Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Waging Peace

Two Saturdays ago, at the invitation of an Orthodox monk friend, I went on a day trip to Kakheti—that's wine country in eastern Georgia—to go visit his vineyards. We spent the afternoon in the usual, easy manner: eating too much and toasting with last fall's wine decanted from the buried clay pots, then wandering through the vineyards and getting the land cruiser hopelessly stuck in epic ruts of mud.

On the way back to Tbilisi, you drive through a hilltop fortress town called Sighnaghi. It's a lovely place—the guidebooks all insist on calling it "Tuscan"—with high clear views to the Greater Caucasus and old fortified walls designed to keep out marauding Chechens and Dagestanis and what-have-you. We stopped in Sighnaghi to pick up my friend John, who has a house there that he's renovating, and give him a lift back to the capital. He told us, if we have time, that we should stop in Sighnaghi for a little while to watch the local dance troupe's rehearsal. They have a performance coming up, so they're pretty good now.

Georgian folk dances are a real kick to watch. The men get all the best parts: there are daggers and swords and backflips and flying leaps and bottles balanced on heads and funny giant woolen hats. The women wear long dresses and flick their wrists around prettily and move their feet under the floor-length skirts in just such a way that it looks as though they are floating; as if their perfect angel feet can't quite be kept anchored to something so base as earth.

We sat in the gym in Sighnaghi and watched the rehearsal, the local dancers in track suits and sweat pants instead of dress costume. John pointed out the personalities. That woman, she's a children's doctor from the valley below. That guy, backflipping with a sword in hand, he's a carpenter. I was sitting there satisfied, thinking of my Benedict Anderson and my Ernest Gellner and pondering eggheaded things about local traditions morphing into a stylized and standardized national folk culture, when John leaned over and said, "Wouldn't you want guys like these defending your village?"

I knew what he meant, which wasn't that the lords a'leaping would scare off the Shah. He meant that the dance symbolizes strength and virility and warrior spirit and that in a place like Georgia that has been sacked by alternating empires for as many centuries as you care to count, wouldn't you want men like that, with values like these?

But I didn't feel like fawning over the Spielbergian glory of war and so I sniffed that all this history is well and good, but I think that modern men here are far too eager to fight and die for their country and perhaps a little pacifism, or at least a little less war exaltation, would do the place some good.

Really, it's a wonder how easily, and with what frequency, people here find cause to use words such as enemy, war, conquer, sacrifice; words that for us cobweb in the back of our brains, summoned forth only by Tolkien or maybe Mel Gibson. We don't live with our wars and our history right there on our tongues. When I was renting my skis from Mamuka in the high mountains north of Tbilisi, he offered me a pair of poles and a big slug of homemade wine served in the bottom half of a bisected water bottle. In the mountains, he told me, top half of the bottle inverted and aloft, the first toast is to peace: mshvidobas gaumarjos. Down below in the city they may be toasting to the meeting of friends first, but up in the heights the traditions are rawer and, with ritualistic duty, they remember the times of war with this first toast.

Touring through Georgia is at times like examining the scarred body of battered veteran. Here are wounds the Persians left behind, there's where the Arabs pierced through, the Mongols, the Turks. Nearby the Dukes met their doom, there exiled kings darkly plotted uprising, here there was betrayal, and here martyrs. And everywhere, glory glory halleluia.

Sometimes I fear that modern Georgia could suffocate on all this bloody glory. It's all well enough for the women, whose worth was never based on derring do, but could these men, with their warrior ancestors summoned up at every toast, be content as accountants and bank clerks should the opportunity arise in Georgia? Do the young hotheads careen the wrong way down streets and shoot and stab one another in part because they can't find an enemy more suiting? Will they fling themselves headlong back into more fighting with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, snarling at the Russians?

The most elegant and resigned riposte to this is from Rebecca West. In her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, it so happens that her Serbian friend is telling a legend about a certain Bosnian village. It's a war legend about when the Turks were attacking and how the women and men of the village came up with a plan that involved the women bravely acting as bait so that the men could surprise the Turks and save the village. The Serb tells the story, and then he says something that could be precisely about Georgia:
And so a man can give himself great pleasure in telling himself that story, and he can imagine all sorts of like happenings...with all the loveliest little ones being brave for his sake, and all his enemies lying dead in the marshes, with water over the face; and on that he can build up a philosophy which is very simply but is a real thing; it makes a man's life mean more than it did before he held it. Now, will you tell me what in peace is so easy for a simple man to think about as this scene of war? So do not despise my people when they cannot settle down to freedom, when they are like those people on the road of whom I said to you, 'They think all the time they must die for Yugoslavia, and they cannot understand why we do not ask them to do that but another thing, that they should live and be happy.'


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