Drinking in Georgia

[slideshow] The best thing about Georgia is bouncing along folded up in the back of a marshrutka, puttering through green mountains ridges wishing you could hop off and buy the fruits sold under the lonely, makeshift huts along the highway. These outpost of shade are manned by men or women frozen in time, hoping to reap the work you can see in their faces. Never does commerce looked so timeless.

My route would usually begin in the center of Tbilisi, whose wide boulevards remind me of an aging man's brittle veins, the way they pass alongside heavy buildings and feed steep side streets. Here there are still occasional boutiques which appear childish, fresh-faced and naïve in the madness of seeds, cigarettes, exchange shops, newspapers and plums that actually account for most of the Georgian Lari’s travels.

A statue of the 5th century Georgian King Vakhtang Gorgasali overlooks the Mt'k'vari River, pointing his sword toward Tbilisi’s old city, which is flanked by the Narikala fortress.

The old city is build into the side of a hill, with parts of it recently remodeled into well-lit villas and other sections a brick-strewn maze of balconies, yawning windows and outright ruin. Some sections have the look of a ghetto, but their tiny streets are nearly barricaded by a lone, late model SUV, while others are steeped in all the fake charm of luxury hotels and alleys spotted with beggars and con men. The old city is home to wealthy investors, war refugees, artists and people who simply did not want to move even as prices soared and soured.

My contacts in Georgia insist the president takes an active role in designing the architectural initiatives of the city. This is a source of gleeful woe for an architect friend of mine who sees recent additions such as the Peace (or is it Freedom?) Bridge as both a crime against humanity and an endless source of rumination. It was immediately dubbed the Always Bridge because of its resemblance to a certain feminine hygiene product.

With the landmarks behind me, these thoroughfares spill out into diesel madness as I ride into the rest of Tbilisi. The wide traffic circles resemble mini-buses hives. Around and then back to another boulevard, but without the colorful charms of the center. Restaurants and banks are replaced by hut-sized bakeries and shops at the foot of big monolith shaped concrete apartment buildings poured during the Soviet Union, each one a uniquely clumsy testament to the architectural pitfalls of an atheist urban strategy.

One of the best metaphors I’ve encountered about Georgia is the difference between these crumbling cement slabs and the warmly decorated apartments they contain.

After you unlock the steel lock of the steel door in a typical high-rise, you proceed to an elevator roughly the size of a hermit’s kitchen table and drop a few coin into a brilliantly engineered, but very malicious looking box. It will take five or ten tetri coins, “or anything higher I’m sure,” my friend added. Once this welded parasite is satisfied, the elevator makes an angry noise and heads up – if there’s electricity. I haven’t had the misfortune of finding out what happens when there isn’t.

You can usually reach some approximation of your floor and walk up or down the unevenly spaced steps to your apartment.

Inside there is humanity. People of all ages – your friend, his wife, his children, his parents, her parents, someone’s cousins, someone’s friend, someone watching television or hanging laundry – sit or stand to shake your hand and kiss your cheek.

Inevitably someone will offer, begin or have just finished brewing tea. Tea: the start and finish of simple pleasures, the most merciful gift the earth has given the Caucasus.

Your host will set a table of cucumber, tomatoes, greens, bread, cheese (it’s not a delicacy here, it’s a staple) and depending on how you pick your friends, wine and an ashtray. You will be fed and there is nothing you can do to stop it. I would suggest eating slowly because you will be urged to eat more by someone who has mastered their benevolent tone to maximize your sense of shame. Eat, eat! Here… Eat. Stop being shy already, have some more.

While the table is loaded with food, look around the apartment. It is wide, with high ceilings and generally uncluttered. Doors and windows are usually open to fight the heat, unless the owner fears the windy draft I consider so essential to my wellbeing, but which is widely, and tragically, considered harmful by an otherwise brave and intellectual nation.

The decorations alternate between Georgian horns, daggers, vases, flowers, maps, and possibly a painting or three. There will always be photos of family and likely a heavy Orthodox cross. Sometimes you may see a small shrine, with the photo or icon of a Georgian Orthodox leader or Saint – to be honest all the Orthodox churches are still something of shimmering mystery to me.

Good conversation takes place at the kitchen table, but like everywhere the television has burrowed its way into the homes of even the most gregarious people. You may be seated in front of a Georgian dubbed telenovella, or some of the highly praised local versions of Ugly Betty or Friends.

Then there’s Russian television, which has surpassed our own for violence, but in a far more brooding fashion. The majority of violence on Time Warner Standard cable is comic, in the sense that it does require any emotional consequence or empathy, but many of the Russian mobster series make sure the kidnapping or betrayal is coupled with the need to retaliate against or at least glimpse real cruelty.

I don’t mean to get down Russian stuff and I’ve caught myself making negative references more often than not. I think part of is that the so-called “Russian” things I’m referring to – the pop music, the television – is imported and branded as this modern, rich feel good product. That’s what annoys me. Adopting foreign status symbols and pathos doesn’t cast the Russian language, culture, soul, whatever you call it, in a way that interests me.

Status symbols have their own intrigue of course, but I’ll save that for Baku entries.

If you’re tired of the TV and it’s not football, occupy yourself as best you can until a decent hour and buy a bottle of wine or vodka.

Drinking in Georgia is organized, but to excel requires creativity. Before I describe the process, let me pause to apologize to any Georgian for whatever mistakes or interpretation I make. This is a custom tailor made for words, but not of the written variety.

Suppose you’d like a drink. A smiling “Cheers!” will appear almost pathetically aloof. Instead hold your tongue and wait for the Georgian, hopefully the most eloquent one – or maybe the man of the house, I’ve heard sometimes the most educated, I’m not sure – will propose a toast. This means he is the Tamada, or toastmaster. Don’t interrupt.

As these things typically go I don’t remember the correct order of the toasts if there even is one, but there are a few bases that must be covered so be prepared to drink.

Lets say it begins with a toast to friends. The tamada will say a few words about friendship, hopefully yours included. Feel free to add your own words after his, but don’t speak longer than the Tamada. I like this rule very much.

Then eat the pickle or tomato slice or bread to chase the drink. You may have a beer handy, but keep it below your nose lest you accidently raise a glass during a toast. While I’ve heard some contention on this matter, beer does not command the same respect as wine in the land of Queen Tamara. Vodka has made serious inroads, as it usually does in the drinking culture, but any toast with beer is considered sarcastic if not outright ignorant. To be fair, quite a few Georgians have told me this is nonsense, as plenty of ancient mountain villages brewed beer.

The conversation about family, friends, money, travels, politics, cars, and football can resume, usually a bit more animated than before. Then another toast, this time to those who are not present. This includes those who should be drinking with you, but are not, whether they be in the army, in prison, sick, dead or simply scattered somewhere in the former Soviet Republics. This is a good toast and one worthy of contribution, even if your thoughts drift to someone only you know. I’ve also been told this toast is only for the dead, which makes sense considering the next toast must always to be to life.

As the night progresses, you’ll drink to your parents, to women, to men, to the country in which you are drinking, to health, to children, to friendship again once more bottles arrive, to architecture, to music, to whatever you’d like.

I contribute a toast I derived from some hearsay about a prostitute in Montana that my first girlfriend told me about. I’d like to propose a toast to patience, I say, because alcohol comes from patience. The story goes, this prostitute was working as a waitress in a restaurant on a particularly busy night and suddenly the governor shows up and demands to be seated. But of course there aren’t any free tables, but of course he doesn’t understand how he could possibly be kept waiting.

Eventually he speaks to owner, who tells some locals to leave to make room for the governor and his entourage and they order a round of beer, which the waitress brings to the table and promptly pours right over the head of the governor. “Beer requires patience to make,” she said.

Another Georgian friend explained the utility of this drinking ritual. Imagine, he says, how it was hundreds of years ago, with Georgia between East and West, Christianity and Islam, with traders, travelers, pilgrims, crusaders, passing through a land they knew next to nothing about.

Caucasus hospitality demands that these visitors be offered a place to stay, but that doesn’t mean everyone gets along. So if you’re gonna drink, such a tradition quickly generates friendship between totally strangers, significantly reducing the chances that guest or host will wake up with a dagger wound.

One day I drank with three Georgian teens all coincidently named George. The Georges brought a lot of wine, turned on the world cup and we began our night. I asked who was going to propose a toast and one of them, the one with the best English, said he hates this tradition. “Why do we have to drink like Georgians? It’s like a trap.” He said it’s exaggerated for tourists, it’s fake and a bit suffocating. Fair enough, but then we started drinking.

Another George proposed a toast, then another, and soon we were drunk. Some of the toasts I heard that night were as intimate as any. Friends who died, mothers who worked too much, a girlfriend that puts out, the color of nighttime sky, etc, etc.

Modern or not, some things are in the blood.

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.