HAVING SHRUGGED off the jealous embrace of Russia, and after beginning a stumbling approach towards Europe, Georgia is coming into its own. Georgians like to think of themselves as the original Europeans, yet EU membership remains a much-longed for but unlikely dream, for the time being.
In a recently released movie The Loneliest Planet (what was inspiration for that title!?!), a young couple endure travails and challenges to their relationship while trekking in the Georgian Caucasus. Despite not overly positive reviews of the film, it might go some way to putting the country on the radar of Western travellers.
Certain others, however, have already discovered the delights that Georgia has to offer. Georgia is establishing strong business and tourism links with the Middle East. The largest Georgian airline, Airzena, has recently launched direct flights to Erbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and Kurdish holiday makers are availing themselves of the opportunity to visit the Caucasus and the Black Sea coast, visa-free no less. It appears that few Georgians are returning the compliment, that is taking the return flights, even though the Kurdistan region is the most peaceful and by all accounts beautiful region of Iraq.
Meanwhile, Iranians have been for some time making a bee line for Georgia, having similarly launched direct flights and dropped visa requirements in 2010. Economic ties are strong, and there is considerable two-way traffic, with Georgians commonly seen haggling in the bazaars of Iran, and Iranians joining in the clamour of Georgian markets. The two countries have some shared history – if not always entirely happy. In fact it was the threat of ongoing Persian domination that prompted Georgia’s King Erekli II to ask Russia, a fellow Christian nation, for protection in the late 18th century. That ‘protection’ lasted until the 1990s.
In Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s wonderful novel Paper, a tale set, to my mind, somewhere on the cusp of Persian territory and the Caucasus (even though the back cover blurb says it’s in Central Asia) during the Qajar era, a wily Georgian envoy milled amongst Persian mullahs and other characters, while a tormented scribe hankered after the eponymous paper. (Note to self: must reread this some time.)
I once encountered a wily Georgian of my own in Tbilisi. On my final day of my visit I marched into a carpet shop that I had been circling for some time and announced that I wanted to buy a Georgian carpet. The carpet seller, a woman with a bad peroxide job partially grown out, produced several options, assuring me that all were authentically Georgian. When I had chosen and gone through the haggling process and all was agreed, the woman let slip that this was a carpet ‘from a Georgian village near Tabriz’. I didn’t remonstrate, figuring that there was at least some Georgian aspect to the item. On a later trip to Tabriz (the Tabriz that’s in Iran!) I saw many a carpet very reminiscent of my ‘Georgian’ purchase, and was roundly told that there was no such thing as a Georgian village anywhere nearby… A dodgy carpet seller: who would’ve thought…
Georgia is also establishing stronger links with its neighbour to the west, Turkey. There is a sizable Turkish community on Aghmashenebelis street in the neighbourhood of Marjanishvili in Tbilisi, and I have encountered Georgians working (usually at menial jobs) in Istanbul. In fact, there was a long history of Georgians playing significant roles in the Ottoman hierarchy. Relations between the two countries are again strengthening, with plans afoot for the construction of a new mosque for the Turkish community in Batumi, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. In return, Turkey has pledged to contribute to the refurbishment of derelict Georgian churches in the valleys in and around Yusufeli in the northeast of Anatolia.
I recall visiting a church near Dörtkilise, in Turkey’s so-called ‘Georgian valleys’, in the mid-1990s. The church, a sturdy structure in golden stone, appeared along a remote track, surrounded by robust greenery but no other constructions, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Inside: whizzing bats, dim light coming through slim, arched windows. On a bare stone altar, delicate curlicues of Georgian script. And on the back wall, conflicting graffiti scrawled in charcoal in Turkish: ‘one day Islam will rule the world’; and ‘we must protect this church’. There is hope now that the latter sentiment may be acted upon.
Meanwhile, let’s hope the recent experience of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is not indicative of Georgia’s prospects as it embraces its near neighbours: on a recent trip in Turkey he fell off his bike and broke his arm…