Abdullah Tataroglu lives in the village of Gazelli, in the Inegol Region of Bursa Province in western Turkey. Although he was born with Turkish surname, he has always considered himself a Gurji, which translates as “Georgian.” His ancestral roots lie in Adjara, the coastal province of western Georgia on the country’s border with Turkey. During more than two and a half centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, many Adjarans converted to Islam while retaining the Georgian language and culture. By the end of the 19th century between 22,000 and 25,000 Adjarans had fled to Turkey; among them Abdullah’s great-grandfather Yusuf Mikeladze.
Abdullah is a schoolteacher by profession, and holds language lessons for ethnic Georgians every week. The Georgian spoken in Georgia today is very different from that which the younger generation of villagers learnt from their parents and grandparents. That presents a challenge to both students and teacher, but Abdullah hopes it is one they will overcome together.
Family histories like that of 57-year-old Abdullah are not so unusual in Turkey, where the descendants of several ethnic groups from the Caucasus still live today. In the Inegol Region, where Gazelli is located, there are 18 villages originally founded by Georgian emigres. However, over the years Georgians who resettled in Turkey began to assimilate into Turkish society. In the early years of the Turkish Republic, ethnic minorities were obliged to “Turkicize” their surnames; as a result, some of the original surnames in Gurji villages were lost.
But even as they had to take new names, the Gurji villagers retained their love for their native language. After centuries of separation from their ancestral homeland, locals in Abdullah’s village can still speak Georgian. They even still have an Adjarian accent.