On Cultural Identity and the Caucasus

Shriya Malhotra

India

There was a heaviness in Tbilisi, that of a national past weighing on the present in an unresolved way. Conflicted memories of Georgia’s history – of being a part of the USSR, the subsequent collapse and breakaway, and war with Russia in 2008 – evident in the museums, souvenirs and printed news, a reminder that the past was being reformulated and retold in new narratives: historical, social and cultural.

These constructs of national identity, however, seemed almost like coping mechanisms –ways of retelling a fragile story. I was lucky to be in the city when it celebrated “ a hundred years of democracy” with events including an exhibition of posters and a display of tanks on Liberty Square; a symbolic and vibrant array of interpreted slogans and images alongside festivities that reflected many voices and opinions. Even though I found the expressiveness refreshing and inspiring, I couldn’t escape the sombre mood and emotions that accompanied them. The underlying reality was of protracted conflict, loss of life, and reformulated political allegiances. All being surgically reconstructed by those in authority.

That morning, as I headed out into the old town, I learned that an ultranationalist group, the Georgian March,was hosting a demonstration in the centre of the city. Almost everyone I encountered on my morning wander suggested that I avoid the area and do a guided day trip outside Tbilisi instead. In spite of this, I continued my explorations of the old town, and was browsing stalls of second-hand books when I ran into two chatty former Soviet soldiers, Russians who now lived and operated tours in Georgia. Their approach was not an unfamiliar one to an Indian in countries that were once Soviet Republics: “Raj Kapoor? Do you know the song Awara Hoon? Jimmy Jimmy?!” Meeting countless fans of Bollywood films across the countries of the former Soviet Union is for me a constant reminder of their enduring popular legacy.

The now elderly ex-soldiers also suggested that it was in my best interest to go somewhere where there were other tourists, rather than staying alone in the city on a day of local demonstrations. At this point, I was beginning to worry that these could perhaps become violent, or result in clashes or barricades which, with no mobile coverage, made me nervous. They reassured me there was no risk of violence; the rally, they clearly felt,was merely an example of free expression in a democracy. Yet my visit to Georgia would not be complete without a day trip to see the frescoes at this one particular site, they said. I relented; nothing seemed to be easily accessible that day anyway, and for whatever reason I trusted them.

There seemed to be several former soldiers operating as tour guides in the area. Like living relics of military culture, they represented one side of history and embodied an increasingly rare form of longing and nostalgia for the past. The post-military life is an often difficult one of negotiating between very different past and future realities. The fraught and complex relationship between Georgia and Russia, now and in the past, was part of these men’s own histories and struggles with national identification.They seemed delighted that I could speak a bit of their language, and greatly amused that if they sang old Bollywood songs I could recognise and translate some of the lyrics for them. All this created a sense of camaraderie.

After negotiating the fare, I got into their Soviet-era Lada,which was decorated in a collage of photos and texts advertising different road trips from Tbilisi. I wasn’t altogether confident that the posters weren’t what were holding the car together. The back of the car was filled with tourist brochures and visiting cards, which also seemed to reflect their entrepreneurial efforts. Eventually, a few empty alcohol bottles rattled back and forth below the cigarette ash burn-decorated backseat. The ex-soldiers offered to turn on the radio, to which I politely declined and put on my headphones. Sensing that this might have appeared rude and created awkwardness, I removed my headphones a few minutes later and we began to chat.

As soon as we hit the highway, I understood why they had suggested I leave the city. The rugged, natural landscapes around Tbilisi were seemingly untouched and beyond breathtaking, in contrast to the heavily curated histories and legacies of the capital. At every turn, a new view of mountains and intense colours appeared, in combinations that felt almost photoshopped. As I gazed out of the car window in mostly silent awe, one of the men seemed to realise that the words of caution I had received that morning had made me nervous. He cheerfully pointed to the “Happy Journey” sign we passed along the way and reminded me that since I was a guest in Georgia, people would not treat me disrespectfully: “You should read Shota Rustaveli – The Man in the Panther’s Skin! It is the national epic. There is an Indian maiden in the story… In Georgia, we love visitors, we consider them gifts from God!” he said. As he continued telling me tourist facts interspersed with snippets about life in the USSR, I noticed how years of alcoholism had created pockmarks in his worn skin and, sitting in the Lada with the empty beer and vodka bottles clinking below the seats, began to consider the complexity of his experience. I found myself wondering how much the rampant militarisation of life and culture was changing the country, and about its individual legacies and traumas.

Earlier, at theTbilisi Art Fair, it had been difficult not to notice how contemporary artists’ attempts to grapplewith the socio-political reality, and the legacies of borders and conflict, were reflected in many of the works.The images seemed to attempt to reconcile Soviet, post-Soviet and now pre-European identities. The struggle to negotiate proximity to East or West was also reflected in the curation at the museums, as well as in the pursuit of creative and tourist economies.

As we approached our destination, the Mtskheta monastery north of the capital, the soldiers directed me to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. The walls were covered with beautiful frescoes and icons, and the indoor temperature, even in the midst of an unprecedentedly hot summer, was better than any air-conditioning I had experienced in the sweltering city. The sense of silent calm was at once reassuring. We walked through the outdoor bazaar, where we became immersed in the sounds of commerce and encountered an array of sights focused on food and craft, stalls that offered both a cultural and economic snapshot of the country and a glimpse into its commodification and dreams of an increasingly capitalist future. “This is traditional Georgian pottery,” explained a man attempting to sell me unique salt bowls. The incredibly rich cultural knowledge passed on in many forms, generation to generation, included crafts and food traditions – including for instance that Georgia has the oldest and among the best wines in the world. A massive pile of terracotta souvenir magnets remained untouched, and I wondered briefly how lucrative an economy based on commerce and tourism could be in this place. In the same way that using Airbnb might raise the discomforting feeling of kicking someone out of their home to provide them an income, the lure of craft tourism economies can sometimes seem short-term and unsustainable, focusing on sales and the commodification of tradition rather than the transference of local knowledge and skills.

My appearance and mild-mannered behaviour in the bazaar created a little confusion. One of the soldiers took it upon himself to explain me to the local stallholders. “She’s from India,” he announced to a woman who was arm-deep in a vat of deliciously pungent golden svaneti salt, a mixture of marigolds, spices and chillies. She had glanced up from her task, and gazed suspiciously at the fanny pack around my waist that could identify me either as a tourist or a Rroma. “She knows about spices,” he added helpfully. It seemed clear that I didn’t represent the typical or desired visitor.

I had been slightly unprepared to deal with the stereotyped construction of my identity in this new context: possibly being a Rroma, potentially being Muslim, along with the current bad reputation Indians had in some parts of the country. As in any tourist economy, visitors become symbols of money. In some places, however, we also become symbols of processes, instances and situations people would sometimes rather not face.The many ways in which my identity was questioned, attributed and stereotyped made me realise that Georgia was fast conforming to become a part of Europe. To me there seemed an underlying anti-otherness, an urgency to deal with migrants and refugees, and a sentiment that appeared to stem from the hopes for regional integration which could include, exclude or define Europe and European otherness. To be an Indian woman, single, and travelling as a tourist seemed unusual to the vendors, but given that Georgia is one of the safest places in the world for women to travel alone, it had been for me an obvious choice.

After a few hours of walking around, we headed back to the Lada, and Tbilisi. The soldier in the driver’s seat asked how it was that I spoke Russian; I said I had lived there as a child and later tried studying the language in school, adding that sometimes I really missed it. They both nodded and silently agreed, noting that their ability to freely travel within the expansive borders of the Soviet Union no longer existed. Now, they were settled in Georgia, where some of the next generation were increasingly angry and resentful of the Russian past, and often therefore of Russians living in Georgia. “We speak in Russian, but the young people no longer study it in school; many even get upset if you speak in Russian or suggest that you like it, so be careful,” one said. He thought for a minute, and then continued: “You should just speak in English to people. So that they know you are a tourist, and a guest.” Turning to me from the front seat, he looked me in the eye and sadly concluded: “The countries are at war, still. It’s all a mess.”

Shriya Malhotra is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.