Tbilisi is a city that engages, arouses, shares and reveals many secrets. It is also a city and country that has been through huge identity change. Last summer, my wife and myself left our restored Tbilisi house in the morning to go for a coffee. We walked across our large ‘Ezo’ or yard and then through the old twisted iron gate and then onto Ivane javakashvili street where we live and then walked towards the Marjanishvili Metro.
The dust in the air, the relentless 41 degree heat and the neglected and crumbling buildings in Tbilisi reveal a mixture of an uncaring communism regime and a couple of generations that barely had two Rubles to rub together to live a life we in the West would call a normal life.
As we walked along I noticed coming towards a lady not just walking towards as anyone walks along a street but more like someone looking lost. Looking lost in the way that you keep stopping, looking around, up, down and other directions to get your bearings or admire a city. She certainly wasn’t admiring anything in Ivane Javakashvil street so I wondered if she was ok or just simply lost.
The closer we got to her and the closer she got to us my wife and myself had noticed more details. The woman was clearly very old, dressed in old clothes and slightly dirty clothes. Her pink silk blouse had a large unwashed stain across the front as if she had split a drink down her top. Her old body had a slight curve and stoop to her back and shoulders but she walked fine despite the lack of speed or pace to the way she walked.
Just before as we got face to face the woman looked at us and spoke to us without any introduction.
“No one speaks Russian here anymore,” complained the old woman.
In Russian, we replied to her with a very simple, “Are you ok can we help you in anyway?”
The old lady smiled and was happy to hear the language of Russian being spoken in response.
“You speak Russian” she responded with a pleasant smile. “My name is Agrippina, I am 92-years of age” And then she went on to tell us her story. Well, she told us what anyone could share in 5-five minutes or more.
“Today is the first day I have left my house on Ninoshvili street for maybe 10-years or longer. My old husband died many years ago. Sadly I have buried my daughter and my three sons and my siblings all here in Tbilisi. I am all alone. Am I to sit and wait for death in a home that has lost its powers to give me life?” The woman asked us. She continued to speak as she looks intently into our eyes.
“Why does this street and all the other streets now have Georgian names? Why is it no one speaks Russian anymore? I remember the days when we were all Russia and I was an like an immigrant in my own country. I was born in Western Georgia, Imereti, Zestaponi. My father brought us to Tbilisi when we were children. I don’t remember the Russians arriving I only remember being Russia. Of course, it was tough especially in the later days before the Soviets collapsed but we loved and were loved.
Yet my life was Russian, my family spoke Russian, our food was Russian, our everything was Russian yet my father always taught me I was Georgian blood and that could and should never change. “Are you Georgian or Russian?”
My wife replied that she was Tbilisian and her husband, me, was a Scotsman. The old woman smiled and gave my wife a small kiss on her cheek. She held her hand tight but not with a squeeze more with longing just to hold another person’s hand.
The old woman smiled and then slowly let her hand slip away from my wife’s hand.
“I am lonely, my death is calling to me. Today I wanted to walk the streets of my own city before I went to meet death.” She continued to speak in Russian. My wife changed her tongue and asked her in Georgian if she spoke Georgian? The woman replied that she is Georgian, she speaks Georgian and her spirit was Georgian. She just finds it easier to use the tongue she grew up speaking. When her father was not around she only spoke Russian. Her father refused to speak Russian and paid the price. He saw the Russians as invaders, occupiers and nothing more.
Not long after arriving in Tbilisi in the year 1956 her father was taken from the family home never to be seen again. He wasn’t a revolutionary or a poet or an anarchic intellectual. He simply wanted to remain as he had been born and bred and that was a Georgian. The woman told this story but appeared to have no bitterness towards that moment. The moment her father vanished she said was a small relief at the time despite the upset. She told us it was dreadful for her mother but that was all. It had simply been a moment in a life that had now passed. The old woman spoke for one more time before she went along on her way.
“I must go and walk and become part of this city beneath my feet once more. Death is calling me. I don’t mind death, I don’t fear death but when I die I must be part of what I was and that is the soil I am walking on today”
Then she finally let go of my wife’s hand and walked past us towards Marjaishvili street just ahead. I stood for a moment or two watching this old lady living her final days as she walked away in that slow but capable shuffle that is common in people of that age.
It was a hot day but dry, dusty and slightly choking from the daily city pollution of cars and cigarettes. It is so easy to inhale as much second-hand cigarette smoke in Tbilisi as it is air itself. I just had to stand and watch her getting further and further away. I felt tearful but not for myself maybe for the reality that we all face death one day. Maybe because we are all lost and want to go home?
This woman is a true ethnic born and bred Georgian that has almost had her ethnicity squeezed out from her. Her blood is Georgian, her life is the life of a Georgian, her facial identity is clearly Georgian yet here she is an immigrant in her own country.
The approaching end of a life can raise many internal questions. Who am I? What was this? What was it all about? Where has my life gone? Did I do what I set out to do? Even more, profound is the identity of a person. Boundaries are man-made constructs that are built around a fear of loss. Within the boundaries, a tribe and then a nation is created and maintained. This was a woman of 92-years of age that felt very strongly Russian but had realised at the end of her times she was Georgian.
As a Georgian was she walking the streets in search of her past or in search and asking to make peace with her future? No one wants death yet death force is the reconciliation of a human before the lights go out forever. Even if that human doesn’t say it out loud you can be sure the questions are being asked within.
I also asked myself how can a local become foreign? How can a local feel like an outsider? How could this Georgian woman live a life as a Russian when she was born as a Georgian?
It reminded me of a man I know named James. He is a Scotsman that had to move to England for work in the 1970s. James is now 83-years of age. He has always told others he felt lost in England yet Scotland is just a short car drive over the border and back to Edinburgh. Now at the end of his life, he requests and reminds that his ashes be taken ‘home’ to Scotland and scattered on the waters of Leith. Most of his life was in England, he rarely travels back to Scotland yet he cannot and refuses to identify with England.
I myself am a Scotsman and I identify as a Scotsman. If I am asked if I am British I always reply, I am a Scotsman. Why? My wife is Georgian and my wife is British. The bigger part of her life is based in London. She identifies as a Londoner first and a Georgian second.
What is it that takes place in the human being that creates an identity? I have a friend that is Chinese. He tells me that he identifies as American first and South Korean second. He has no desire to live back in South Korea despite the fact just 13-years ago he could not say one single word in English. Now his English is perfect and talk and lives and breathes like Californian. Yet ask him about his roots and he will share story after story of South Korea with passion and longing but identifies as American.
Once a person of any origin is born what has arrived on to Erath is an empty fleshy shell of sorts. Then that shell through its senses begins to be filled with sensual experiences. Smell, taste, touch, visuals and more. The same buildings, the same streets, the same noises, the routine and embedded culture is what creates the identity of that individual. Maybe by the age of as young as seven that identity has now been formed and stamped as the local cultural identity?
Yet it is also interesting that those that have no experience of where they originate can create a perfect story in the minds of their origin without their own origin experiences. So even the human that was born to foreign parents in a country a long way from their homeland can create an identity of being another person of origin despite being what we would call a local. This raises another question. Is identity in our blood or even DNA as some would lead us to believe?
The old woman on the streets of Tbilisi was as Georgian as I know Georgians yet she historically identified as Russian but at the end of her life was now trying to take herself back home to be identified as Georgian. What had created her identity and identity loss?
The daily embedding from what the woman was surrounded by had become her instilling teacher. That teacher had inputted enough into her monthly, weekly, daily, hourly and even minute by minute through an identity virus that has been repeated time and time again throughout the whole of history.
Her language had been changed, her wording, her associations, her set and foundational beliefs, her foods and even her daily input through media had created this new identity that finally became her accepted identity.
Yet her real identity had been lost and now her identity was being found again. The same for the 83-years of age James wanting to send his ashes back to Scotland and I am sure the same as many others living life and identifying as a person of the place they live and are accepted.
The human can be a funny, complicated and even elusive or complex thing. The human can be moulded, twisted, bent, be made pliable, corrupted or even purified. It seems to me that identity isn’t only where we come from but more a case of what we feed or grow the person with. The food we eat create the body we spend all of our days in yet there is this unknowing conscious part of all of humanity that can be manipulated by an environment, experiences, others and surrounding circumstances.
Yet, does it take a life to be lived to realise our real identity is what we are rather than what we became? What we became was the action that creates what we identified with yet what is just what is?
The human has an identification all of its own. So, strong we can search for that true identity and uncover, discover, reveal or realise who we are during any given life. But only if we search, ask and enquire of life itself.
Does that mean identity itself really doesn’t exist? Therefore, is identity a manufactured idea created by those that feel the need to control the greater masses within the construct of a national identity rather than a human identity?
This always raise the question of who am I?
Alan Forrest Smith 07/03/2019