Tuesday, October 29, 2013

My Little Wahines

Thank you to Rosalie for the gear, Marliss and Heba for the choreography, and Koko for the instrumentals.

video

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Homeschool Trial Week

Hi friends!

I have been conducting a trial homeschool week with my oldest and have been sending daily email reports to family and a few friends who are also interested in homeschooling (or have kindly suffered through as I have talked to them to death about it...).  It only just occurred to me that I should post this on my blog.  So I am going to copy in here the entry on Day Four (today) but load a few pictures from previous days.  I'll insert captions so you get an idea of what is going on in the photos.  And just a quick background: I MAY homeschool this year and the primary reason for doing it (as you'll see below) is out of a love of global studies and the desire to keep up Mayumi's budding interest in the topic.  So here goes: Day Four. But be warned--this is a LONG and RAMBLING email I did not intend to make public.  So, forgive.  I would, however, appreciate any thoughts, advice, etc.

Today's topic: Ancient Egyptian Work.  We started with a story about Moses parting the Red Sea.  I think I was trying to incorporate a Bible story into my lesson and thought I could segue from Red Sea to the Nile and from there talk about farming, washing, etc.  In other words, "work."  I will share a little snippet of what happened in order to illustrate my current dilemma.  Two sentences into the Moses/Red Sea story I suggested we look at a map and grabbed one of the millions of children's books I got on the subject from the library. This was an illustrated Bible Story atlas. Perfect.  I had Mayumi read the word "Contents" and then search for the word Egypt.  Fine.  She found it and I asked her what page it was on.  We got stuck here: turns out she doesn't know/recognize the number "18."  Hmmmmm.  So I went into a tangent lesson on the 'teens and counting up from ten...and I lost her.  She was bored.  And she didn't get it.  I had my pencil and my paper and I was tossing out little math equations and she just looked at my blankly.  I was frustrated.  She was bored.  I finally gave up and we moved on...and I'll refer to this experience in a moment.
 
But first--we eventually got to the topic of washing clothes in the Nile and then I said we would conduct an experiment.  I quickly readied two buckets: one with a bottle of basic washing detergent sitting inside along with a dirty white shirt and the other containing the ingredients to make basic homemade laundry detergent (sodium carbonate, bicarbonate, and salt).  I also had the Egyptian white dress Mayumi made on day one and subsequently stained with tomato sauce.  I said we'd conduct an experiment.  I had her write the date in her journal and the phrase "which one?"...meaning, "which method will do a better job of washing out the stains?"  This was pretty laborious...even though it was her fourth day writing the date she still labored.  And she isn't as thrilled about writing in her journal as I thought she would be.  Clearly, it is hard...and I hope I am not turning her off to it.  But I'll address that in the "dilemma" section below.
 
So we went outside and had a good time mixing the homemade soap and whacking at the stains.  See the attached pictures of Yumi washing and hanging her dress out to dry (subsequently soaked in the massive downpour in the afternoon...). Fine.  Then we had to rush off to pick up Emi from camp.
 
My current dilemmas:
 
1) Maybe kindergartners really SHOULD learn the basic subjects in targeted, isolated lessons? 
2) Maybe kindergartners, even bright ones, cannot really grasp the concepts of civilizations and would be better off just learning the basic subjects in a hopefully fun, but definitely targeted, way (see concern #1).  In other words, is my idea to naturally teach her skills (like counting up from ten, for example) in the middle of a social studies lesson really very 1) practically and 2) good for her development?  Hmmmm.
3) If I conclude from concerns #1-2 that, in fact, I really should just teach her math as math and reading as reading (at least NOW, while she is still a new learner), doesn't that defeat the main reason why I decided to try this out?  (I decided to try this out because I want her to learn things that other kindergartners never get to learn, like geography and world religions and Arabic...).
4) Several times today (no joke) I concluded that she really would be better off studying in a traditional manner, under a trained professional, who actually knows how to teach math, has supplies, teaches things in a developmentally appropriate way, etc...and for about five minutes I'd feel calm.  I knew it was right.  And then suddenly I'd remember: but IF she goes to regular kindergarten then for 6.5 hours of the day she'll NOT be learning about the world, its languages, its people, its religions, its civilizations.  Yes, she'll be learning how to read and do sums in a developmentally appropriate way but for 6.5 hrs of the day NO ONE will speak to her of Egypt or show her a map of the world or ANYTHING.  No one expects a kindergartner to know the names of the continents, do they?  But I DO!!! No one expects a kindergartner to know the name of the current US president...but I DO!  So how CAN I sent her to kindergartner when she WILL learn some things but not OTHER things (things that I think are vastly more interesting...)?
5) On a different note: I thought a lot today about how, if I homeschool Yumi, she is just going to have to tag along to the grocery store, Emi's playdates/dance class, visiting teaching appointments, doctor's visits...all while she SHOULD be learning.  If not in public school, than in "home" school (I realize that she can be learning outside of the home but we aren't talking about field trips here....we are talking about grocery shopping).  I cannot push all those things off to quiet/nap time or the afternoon.  If I do, then my homework/housework/fitness will all suffer.  No, if I homeschool her, I will have to do those things during the time that I should be schooling her.  And that feels wrong.  What do you think?  It feels wrong.  So then I start to think "alright, homeschooling isn't right for us, at least not right now..." and then five minutes later I go through the crisis I described above under #4.  Let me add her that I realize she CAN be learning anywhere we go.  Surely.  I am normally good about teaching and talking to my girls wherever we go but I am especially vigilant about it now.  Sure, while at the store, I can ask her to count things or name things or illicit questions and conversation from her.  Sure.  But is it right that on the days Emi is NOT at preschool (Mon, Weds and Fri), Mayumi may get very little one-on-one instruction?  That it may only happen while I am I preparing dinner? 

 Carving a cartouche out of play dough.  We discussed shapes, tools, etc.
 A journal sample.  You can see her entry for Day One (she learned ancient Egyptians ate grapes) and Day Two (they also wore long dresses).
 Day One: Making a pyramid out of marshmellows.
 

 

Saturday, July 06, 2013

6 July: The Russian Bathhouse


6 May 2013

The only thing keeping me away as I sit here trying to write this post are the dogs barking to each other throughout the neighborhood.  It is only 12:51am (only!) but it has been a BUSY day.  It has also been my last full day in Tbilisi.  I leave tomorrow afternoon.

Our final lecture this morning was on Public Management.  Nino Dolidze of GIPA spoke to us on the basic models of public management management and the history of public management in Georgia.  Her lecture was interesting, particularly the portion dedicated to the development and evolution of public management in Georgia.  I particularly noted the following: 1) All three of Georgia's presidents (since its inception as a modern state) were initially popular BUT lost public support after sometime in service.  Nino rhetorically asked "Why don't Georgians elect the right leaders?  Are they irrational?"  2) Sakaashvili is famousfor slimming down the public sector through various reforms (particularly in the educational and law enforcement sectors).

What I really want to write quickly about, however, was my trip to the Russian baths in Old Tbilisi.  Kristin, Melissa and I ventured down into the depths of the bathhouse and were bossed about in Russian by large women with whom you don't want to argue.  And with whom I could not argue anyway since I know about 20 words total in both Russian and Georgian.  I was scrubbed, washed, and soaked.  I can't say it was my most enjoyable public bath experience but it was definitely a Nastya/Jamila/Malaika/Megumi-worthy experience.  I suppose I had better explain why it was not my favorite bath experience.  My companions wanted a private room so I missed out on the common room experience which, I have found, can be very fun.  Mind you, the "private room" was far from fancy; it was, in fact, quite dingy, dungeon-like, and even a bit dirty--a circumstance which also dropped the rating off the experience.  The private room may have been necessary, however, because we could not seem to figure out if was mixed gender or not. If so, I'd have had a problem since I had no bathing suit. So--it was what it was.  I've been multiple times to public baths in the Middle East and Japan and those experiences were somehow less stressful, more cultural, and overall physically and emotionally satisfying.

However--an adventure!  As always.  We also enjoyed glorious polyphonic singing in the the 6th century Anchiskhati Church (finally got inside on my third visit), crossed the river on the "Peace Bridge," went to the new cathedral built by Ivanishivili, and eventually ended up at a fancy restaurant with gorgeous views for our final dinner.  Delicious!  Crazy too-loud musical entertainment to which we danced and a few performances of traditional Georgian dancing.  We made merry and made many toasts (I toasted to the "A" we will all get in the course :-) ).  A fabulous end to an immensely enjoyable two weeks! This will be my last post.  Tomorrow morning, after spending time with Thea and Liza, I hope to find a congregation of my church that is supposedly located in Tbilisi.  Wish me luck.  Kristin and I fly to Istanbul in the early evening and will spend the night and the next morning enjoying more of Istanbul.  Monday afternoon, right before the beginning of Ramadan, we will fly home (whew!  How terrible to be in Istanbul but unable to eat the delicious food! :-) ).

Off to bed!  Excited to see my darling husband and babies soon.  I also want to acknowledge dear Marliss (and all those who helped her) for her care of my girls during my absence.  Farewell, Tbilisi! Until we meet again.

Friday, July 05, 2013

5 July 2013: Fajitas and Jazz in Tbilisi


5 July 2013

I am a student in the George Mason University Masters of Global Affairs Program.  One program requirement is to choose a specialization among conflict and security, global health, global economics, global governance, global education, etc. Another program requirement is to take GLOA 710, a course that is given annually during the summer and is always a two-week study abroad.  Two years ago GLOA 710 was held in China and last year it was in Argentina.  A student may choose to attend whichever summer he or she wishes before graduating from the program.  I was in Amman last summer and may (who knows?) be moving abroad in 2014, so I figured it would make the best sense to enroll in GLOA 710 this summer.  The fact that it would take place in Eastern Europe was, for me, and added bonus.

The program schedule has featured lectures on various topics.  While they have been largely focused on conflict and security issues, we have been treated to several lectures and tours on Georgian culture.  Today, our second-to-last day, we learned about Georgian film and Georgian public health. 

We went directly to the Georgian National Film Center this morning.  We learned about the history, funding, and goals of the Georgian film industry.  The industry is small but partners with various European film markets and forums.  Georgian films are not "commercial"; they are almost exclusively artistic and cultural.  Our lecturer assured us that Georgian films (which cost between 5-600,000 USD to make!!) are always dramatic and heavy.  That matches my impression of the two Georgian movies I have seen--"Repentance" and "Street Days."  "Street Days" dealt with a grave topic (drug addiction) but was fast-paced and, at times, humorous.  The lecture included the names of several successful films released during 2012-3 and so I hope to watch and judge them for myself. 

As it happens, Thea's professional background is in film and as the assistant dean of a department in a local university she used to write film critiques.  She no longer writes reviews, however, because she is tired of feeling constrained by the Georgian tradition of politeness.  Since everyone knows each other in Georgia, it is unthinkable to actually publicly critique each other.  Thea gave as an example a 2010 Georgian film whose name I just omitted.  She did not enjoy the movie and was unable to critique it because the daughter of the director goes to her daughter Liza's school!  To emphasize her point she pulled out her mobile phone and showed us a picture of the director' daughter sitting at the very table at which we were sitting.  (Furthermore, in my original publication of this post I included the name of the film and its link in IMDB; however over breakfast this morning Thea, who read my blog earlier, asked me to take the name of the film out of the post, for fear the director might google it and come across this post and her name). Thea, and her friends with whom we had this conversation, seemed to think it a shame that Georgians are culturally bound to politeness but I find that charming.  I am not sure how far Americans' sense of entitlement to rudeness has gotten us.

Our second lecture of the day was on public health in Georgia.  Among the particular public health challenges Georgia faces, one that interests me is the relatively high infant mortality rate. Our lecturer assured us that all pregnant Georgian women receive prenatal care and are attended by trained OBs at deliver and yet more babies die at birth than are expected.  Possibly the quantity of care is low?

As an American, I was not surprised by the politicized nature of the Georgian health care system.  Health care privatized in Georgia with the Rose Revolution and the conservative Sakaashvili's rise power, with only the poorest receiving government assistance with premiums. The system is becoming more universal and socialist under Ivanshivili's government.

A final point of interest is Georgia's health care policy for immigrants: it has none.  Immigrants must pay for private insurance.  I intend to contact our lecturer again via email and ask for information--if it exists--on Egyptian immigrants and health care.  Do they purchase insurance or pay for care out of pocket?  Out of curiosity I will want to find out what options immigrants to America have for health care?  I am woefully ignorant on this topic.

While our lectures were interesting I must admit that the best part of my day began after class.  We met Thea at a large grocery store not far from our lecture and we shopped for the indigents to a meal we planned to cook for Thea and her friends.  While returning to Thea's apartment after shopping, Thea seemingly spontaneously put in a CD of music by her friend, Tamta.  The moment I heard her voice I knew I needed to know more about her because my husband would most definitely LOVE a copy of her CD.  (Nate LOVES jazzy female singers).  I examined the CD cover and insert closely and resolved to ask Thea later how I could get my own copy.

We arrived at Thea's and she left us to go up to her flat alone while she and Liza made a quick errand down the street.  When we stepped out of the elevator on the 7th floor we saw standing in front of Thea's flat none other than the singer--Tamta!  Ha!  It turns out Thea had invited her to our soirĂ©e tonight and decided to surprise us.  And surprised we were!

After inductions, Kristin and I sent Thea off to relax and chat with Tamta while we got to work making fajitas, tortillas, cookies and peach crisp from scratch.  It took over two hours!  We were joined by Georgi, Nino, and Eka and soon the kitchen was full and we cooked and talked politics as fast as we could.  

Finally, all was ready but before dining we took a break and had a concert.  As it happens, Tamta and Nino are both from Abkhazia and childhood friends.  Tamta is obviously a musician but her mother is, too, and she was Nino's piano teacher.  Nino mentioned to me that her dream is to study/teach piano theory but I had no idea she is such a natural at the piano. Tamta and Nino claimed to not have performed together "in years" and yet they whipped out number after number.  Nino would begin each number hesitantly at first...feeling out the intro to the song...and then play the whole thing beautifully as though she had the music right in front of her.  Needless to say, both Nino and Tamta performed beautifully and with grace without a single sheet of music, song after song.  English, Georgian, French, Russian--most of it jazz but a classical number or two thrown into the mix.  Watch her here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EURa4z3rRU&sns=em .  Nino and Tanta are amazing!  As I sat, listening to their gorgeous sound, I felt, for the millionth time, how blessed I am to have this experience of coming to Georgia and getting to know her people.

Thea and her friends have known each other for years.  During the dark days of the mid-1990s they would gather at Thea's old apartment in the city center, because hers was the only one among all their flats that had electricity, and huddle together for warmth during the winters.  They huddled under umbrellas because the roof leaked.  They sang, talked, exchanged ideas--a regular salon.  On any given day she had at least ten fellow university students with her there under her leaking roof.  Sitting with this group of best of friends, 15 years later, was a true honor.  I am grateful Thea opened her life to us during these two short weeks.  And it is almost over!  Tomorrow is our last full day.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

4 July 2013: Happy Independence Day to Egypt?

4 July 2013

Talk about timely.  Probably at the very moment I was speaking to the Egyptians in front of the Catholic church in Tbilisi on Wednesday the coup was in motion.  I only learned about it this morning (Thursday) shortly before leaving on our day trip.  I opened a few articles on my iPad and Kristin and I read up as much on it as possible during our two hour bus ride.  It is interesting to note that some news sources are calling it a coup while others are hesitant to use that word.  Moursy was apparently given a 48 deadline by the military to 1) regain control of the country (BBC) or 2) meet the demands of opposition (CNN).  Slightly different spin.  CNN's coverage seemed more sympathetic to Moursy and the Muslim Brotherhood, depicting the anti-Moursy raids on the Brotherhood in slightly condemning tones.  BBC's spin gave legitimacy to Moursy's ouster.  

Egypt did not/does not have the proper institutions in place necessary for a problem-free democratic political transition.  Surely.  And yet I am saddened that Egyptians have lost their chance to collectively express their displeasure with Moursy and remove him from power democratically.  Could they have done it? Would the Brotherhood have conceded defeat if, indeed, the popular vote was against their candidate?  We will never know.  I am anxious for Egyptians to voluntarily refrain from rioting so that casualties are low and we can start this process once again.  Military transitional rule, campaigns, new elections.  NO repeat (hopefully).

I am intrigued to see these events will influence the outcome of my paper for this class. All those I interviewed expressed the desire to return to Egypt and declared the intention to do so if policies regarding minorities changed.  There  is always the possibility that the right candidate will present him (or her!) self and unite moderate and fundamentalist Muslims in a way that allows for equal rights for Christians.  And yet a coup is not exactly an indicator of a positive change and I expect Georgia's Egyptian diaspora will remain here for the time being IF Georgia will let them.  The folks I met at the church yesterday explained that visas must be renewed annually and that Georgia's once welcoming visa-free regime is tightening.  My new Coptic friends told me that the worry that their visas may not be renewed hangs over them, considering the investment they have made to come and set up businesses here.  Someone within their community may be in a position to assume control over (for example) their little store but still--the lost of time and money to the immigration project would be tragic.

As for the events of my day--today was yet another Independence Day spent abroad.  And what a memorable one it was!  Like our trip to the Caucasus mountains, I was not initially thrilled over the prospect of a vineyard tour and wine tasting.  I am neither a wine drinker nor a wine culture enthusiast and figured I would rather spend by precious time in Georgia in Tbilisi, on the ground, talking with and learning about Georgians.  This is how I felt before we traveled to the Caucuses and I learned for that trip that Georgia has much more to offer than Tbilisi.  Thea's enthusiasm, as well, was infectious. So, after an even earlier than normal run about the Hippodrome, Kristin and I excitedly joined our entire group on a tour bus headed to eastern Georgia and the wine country.

Our first stop was the convent (and monastery?) at at Bodbe.  The church in Bodbe is the traditional burial place of St. Nino, the woman who brought Georgia Christianity.  She reportedly came from present-day Turkey and walked about Georgia in her bare feet, spreading the good news.  Nino is revered in Georgia and seemingly half the women in this country are named for her. 

The grounds and surrounding view from the church were exquisite.  See my pictures on Facebook!  I have never been to Greece of Italy but the many tall Cyprus trees and low stone fences gave the place that old world charm you would expect from those Western European countries.

Naturally, the property has a holy spring!  We descended the mountaintop by a long staircase and found the spring a hive of commercial activity.  Several lari (the Georgian currency) will get you a white tunic and the opportunity to submerge yourself three times in the frigid water.  A few in our group did it, including our professor and trusty translator Katie.  As for me, I was satisfied with drinking from the water, spilling continuously from a spigot separate (!) from the bathing water.  It was cold and delicious.

Our trip to the winery and vineyard in Sighnaghi was magical.  The owner and "mother" of the wine--John--gave us a tour and treated us to the most delicious meal I've had here in Georgia.  The bread: grown from their own home-grown wheat and proofed not with industrial yeast but with fermented wine by-product. The sunflower oil, which was featured in all the dishes: grown and pressed on the premises.  The meal: fried eggplant, roasted rosemary potatoes, wax beans, Lobio (brown beans), Mediterranean salad, veal stew.  The winery building: rustic, picturesque, filled with art, books, rugs, artifacts, and bottles of wine.  We were treated to a performance of polyphonic singing.  This type of singing features four voices in harmony within the parameters of a very specific melodic scale (I couldn't tell you which) and is accompanied by specific instruments and a drum.  Several among the group of singers leapt up and began to dance as well!  Loved it.

Marvelous day!  Long.  We are still on the bus and it is 10:30pm

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

3 July 2013: Jamila in Georgia

I am an Egyptian magnate.  Or possibly it is the other way around?  Either way, the country and its people are rooted in my soul and have been since I visited there the first time in 1999.

Kristin and I easily found the Tbilisi Catholic Church (ha! after asking at least five people "sad aris catolicki inglesia?").  Oddly enough it was right where we expected to find the puppet theatre last week and, not finding it, had to scramble for a taxi to get to the REAL theatre location on tine). Tbilisi is not THAT large of a town and, in these 10 days, I've gotten around it a bit!

We found the church packed with Egyptians.  Kristin went right in while I chatted out front with some women and their children.  I learned a lot from them including from which area of Egypt most of the immigrants are coming (Southern Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood have a strong hold and are making life very difficult for Christians) and what they think about life in Georgia (it is enjoyable--but the rent is too high).  These conversations were extremely fulfilling and I hope to report more on them here when I have some more time.  Two things to note: 1) While I stood on the steps talking to these ladies one of the men I interviewed two days ago passed by and called out to me ("Jamila!"); 2) I love the singing and incense from the Coptic service.  So reminiscent of my time in Egypt as well as the old city of Jerusalem.  I took an audio clip that I can hopefully post here some how, some day.

Our first lecture of the day was on social media.  While enjoyable I will not write about it here.  The information was fairly straightforward and intuitive.

Our second lecture was at government office where the Deputy Minister of Integration spoke to us.  I will have to save the background on the Abkhazians and Ossetians for a night when I am writing before midnight but for me the most enlightening aspect was finally understanding just why the conflict exists.  It is not an ethnic conflict, although the Abkhazians and Ossetians do have a different language and culture (historically) from the Georgians.  It appears that the conflict truly was generated by (definitely) Russian leaders and (likely) Georgian leaders.  Russian wants to drive a wedge between these two autonomous regions and Georgia in order to gain influence and power over Georgia.  Georgia wants to assert its national identity and sovereignty vis-a-vis Russia.  The conflict seems to have little or nothing to do with actual differences in ethnicity or identity.

Kristin and I had plenty of opportunity to reflect and discus this topic this evening with our host, Thea, and her (our!) friends Georgi and Nino.  Georgi invited us to his country home (a "dacha" in Russian) and treated us to a fabulous time.  We picked apricots, toured his beautiful home, ate a delicious meal, and enjoyed great conversation over dessert in front of a fire.  What could be better?  Please look at my photo of Georgi's home on Facebook.  You will notice the fabulous outdoor staircase.  Most Georgian homes (not apartments but single family homes) have their staircase connecting the floors OUTSIDE.  Georgi's water (from a well) and toilet (squatter!) are also outside.

Wonderful day!! Wonderful wonderful day.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

2 July 2013: Poor Chechnya

My post today, alas, will be brief.  I will be rising early tomorrow so as to attend the Egyptian Coptic service early tomorrow morning with the hope of gaining greater understanding of the Coptic migration to Georgia.

Today we met at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs where a VERY knowledgable and YOUNG man gave us a brilliant summary and analysis of geopolitics in the Caucasus.  Most intriguing to me was his brief on the issues in the autonomous areas in the North Caucasus in Russia--including Chechnya.  I was reminded today that Chechnya, unlike Georgia, was never a Soviet Republic.  It never had the organizational structure that existed in Georgia before the Bolshevik occupation and so was never made a republic of the USSR.  Thus, when the USSR started to collapse and the republics started to secede, Chechnya was not in any position to leave (and nor was Russia willing to allow it).  Our lecturer also assured us that while Russia considers the Chechnya conflict as finished, it is clear from the occasional (but horrific) attacks on Russian civilians by Chechans that the conflict is far from over.

I spent some time discussing my research with my professor and she encouraged me to continue looking into Coptic immigration to Georgia.  Thus far, I've met with some Egyptians in cafes and heard their stories. Today I met, along with Kristin, a prominent Georgian scholar at Ilya State University who specializes in the Orthodox Church.  He has publically criticized the Church for its role in politics and has been attacked by the Church for speaking out.  Kristin wants to meet with him specifically to learn more about the influence of the Church in government and the implications of this for Georgia's democratization process, but I tagged along to ask him about the Copts.  As it turned out he knows very little about the Egyptian immigrants but did explain why the Georgian Orthodox Church ones not allow Copts to participate in Church services.  Apparently the Georgiah Church and the Egyptian Church have some differences in belief relating to the nature of Christ.  This difference is the explanation given by the Church to explain why Copts may not attend Orthodox services but, instead, must meet all together once a week on Wednesday mornings in a Catholic Church.  It is to that service I intend to go tomorrow.

Also, today:
-Visited the restaurant at which we will eat our closing feast on Saturday (pictures on Facebook reflect the view from the restaurant balcony).
-Tried once again to visit Anchiskhati Church (6th century and home to the famous Georgian polyphonic singing).  Found it this time but spent too long sitting at a nearby cafe processing our notes and discussing the issues so that by the time we made it the ten feet across to the church, we found it closed!

Monday, July 01, 2013

1 July 2013: To NATO or not to NATO: it's not even a question


Georgia loves NATO but does NATO love Georgia?  We explored this topic today at the NATO Liaison Office with the Liaison himself, William Lahue.  Georgia wants stability and security and it thinks NATO can help it reach that objective.  As I have mentioned here before, Georgia fears another Russian occupation and seeks the protection NATO membership will provide.  To prove its resolve, Georgia has contributed a large number of troops to ISAF, second only to the US.  And yet Georgia has not yet managed to "buy" its way into the club.  Against Georgia is its distance from other NATO countries (while it borders NATO member Turkey, Georgia would be the most eastern nation in the organization), its recent instability, its poor relationship with Russia and, relatedly, Russia's fierce opposition to Georgia's acceptance into NATO (Russia may not be a NATO nation but it still has clout within the organization, especially with Germany).

Pursuant to my thesis research, I asked the liaison about Georgia-Iran relations.  He told us that Georgia has a visa free regime with Iran but this may not last for long as Georgia's relationship with Iran is being strained.  First of all, Iranians are buying up a large tracts of property in Georgia.  Georgia is also concerned with Iran's unfriendly policies against Azerbaijan; Azeris are rejecting Iran's attempt to build madrasahs (fundamentalist religious schools) and Iran is growing increasingly belligerent with Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijan is a close neighbor to Georgia and the two enjoy historical and economic ties within the region.   A final concern: if Iran breaks out its nuclear weapons US-friendly Georgia could be a target.

A bit about my other research interest that ties in to my activities this afternoon.  Thanks to the director of American Councils I located a local hangout for Egyptian Copts (Orthodox Christians) and asked several about their stories.  I wanted to know why they had left Egypt, why they chose Georgia, how long they intended to stay, what they hoped to do here, and under which conditions would they return to Egypt.  Their answers were unsurprising: all spoke of the lack of human rights in Egypt, particularly under Morsi (the "lier")'s rule.  None of them condemned Egyptian Muslims as a group but the lack of policies guaranteeing Egyptians Christians the same rights as Muslims.  They gave story after story of the wrongs they suffered.  They universally wanted to immigrate to the US or Europe but visas, they vowed, are impossible to get.  Georgia, however, has an open visa policy and welcomes Egyptians.  They may legally work here and the men I interviewed all claimed that they do not feel marginalized or discriminated against in Georgia.  The interviews were fun--and I got to speak about my beloved Egypt in my beloved Arabic.  Jamila was happy.

So, which thesis to choose?  Reader, help!  Read on and if you can even UNDERSTAND my thoughts please feel free to comment:

1) Georgia and migrants (possible thesis: Do Georgia's immigration policies have positive implications for its economy/democratization/regional and/or global position?)

2) Georgia and Iran (possible thesis: Can Georgia balance its interests with America and Iran and/or remain neutral between America and Iran, and how can Georgia be an example to emerging nations of neutrality and/or independence from global power politics?)

The other events of my day were as follows:
-Early morning jog around the hippodrome.  
-Washed my hair!  Second time in nine days. :-)
-Arrived on time for a crash course in Georgian.  Wish we'd had it our first day but it was great nonetheless.
-Group lunch.  I really like Lobio--a delicious bean soup served in a large ceramic mug with very hard unsweetened cornbread.  Yum!
-Thea had something else she had to do at the last moment so Kristin and I decided to seek out Egyptian Copt handouts--and found some!  After I interviewed people in three different cafes I joined Kristin for some reflection and planning.  
-Returned to Thea's by 9pm.  We all worked together to cook up some Pilmeni (Russian dumplings) and salad.  And oh--lavash with Nutella.  Double yum!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

30 June 2013: The Church and the State are good friends in Georgia

The following account DEMANDS that you go to my facebook page and look at the photos of Khazbegi.  I will do my best to describe my adventures but pictures will complement them.

You will see from my photos that Khazbegi is a gorgeous little town ringed by medium-sized brilliant green mountains that are crowned by Khazbegi and its snow-capped peak.  We were told that most of Khazbegi is covered in snow from October to May but today it was HOT.  In the company of our guide Genri, we began to hike up to the Trinity Church up atop one of those medium-sized mountains.  Legend has it that in the 13th century the residents of these mountains gave the haunch of a calf to an eagle and then spread out in order to see where the eagle would land and devour its prize.  Where the eagle landed is where they began to build the church--a project that lasted nearly one hundred years.  Today it still stands nobly above Khazbegi town and attracts both Georgian and foreign tourists in droves during the summer.  We were not alone as we struggled up the mountain; there is a road upon which cars may (and do) traverse but it is extremely rough.  A surprising number of "mature" folks hiked along side us up to the church while pickups full of young tourists labored over the ruts and craters in the road.

The interior of the church was much like any other Georgian Orthodox church.  What is interesting to note is that many of the icons (pictures of Christ, Mary, and other saints) were defaced by the Soviets and remain damaged today.  The chief icon in this church featured a faceless Mary and Jesus.

While hiking the nearly 10 miles up and back down I had plenty of opportunities to chat with Genri with the aid of our translator Katie.  Genri, it turned out, is the caretaker of the church and hikes up that mountain three times a week!  Genri also owns a local restaurant (where we subsequently ate lunch) and, apparently, is a medical doctor.  Georgians are not lazy people.

Genri told me that church attendance has been on the rise, particularly among young people.  This phenomenon is reflective of the rising Georgian nationalist sentiment that has accompanied the rise of Ivanishivili and the Georgian Dream Coalition.  In contrast to Sakaashiili, Ivanishvili has encouraged the role of the Church in government and the Georgian national identity.  The growing anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia may be tied to this increase in Georgian nationalism and may also be fueled by Ivanishivili.  The latter is unclear; Ivanishivili is an local Georgian who made billions in Russia and it entirely unknown to Georgians.  As you may recall, many speculate that he only won the recent elections because of the release of videos depicting horrible human rights abuses of prisoners that turned public opinion away from Sakaashvili.  Is Sakaashvili directly responsible for the abuse in prions?  Likely not, but his increasing arrogance and refusal to negotiate with the opposition was really starting to anger Georgians, particularly the Church.  After the release of the lurid videos the Church patriarch and priests began to preach Ivanishvili from their pulpits.  Sermons are highly politicized and Genri and his fellow attenders claim to embrace the message.  Do Georgians actually vote as they are told to?  We will find out this October during the presidential election.

I also had some time to muse on my thesis for this class.  My professor, Dr. Christensen, suggested that I look into how Georgia has remained neutral in the on-going tension between Iran (its neighbor) and the U.S. (possibly its patron).  Georgia has much to gain by retaining good relations with both nations and may be an example to other countries in neutrality.  Is it possible to remain outside or neutral from power politics?  I may look further into this.  I am also still interested in locating the supposed Egyptian Coptic refugee community here in Georgia.  If I can find enough academic sources on the phenomenon and can conduct my own primary (anecdotal) research than I might like to head in that direction instead.  The former topic seems more IR and macro to me, while the latter has opportunities for micro analysis.  Maybe.  Maybe I am also exhausted from my wonderful hike up the mountain.

The rest of my day was like this:
-Lunch at Genri's restaurant--bread, cheese, salad, khinkali (meat dumplings), and kabob.  No kabob for me today.  Kristin and I skipped breakfast in favor of a lie-in so we were ready for lunch when we finally descended...at 3pm!!!  Don't worry; we drank lots of water and ate a Lara Bar Kristin had packed in case of emergencies.  Yay Kristin!  I love her.
-Quick (2.5 hr) drive back to Tbilisi and return to Thea's house.  We picked up hot puri (bread) and cherries for dinner on our way back.  Thea was impressed (well, she was nice to pretend) with the Georgian I picked up while away.  I know can say: "This is my friend.  I have a bag.  You do not have hot bread."  I know--you are impressed.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

29 June 2013: Into the Caucasus

29 June 2013

When our professor told us that we would take a hiking excursion during our two-week trip to Georgia I will confess that I thought to myself: "Hiking?  I can go hiking any time in Virginia.  What I CAN'T do in Virginia is be on the streets of Tbilisi talking to and learning about Georgians."  Being the daughter of a tour conductor I would never complain but was a little skeptical.  I was even less enthusiastic as we pulled out in our buses at 8am from Tbilisi--not an unreasonable hour but having only had five hours of sleep the night before I was just REALLY uncomfortable on the bus.  No recline, twisty roads--you get the picture.

I changed my tune by the time we reached a picturesque church clinging to the edge of a cliff that dropped down into a green lake.  We had reached the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and the whole scene was ringed by fairly large green mountains.  As we ascended into the range the mountains ("mta" in Georgian) grew taller and the views increasingly spectacular.  It took at least three hours to reach our destination--Khazbegi--but each hairpin turn (taken at full speed while passing other vehicles!) revealed yet another gorgeous vista.  I will post pictures on Facebook.

Khazbegi is a quaint town at the foot of a giant mountain.  No one has yet been able to tell me the elevation but it appears to be the height of Mt Hood or Mt Timpanogous.  I'll look into it further and give more accurate info later.  Only pictures can do the town and its surrounding grandeur any justice so I urge you to look on Facebook for the photos.  Suffice it to say that it is almost the most beautiful mountain scenery I have ever eyewitnessed.  In my mind, it is only second to the tropical mountains of Hawaii.

We arrived starving and so went as a group to lunch.  I have to admit I find large group lunches a bit tiresome so I decided to head back to the kitchen.  There I met the cooks hard a work making everything from scratch--and I mean scratch.  They were literally grinding the meat for the kofta kebab and rolling out the dough for the khacha puri (cheese bread).  These ladies nicely let me film their operation and and attempt to chat with them.

My next stop was the table reserved for the three drivers.  These gents also had no English but were equally as wiling to let me try to converse with them throughout lunch.  I wish I could take one day of crash course Georgian.  I could GET this language if I just had the chance.

Our afternoon excursion was to a church at the border of Georgia and Russia.    The road from the border disappeared through a narrow pass connecting the South and North Caucasus through which Catherine the Great once marched.  The church (in which a service was being held), the border, and the various conversations we had while looking out over the view (mostly about Russian literature--me mostly listening since I know practically nothing about the topic) were all enjoyable.  

We had dinner at the home of our professor's friends.  They slaughtered and cooked a sheep for us!  Quite the spread.  We dined outside in the shadow of steep slopes and towering peaks.  Great company, food, and hospitality.

Looking forward to a lie-in!  We've been up early each day this week and have stayed up too late.  Time to catch up on a little sleep.  Us old ladies are calling it a night at 11:52pm.  The rest of the group just headed out to a "club" (but in this town I'd be surprised if they find one!).

Friday, June 28, 2013

28 June 2013: Street Days

If you have ever considered what life was like for heroin addicts in Tbilisi in the 1990s, you must watch "Street Days," directed by Levan Koguashvili.  We watched this movie today during our morning lecture.  Sad and yet funny.  The Georgian police threaten the main character "Checkie"--a lovable addict--with arrest unless he will set up the son of a government minister.  Get him high, plant some drugs on him, and the cops would take over from there.  The son is no innocent; he initially came to Checkie and asked him to hook him and his other high school buddies up with some "junk" but Checkie refused.  After all, the boy is just a kid AND the son of his former classmate.  The police have him in a tight spot, however, and finally Checkie is forced to either corrupt and/or disgrace the son of his friend OR, as it turns out, kill himself.  I am sure you can guess which he chose (although it took me by surprise when he did it).  The film was depressing but VERY well made.  I highly recommend it.

Our second lecture was about public opinion in the Caucasus and featured the data (and a website with which to manipulate it) of several years' worth of research and polling in the three south Caucasus countries--Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.  A valuable tool and one that I am sure I will use as I do research for my thesis for this course.  I spent some time briefly discussing my possible topic--Georgian/Iranian relations--with our lecturer today.  I will reflect on the topic here more when I have a bit more time.

A funny side note: I expected Georgians to be dressed very formally when out and about, much like I observed years ago in Ukraine.  In fact, Georgian men and women dress very casually--jeans, tank tops, flats, etc.  Very few stiletto heels, mini skirts, and fishnet stockings worn by Ukrainian women.  So I asked Thea if I could pass as a Georgian.  She immediately said no--neither Kristin nor I could pass.  I asked her: is it my hair, my skin, my clothes?  She said no...and then, through the help of Eka, she said that `'You do not look like you have lived under a Soviet occupation.  You look too happy."  Wow! For the record, I do NOT think that Georgians look unhappy.  On the contrary, they appear (and are) very pleasant.  And yet there IS a sadness here which was reflected in "Street Days."  Humor in the face of despair--that is how the Georgians must have survived the occupation.

And now, the events of my day:
-Morning jog--in one inch of mud since it rained buckets yesterday.
-Left a tad too late for the marshrutka (mini bus) this morning so, sigh, had to take a cab!
-Had a shawarma with Kristin and a couple of the guys from our group.  We are the 29 and older club. :-)
-Walked much around Old Tbilisi, visited the Sioni church, and enjoyed a light dinner at a cute cafe.
-Attended Tbilisi's very on marionnette theatre this evening as a group.  Very creative.
-It is late and I am tired.  We leave tomorrow morning at 8am for a two-day trip to the mountains where I will likely NOT have wireless so  I may lag behind on my blog.  Not to worry! I will return.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

27 June 2013: The Georgian Mafia


We had the extreme pleasure of meeting more of Thea's friends this evening.  Zaza the aging bohemian intellectual, Thea's best friend Eka, Nino the fluent English translator and her boyfriend Georgi.  And of course Thea and the best behaved child in Georgia--Liza.  Have I mentioned that I love Liza?  I just want to squeeze on her but am waiting for her permission.  So far she only whispers to her mother in our presence (as if we could understand her Georgian anyway) and blushingly hides her face when we speak to her...but she is too adorable and well-mannered for us to give up.  We shall win her over yet.

I digress.  Our little salon this evening was in Zaza's flat in Tbilisi.  His wife is an artist and he is an intellectual so their place is covered with paintings, pottery, and books.  It looks more like a funky art studio than a dwelling.  Zaza's wife was out of town but Zaza himself treated us to hospitality and ice cream.  Nino is an English translator with a passion for music.  Her name, by the way, is one of the most common Georgian names for girls.  She brought her boyfriend Georgi.  I believe Georgi lives and works in Russia but comes to visit her periodically.  Georgi does not speak English but dearly wanted to participate in our conversation, fairly bursting with the desire to answer our questions about Georgian politics and foreign affairs.  Nino obliged by translating and between the six adults we had a lively conversation (I am counting Thea out because I believe she is not interested in politics.  And really, like her, I prefer art and books to politics but how can I resist talking to a bunch of passionately gesticulating Georgians about a topic they live for?!).

Of all we discussed (and it was a great deal, I assure you!) I will summarizing a few puzzling statements they made about Georgia-Iran relations--a topic I am exploring for my paper in this class.  I initially asked if they felt the power shift from West-leaning Sakaashivili to Russia-leaning Ivanishivili would affect Georgia's relationship with Iran in any way.  Their response: no one in Georgia can speculate on Ivanishvili's policies because he has been completely silent on the topic.  They wonder: is he incompetent or is this a brilliant strategy?  The Georgian tycoon (who, they told me, made all his money illicitly in Russia) is a complete unknown, an X-factor.  

This lead, however, to another question: does Georgia's relationship with Iran, for better or worse, have significance outside of the region?  Nino, Georgi, and Eka discussed this rather intensively for a few minutes but their their answer to me, in English, was anticlimactic and, quite frankly, disappointing: no.  No, they said, the only significant aspect of Georgia's relationship with Iran is if the former allows the citizens of the latter to enter its borders and enjoy illicit Georgian pleasures, i.e. wine, women, and song.  The diplomatic, political, and commercial aspects of the relationship are neither of concern nor in any jeopardy despite Georgia's relationship with the Great Satan America and nominal support of the even worse state of Israel.  

I  am not satisfied with their answer.  Does Georgia really feel that secure next to a volatile nuclear power that despises its western patron?  I will research further and get back to you all.

Our sole lecture today was on Georgia's mafia and anti-mafia.  Fascinating lecture.  The term for mafioso in Georgian is best translated as thief-in-law, referring not to your spouse's wayward brother in Sing Sing but to the code of honor that these men enter into.  Thieves-in-law formed and were organized in their particular effective way thanks to the repressive soviet political environment.  Of undeniable importance in this process was the "gulag"--the Russian prison labor camps from which men were periodically transported to and from, leading to the development of networks and hierarchies amongst criminals.  Possibly my favorite bit about this lecture was learning about the Georgian mafia brand; these men enjoy a near-cult status in Georgia (especially, sadly, among children) and to protect that image as well as cut down on production costs, they simply keep their "brand" image as honorable but absolutely serious/dangerous as untainted as possible.  In so doing, they enjoy popular support and get results while minimizing violence.  Georgians  simply believe/believe IN them.  I wonder what this says about Georgians?  Is it a coincidence that nearly 1/3rd of the Russian mafia is staffed by Georgians?

Finally, the events of my day:
-Early morning jog after six hours of sleep. Ugh.
-Washed my hair for the first time in five days--this will not surprise anyone who knows me well.
-Arrived to the lecture on time--almost a first!
-Lecture on the Georgian mafia.  
-A mediocre lunch but good company.
-Afternoon trip to the Georgian National Museum.  My favorite exhibit was the Russian occupation exhibit where they--amazingly--mentioned Stalin's crimes against the people of Georgia.  Someone should send a memo to the folks in Gori (his hometown).
-Returned home, hung up our laundry, looked at photos with Thea and Liza.
-Light, delicious dinner.  I love Georgian food but I am thrilled Thea does not cook.  I couldn't handle a feast every night.  Lavash, salad, boiled egg: perfect.
-Our "salon" at Zaza's.  Fun!  But totally tired--and that was hours ago by now!  Time to get to sleep.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

26 June 2013: Georgian hospitality


I was startled when the woman in the black dress and tight chignon began to berate the punk-style couple sitting directly to my left on the bus.  That same couple had just nicely answered my question regarding the correct stop for the Georgian Parliament building and were now being subject to a scolding.  Kristin made a guess at the cause and she turned out to be right:  the elderly Georgian woman was chastising the couple for sitting too closely and being too free with their affections.  

The babushka is not the only Georgian concerned with change in this country.  Many citizens did not like how the western-leaning Saakashvili 's pluralist policies that limit the influence of the Orthodox Church, are tolerant of homosexuals, and diminish the importance of ethnic differences within the Gerogia.  So they voted his party out of parliament.  Still others, my host Thea and her friends included, are wary of the changes that Ivanishivili's Georgian Dream Coalition have brought and may bring to pass, namely a relaxation in public law enforcement, increased power to the Orthodox Church, and increasing linkages with Russia that hint of a reunification with the eastern giant.

Regrading that last point, I must make a correction.  In my last post I referred to a civil war within the last five years here in Georgia.  Both my lectures today (at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies) and Thea's friend Eka's husband Rati brought to my attention my misunderstanding.  Knowing that the Ossetians and Abkhazians WANT to be independent of Georgia, I identified the 2008 conflict as a civil war.  Georgians, however, do not see it that way.  They view it solely as a war with Russia.  The Ossetians and Abkhazians wanted to secede, Georgia did not agree, and Russia invaded Georgia.  While there was fighting between the rebels (Ossetians and Abkhazians) and the Georgian army, the real threat was from the interfering Russians who, Georgians feel, were not stepping in out of sympathy with the rebels but in order to take advantage of the opportunity to re-annex Georgia.  Okay, so maybe you all knew that but I had been fuzzy on it.  I've been set straight.

Our lecturer at the institute today was a real character.  My favorite two quotes: 1) "Show me one country in the world who's foreign policy is value-based.  At least America claims values--other countries don't even bother."  2) "US intellectuals are Marxist but they wouldn't be if they'd grown up in the USSR."  The second made me laugh because several of my GMU professors have been self-professed Marxists (not to be confused with Marxians :-) ).

Within the same lecture I learned a bit more about Georgia's delicate relationship with Iran--a possible thesis topic for this class.  Georgia is compelled to follow the sanctions declared b the US on Iran but must (and does) get around them to maintain positive relations with its powerful neighbor.  A follow-up question is: does Georgia have a stance on the Israel-Palestine issue and if so, how does it affect its relationship with Iran?

Finally, a brief summary of the events of my day:

-Morning jog.  Hot this morning!
-Breakfast with our lovely hosts.  We love them!
-Direct bus to the front of the parliament building, whereupon we met with the group and walked to the NGO.
-Lecture at the NGO.
-Bus to a delicious restaurant where I ate much delicious food.  Too much!
-Bus to Gori, Stalin's birth place and home to the Stalin museum.  Wow!  Now that was a piece of work.  Absolutely no mention of Stalin's nefarious deeds, only glory to his name.  Amazing!  Rati told us that many Georgians simply view his actions as the necessary course to eliminate enemies of the state.  I honestly can't imagine that many Georgians view him in this glorified light but the matrons at the Stalin museum certainly do.  The whole museum was a cultural experience in itself. 
-Trip up to Gori's medieval castle.  I always love a castle.
-Ride back to Tbilisi.
-Meet up with Thea, Liza, Eka and Rati.  We traveled to Georgia's original capital--Mskheta.  Yes, it is as difficult to say as it looks.  GORGEOUS town, however, notable for its 11th century cathedral (which we toured) and its darling monetary up atop a neighboring hill (which we did not tour).  We were in GREAT company.  As an English teacher and former tour guide, Rati was able to explain many things to us in impeccable English.  They treated us to a delicious dinner in an outdoor restaurant.  Lovely!!
-1:03am--finishing and going to bed!