Ali und Nino
This couple of tailor's dummies adorning Batumi's seashore promenade may seem not particularly attractive at the first glance. Yet the sculpture by Tamara Kvesitadze is meaningful enough when put into movement: both figures perform a slow dance, periodically merging with each other. These are Ali and Nino, the heroes of the most famous Caucasian novel, published in Vienna in 1937.
It is indeed a beautiful book, and made me reflect a great deal. Is the cross-cultural love story indeed at its center? I'm not sure. Perhaps it's all about civilization, and the complicated dance some people and peoples perform among and around its crucial concepts. The text actually opens upon a geography lesson, in a colonial school that represents in this instance the Russian dominion. The pupils are forced to decide themselves, to perform the "civilizational choice" that my colleague, Jan Kieniewicz, constantly talks about. And obstinately they try to avoid it. And obstinately, the history repeats itself, and Ali is shot by the Russians on the very same bridge where his grandfather died in similar circumstances.
Currently, this text of quite unclear authorship is celebrated in Georgia and at the same time considered a kind of "Azerbaijani national novel". Who wrote it? Who is Kurban Said? A Jew? A baroness? In 2005, the doubt gave yet another best-selling book, Tom Reiss's The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life.
I do not doubt this German text has been written by a European hand. Yet it is very interesting indeed as a tentative of adopting the viewpoint of the colonized. I read this vision as falsification of a voice, of course, but still it is fascinating as such. As I said, the necessity of the choice is imposed, I don't believe it could emanate for the Caucasian subject himself or herself. The lovers know too much about identity, and they know they are the Orientals. Nino sees the things too clearly, opposing herself to the Persian harem lifestyle, and her condition of refugee makes such an opposition extremely untimely and improbable. The experience of shame is imposed at yet another moment, when Nino's horrified glance spots Ali among other Shiites during the festivities. Or rather, she is forced to share the horrified glance of a European ambassador, observing the flagellant procession.
But on the other hand, the narration is by no means untrue. Typically for any Orientalizing fiction, the entanglement of truth and falsification is not to be resolved. The truth, once again, consists in the persuasive way of presenting the choice, the "either ... or" essentially alien to the Caucasian subject, as the oppression exerted by the Russian schoolmaster. The very same Russian schoolmaster that might have formed, one or two generations ago, also us, the Poles.
And there is of course their own choice, tertium datur, against the imposed obligation of "civilizational choice". They chose each other, i.e. they chose the syncretism and synergistic development advocated by their Armenian middleman. Yet again, the Orientalizing fiction operates by stereotype: the Armenian middleman must betray them; having trusted him was Ali's mistake. The colonial principle divide et impera is reintroduced surreptitiously, and Ali is shown at the highest of his wolfish Oriental characteristics as he bites through his rival's aorta with bare teeth.
Wild is the Oriental, this is the apparent conclusion. But still, having read this book, I stay in the belief that the Caucasian history illustrates first of all the danger of promoting the "civilizational choice". The colonial lore might present the incessant Caucasian warfare as endemic. Nonetheless I see the region as a space of entangled civilizational choices that leave no place for syncretism nor synergistic development. Each nationalism is moved not only by its own local energy, but also by the distant gravitation of a civilizational center: looking up to Russia, to Iran, and recently, again, to Europe. These are the gravitational forces that split the Caucasus apart.
Perhaps similarly to the German-speaking author of Ali und Nino, I've come to the Caucasus with a pre-conceived idea: that of transcultural dimension. I've brought with me an abstract concept in demand of an exemplification. I hoped to confront my idea with local truths and local circumstances. Should the confrontation throw light on the limitations of my theory, or rather illuminate its margins?
There is yet another ready-made question, that of Bernard Lewis: what did actually went wrong? In fact, I've come to the Caucasus not only to test my theory, but also tempted by the lasting fame of ancient intellectual and artistic centers of Georgia and Armenia. And the feeling is indeed that of a history that had ended. In those famous centers of arts and literacy I could hardly find a bookshop meeting my expectations or a collection to captivate me more than for a glance. It seems as if they didn't survive the Mongols. The caesura was so easy to observe in the Museum of Fine Arts at Tbilisi. They, Christians, seem to have perished in the same cataclysm that put an end to the finest layer of the Islamic civilization. Even the technique of cloisonne enamel had been lost for several centuries, before it reappeared quite recently as an industry of colorful accessories for the tourists.
Yet there had been a Golden Age. As far as I could read and see their history in visual documents, the synergistic development existed at the very beginning. The expansion of the early Islam, and the Islamic conquest of the Caucasus, didn't put an end to the Christian culture of Georgia; by the contrary, created a fertile ground for it. The originality of the Golden Age in the 12th century appears at the intersection of the Persian influence and Christianity. Shota Rustaveli, putting Persian story into Christian verse, seems to give a good example of this. And the guide in the Tbilisian museum called my attention to the moment in which Persian roses occupy the place of the vine leaves and tendrils in the repoussé backgrounds. Plentiful exemplification of this synergistic development is to be found in architecture, enriched with geometrical aesthetics of Islam. The Golden Age is result of the refusal of "civilizational choice", refusal of admitting the condition of a periphery subdued to one center exclusively.
I believe that the strategy of survival in such a place as the Caucasus is to keep a balance, even if I don't see clearly enough how could they possibly maintain it. Perhaps my transcultural humanities might serve them better than any other. Larger horizons, opening these valleys, fruitful superpositions instead of essentialist "civilizational choices" are requested. As individuals, people find these ways instinctively. Economically still very modest as they are across all the region, they do travel, they spend their holidays in Batumi, they look to the sculpture in its incessant movement, Ali and Nino in their dance of distance, approximation and merging. One day the engine shall break down, yet hopefully another day it shall be replaced again.
Worship and exposition.