Monday, November 22, 2010

The One Where I Agree With Religious Nationalism

This dude tried to write a LOLified story of how ridiculous a religious cleric is in Georgia. I don't think that he succeeded.

Here's how it goes, and stop me if you've heard it before: The spiritual leader of Georgia, one Patriarch Ilia II, raised a protest about a Buddha statue in Tblisi, saying that it would be unallowable in "a holy land" and reminiscent of the Persians (who, y'know, were not cool with the whole Buddha thing themselves). It's a ridiculous quote on it's face, I won't argue that.

But the Patriarch's got a point. The writer of this EurasiaNet piece, Mr. Lomadze, writes how The Buddha Bar is a part of " a posh recreational space in the city's historic downtown" and mentions that hey, there's a mosque and a synagogue downtown. As if Tblisi just needs some urban renewal, like Baltimore or something.

It's disingenuous to mock the Patriarch for this. I can wear my "I've been to Tblisi" hat, here, y'know. Tblisi has a little island of "posh recreational space" inhabited by expats and Misha's select, and then there's acres and acres of slums. Because of the inscrutable goofiness of the Georgian language, there's no intermingling. You have the Anglophone or, at best, Russophones, who talk with the well-educated Georgians. And the rest are just fodder.

I was grossed out in Tblisi because I was smoking cuban cigars and drinking high-end vodka, listening to Manu Chao sing of torching the fat cats, and in a country where I didn't understand one word. I'm hardly a bloody-heart sort of guy, but I did recognize the inherent creepiness of it. That bar area is like a FOB of businessmen. The Buddha Bar is a symbol of these, to pardon the phrase, capitalist leeches who don't give a fuck about Georgia. People who are doing their time to build up their exoticness cred, maybe cover a little war or somethin' about sticking their thumb in Ivan's eye, and then go back and REALLY start making their money. Misha's mistake was thinking that these guys were the America who'd support him, and not the actual rest of the people who were a bit more realistic then them.

Georgia, of course, ain't that exotic. And it's getting far less so. Misha's latest machinations involve a series of hotels on the Black Sea and other things that made me write:
There's too much room for corruption and graft. Too much of an excuse for Americans to talk about "helping Georgians" and not giving a damn which ones they help. Lots of rich, connected, Georgians will benefit. Lots of poor Georgians will be disillusioned.
I'm pretty sure this falls into the same category. People see the country as place to make a quick buck, and they don't really care about the long and complex history of the region. It's not full of people, its full of sales opportunities! I know this may sound overly snarky, but I am very concerned here. It's really disheartening for me to see, after all the digital ink spilled by Joshua Foust and the gang over at Registan, that absolutely nothing positive has come out of Afghanistan. That things are completely and utterly fucked with a minimal sense of accomplishment in Afghanistan. I'd hate for Georgia to follow that path, and the Buddha Bar reminds me of the "drinking in Kabul!" stories of old and new.

Book Review: Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845-1917 by Austin Jersild

"Gunib is high. Allah is higher. And you remain below."

Yeah, so it's not from Orientalism & Empire and is actually just a quote from Shamil, who, by the way, was captured/surrendered at Gunib.But it does a good job of giving you a frame on how awesome the Caucasus are.

Jersild's book is hardly a history of the Caucasus, and reads more like a story of the end of the Tzars and the end of an Empire. If you don't know your Avars from your Ingush, your Cherkez from your Chechen, you'll probably get lost in some of the details. And I have to admit to not knowing my Georgian kings or really the history of Georgia at all, so there was some frantic wikipedia'ing at the beginning of this read. But kind of like how you can tell the truth better through a novel, this snapshot of the Caucasus does a better job than trying to fit in a thousand years of history into 160 pates.

There are lots of fun stories. There's the story of James Stanislaus Bell, an Englishman who fought against the Russians in the 1800's, less for Britain, more for the difference of it. He is sadly not on wikipedia, but he does make an appearance on Gustavus von Tempsky's page, who was something of a Central American, Prussian, less interesting Bell. There's fantastic stories of revenge and blood feuds. And this isn't even touching the actual academic stuff.

The actual academic stuff is, of course, very interesting.There's a chapter on Shamil in exile and how he was paraded around as Le Grand Kavkaze, including how the Russians tried to turn his children into good Russians, and were shocked SHOCKED that his son fought for the Ottomans in the 1900's. There's stories of how the Kavkaz muhajirs to Turkey then got Turkified by Ataturk and the Republic and became Turks, while the ones who stayed in the Caucasus kept their identity a bit stronger, which came to an interesting turn when the two peoples began to meet in the 1990's. Who was the "truer" Kabard, or something like that. And even though the book doesn't cover the Soviet times, there is a whole discussion on how the Russian Empire tried to get Kavkazi to turn back to their cultural roots, but not their religious roots. Because, y'know, they are two different things and all. And the Georgia stuff, well. If you've not been paying attention before 2006, you wouldn't realize that Georgians and Russians worked together for centuries. Long story short: the Kavkaz is COMPLICATED, yo. And it's hard to do real service to that.

So there's some great stuff in there. Also, it does a fun little bit on the legal system(s) of the Russian Empire, which you know I'm a sucker for. And everything is very well-cited and there's an immense bibliography. I read it for fun, sure, but it absolutely works as an academic book. It's well-written and can be breezy to read, but is jam-packed with information.

So if you're at all a nerd about the Caucasus, especially Georgia, it's worth a read. And to both of my readers, I have a question: I need to read more on the Caucasus besides this and Yoav Karny's Highlanders. So if you have any suggestions...please, let me know.