Sunday, 21 December 2014

Let them eat cake


Eliso had been up all night making the most beautiful cakes. Moist sponge soaked in peach juice and topped with kiwi slices shaped like crescent moons filled her kitchen. Cherries suspended in jelly, whipped cream adorning heavenly chocolate-layered pieces  sat on top of refrigerators and cupboard tops and could rival any professional catering company. She had been collecting china teacups for weeks. Bric-a-brac market stalls had been raided, wedding sets donated, gifts from friends collected and family members had been scouring antique shops since I first suggested the event.  It is difficult to find English tea sets in Georgia but she had gathered, washed and stored 80 cups and saucers for the occasion.

 

I was nervous.  Not just because the Tea-Party was being covered by the Public TV station, and not because I felt he was watching me, but because the people I had invited to speak for 5 minutes over tea and cake were an eclectic mix and included some who were seen, by their own people, to be the enemy within. The idea was to mix up English and Georgian cultures and to celebrate a long and positive relationship.   The UK government had changed the visa laws earlier in the year so a five-year practice of bringing Georgian artists to the UK to share their music, food, song and crafts had come to an abrupt end. I wanted to host something in Tbilisi to acknowledge all the hard work so many people had put into the English- Georgian cultural relationship. Usually all the accolades go to business people.  I also wanted to give people an opportunity to have a voice, to be heard and to be acknowledged. By inviting Natia, a politically active and vociferous LGBT representative I was taking a real risk. I had decided to follow my conscience. How could I be selective and not invite a whole group of people so important to the positive changes Georgia was trying to make, just in case it was uncomfortable? I couldn’t.  I had to do what was right.

 

The people I invited were mostly artists, musicians, alternative types. There was  also the Archbishop of the Georgian Baptist Church, an English Georgian Baptist Bishop and several academics from the UK, all  of whom with a vested interest in encouraging Georgia to be a more open and tolerant society. There were representatives from both of the main Georgian political parties, two extremely well known traditional Georgian choirs, ex-pats, journalists, and quite possibly, a spy or two.  I had also invited a member of the Georgian Orthodox church who had declined, as had a representative from the British Embassy.

 

People arrived on time, and the men were wearing trousers. This may not seem noteworthy to anyone outside of Georgia but it was a small triumph for me. Georgians are notoriously late. For everything. In fact, in our choir, Samzeo, we joked about working to ‘Georgian time’. Musicians are often known to be cavalier with things like this but add Georgian time into the mix and you have got a whole new frustrating cultural challenge. Often, any protests about this are met with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘What can I do?’  Georgian men also always wear jeans a lot. Anniversary? Wear jeans.  Important meal out? Wear jeans. Trip to the theatre? Wear jeans. Meet the Mayor? Wear jeans. You get the picture. The invitation had specified (both in English and Georgian) that the dress code was smart casual. NO JEANS.

 

So far so good, no one had come in jeans. As usual, the women  had made a huge effort and looked beautiful. The central table was exquisitely decorated and laden with layers of cakes and teacups, ornate and colourful teapots and soft scented flowers. It was very English.  The audience sat in a circle around the table, the speakers strategically placed within the circular space. There was no front and no back. Everything was designed to be circular, to encourage movement and to break down barriers. This may have been a mistake. The audience were looking for barriers even and they needed to feel secure in their place. That was clear. People needed to know where the ‘front’ was.  It confused them that the tea table was in the centre. Where were they to look? At the cakes?  In the end, the practicality of some presentations needing a large screen and a laptop meant that a particular ‘space’ became the’ stage.’  That stage had become the ‘front’.

 

The programme had been planned down to the minute and things were going quite well. What became quickly apparent however was that some people were leaving immediately after they had given their own presentation. The first tea break came and went with lots of mingling and chatting. It felt as though stereotypes were being broken down and I was pleased. Once people sat down again it became clear that several more people had left. Perhaps they had only just read the programme and decided to leave so that they would not have to listen to one of the most marginalised and dis-empowered sections of their own society. Women and the LGBT community.

 

The Programme for the evening was sent out to everyone who was invited and was available in both English and Georgian, 4 weeks, 3 weeks, 2 weeks and 2 days before the event.

 

Death Knell

 

About 45 minutes in, behind

The pleasant clink

Chink of porcelain

Flowers, Rhubarb  and Cream

Tea, ‘Fall in love with me’

Chocolate squares, I heard

The chime of

The death knell.

 

Tilting slightly I watched as

My marionette life

Tumbled elegantly, pivoted was

Re-defined by plotted

Scandal.

 

I watched the sky

Fall.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Erekle St. Tbilisi




I remember when,

Next door

Threw beautiful things into

Our garden.

 

Things like,

Golden rings inscribed with script so

Delicate that swan shaped bracelets

Bowed reverent heads and

Turtles, with outstretched limbs and emeralds for eyes

Played hide and seek amongst our rioting passion fruit vines.

 

Sometimes, when we

Played archaeologists

We unearthed golden shaped beans

Amongst the wildflowers that stomped

And tantrum’ed against the back sun-lit wall.

 

Uneven cobbled streets were our friends.

They rang out with

Childish laughter as we rolled our inside outside bicycle wheels through

Sunshine shade, through sunshine shade, towards the river

That called us to her with her song.

 

Then,

The Communists came in the discontented winter and

Took my Grandfather for being a good man.  They left

Only charred papers in a burnt out grate and

Four women whose cracked hands bled and beat

River washed wool to within an inch of its life.

 

Stones cracked, shutters rotted, balconies crumbled.

Mice made homes in window-sill holes

Where once there were silk spun drapes  but now

Wild yellow roses dwell.

 

My poor mother slaved to feed

 

Dulce et decorum est

(The old lie)

Non est Mortuus.

(He is not dead)

 

Every month she sent,

In a brown paper parcel

With ‘sorry’ written on the

Inside,

 

Bread from our oven,

Cheese from our goats,

Meat from the village,

Apples from our tree,

Socks knitted by guttering candle light,

Handkerchiefs made from curtains

To the punishing frozen North.

 

The first month

She sent,

Shoes, a book of

Poetry and

His reading glasses which, whilst cracked would

 Have to Suffice.

 

There was never any reply.

 

As I peer through the gap in the demolition boards

A rubble of childhood memories gaze back at me and

I see yellow roses wink and riot defiantly

Against the back wall in the

Lengthening shadow of a

Dying sun.


POSTSCRIPT
The family of women sent food parcels, every month, to Siberia for 4 years, encouraged by the Red Army and believed their Grandfather was alive.  In 1925 they were issued with papers that told a different story. Their Grandfather had been shot and his body buried in a mass grave the day he had been taken from the house back in 1921.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Fool's Gold (part 1)


It was one of those truly hot late July nights when the pavements quiver and a hint of thunder over the Tbilisi skyline promises relief. Leaving the theatre, my head still processing the tragic love story of Ramona that explores, through the beauty and precision of two (puppet) steam engines, the idea that the past can never be bought back and never be re-captured and that ultimately the real world tramples on romantic love, I felt sad. This trip to Georgia was coming to an end and the stark message in the play had invaded dark memories I had tried so hard to ignore.  I had not come to Georgia this time, heady with love and optimism, but rather to face some fears and to try to understand how it was I had fallen in love with a man who was the embodiment of a country that was, underneath, as treacherous and unfaithful as so many others.

Georgia, before her Soviet past and Stalin’s demonic ethnic cleansing and obsession with power, had been full of noble, creative, academic, intelligent people. She was at the forefront of cultural developments and was as progressive as other European courts with regards the arts, theatre,  literature and architecture.  Echoes of this past permeate the very air. I could hear it in the sacred songs that floated from the churches, and as we walked down Erekle Street  it was easy to flash back to the first time he had taken me walking in the night.  At the end of that first visit in 2009, after pursuing me all week he offered drive, then a walk on a warm September early morn to Sameba Cathedral, where, if you touch the golden stone, luminous and inviting, it’s easy to  connect with the spirit of the earth.  From there, we walked up to Kartlis Deda, the mother Georgia statue that commands the skyline and where  we had come across a group of men singing folk songs and toasting to the beauty of their first love, Georgia.

He had saved the very best until last. The walk up to Kartlis Deda had been accompanied by cicada song and the heady early morning eucalyptus smells that were so reminiscent of my Australian childhood. The path was steep and I clung to the intermittent railings until, at the top and out of breath I was able to slow my heart beat and look out across the city. It was stunning, and so quiet. The silence was thick with expectation. Then, from somewhere below us came the sound of men singing, long and low. Making our way down, slowly because of the hazardous pathway, we came across them. They had gathered at an elbow point of the precarious path, and they shared with us, their deep red wine, and he sang with them, and blended his voice with theirs and the sound swelled and filled the valley. All points of my compass turned. I teetered on the steep slope as we made our down and the silence between us filled with anticipation. I wondered out loud what would happen if I fell.   His reply sealed my fate. ‘I will catch you.’

Back in the present, I realised that the conversation between Nino and Eliso was charged with emotion. Eventually I understood what had happened. Irakli , Nino’s son had called, there had been an earthquake in the mountains whilst we had been in the theatre and its power had been felt for miles around. It was such an unusual event and every one was frightened.  I was oblivious.





Earthquake

The Caucasian mountains

Tantrum’d

Whilst we were

Emotionally distracted by

Metaphors and trains under

Crazy Click towers in the

Old Town.

 

Unexpectedly,

They grumbled to 4.5 and

Frightened

Tbilisi tower blocks

Already lacking in

Foundations squared up

Prepared to bluff.

 

As we wandered past the entrance to the Bridge of Peace and down Erekle II Street towards the bars in the Old Town there was a moment where pools of darkness reassigned themselves and became millponds in which memories dwell. The cobbled pavement was hemmed in either side by scuffed and rotting wooden barriers. To the left, the skeleton of yet another new building, its grey concrete form and jutting steel cables like cactus spikes, loomed over us. To the right, a derelict, tumbling ruin of what was once clearly a magnificent residence, slumped in on itself and played host to wild yellow roses that grew rampant from empty stone surrounded windows. There were gaps in the wooden boards and as I pressed my face to them I heard Nino sigh, ‘This was my childhood home’

Spinning round I saw her characteristically shrug her shoulders as I bombarded her with questions. ‘What had happened?’ ‘Who had lived here?’ When did you leave?’ Why is it still here?’ ‘Why did you leave?’

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Road-Kill and Destiny


Chance

Road-Kill

The chicken, squawked.

Discharged orange, yellow-blood-red soul-full feathers 

Cloud high, as the Moirai called her home.

 

Framed through the rear window, like some tourist board idyll,

Peasant farmers, all brown cloth caps and humble bent-backs

Scrape up the bird, broken body protesting,

Put it in a waiting black pot.

 

Already boiling.

 

 

I was shocked, not at the road-kill, but at the cavalier approach to this casual death and how we kept on driving. The taxi driver gave a shrug of his shoulders, and a ‘What can I do?’ gesture. I thought, as I settled into my seat-belt-less back seat journey to Khakheti, how chance had played her hand in my being here. When I scribbled the bare bones of the poem Road-Kill into my note-book, I realised that, much like the farmers by the side of the road had been waiting for an opportunity to cook a chicken, he too had been waiting for an opportunity to take without remorse, what he thought he was entitled to.  When he started to pursue me, I was so heady with his power and his passion for Georgia that I was blind to the waiting black pot he had boiling in the background.

 

The night before this trip to Khakehti,   we  had walked through the uneven streets of the Old Town and I had felt as if many eyes were on me. It could have been my hair I suppose. It’s vibrant, curly, red and untameable or, it could be that there was some vague recognition by fellow pedestrians of me from the TV appearances I had given over the years. Either way it was unsettling. I had texted my ‘god-father’ earlier in the day hoping for a conversation. If there was going to be any kind of contact with any of them then it was better if I took the initiative. I had been greeted with a wall of silence. Not surprising, but I felt disappointed and it only added to my belief that, like the chicken, I had once served a purpose, my usefulness had ended and I was, indeed, now worthless.

 

Coming back from Khaketi, where we had been well and truly supra-napped*, the very same taxi driver knocked the back leg of a puppy that had wandered onto the road. This time I was devastated. I made him stop the car. I got out and marched back to where the dog had dragged itself into a ditch by the side of the road. I scooped her up and cradled her. I pleaded with the old farmer leaning, bemused at all the fuss, on his stick, to let me take her home. I called her Murah and she was going to come back to the UK with me.

 

Destiny

 

Murah (Grey)

 

Eight weeks old.

Already nearly-blind.

Flea-Ridden.

Ticks colonise your ears,

Paws, nose and multiply in the heat

From my breast

As I hold you.

 

Your heart slows and

From warning fear filled pain howling

You stretch, yawn, sleep.

 

I wrap you in my scarf.

 

My body shaking sobs and fevered tears

Mingle with your hot relieved wee as it trickles

Down my arm, stains my skirt.

 

Eight minutes after being

Knocked senseless, your beaten, torn, discarded form

Not quite broken,

 

Had found sanctuary.

 

 

The taxi driver joked that the dog was lucky and if that  if this was what it took to get a visa into the UK he would consider throwing himself under the wheels of a car too.

 

The mercy dash to a British run dog shelter in Tbilisi meant that Murah survived her ordeal. Half German Shepherd half Huskie, she was seen  by the vet the next morning, cleaned up and soon adopted by a German couple living in Tbilisi. I had already  adopted a blonde Labrador cross from Georgia earlier that year and once I realised  my house was physically not big enough for the size Murah was going to grow into, I paid for her  vets bills and her upkeep until a forever home was found. Thankfully, it did not take too long. I see her now and again, thanks to the joy of social media and recognise, in her photographs, a happy, kind and beautiful dog who is adored and who adores in return.

 

#             Supra-napped is a phrase I have fashioned to explain what it is like to be faced with mountains and mountains of food at a Georgian supra-feast having hoped that, having attended many supra’s before, I would not have to spend three-quarters of my time in Georgia eating and drinking rather than visiting and learning. During my trip I was only supra-napped twice which was great and meant I did not need to start wearing a bigger pair of trousers.

 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Fate Chance or Destiny


Fate

One Death occurs every 18 hours on Georgian roads.

That’s quite high.

 

The only road from Kutaisi

To Tbilisi via Imereti 

Undulates, regurgitates river- bed red pregnant- belly pots.

Pungent ancient soil morphs at

Mountain forest- verge-side into three-footed fug shrouded black cauldrons boiling corn.

 

Multiple wooden cross- squandered lives sit amidst

Rusting car carcasses.

 

Caught in the eddies of death-trap memories

I catch lamenting,

Keening  grand- mothers, whose crashing hearts ache and connect with

New collisions.

 

We pass, from the illusionary comfort of our air-conditioned coach

Three accidents.

 

All fatal.

 

I cross myself,

Just to make sure,

Three times.

 

As is the custom.

 

 

The percentage of death from car accidents of both Georgians and Foreigners is high, with one person injured every hour in a traffic-related accident, while one death occurs every 18 hours  according to a study released by the Safe Driving Association, a Georgian non-governmental organisation. The World Health Organisation puts the number of fatalities at 16.8 per 100,000 people each year.

We were heading back to Tbilisi and the closer we got the sicker I felt. The granite grey  boulder in my stomach was grinding against itself. I think, unlike the illusion of safety I had created, deep inside myself  to use as protection whilst exploring the Western side of Georgia, I could no longer ignore the fact that he must know I was in the country. We were heading into Tbilisi that evening to the Rezo Gabriadze marionette Theatre, a quirky, wholly eccentric and eclectic puppetry piece in a theatre under a quirky, wholly eccentric clock tower. Getting there meant walking through cobbled Old Town streets, under the shadow of Sameba Cathedral and facing, squarely, memories of happier, love soaked arm-entwined times.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Femicide





Silence does not help. It disempowers everyone.

 

This is my tribute to all the women in Georgia who have suffered any form of violence at the hands of men. As a result  of my own extremely distressing  experiences with a particular Georgian man, it is difficult for me to find a safe space within myself to ‘be reasonable’ about such an emotive subject.  I don’t actually think I should dumb down my own emotional response to the latest murder of a young woman in Georgia who was killed, her body locked in a flat and the flat set on fire.  The fact that she was vociferous about women’s sexual rights and the rights of the LGBT community only highlights how oppressed women and minority groups are in Georgia. She was murdered for having a voice, and for finding the courage to  stand up for basic human rights in a society that is deeply flawed.

The horrific nature of this woman’s death is not, unfortunately, unusual across many countries but the death of this one woman, the latest in a series of Femicides in Georgia brings into sharp focus how close to the surface violence against women is. When I was there last summer, I had coffee with a friend in the Old Town of Tbilisi, a cafĂ© that, on the surface looked cosmopolitan and European. My friend told me how, that very morning he had tried to find the apartment in the block where he was living where the screaming, sobbing, thumps and thuds were coming from. Every few days, he said, the same thing happened. He could not tell if it was from the apartment above, below, by the side or across the hall. His face was tortured and his fists bunched as he said, ‘If I could get my hands on the bastard I would kill him.’
Hate crime is not classified in the Georgian legal system as a separate type of crime.

Femicide

Have you ever had a death threat?

I have*. Seriously.

Have you ever told people about the death threat only to be greeted with platitudes of, ‘Oh he would never do that, he may say… it but he would never do it.’

I have. Seriously.

Have you ever been threatened by his friends, been told you were a liar, were attention seeking or that these things were a private matter and not to be spoken about publically? 

Have you been told that you, ‘Did it to yourself’.

That you were crazy and ought to be ashamed?

I have been. Seriously.

Have you ever had people who are in denial about the toxicity of a society look at you with pity as you struggle to understand how this has happened to you… to you?

If only, YOU, would shut-up.

 Just. Shut. Up.

I have been Really.  Seriously.

Georgia’s hatred for women is growing.

If you are a woman who happens to be active,

If you are a woman who pokes the blind eye

Who paints rainbow colours on the steps of public indifference

If it is you who makes, into a paper aeroplane the letter, hand delivered to the

Head of the home by the policeman

Reminding  you not to show your bruises in public

 

Could you fold it please, and  from your 9th floor post- soviet concrete crumbling apartment

that drips and

Stinks of lies and drink, let it go, so that I may find it and come to

Release you.

 

For you, my sister, are lost. Ashes of good intention drift over the plateau.

Your children are silent now.

 

The stick he used to beat you, lies, smouldering by the blackened bed.

Where is the key he forced inside you?

Jagged, charred, and now crevice concealed by a concerned neighbour

Who wiped it clean right after

He turned it against

You

That last time.

Silence does not help. It disempowers
Everyone.

 

 

# After thinking I could handle the threats and manage them myself I realised that, after the man who was making them wrote that he could ‘pay anyone in London just £200 to hurt me’ I involved the police. They took it seriously, contacted Georgia, connected me with the domestic abuse telephone support line, who called every week for the next 4 months and then once a month for a year afterwards, prioritised any calls I made to them and filed a case against him. The advised me to keep silent.

 












Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Sacrifice the children to the Chqondidi (Big Oak)


Moonshine razor rivet screams choke on copper smoke

that

Hide, for an instant this man-beast-bird

Gibbet, that hangs, cradles

Low plucked fruit, out of season child

 

That

Pulsed his way to this idol world of chqondari. Of men who will never

Feel the tug of lips on breast, or smell the sweet scent of hair like the white daisies out- side our

Door.

 

Did they notice his bow-mouth tremble?

Did the singe-blonde flop of his baby curls scorch their souls

As they lit the fire beneath?

 

Acrid tears tear my eyes as I will my

Salt slit womb  to poison the life

Within.

 



A Mother’s Sacrifice
 
They came on  Saturday. The priests of the idol. With their robes and their chanting.  And they waited, like hovering eagles. And they held out their clawed hands, for my token.
My white pebble covered in ochre dots, one for each member of my family, spiralled into the centre, where the last dot, golden like the sun, flashed  as it went, into a basket woven from reeds by the river.
 
My river .
 
The river where I sang to my son every day, where I had sung to the moon each night and watched my belly grow until he came to me, my boy.

 ‘How many?’ his father asked, eyes cast down. Early spring daisies littered our front garden and as my baby sat on one hip, I felt the child within me stir. My heart tightened with their reply.

 ‘Three’

‘It will be an honour if we are chosen,’ this man murmured and scuffed with his foot, at a stick and snapped the head from one of the flowers.

Watching the priests leave, I felt the heat of my son’s cheek against my shoulder. He had been unwell. A spring fever. The feverfew and lavender had only soothed, not cured.  His skin burned and I saw tiny red flowers start to appear. His tongue was swollen and the colour of raspberries. I hurried inside. The spirits needed to be welcomed. Once in,  I covered the walls with red cloth and sang to him as he lay restless and hot in his cot.

 ‘Lullaby, lullaby,
Violets opened Roses’ petals lullaby,
I’ll meet batonebi’s aunt with pleasure, lullaby,
I’ll see her in as a godsend guest, lullaby,
With a carpet on the floor, lullaby’

As he drifted in and out I took, from my special place, the dagger. I tied the 5 red stones I had taken from the river, to the handle, and hung it on the wall opposite his bed. I remember I was singing all the time. ‘Lullaby, Lullaby’

Later that day, my husband came back. Shaking his head, he placed my token on the red cloth I had covered in flowers and sweet wine. My boy had been chosen.

Guests started to arrive before I was ready for them. Some bought eggs, some, flour, some dried fruit, but they all bought wine and they all looked at me with pity in their eyes. Hushed whispers accompanied quiet toasts and gifts were left by the fire place. Dolls made from sticks, beads, shells. I remember the men starting to sing, long low baleful sounds that cut through the night air and drifted up to the sacred space where the Oak Tree and the priests were waiting.

My boy’s fever broke in the early hours as the cock crowed. The red Sunday dawn bought with it the box with wheels. He had to go swaddled, in that, through the village, up to that place. I don’t remember who made the box. I think it was the boy’s father and I felt he had done so with a heavy heart. Watching my son sleeping peacefully in the early morning light I knew I had to  stop this from happening.  I had to save him.

I had heard of a man, a man far away, who had cut down the old Oak, with an axe that had glinted so brightly in the sunlight, that the people had been blinded by it.  I begged and begged my husband to help me, to save our boy,  begged him to find this saviour,  to tell people about this man, but he beat me and I fell on the hard stone floor. Curling around my belly as he kicked me again and again I knew it was over.

I don’t remember much else, only the bitter taste of the tincture I had shared  with my son.  He, before he was put, seemingly asleep on the cart, opened his eyes and kissed my nose. ‘Deda’ he whispered, as I swaddled him tight.

I followed the cart to the sacred place.  As the moon broke from behind the midnight clouds, I watched the priest put him in the cage.  

The oak groaned.
I smelt the burning of his flesh. The oak sighed.
I heard him scream. The oak swayed.
 
The eagles circled.
 
This story is based on factual information about the ceremonies held by the Druids before  Christianity arrived in the Megrelian region where the Martvili Church stands. Research suggests that St. Andrew, one of Christ’s apostles travelled here in the 1st century and stopped the practice of sacrificing a  one year old child every year to appease the Druid gods. The child was chosen by a lottery system. The Oak Tree  that housed the copper gibbet (depends on who you read – could be in the shape of a man or an eagle) was cut down by St. Andrew who then used the wood to build the first church on the site. He sent out word that the barbaric  practice  of sacrificing children was no longer to take place but  this met with some resistance as oak trees continued to grow and this was used as evidence that the gods needed appeasing.  In response he commanded that all the oak trees be pulled up and placed upside down against the walls of churches. Acorns were planted to show that natural trees are not evil. The practice of up- rooting oak trees continued, along with other ceremonies, songs and rituals, as part of the Chvenieroba festival up until the 1920’s when it was banned by the Communists.