Surnames in Georgia reflect both history and geography. Depending on your family name, people can tell where you are from and sometimes who you are. An “uncommon” last name rarely goes unnoticed.
Filmmaker Anna Dziapshipa knows it well. Her Abkhaz surname stirs emotions in Georgia: some recall the acclaimed 1950s soccer player, Niaz Dziapshipa, but most remember Abkhazia, the region which Georgia lost after a brutal conflict in the early 1990s.
In this experimental video, Dziapshipa delves into the intricacies of nationality and identity as reflected in the difficulties many Georgians have in writing or saying her surname.
I don’t remember to which I gave more time: finding the house’s address or fitting the key in the lock. The moment I opened the door, damp air flooded out. . It poisoned me. My amnesia turned into hypermnesia. It evoked every story connected to this house. Since then, I have tried to sort out my memories.
The first act of violence I remember is related to a little toe. I remember how hard I squeezed my neighbor’s tiny finger and made her cry. When her scream became unbearable, I ran home. My mother was doing the dishes while listening to the radio. She asked me what had happened. I answered that, while playing, I had accidentally hurt the a neighbor’s finger and that probably it was broken. I did not blame myself.
This feeling was indefinite; something like what one would feel after murder in self-defense. I could not even understand why exactly I was so angry with my neighbor that I did that. She was just pointing her finger at me and calling me what I really am.
Generally, I always knew my surname was unusual. I was at the center of attention without any effort. Just pronouncing that difficult combination of letters would grab everybody’s attention in a second.
Each time, my last name was in a pronunciation marathon. People judged me, taught me the correct pronunciation, corrected me or repeated my last name, and tried, failing, to pronounce it. Eventually, I started a new hobby: collecting the incorrect written versions of my surname. This documentation became the guarantee of my identity. Somehow, the mispronunciations of my surname shaped me.
Sometimes, I tried to find an escape; a place where my last name would sound natural, where I could hang the collected papers on the wall and look at them until the letters would lose shape and meaning.
As I was collecting all these papers, my parents occasionally tried to remove the traces of our surname. During each crisis in Georgia, the first thing they would do was “eliminate the surname.” Family and friends secretly tried to remove, destroy, scratch out and erase any trace of our Abkhaz name on the doors of apartments and buildings in which we lived or tried to replace the surname with more conventional ones.
Once, they also proposed to me that I change the name. During my marriage ceremony, it was suggested that I take a new family name. I thought about it for a while, but I could not imagine doing it. How could I deny myself this masochistic pleasure of hearing my surname pronounced incorrectly for the rest of my life?
After the ceremony, there was a toast to how Georgian men have reunited their tiny share of Abkhazia through me. As a friend of mine explained years later, it sounded like positive revenge.
In my mind, I often hear these words -- “our share of Abkhazia.” Abkhazia is our pain. I imagine my body as a lost territory in constant need of reunification. My damaged surname is my protected territory.
Some time ago, I dreamt of really finding my summer house. While climbing the stairs, I encountered a young girl, aged nine or 10 years old. She looked very familiar. She approached me and looked into my eyes. I asked her name. When she pronounced my name, I realised that she was me.
After this dream, I’m still thinking about how to locate that house in reality, and wonder what I would do if I really were to find it.
June, 2018 Identity Edition