It’s been a busy few months–a future post will shed some light as to why. Likewise, July has been a rather eventful month in Georgia’s political arena: Eduard Shevardnadze passed away, Davit Narmania was elected mayor of Tbilisi, and the cabinet was reshuffled. I’ve also made cameos on a few other blogs–my friend Julia came to Tbilisi, and I chatted with one of my former professors about life in the suburbs.
Happy Georgian Independence Day! I guess?
Last year, May 26 was a fun day. We strolled down Rustaveli Avenue in the sunshine, spent time with friends (and made new ones), encountered President Saakashvili, and celebrated this welcoming country.
Today has been the polar opposite. Last week’s violence has left me bummed, despite the relative success of Friday’s “No to Theocracy” demonstration. Being in a large crowd seems inadvisable right now, and Georgian nationalism is not really something I want to celebrate at the moment. To top it off, it’s pouring, so I’m just going to stay in bed.
Here’s to hoping that next May 26 is more celebratory!
I’d been having a fantastic week this week. On Thursday my team and I won a sporting competition at work–not only did I get the best souvenir ever (a medal in Georgian) but I made new friends with my teammates, had the incentive to exercise with a purpose, and made a good impression with our management. A friend was in town from the village that evening, and he said he’d never seen me so happy. Friday was also off to a great start–my first lesson went really well. My students wanted to watch the news because the anti-homophobia (IDAHO) rally was quite important, so I agreed to let them watch if they would translate for me. This spurred the kind of conversation that makes me love teaching–although there were differences of opinion, the discussion was respectful, and there was no hate. Disagreements came from a place of mutual respect, and though no one changed their opinion, the phrase “You have a good point” came up–people were clearly thinking. At the end of my class, I got some good news about my future working there, and as a little bonus for my great morning, all my favorite foods were in the cafeteria at lunch. I was ecstatic when I left.
From there, things went belly-up. As I was on the marshrutka to Job 2, I received a text message from S saying that the rally was not going well, and the protestors had been chased by an angry mob. When I arrived there, my co-workers filled me in on the news updates and said how ashamed they were of their country, but I didn’t really realize just how wrong the situation had gone until after my lesson when my co-workers told me it wasn’t safe to take my usual route home. “Not safe” is a phrase I had never heard before in Georgia, and I’d never felt unsafe before.
That afternoon/evening I chatted with friends and read the news articles to find out what had happened. (I recommend this article from EurasiaNet, and Mark Mullen’s spot-on reaction). Note, though, that my friends who were near the action (who I generally trust and believe are reasonably good at counting) say that their impression was that the numbers of anti-homophobia demonstrators was closer to 200, not the 50 that most news stories attribute. The most shocking thing to me, and I believe to most people, was the behavior of the priests: using vulgar language and advocating killing the LGBT supporters. To me this is absolutely horrifying, and absolutely non-Christian. Christianity is supposed to be a religion of love, and priests should be the ones at the forefront of that, not the ones committing such brutal violence. I’m glad to say that MP Tina Khidasheli shares this point of view, and has been brave enough to say so publicly. Good for her, and shame on the Georgian Orthodox Church.
I was quite upset and spent the evening in a bit of a funk–decompressing with friends, and listening to 60s and 70s protest music on YouTube. (Someone mentioned that this is Georgia’s version of the US in the 60s, and Neil Young’s “Southern Man” was striking a chord with me).
Fortunately, on a personal level at least, my day ended happily. A former student invited me to join him and his friends for khinkali–my reflex was to refuse and stay at home watching YouTube and chatting with my friends. But I hadn’t seen this student in a long time, and I realized that it would be good for me to be reminded that although there was a lot of hate on Rustaveli, it is not representative of the majority of Georgians. Hopefully the good, kind Georgians will prevail.
So that, ultimately, Friday’s events can have a happy ending for others, I’m linking here to two organizations fighting the good fight here in Tbilisi who I think could use some support.
- Identoba, the organizers of the peaceful demonstration. (English website temporarily down)
- Women’s Fund in Georgia, another NGO working to fight sexism and homophobia
It also helps to remember, that despite the hate, there were tens (or hundreds) of people who were brave enough to stand up for what is right. Though the struggle is different in America, Georgia’s LGBT community isn’t alone in their fight against ignorance and fear. Love is love is love is love.
Georgia will hold Parliamentary elections on October 1, and things are starting to get exciting. Because of my job I don’t want to post anything political about the elections, but I have definitely been watching the proceedings with interest. I wanted to honor the occasion with a post, though, so I’ve taken photos of some of the many interesting political posters throughout Tbilisi to share here. The photos don’t reflect the frequency with which I’ve seen any of these posters in particular–I’ve just taken photos of the more visually interesting scenes I’ve seen and been able to photograph. Many of the photos are taken out a marshrutka window, so I haven’t been able to capture everything interesting, either. I hope you enjoy a glimpse of these Georgian election ads!
This winter, I had my 15 minutes of fame on a popular Georgian TV show. Specifically, my Georgian teacher from grad school had her 40-ish minutes of fame, and I was a supporting character. She was being profiled for a human interest piece on her work educating foreigners about Georgian language and culture, and since I was also in Georgia, they wanted to speak with me about what I had learned, as well as to film me teaching, showing how my teacher had inspired me to do good for Georgia. I think the piece turned out very well in the end; they made my teacher and my graduate program look great (I hope the show got my grad program some good press), and it was a good half-hour of TV programming. My TV appearance also eased my path with regards to integrating into my community–my 1st grade class got to be on national TV, for which their families were very grateful. My school was delighted at the PR opportunity, in particular the chance to show that even though our school is poor we have a fantastic English lab with a small library and a computer. My host family was able to see my university and “meet” the people I’d worked with. (My history professor (Hi, Professor B!), was a big hit; my host grandfather said “He is a good man”). My Georgian teacher, now a TV star, was seen as a hero in my community, and whenever I wanted to visit her in Tbilisi I had no problems leaving town whenever I wanted.
The final product of the program looked fantastic–my students were adorable (and looked like they always paid attention and were active participants in class). The bulk of my interviews were done in English, which the TV staff translated (accurately, as far as I remember and understand the Georgian), though I did do a small piece of the interview in Georgian which was featured in the show. They also taped me having a little chat in Georgian with my teacher and her kids. The reporters and camera people were very friendly and nice, and I was super-impressed by the cameraman’s interaction with my first graders. He was very kind and polite to them, while also getting them to do exactly what he wanted–that’s no easy task! My only complaint about the final product was that I really wish they’d let me brush my hair before they started filming me.
Because I reaped so many benefits from this TV program, I’m not going to tell you the details of which program or channel, because while I was happy with the outcome, I have some criticisms of the journalistic process. Georgia is, of course, a post-Soviet country, and the media sector is still in transition. Freedom House rates the Georgian media as “partly free” in 2012…far better than in many other parts of the Former Soviet sphere of influence. (You can see all their data here.) In my opinion, a large part of the problem stems not just from the legal environment but from the fact that there isn’t a culture of investigative journalism or rigorous reporting. My impression is that the reporters are told information by their sources, and then the run it (this is an issue that foreign aid groups and NGOs are aware of, and are working to change through journalistic exchanges and further education). There is also not always a good understanding of the processes necessary to film in certain places, or talk to certain people. The style of television and what is popular to watch is also different here in the States (as I’ve posted about before) which I’m sure contributes to the different culture surrounding TV journalism. I should note here that my experience with the media back home in America is also limited–I’m not a journalist by training, and all of my contact with the American media has been through local TV stations or newspapers and human interest pieces, almost all while I was in high school. What most surprised me about my experience being interviewed for the show was that it was I and not the journalists who was ultimately responsible for getting the permissions necessary for them to film me. Since they wanted to film me teaching, that required permission from the school principal, the local education authority, and the class (as well as permission from my employer to talk to me)–all of which I had to make sure they had. At one point in the interview, I was asked to change my answer, because I didn’t give them the answer they were expecting. Apparently, I interpreted the question differently than they had intended it, so when they rephrased the question I did have a different answer, but I still didn’t say what they wanted me to say. When they filmed me teaching, the crew had a very specific idea of what they wanted to see in the classroom (me giving commands in Georgian and encouraging the students to translate), which unfortunately does not correlate with the way I teach. So all of the scenes of me teaching are dramatized, rather than documentary. It also turns out that I’m not cut out to be a TV actress, because it took me at least 5 takes to open the door properly. Overall I felt that the portrayal was accurate, but I was worried by the way in which the journalists were driven by their preconceptions of how the program should look, rather than finding the facts and letting them drive the story.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” is the inscription on a New York City Post Office, and thought of as the motto as the US Postal Service. Now, I don’t know if Georgian Post has a motto, but some things will certainly “stay the couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”. Such as passports. Apparently, you now have to show your passport in order to SEND mail through the Georgian post. I can understand the rationale behind providing identification when mailing a package, or even an envelope, but being asked to show my ID when I’m sending a postcard seems a bit silly to me. Since it’s nothing more than a piece of cardboard, it’s quite obvious that there is nothing nefarious hidden within. I should also point out that this regulation is new–I’ve been sending postcards and even letters on and off for two years now, and I’ve never been asked for my documents in order to send things, just relatively large sums of money. They tell me this is a new regulation, and my Georgian friends confirm.
Now, I swear I’ve read an article somewhat recently about Saakashvili suggesting reforms to the postal system, but I can’t find a citation at the moment (if you know anything, please share!). I am, in principle at least, 100% behind the idea of reforms to the postal system. From what I’ve seen and heard Georgian Post is pretty much a mess, and addresses are often just a suggestion of where something might be located. Reforms to the postal and address system would, for me at least and I assume for many others, do a great deal of good on a day-to-day basis. But being asked to present my passport in order to send a postcard just seems silly–less a reform and more a return to a Soviet-style system. Furthermore, Georgia is actively working to encourage tourism. Tourists often like to send postcards. Tourists will likely be taken aback by having to show their documents to do so. This new postal regulation seems to work against many of the other reforms and changes that are underway in Georgia now.
So, if you’re expecting a postcard from me, you’ll have to wait a bit longer. In the meantime, read my blog postcards as a way of keeping yourself entertained.
At some point, pretty much every foreigner writing a blog about Georgia has their post about gender roles or relationships in Georgia (here are some interesting ones: My friend Jared’s supra experiences,Fleur Flaneur’s examination of The Myth of the Strong Woman in Georgia, and tcjbritishvili’s relationships with Georgian women) and I’m now joining in. Rather than talk about my experiences as a woman in Georgia (clearly different since I’m a foreigner than if I was Georgian), I’m going to deal with the issue a bit differently and discuss women in politics here in Sakartvelo (perhaps I’ll regale you with comical tales of marriage proposals and housework sometime in the future). Gender relationships in Georgia are interesting, and can be difficult for foreigners to put a finger on because they aren’t simple to categorize. Georgia is at the same time a traditionally patriarchal society and the home of many powerful female public figures. There’s a saying that “A Georgian man is the head of the family, but a Georgian woman is the neck”. The Georgian man is regarded as the one in charge, but this doesn’t mean that Georgian women have no control over what happens in their families. Women in public/political life thus pose an interesting conundrum in Georgia.
I recently had a conversation with a well-informed friend about this topic, and, well, I stand corrected. I was under the impression that there were more women in the Georgian government than there are. I’m amazed that there are only 6% women in Parliament! I honestly thought there were more of them… But as so often happens with Foreign Policy magazine, they seem to have read my mind and published an article on women in Parliaments, particularly in the Former Soviet Union/Eurasia. The crux of the article is that it isn’t just important to have gender representation in Parliament, but representation of different points of view: political and ethnic minorities as well as gender. One important point regarding Georgia is that it isn’t just the current members of Parliament who make up Georgia’s powerful women. Georgia has had a female Head of State (something the US has not) in Nino Burjanadze (now an opposition politician, and not the only female one, either). Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister for Reintegration is the quite prominent Eka Tkeshelashvili, Vera Kobalia is the Minister of Economic Development (another prominent figure, frequently in the news), and Khatuna Kalmakhelidze is Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance. (and let’s not forget that there is currently an opening for Minister of Interior). Many other, lower-level bureaucrats are also female, and the NGO staffers I’ve met (far from a representative sample, of course) are overwhelmingly female. Has Georgia figured out a way for women to “have it all”? No. Has America? Also, no. Things in Georgia need improvement, but in my opinion the situation for women in politics isn’t as dire as the terrifying 6% figure suggests.
This evening, former Minister of Interior Vano Merabishvili appointed Prime Minister, replacing Nika Gilauri. Civil.ge article here.
Original Post (Approximately 4:30 PM, local time, May 16, 2012)
My region has been in the news quite a bit lately, so I thought I should fill you all in. The Davit Gareji Monastery, a popular tourist site with great importance in Georgian culture and religion, has long been subject to a border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Recently, the dispute has become more major with the news reports that Azeri border guards are currently stationed on Georgian territory in the monastery.
Allegedly, the exact border between Georgia and Azerbaijan was drawn by Stalin back in the Soviet days, when it wasn’t so important exactly which territory was Georgian and which was Azeri, because ultimately all were part of the Soviet Union. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Soviet internal borders were maintained as national borders. This border left the Davit Gareji complex split between the two countries.
When my friends and I visited Davit Gareji at the end of March, we knew we were very close to Azerbaijan, but we didn’t even realize where we entered Azeri territory. There were certainly no guards there– we only encountered two other people on our trek up the mountain to the cave sites. Now that I’ve heard about the controversy, I’m quite sure that we were in Azerbaijan, but there were no obvious indicators of the fact. (I’m under the impression that the low fence is, in fact, the border–at the time I just thought it was a rather ineffective means of keeping people from tumbling off the mountain). I recently spoke on the phone to a friend (a fellow foreigner living in Georgia) who had visited Davit Gareji in the past few weeks. She mentioned at one point “You know the place where the guards are?” So, clearly the situation for tourists there has changed a bit in the last month. She said she and her friends were discouraged from lingering or taking photos of Azeri territory by the guards posted there (which is a shame, because it was a really stunning view).
According to the news, there are now Azeri soldiers at the border, including in the monastery complex, and the two countries have been discussing the border dispute with more urgency. In an article dated May 15, The Messenger, an English-language paper based in Tbilisi, notes that Georgian border guards are now also present, and that tourists are prevented from visiting the full extent of the site. An Azeri news website, Contact, reported on May 14 that Azeri guards had previously been barred from visiting the monastery, and have now entered Georgian territory.
Although I am in this raion, my knowledge of the situation is based on what I’ve read online and seen in the news. It’s certainly been a major topic of conversation, but I haven’t gotten the impression that people feel unsafe, just worried about preserving their cultural heritage and making sure it stays in Georgia’s possession.
Update: 10 PM local time, May 16, 2012
Rumours are flying that the territory has been ceded to Azerbaijan. At this time I haven’t found any official (or even somewhat reputable) sources offering this information. Will update if and when I find out more.
Update: 11 PM local time, May 17, 2012
Still no actual updates on the subject–legitimate news sources suggest that negotiations between the two countries are still ongoing, while many Georgian interlocutors have told me “What a shame that place is no longer ours!”
Update: 4 PM local time, May 18, 2012
“Word on the street” remains the same. Democracy and Freedom Watch has published a nice summary of the situation here.
Update: May 20, 2012
Meetings are continuing, and the situation feels far less tense. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (of Georgia) has issued a statement here. Meetings are scheduled to take place on the issue in conjunction with the NATO summit in Chicago. As I understand it, the border remains the same as it always has, but Azeri guards are now enforcing it, blocking tourist access to the Udabno monastery.
Update May 24, 2012
The situation at Davit Gareji is resolved for the time being. Though the legal border remains in dispute, Georgia and Azerbaijan have agreed to return to the status quo regarding tourist visits to the site. Civil.ge offers a full report on the May 20 agreement. So if you stumbled upon my blog trying to learn whether or not you can visit as a tourist again, it appears that you can! Enjoy!