such a long day, I decided to accompany them to a party held by a Georgian friend.  The guy who hosted the party was one of the most interesting people I’ve met here so far.  He is an artist, but is really well known for these stickers he makes of flowers with six petals.  As soon as I saw them, I began to see them all around the city, and he gave me a few packs of them to have fun with.  He was kind-of a nervous twitchy guy, very creative seeming, and has just headed off to London for a year to study.  The rest of the people at the party were Georgian, and all seemed to speak very good English, but in a way that was really annoying.  They used lots of slang and rude words, which in proper context can really spice up a language, but they way they used it just seemed out of place and gratuitous.  Also, there was a guy who learned English through pop songs, so he could speak, but mostly he would just listen into your conversation and when he heard a word he liked, he would sing a song with that word in it, very loudly in your face.

After a few hours, we decided to get a move on home, so we went out to the near empty streets – it was a quiet neighbourhood and later in the evening.  Finally a car came by and we hopped in.  There was already another passenger in the back, a young woman, so I thought we’d be able to get a cheaper fare, but the driver looked at us and said $100.  I thought he was joking so we just got in and kept going.  I started talking to the driver, just explaining what I was up to, what I was studying, and we commiserated about the plight of the pensioners here.  Then the lady in the back started pinching my roommate’s nipples, and things started to make sense.  The $100, was of course for something else.  We got out a few blocks away from our house so the lady of the night could not follow us, and rejected their attempts to overcharge us.  We started walking home, but they drove back up, holding out a cellphone, saying we had lost it.  We all showed them our phones and told them to just leave us alone, but wondered what was up with that.  Perhaps another customer had gotten distracted and left his cellphone.

Anyways, I’ll stop for here, and keep writing in another post.  Much more has happened – my party, a nice trip distributing humanitarian aid, a date or two perhaps, as well as more research, another trip to the banya, Georgian lessons coming soon, among other things.

Written by bensweeney

October 19, 2008 at 6:46 am

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