The "notorious" Pankisi Gorge

[slideshow] Each year the Alazani river cuts a slightly different path along the mountains that surround the Pankisi Gorge. The modest log bridge above the rushing current remains in use, but there are also sections of dry riverbed further upstream. It’s a fitting scene for an outsider trying to understand this territory: the river changes its course down the mountains and the mountains themselves - well, they don’t talk much do they?

I visited a friend of mine named Ruslan in the Duisi village of the Pankisi Gorge. I had met him five years ago on my first trip here. Back then I was translating for another journalist, but this time I came back to get an update for myself.

“Pankisi is some kind of myth,” said Ruslan after getting a sense of my questions. “What is it? People have said all kinds of things.” This is no understatement – this small bit of borderline with Chechnya was a notorious point of media and think tank focus during Russia’s second war with Chechnya, when the Russians protested that Chechen militants had set up bases on these borderland mountains.

The militants left after a Georgian “crackdown” in the beginning of the decade. What actually happened is unclear, but at the very least they were asked to leave. This is old news though – the next sensation came from another readymade media temptation.

In the beginning of the decade, a so-called Wahhabi mosque opened in Duisi, which already had a traditional Sufi mosque. The new mosque is impressive - a large, solid structure made of shiny expensive material. This fueled speculation that the money for its construction came from Saudi Wahhabists. Some reports link the funding to a turn of fate when a local pilgrim on his Haj met a Saudi Emir who became intrigued by this enclave of Muslims in Georgia. There are many less charitable theories as well.

So I asked Ruslan about it and after a few minutes he began to be annoyed. I should note now that I came to Pankisi to visit him and his family. I was not working as a reporter and I did not speak to many people in the region, but my time with Ruslan and his family left an impression I thought worth writing about.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, “In my opinion, life here is categorically better and there is no need to create problems.” He explained that while there were some tensions between the two mosques, the media attention exacerbated them. Yes younger men tended to go to new mosque and older ones preferred the traditional one, but these were often father and son, so the conflict between them was hardly critical.

However, all the media attention and out-of-context reporting created animosity between both sides. Ruslan thinks tensions have calmed because “people realized there may be outside forces trying to pull them apart.” Whatever the intention of the media (which I believe is most often no more sinister than to get a good story) it can still have the unintended effect of antagonizing both sides. It’s one thing to disparage a neighbor in private – it’s entirely different when they see it in print.

Whatever the state of affairs before and now, the people of Duisi are understandably tired of journalists. Maybe this is why there are few happy-ending stories reported? If people feel instigated by reporters, they will not want to talk to them even if the situation improves – especially if tensions calm down. It doesn’t mean the work becomes impossible; it’s just important to consider the effect it can have and try to put it in context.

I should mention a few words here about my own impressions of my friend and his culture. He is Kist, a Chechen-speaking, Muslim minority in Georgia who share a kinship with the Chechens. A joke goes: A good Kist calls himself a Chechen, a bad one calls himself a Georgian.

Ruslan had crossed the mountains several decades ago to work in Chechnya, but fled back to his home during the second war. It took him six days and night by foot to cross the mountains – an ordeal he still feels in his feet when he describes it. He seems genuinely amazing he survived the journey, but his attitude on the war in ambiguous. He is a proud Chechen, but he is quick to distance himself from empty patriotism. I don’t know his exactly views on the conflict, but we discussed the ruthlessness and hypocrisy of both sides.

It was a rich experience to stay in his home for a few days. He is a devout man, but also an eager conversationalist and open to hearing my thoughts. And like me, he is also quite adamant in his beliefs – as he pointed out: “Islam” means subjugation and “Muslim” means slave of God.

We spent a lot of time discussing urban and rural living. He distrusted cities because the anonymity eroded any sense of morality. I disagreed, but not entirely. And so we went from topic to topic. I should mention here that my friend speaks flawless and dynamic English, which he originally learned from books alone.

Aside from his faith, he is a well-educated man, a loving father and a hopeful gardener, having planted over thirty fruit trees and an assortment of vegetables.

His two sons are rambunctious, curious and full of life. His daughter, who is fourteen, is poised and attentive to her duties – “it’s our culture,” she said without any resentment when I thanked her for cooking and cleaning everything during my visit – but she is also happy to chat about school, music and whatever is on her mind.

His family was as happy and functional as anywhere in the world. This doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, myself included, but it does run against the common image of Chechens as either victims or ruthless bandits.

When Ruslan and I walked to a hill overlooking Duisi, he said to me, “There are open societies and there are closed societies. The Chechens are definitely a closed society.” It’s an observation you can see on all the village roads, which are lined on both sides by tall, heavy stone walls and iron doors. The smoke rising from a stove is all you can see of the inhabitants inside.

It is impossible to discuss Chechens without inquiring about the violence that continues to wrack the North Caucasus. Most of the Chechen refugees that had come to Pankisi have returned to work on the building boom in Grozny. It is one piece of Russia’s effort to create a pacified, peaceful and friendlier Chechnya. I heard an example of this effort in the marshrutka (mini-bus) I took from Tbilisi to Telavi en route to Pankisi.

I don’t know what the radio station was, but it was playing Russian pop music which usually had a Caucasus twist. Maybe it was compilation tape? Either way, the songs were pretty weak, but one was particularly jarring: Chechen Girl. The lyrics to the chorus are “I’m a Chechen girl / My desires are like vastness and the wind / Try to make me like you / Tell me I am beautiful.” Then again, “I’m a Chechen Girl, / The moon and stars are my life / He who can make me like him / Will be sent to a country of wonders.”  Just in case that comes across as vaguely sincere, take a look at the video.

I would be ashamed to ask a real Chechen girl from Duisi to even listen to the song, but it was a hit a few years ago and continues to be played to this day. Okay, maybe it’s catchy, but it’s hard to imagine a similar come-hither tone attached to an American pop hit called “Iraqi Girl.” Granted, Chechnya has always been closer to the Russian imagination than the Middle East was to the USA, but that doesn’t mean there is any less cultural delusion.

After spending some time in his home, I asked Ruslan about this song. Surely this flirty, submissive tone was annoying. He had heard the song and seen the singer, but he joking implied that his Islamic values prevented him from accurately describing what this self-professed “Chechen Girl” actually looked like, but I finally got it out of him: “a used up prostitute.”

We talked about whether the traditions of a mountain people can survive in the valleys – this being the migration always pushed by the Russian and later Soviet policy. If you bring them down into the plains, they are easier to assimilate, or at the very least keep an eye on. Duisi lies in the plains, but the fighters who were here reported set up camps in the mountains.

As for today’s world, we talked about whether Chechens will remain Chechens as they move into apartment buildings.

Ruslan said he had read a lot of Marx’s writings in his Soviet education and he clearly had respect for many of the insights Marx had into capitalism. It’s curious that while Marxist criticism and Islamic teachings have very little in common, they both reject the backbone of Western civilization: consumerism. Ruslan could rely on Marx’s insights into the strategy and cynicism of Western capitalism, but embrace Islam as the antidote. Just one of many curious intellectual overlaps in the remnants of the Soviet Union.

So will it work? I asked Ruslan, will Chechnya be pacified and transformed? He thought about it for a while and said that people are probably accepting some of this Russian arrangement. After so much bloodshed and war, peace is welcome – especially the jobs, homes and security that it brings. As for the consumerism and urban values that Grosny’s apartment buildings and shiny new streets bring, he was more skeptical.

“The Chechens are good at pretending,” He said, “They may be smiling, but they don’t forget and forgive. Many are waiting for a moment to strike, but they can be very patient.” Just how long, or how useful, this intractable Chechen memory will prove remains to be seem, but even my short visit to Duisi proved to me that they are capable of many things besides fighting.