Back in my American office, the first feeling is quite surreal after a couple months spent in Abkhazia. For starters, I have to re-learn how to drive instead of walking and how to speak English again. It is not very pleasant either because here in America you discover yourself under the obligations of modern life and academic employment: deadlines, piles of bills, unanswered e-mail messages, official letters, the need to take the car for the emission test, what not. Oh, back to civilization after a month of living without modern amenities in the country that officially does not exist.
In order to study the recent wave of ethnic conflicts and terrorism in the Third World, I travel to the dark side of globalization. Abkhazia is just one of such places that politicians, experts, and scholars call "failed states" or "rogue zones". It is in fact a small post-Soviet republic that in 1992 fought its way out of the Republic of Georgia. It was a ferocious war in which the ethnic Abkhazes won probably because of their sheer determination: this whole nation numbered just under a hundred thousand in the face of almost five million ethnic Georgians. For the desperately outnumbered Abkhazes, this war was about their dignity and survival as an ethnic group. Thus the Abkhazes won the war, but their national state found itself in the international blockade because its separation was considered illegitimate. The result is that Abkhazia does not exist de jure although it exists de facto.This is a difficult and rather ephemeral existence.
Abkhazia may look bucolic but the life of peasants is harsh though probably still not as harsh as in any of past ages. Nobody starves in the village of Ldzaa where I’ve spent most of the time, and there is no shortage of land. In fact, much land lays abandoned. The seaside cafes, once bustling with Soviet vacationers, now stay gutted by fire, the surviving ones serve simple home-made food and smuggled beer, mostly past the expiration date. The last ten years were like one big winter season, said a woman who owns one the cafes.
The war still continues in the mountains where the Abkhaz forces face the Georgian troops and, lately, as they report, also the Arab and Chechen mercenaries. War duty at the border is the obligation of mature men in their thirties and forties because in the last war too many young men died before they have married and had children. It does look grimly impressive when the unshaven, slow-moving farmers get their rifles from the wardrobes, board the trucks, get the cornmeal and smoked cheese collected by the village community, and drive off to another border emergency. The village commander is a former bartender whose major skill is the ability to achieve persuasion through very foul and picturesque expressions. He must have dealt with drunks very well (though his own wife over the years has developed an immunity against her husband’s discourse). It all looks romantic. One is reminded of brutal reality by the recent monuments built by the Abkhazes to their war dead and also by the burnt houses from which their Georgian owners have been expelled ten years ago.
The village of Ldzaa by now has sort of adopted me and my sons. We greet all the people whom we meet in the streets, and they greet us. One day in the marketplace one woman vendor greeted me as “oh, that’s the son-in-law of the Mamasáhlisi family!” Before us the locals feel embarrassed by the piles of cow manure in the village streets, yet nobody does anything about the manure. The cows are in fact left to their own instincts: in the morning they are driven out of the yards and the gates are closed behind them, in the evening the cows slowly wander back home, if they do not just stand licking the branches of neighbor’s orange tree. Of course, you would get manure all over the streets which were once paved back in the good old times. Only the occasional torrential rain would wash it into the curb ditches where huge weeds grow, well-nourished and moisten.
We came when the Mamasahlisi family was preparing to end the year-long mourning for the deceased mother. She was a very merry fat old woman who could no longer walk without two sticks and drink wine because of her high blood pressure but still she enjoyed making everybody dance. She now lies right behind the house, near the centuries-old crypt left by the people who had occupied this land plot in the 19th century.
The Abhaz, if you can imagine, are part Christian and part Muslim at the same time. In practice they are essentially pagan and many are proud of it. Their dead are buried behind the houses rather than in cemeteries, so that they can look after the living descendants. The rites are performed by village amateur priest who (would you be surprised?) turned out to be the same foul-mouthed bartender — priesthood runs in their family. They have tended to the sacred trees for centuries. The funerals or the weddings are always huge and last at least for a whole week, so that all the relatives and neighbors could pay their respects.
How pervasive are the funerals (and the weddings), and how often and far away the Abhaz are obligated to travel to attend them, might be illustrated with a nice, a bit naïve joke. The American astronaunts land on the Moon, hoist the flag, and then notice a group of tired, somewhat drunk, unshaven men wearing the traditional bashlyk hoods and chest bandoleers, walking slowly with staves in their hands. The astronauts ask in astonishment: Who are you?! The punch line is: Ah, we are the Abhaz, been to a funeral here, now going back home.
The grieving period lasts a whole year during which candles must be lit every Saturday and a tasty dinner served. One year later, another huge crowd is gathered, hundreds if not thousands. One year after uncle Beslan has died, they tell me, 1 300 people attended — they always keep the written lists, and all of them had to be fed and given wine to drink, though the guests are also expected to bring gifts, a chicken or a hundred rubles (three dollars today). But then, uncle Beslan belonged to the princely clan of the Maan. The ruins of their family citadel are still visible nearby.
In our case, it was a more modest number of invited guests, two hundred people, mostly the neighbors. For such occasions that happen almost weekly, the thirty-two households united by living along the same village street, jointly possess several huge cauldrons, an assortment of glasses and plates (which is something new — traditionally the Abhaz served hot cornmeal right on the cleanly-scrubbed tables), the crude folding benches and tables, and the huge khaki military-style tent to provide shade. Men came the day before to set up the tent and the tables. Being now a guest man of the house, I felt obliged to participate which I did gladly, though there were, frankly, five times as many hands than necessary. In the end of our morning labors we all had to be fed for lunch a tasty vegetable stew with a lot of fresh bread and drink, as the tradition prescribes, the local liquor called chácha, which is exactly the same as the Italian grappa only its quality and potency, like with any moonshine, varies widely from home to home.
I should mention that a week before, they brought the sacrificial cow. That was the most intelligent and joyful cow I’ve ever seen. I wish she were rather a dog, but, alas, she wasn’t.The funerary meal must include boiled beef, hot cornmeal eaten with hands, white cheese melted inside the hot cornmeal, the sauce made of crushed walnuts and herbs, and the sour plum sauce called tkemali, which is actually delicious. Here in Chicago we buy tkemali from an ethnic store for $3.99 a small bottle. In Ldzaa, they prepared three buckets of it. The food is evidently very archaic, though maize long ago has replaced the truly archaic millet. Besides, almost every invited family brought a chicken or the white cheese pies called acha*. (I used * to denote the dull whistle sound; you may try to pronounce it with your lips folded in a tube. Such is the Abhaz language. Stepan, my younger son, learned a few more words, mostly the names of animals, that sound even more exotic: whistles, other odd consonants pronounced from the back of throat.)
The funerary feast lasted a whole day. The weather was very hot and humid. Some of the more corpulent women tended to faint, especially those who had to look after the pots or wash the dishes. Every such instance produced much commotion, yet at the same time everyone seemed prepared for it because people faint all the time during funerals and weddings. That’s why a neighbor who drives an ambulance was kept at hand. Sitting on a separate bench from the women, the men continued eating and drinking solemnly, without toasts, every time sacrificially pouring on the ground a little wine or potent chacha to the spirits.
My role of a surrogate relative in this ritual was a difficult one. I had to help a lot physically (setting up the heavy tables or scything the grass in the front yard or rolling the musty-smelling barrels of wine) especially since the remaining Mamasahlisis are six sisters in their forties-sixties, half of them widows now, and only one brother, the youngest Revaz who is unmarried to the laments of all his relatives. The more difficult part was spending time at the male table during the feast where I was regularly asked the same question, “Well, and now tell us, how is life in America?” What should I say? That it is also difficult, but very differently difficult? Or that America is a fabulous land of opportunity? Where, incidentally, they cannot travel because the Marines at the entrance to American embassy would not even let them in to apply for visas because Abhazian passports are issued by a national state that does not officially exist? But it was interesting and useful talking to these people, I learned a lot as sociologist.
In the meantime, my sons disappeared in the crowds. A couple hours later the neighbor tenderly called Zurik-the-Gorilla (and he does look like one) slapped me on the back with his enormous, wet hand and congratulated on having raised two real men! He and the adult men at the other table, as it turned out, teased my boys into drinking with them. The boys managed to refuse in all sorts of polite expressions, thus they held the ground, but in the end they pronounced good toasts that the listeners have enthusiastically approved. In this crowd I should have stayed closer to my children.
In the Caucasus banquets are a ubiquitous social ritual following the elaborate etiquette of sitting arrangements, serving special foods and drinks, electing the presiding person called tamada.Conducting fieldwork in this region, at least if researcher is a male, means being able to hold alcohol. All indigenous societies in the Caucasus, like elsewhere around the Mediterranean, are explicitly dominated by adult males and their gender sub-culture. Besides, in many places still exist the proudly cultivated aristocratic patterns. This goes back to the medieval knightly elites that have invented elaborate codes based on family honor, combat valor, and lordly conspicuous consumption – in this stateless society the fragile guarantee of the chieftain's life rested on his reputation as a fearsome warrior and a valued friend.
Back in the big front yard of the Mamasahlisi house, the funerary banquet was winding down. In the evening the remaining guests and the hosts took a nap all around the house, and shortly before midnight they reconvened at the table.
Earlier that day an old woman sent my sons into the garden to cut a chestnut twig. Close to midnight she took the twig and began lightly slapping on the cloths of the deceased that were hung around the room, saying (in Abkhaz): “That’s enough, enough, you are gone now.” Very simple magic. At midnight the bartender now playing the priest, stood up with a glass in hand and loudly proclaimed: Those who are gone, are now gone. To those who are alive now! Let us be merry no less than our ancestor could be in their days!
The feast turned loud and lasted till dawn. The toasts were remarkable, for instance: The other night I had a dream. I was lying on the cot in the middle of my field, sowing the corns into the mountain slopes from slingshot. Ah, what a nice dream!
The idea of mountain sowing using slingshot was greated enthusiastically and with the shouts: That’s the true Abhaz way! There is no people lazier than us in the whole world!
The women shook their heads and one of them said: Of course, our men are the world champions, but could we afford to be as lazy?
Did I do my planned work? Admittedly, not much. I wrote thirty pages in a month, though on the reading schedule I finally managed to get through Michael Mann’s second volume of the Sources of Social Power. It was so hot most of the time that I felt my brain was melting. My boys, however, loved it being in Abhazia. They made local friends, learned (or tried to) milk cows, jump into the sea from the 20-feet high concrete piers, and — the adolescent temptation being so strong — they learned to disassemble and clean Kalashnikov’s automatic rifle, AK-47, that they found in the wardrobe. That morning another of our hosts, Leonid who is 27 years old, got undressed and walked down the stairs to the shower outdoors (which is only a steel drum barrel painted black to attract solar heat that is placed over a make-shift cabin, with the sturdy blue flag of the UN peacekeepers fashioned to serve as shower-curtain.) For the first time Leonid was without the long pants that he always wears, and thus without his prosthetics and on crutches. My boys were left speechless -- the night before Lenchik took them to a disco bar (really a beverage stand with a boombox) but they came back early because the power lines broke down again. Leonid stepped on a landmine during the war. My elder son Marty later said: Dad, I guess I now understand what's serious in life.
They also took private lessons in algebra and trigonometry from the neighbor Abhaz kid who is apparently a mathematical prodigy. His nickname is Booka which, by coincidence, carries the same connotations as the English word ‘bookish’. Booka found the American mathematical textbooks of my children a bit too simple. He taught them according to his own system. Best of all, they avidly studied with him. It remains to hope that their test scores might improve. The school year started today.