For 16 years, Nana Mutoshvili, or as they call, Natasha, has worked as a librarian in Jokolo village, settled with the Kist people. Through the years, she has struggled for her private life and for her books as well. In order to maintain an educational place for her village, Natasha sacrificed her career as a folk singer and became the only librarian from Pankisi Gorge.
The day for Nana Mutoshvili starts with watering her plants. It is a silent, regular ritual she’s been loyal to for 16 years. The vases sit on the gated windows of Pankisi valley’s only library, in Jokolo, one of the six villages making up the gorge in eastern Georgia, on the border with Chechnya. In a land of militants, Natasha, as everyone calls her, is a “book soldier,” as she’s been fighting to keep a small library alive.
“We are Kists, we were born and raised in Georgia and we have a very good relationship with Georgians. They are our brothers and sisters. We work together,” says Natasha, now 45 years old, of which 16 has been spent working in the library.
In 2012 Tbilisi’s central government adjusted the budget of the library system and closed down all the facilities in the gorge. Natasha found herself unemployed. Although desperately low, her monthly salary of GEL145 ($55) was essential to support her and her family. But it was not only that, she didn’t want the valley to lose the books. Natasha didn’t give up. She wrote a letter to the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia, requesting permission to reopen the library as a legal member of the country’s library system. Her initiative paid back - the facility in Jokolo reopened and received new books, a computer and a photocopy machine.
She is happy, but her life is far from easy. As a woman, Natasha faces daily challenges in keeping her post as Kists’ culture remains male-centered and women are expected to focus on working at home and looking after the family.
Kists, the majority of the approximately 13,000 people living in Pankisi, are descendants of the Chechens and the Ingush who, escaping blood feuds and seeking more fertile land, settled in the 10km-long valley at the end of the 1800s. At the end of the 1990s, their number inflated as hundreds fled the civil war in Chechnya and crossed into Georgia. Likewise, scores of Kists cut across the border to fight with the Chechens against the Russians. Kists are traditionally followers of the moderate Sufi Islam, but as many Chechens remained after the end of the conflict, Wahhabism, a more radical interpretation of Islam, has spread and posed challenges to the Kist community.
Located in the building of Jokolo’s community council, the library has become essential not only for Natasha, but for the young in the valley.
“Near here, on the main road, there’s a public school and pupils come here for books. In kindergarten, it is needed to make 300 copies of their studying materials, so they came to me and now my cartridge is empty. But as long as the young study, it’s not a problem.”
Yet, education remains a problem. As Wahhabism is gaining traction, many children do attend school but are prevented, for example, to play music - by their parents, their relatives or the family’s wider circle.
“They also wanted to ban smoking and alcohol among Kists but the council of elders said that this territory is not Chechnya, so Wahhabis must obey some rules here too,” notes Natasha.
The Council of Elders is an informal group of old men which arbitrates conflicts in the valley, meditating and seeking reconciliation, and is highly respected.
Also, despite the fact that all mosques have a separate praying place for female believers, here in Jokolo, women mostly pray at home. “We respect men very much,” says Natasha.
Yet, men do not seem to return the favor as bride kidnapping remains widespread, and silently accepted.
The fact that a man can decide to kidnap a woman he doesn’t know and hence force her into marrying him is shocking for Natasha. She should know. She was herself was kidnapped at the age of 15.
“My husband used to drink much. It’s horrible when you have no choice rather than to sink into your fate,” she recalls “If you go back, it’s shameful, people will gossip about you. This is how women become unhappy here.”
Yet, she did not care. She had a daughter and a son and five years later she was divorced. She has not remarried.
Dozens of underage girls are forced into marrying and setting up a family, following kidnapping. According to the Georgian legislation, marriage under the age of 18 is illegal. Until 2015, teenagers between 16 and 18 could marry with parents’ permission, but the law now requires them to obtain official permission from the court. The change was introduced as in the majority of cases of early marriages, it is the parents who pushes for the marriage.
“Some of them separated, some of them fell in love and some still suffer,” Natasha points out. There are a few cases of families who promised their daughters to individuals who are fighters in Syria.
“I asked one of the mothers: “Don’t you have the heart to send your daughter so far away to a man she has never met before?” But they are her parents and if they decided so, nobody can go against them. If my daughter was taken away like this, I would kill anyone who would do this to my daughters, I don’t care if I’ll finish my days in prison.”
Despite the law, kidnapping still happens. Natasha was in constant fear of her daughter to be kidnapped and used to follow her everywhere. But it was not enough and she was also abducted. she was also stolen. Natasha resigned to that event. To date, her daughter seems happy in her marriage.
Natasha loves listening to her daughter singing traditional folk songs. She used to sing and dance too as the leading member of the Kist community ensemble. The Wahhabists’ hostility to music did not prevent her from performing. But when she was faced with the choice between working and performing, she had no doubt; she chose her books.