MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 507: Tea and Memories in the Caucasus

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Thu Sep 3 17:35:43 2009


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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 507,
August 21, 2009

SOUTH OSSETIANS PUZZLED BY LEADERS 
Locals say officials were not ready for independence and may
not even want it.  By Alan Tskhurbaev in Tskhinval

ARMENIA’S YEZIDIS BEMOAN LOWLY STATUS  Long-marginalised
community claims it faces systematic discrimination.   By
Aghavni Harutyunian in Zovuni and Arpi Makhsudian in
Yerevan

TEA AND MEMORIES IN THE CAUCASUS  Tbilisi tea-house
gives glimpse of lost ethnic harmony.  By Seymur Kazimov
in Tbilisi

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TEA AND MEMORIES IN THE CAUCASUS

Tbilisi tea-house gives glimpse of lost ethnic harmony.

By Seymur Kazimov in Tbilisi

Tea might be just a drink to most people, but for the men and a few
women who gather in a little tea-house in the centre of Tbilisi, it acts
like a time machine. 

As they sit and drink from the little cups, surrounded by the burble of
the Armenian, Georgian, Azeri and Kurdish languages, they are
transported back to the days before war split communities all across the
Caucasus.

The little cafe sits in a small house in the heart of the winding
streets of Tbilisi’s old centre, which is distinguished from the rest of
the capital by its ethnic mix. Neighbours gather at the tables to drink
tea every evening, and they call it the “Azerbaijani tea-house”,
although its owners are in fact Armenian.

Margarita, 55, and Alexei Petrosian, 63, decided to open the cafe five
years ago, looking for a way to make money from their house after Alexei
became ill. They filled what had been their bedroom with tables, and now
sell tea for 1.50 lari (about 90 US cents) a cup. It costs two laris if
you want lemon too.

Margarita comes from the Azerbaijani town of Ganja, which had a sizeable
Armenian population until the war started in Nagorny Karabakh in 1988.
She is nostalgic for the age before the fighting when Azeris and
Armenians ate each others’ food, enjoyed each others’ holidays and spoke
each others’ languages. Her mother-in-law was Azeri, and Margarita still
enjoys serving food the way her husband’s mother taught her.

“She came from the Agabekov clan. Apart from making tea, my
mother-in-law taught me how to cook Azeri dishes,” Margarita said.

As is typical in Azerbaijan, but unusual in Georgia, most of the
customers in the cafe are men. Women who want to drink tea gather in the
kitchen. And that is not the only strange custom for any Tbilisi
resident who wanders in. Whereas almost all cafes in the city are full
of the guttural roar of Georgian, here as many as four different
languages can be heard on any evening.

“Sadly though, we have had fewer clients in recent times. People don’t
have money. They drink tea at home,” Alexei said.

There used to be an Azerbaijani flag on the wall of the cafe, but Alexei
said one of the customers asked if he could have it. He said the Azeris
and the Armenians here in the old town live together well, and do not
mimic the problems surrounding Karabakh, which the ethnic Armenian
rulers have proclaimed to be an independent state.

“In our cafe, we speak about everything except politics. Here we do not
divide people up into nationalities,” Alexei said.

Customers say the easy atmosphere reminds them of Soviet times, when the
whole South Caucasus was ruled from Moscow and everyone was a citizen of
the same state. When they learned that this correspondent had come from
Azerbaijan, they were careful to say that the war had made no difference
to their friendships.

Albert Musaelian, for example, is a regular customer. He is an Armenian,
but he loves Azeri poetry and music and has even written songs in the
traditional Azeri folk style. 

“This tea-house unites us,” he said, as he sat at a table with Azeri
friends. 

Margarita said that all the cafe’s customers enjoy each others’ national
or religious holiday.

“I always go to the mosque for Kurban Bairam [the Feast of the
Sacifice],” she said, referring to one of the two main Muslim holidays.
“I sacrifice a sheep and give meat to all my neighbours even though I am
a Christian. Our Azeri neighbours also celebrate all our holidays with
us. Sometimes my relatives in Yerevan are surprised how I can live so
closely with Azeris, and I tell them that Azeris are true friends.”

Her dream would be to go back to her home in Ganja and see her Azeri
relatives who stayed behind when the
Armenians fled, but there is little prospect of that.

Her neighbour, an Azeri woman called Fatmanisa, nodded her head.

“Here in Tbilisi, we share our happiness and our sadness. We always
support each other,” she said.

Seymur Kazimov is an independent journalist.

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