When I first returned to Tbilisi from Belgium after an absence of 23 years, I was looking for what defined the city that I had left when I was five. I found it in an unexpected object – the chairs scattered throughout its streets.
At first, I thought they were junk or had been forgotten. But then I realized that each chair has a story; each makes up part of the social landscape of today’s Georgia.
Through the people with whom I spoke on the streets, I came to understand that these chairs symbolize the challenges Tbilisi’s residents and Georgians at large face every day: poverty, unemployment, environmental decay and the unhealed wounds of a country torn apart through war.
For me, these chairs reveal Georgia’s very essence.
The memories I have from my childhood are sweet like the strawberries I used to eat on our apartment’s balcony while looking down at Vazha Pshavela Avenue. Tbilisi was full of trees and the smell of pine trees overwhelmed the city. Today, when I wander around, this smell comes more from a mix of dust and fuel. Tailpipes have replaced the pine trees.
I ask a parking-lot manager what he thinks about today’s Tbilisi. “The city suffocates,” he says. “Even sidewalks have become car parks. [Cars] enter the courtyards, the gardens, even balconies. Cars are invading the city.”
There is no more place for people, but also no more place for cars. Now, they have to go underground.
Every day, I cross the streets through underground pedestrian passageways designed like tunnels. The city does not always have traffic lights or crosswalks in place to allow pedestrians to stay above ground.
These pedestrian passageways are a separate world, a jumble of Xerox machines, sewing supplies and tailors, pop-corn, shoes, desserts, khachapuri, coffee and toilets.
One female vendor in a Tbilisi underground passage describes to me what it’s like to work in a place where neon lights replace the sun.
“We live a major part of our life downstairs [in the underground pedestrian passageways],” the vendor says. “We do not know the seasons. We might not have rain, but neither sun. We are just trying to make some money out of everything. We cannot imagine [what would happen] if [city officials] kick us out from here.”
Some vendors, in fact, fear (so far without cause) that the desire for underground parking could lead to just that.
In an underground shop on Baratashvili Street, a 55-year-old, well-groomed blonde woman makes copies and sells ribbons every day. The outlet, where both she and her husband work, is located in the middle of a passageway and used to be quite large, but it gradually has shrunk over the past year.
It now looks as if the vendor’s Xerox machines have gobbled her up. I can barely see her through the glass of the popcorn machine. She keeps the machine because she likes the smell of popcorn and can imagine she’s in a movie theater when she closes her eyes during a break.
But her breaks are short. People knock on the glass, yelling, and ask her to make their copies fast, very fast.
They want copies of pawnshop and bank-loan agreements. “We people of Georgia live a life on credit,” the vendor comments. “But also, very often, [customers want copies of] papers for a visa.”
They want to leave because “[f]or some, life seems brighter abroad,” she continues.
“I keep saying to them that the grass always looks greener elsewhere, but it is up to us to make our own bloom and shine.”
But for them, the light that a former president brought is not enough to illuminate the lives of those compelled to pass through Tbilisi’s underground tunnels.
When I first returned to Tbilisi, I thought the country was doing better: the city had regained its electricity and had big cars, new roads, never-ending construction.
But this “modern” city is a mirage.
“Most of the construction sites are empty; never sold, never finished,” one 40-year-old construction worker on Rustaveli Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, comments to me. “Those constructions ruin the city. And ruin my back as well. I am young and I have the body of an old man.”
“The city changed a lot, this is true; with some things right, but some are more destructive for the city and its inhabitants,” the construction worker continues. “Those fake symbols of prosperity are overwhelming the city and soon they will plunge it into a hole from which it will be difficult to step out.”
On Tbilisi’s Dry Bridge, an outdoor secondhand bazaar, an elderly man selling rugs, silverware and other household items believes he is part of the bulwark against that change. “The city might change, but some things never change,” he says. “People search for memories and for stories and we are here to keep those things. We are making history last! We, against all this modernism and futuristic dreams!”
On the other side of the city, in Bukia Garden, a tiny splotch of green bordering one of Tbilisi’s heaviest streams traffic, a 45-year-old flower seller sits from dawn till dusk.
“I love my city. I always loved it and will forever,” she says. “I am selling flowers all day long to make it more beautiful and to restore its true smell.”
Some children sitting not far from her, on a bench on Peking Avenue, say the city should be restored to its inhabitants. They believe that the streets should be their playground.
Even if some young Georgians want to leave Georgia, others want to change their country. They are eager to learn, eager to live, but, most of all, eager to fight for their rights.
A 26-year-old friend tells me that her generation “will not just sit and accept our fate.”
Young Georgians have mobilized more than once to fight for freedom of speech and against alleged government abuses of power.
Georgia today wants to become a modern state and part of Europe, but it often holds onto traditions, like patriarchy or nationalism, that can make people think in a box. A dark box of matches. But matches are meant to be burnt for light, just like people are made to grow through enlightenment.
When young Georgians act for what they believe, they can seem like birds let out of cages.
“The state tightens the rules! They forbid us to breathe!” rages one young girl attending a protest against a police raid on Tbilisi’s Bassiani nightclub. “But we don’t give up! Threats, arrests, injuries . . .we don’t fear that.”
“Georgia is a country who just woke up from war, but who is not able yet to jump out of its bed because of the ongoing territorial turmoil, because of the Internally Displaced Persons, because of the lack of political will and transparency,” comments another protester.
“Our country failed to deal with the victims of our wars,” says one 40-year-old Tbilisi woman, whose father fled the conflict in Abkhazia in the early 1990s. “We cannot get to our cemeteries, we cannot get to our yards, we cannot get to our relatives,” she continues. “Our country is hurt like we are.”
This last photo was shot in Abkhazia’s main town, Sokhumi, near its central train station. For me, it is the most important photo because it reminds me of my babu (“granddad” in Georgian).
A fervent defender of the need to preserve peace in Abkhazia, he did not want past bitterness to dictate Georgia’s future. He was a person who was always looking forward.
Georgia often cannot do the same. Its past always takes it backward. But if its broken chairs are put into the hands of those with a sense of how to build a state of law, a state of happiness, perhaps one day it will move into the future.
June, 2018 Identity Edition