Georgia I have fallen in love with you but...
I am in love. Not with a person but with a country. The country of Georgia.
The first time I sang your music I fell head over heels. Every part of me resonated with joy and I felt healed. Healed from past hurts and rejections, healed from grief, healed from pain. The three part harmonies interwove and played with my emotions, teased them, seduced them. The intensity of the energy connection between the strangers I had just met and were now singing with was almost embarrassing.
As a savvy, late 30 something woman, active in the women’s movement, used to having a voice, being listened to and respected, I felt vulnerable. Little did I know I was on the brink of the most important love affair of my life. A love affair with you, Georgia.
As with all relationships the first attraction, the passion was beguiling. I threw myself into your music. I was building my own business anyway so I decided to I give up a full time teaching job which would free me to sing your songs during the daytime during the week, I listened with complete submission to the voices of your choirs, mostly male it has to be said, from villages, and towns, from the different regions, mountains, plains, sea. I could almost taste the grape sweet and heady within pieces from Kakheti, I hefted my breath up and over the heavy bass lines from Svaneti. I was head over heals and It was all consuming.
At that stage the journey was thrilling, exciting, magical and as I was caught up in the romance of it all, in the romance of you. I became hungry for total immersion so , when the opportunity arose to visit you with the choir I was singing with we went to sing as part of the Chveneburebi Festival. It was a crazy time for us all and one we were not prepared for. It was also the first time I started to realise that as a woman from the west I was very out of step with your Georgian women, and they with me. I know that as you are opening up (you have only been free from the USSR since 1995) you are trying to change and move forward.
Women’s rights are coming to your attention and you are used to being steeped in patriarchal traditions that are reinforced by a strong and emerging nationalism that presents itself in an ever increasing and complex procession of double think. I hear you speak about how your culture is reverent to your women I see you deny them their voice, sexuality, power and identity.
Thinking back to that sweet month of September in Tbilisi I remember trying to find somewhere near the Opera House that sold sim cards and of Dato, a Georgian man who was kind and hospitable, who clearly wanted to help me, and who became increasingly agitated as I did not understand what he was trying to say. In the end the penny dropped, he wanted me to go in a taxi with him. What for my beguiling new love? I think to find a shop but my suspicious western women’s instincts kicked in and I walked away. He was incensed and I realise now that it was because I would not do as I was told. I would not conform, I would not adhere, I would not recognise him as the dominant and naturally superior being,
I would not be a Georgian woman.
Swept along by the glamour and excitement of the visit I choose to ignore the signs of duality and duplicity in your heady Georgian psyche ( I have known many of your women hold this duplicity within them as well – in fact many Georgian women foster and endorse these multi-layered attitudes of oppression that play a huge role in your own psychological imprisonment) and I went ahead and fell in love, this time with one of your Georgian men. That relationship lasted 3 years, and it was three years which unravelled painfully and exposed some of the darkness at the heart of your beautiful culture.
My relationship with you has changed. I am still in love, but it is a wiser love a more mature love and one which recognises my identity as a woman who is not Georgian and who has grown stronger as a result . I don’t sing your Georgian music so much anymore. I physically could not tune into the harmonic sounds and the clashing chords for a long time and I have been sick, a physical reaction to the emotional journey of discovery that put me on such a high. I have met some amazing people on this journey of re-discovering my voice and some incredibly strong women and men who are helping me to understand what happened. That are helping me to understand you. It’s going to take a long time but I am going to sing again and I am going to sing Georgian song again because, it’s very simple, I still love you.
Georgia the beautiful …
Georgia has always been one of those places for me, a place with a draw. It's part of my love of the exotic, I suppose. The linguist in me was fascinated by a language where virtually every verb is irregular, a glamorous ergative-absolute alignment (only Basque in Europe is also of this type, all other European languages, even the otherwise kookie Finnish and Hungarian comply), a crazily complex phonology and a unique and beautiful alphabet. I read the Vepkhist'q'aosani, 'The Knight in the Panther's Skin', Georgia's national epic poem when I was in university and it only heightened the romance. The fascination endured as I learned more about the country. I bought text books in the language and I fantasized about visiting. When I got a job as a food writer, the very first article I pitched was a piece about the cuisine of Georgia. I cooked with and interviewed a very lovely Georgian woman. I bought more text books and studied the language in earnest. My contact with Georgia and its culture stepped up a grade when I joined the Bristol Georgian Choir. I have always loved singing and this seemed perfect. We met every Monday night, the people were welcoming, warm and charming, and the music was heavenly. If you have never heard Georgian polyharmonies, I urge you to do so. I would also say that listening to them is one thing, but producing them, in (occasionally) perfect synchronicity with 20 or so friends is something else. I was hooked. The choir had recently come back from an evidently wonderful tour of Georgia, I was introduced to the Bristol Tbilisi Society (they are twin towns), and my much dreamed-about trip to Georgia seemed inevitable, given time.
At some point, however, something went wrong. I hasten to add here that it was no fault of the choir – quite the opposite in fact. There are still times now when I see a choir member on the street and go to say hello and then feel quite suddenly guilty that I just simply stopped attending. I put it in my diary to go back, and I really intended to go back, at some point, but each time I tried, I couldn't. There are just some things that turn sour and there is nothing you can do about it. It was like having a long-distance crush for absolutely ages, then finally going on a date with someone. The first date goes fantastically well, so you go on another which is wonderful too, but then, just as you hold hands over the post-dessert brandy, they crack an anti-Semitic joke. Or a racist one. Or a homophobic one or, I don't know, they admit that they think Margaret Thatcher was a great woman. I came across a couple of fairly toe-curling articles about the treatment of LGBT people and women in Georgia, quite by accident, and went cold as I read them. I found a few more and then when I searched for them, it became a torrent. The more I read about the place, the more it was obvious – despite the undeniable beauty and fascination of the place, to a large and very real extent, Georgia is a homophobe and Georgia was a misogynist. I'm not talking about everyone and I know this will upset some, many even, who might say, 'why focus on the negative?'. But there is one thing I cannot forget; one Monday night at choir practise, we sang Shen Xar Venaxi. It's a beautiful devotional song about the Virgin Mary and the title translates as You are the Vineyard. It was my favourite. But the words stuck in my throat and I felt sick. I stopped singing, made my excuses to leave as soon as we finished and I never went back. The truth of the matter is that for me, as a gay man, as a leftist, I couldn't raise my voice to Georgia any more. Not until things changed. By raising awareness of Georgia, by being brave and facing up to the good things and the bad, perhaps this change can slowly come about.