“Don’t cry or else someone in Georgia will find out and will start crying too,”—not the most common way to calm a crying baby. And yet this is what I witnessed on my very first day in Fereydunshahr. In this tiny city of about 14,000, tucked away in the mountains in the Western part of Iran’s Isfahan Province, mothers do not bribe kids with candy or threaten them with the boogeyman. They simply urge them to hold their tears for a faraway, small country’s sake.
Visiting Fereydunshahr for the first time is a bit disorienting. Locals call it Martkopi—the Georgian name of an actual village in the east of Tbilisi. Signs in Georgian abound all around, ranging from standard ones, such as “honey from Martkopi,” “a gas station,” to more peculiar ones—“Georgian mothers’ gifts” and “homeland, I love you.” Whether in the streets or up in the mountains, I probably heard more Georgians songs than I have ever come across in all of Georgia.
Fereydunshahr, along with several other towns, all of which carry Georgian names—Vashvlovani, Chughureti, Ruvis Piri and others—forms the Fereydan county or what Iranians call “Gurji Nakhie” (Little Georgia). In 1614-17 about 200,000 ethnic Georgians were forcefully moved here from eastern Georgia by Shah Abbas as a response to a local uprising at the time of the Safavid Imperial rule. Fereydani women supposedly played a crucial role in keeping the Georgian language, as assimilation ensued.
Over 400 years later, the locals still affirm their Georgianness. An overwhelming majority in Fereydunshahr speaks Georgian, albeit with a 17th century twist and Farsi influence—incomprehensible not only to Persians, but also to a native Georgian speaker such as myself.
I went to Fereydunshahr with the aim of meeting and exploring the lives of local women, which have mostly, if not completely, been absent from the regular story about Fereydani exile. However, my conviction that women spoke better Georgian than men and, that as a woman myself, I would have better access to them, proved wrong. Not only did the men speak a version of more modern Georgian—explained by their greater exposure to Georgia through travel—but they also kept interrupting the women in all of my interviews. It did not help that my fixer, Arash (Archil for Georgian), was a male and it was easier to meet men rather than women through him.
Throughout my stay, I was acutely aware of my privilege, of which Arash also reminded me —I was only able to wander the streets with him because I was (still) considered to be a foreigner.
“Joyful” is the word that came to the few Fereydani women I met, when describing how they envisioned the women in Georgia were. “I don’t know why, but that’s what I think. We don’t have freedom here”, —is what I heard from them.
Freedom of mobility is something I struggled with myself. I could not really go around alone in the city and when the police requested my papers to inquire the reasons behind my visit, they were dumbfounded to find out that I had traveled from Georgia all by myself. When I asked the local women about this, they readily explained: “If anyone wants to travel in Iran, they usually travel with their families. A woman cannot really travel alone.” Besides, girls are expected to come home straight after school and it is rare to see them or even older women walking in the streets after sunset.
Nahida Kutsishvili is one of the few women, who still is at work late at night. She stays at her bakery until 10pm, preparing fresh bread for the morning after. Nahida is an exception for other reasons too—married at 13, she got divorced when she was still young and has been a single mother of two ever since. She did have many suitors at the time, but did not want to upset her kids or leave them behind.
“Do you think my bread would sell well in Georgia?” — asks Nahida as she kneads the dough with her mighty arms.
Demand is high on her fluffy, sweet bread in Fereydunshahr and the neighboring cities. Nonetheless, Nahida often dreams about leaving everything behind and moving to Georgia for good. True, she has never been there before, but is convinced that Georgians “do not bore or annoy each other as much, and support women”.
All of the Fereydani women I met talked about moving to Georgia at some point. They do realize that things might not be as perfect there—they have heard about “labouring Georgian women and their couch potato husbands”—but still keep contemplating about the mythical return.
Those few Fereydani women who have visited Georgia still see it in only positive light. A choir of about 15 girls, “Daughters of the Sun”—a rather rare sight in Iran, where women are not allowed to sing alone—who recently visited Tbilisi, found Georgia to be “the land of the cheerful and the free”. In their native Fereydunshahr, the teenage girls regularly get together to enjoy traditional Georgian singing. Although a little shy of the camera, and uncertain of the lyrics, the girls beam with enthusiasm while performing.
It is unclear how much freedom and joy “Daughters of the Sun” would gain in Georgia. Back in 1970s, the first attempt of repatriation was made by a group of Fereydani Georgians, who asked the Iranian and Georgian authorities to be relocated to eastern Georgia’s Kakheti region, from where their ancestors were once exiled. But the transition was not as smooth. The Fereydani women, who had fought hard for keeping the link with Georgia, suddenly found themselves alienated in their supposed homeland, where locals saw them as “Iranian Tatars” who spoke incomprehensible Georgian and followed archaic customs. Soon most of them asked to be returned back to Fereydan.
In today’s Fereydunshahr, the memory of an over 400-year-old exile seems more vivid than that of a 50-year-old failed repatriation. But even as Fereydani women keep longing for a land they have not known, they admit that their identity is nuanced: “We still are Iranians. After all, we have been living here for so long now. We are used to the local lifestyle.”
Editor: Ana Lomtadze