Chillin' in the B-lands/Fatih Kerimi

Thursday, July 4

A month or so ago when I was in Istanbul I visited Kubbealti, king of the photocopy men, and bought the original Arabic-script version of Fatih Kerimi’s travelogue Istanbul Mektupları, first published in Orenburg, Russia, in 1913. The book details Kerimi’s four-month trip to Istanbul in 1912-1913, during which time he met up with his friend Yusuf Akçura, who was working as the Istanbul correspondent for Kerimi’s Vakit newspaper back in Russia.

Over the course of this visit, Kerimi meets up with Akçura, Halide Edip, Ahmet Mithat and other Ottoman luminaries of Unionist-era Istanbul. It's a fascinating, beautiful book and a great travelogue.  
Fatih Kerimi in late imperial times

So when I set off on my Summer of Eurasia adventures I had visions of writing frequently about the places I would be visiting, Fatih Kerimi-style. But then the Gezi Park events happened, and I got caught up writing about that stuff, and didn’t find the time to write much at all about the truly awesome experiences I had in Copenhagen. (Just trust me: Copenhagen is super, super chill.)

After Copenhagen  I spent a few more days in Istanbul, then headed up Georgia way. Longtime Borderheads will recall my earlier visit to the land of the Georgians, back in 2009, when I posted many photos and updates as part of a Caucasian Journey series that might have even made Fatih Efendi proud.

This time, alas, I’ve been busy doing other things. Mainly, I’ve been writing, which is good. What’s bad for the Borderheads is good for the book, at least for now. 

My first stop in Georgia, as was the case last time, was in Batumi. Batumi is an amazing city. It was part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly three hundred years before becoming part of Russia after the 1878 war. Today, it’s the capital of the Republic of Ajara in Georgia, the only one of the three mini-republics of Georgia to still effectively remain part of the country.

Batumi is filled with people from Turkey, much more than was the case when I was there in 2009. Since that time new agreements between Georgia and Turkey allow Turkish citizens to stay in Batumi without a visa, and the presence of casinos there attracts a lot of people. A sizeable chunk of Ajara’s population is (non-Turkish) Muslim, so the mix of Turks, local Muslims, and Georgians is interesting. Like Kazan, Montreal, and some other cities I’ve had the good fortune to live in, Batumi possesses a very stimulating taste of diversity. 
It’s also very tropical feeling, to a degree unlike any city on the Turkish Black Sea coast that I’ve ever encountered. Like Yalta and (I imagine) Sochi, the presence of mountains in the immediate background traps all of the humidity from the coast in the air, so the climate is really lush. There are palm trees everywhere, and lots of funky-looking pastel buildings.

I spent several days in Batumi, renting an apartment a few blocks from the beach. I spent my mornings writing, then heading to the library for a few hours before heading out for a quick swim in the late afternoon.

From Batumi I took a marshrutka to Tbilisi. When I did this four years ago I broke up the trip by stopping in Kutaisi, where I also research for several days. This time, however, I took the bone-rattling seven-hour ride all in one go. I’d rented an apartment through, and made my way directly there after arriving in town.

My apartment is located in the center of town, just a couple of blocks from Freedom Square—which is okay, but I actually preferred the neighborhood I stayed in last time, which was closer to the university. Childe of the Borderlands that I am, I can’t stand living too close to the center of anything, I suppose.

As always, the food is great in Georgia, even if I can't say that the cheese-and-alcohol diet that is favored here has been great for my physique.

The building I live in is strange, and it took me a couple of days to figure out what the deal was. There’s a bit of a kommunal’naia kvartira vibe to it, with long corridors onto which every apartment door is generally left open. Children run around everywhere, shouting ‘hello’ at me as I come and go. The apartments themselves are oddly sized—each one is one big room, with very high ceilings. My place has been given the Evroremont (ikea-type renovation) treatment, and now has two floors, with the bedroom and bathroom upstairs in a loft-style arrangement, and the living room and kitchen downstairs. It's actually pretty sweet.

It wasn’t until I got to talking to the neighbors that I realized what’s going on. Everyone was from Sukhumi, and I quickly understood that they were all placed here as refugees when Georgians had to flee Abkhazia in 1991. The building, I found out later, was an old Community Party school that was converted into emergency refugee shelter.

I can only imagine what it was like for my neighbors when they first moved here, maybe feeling bewildered and terrified, wondering how long they’d be away from home. Twenty years on, some of the apartments (all of their doors are left open all day long) still look like they were just moved into a few months ago, while others (like mine) have been totally refurbished. Some people still have no bathroom in their own apartment, and use the toilets and showers at the end of the corridor.

Like everyone else I’ve met from the Caucasus, the people in my neighborhood have been extraordinarily nice to me. They’re curious, and once they found out I know Russian were all interested in chatting with me. My first night here one of my neighbors even presented me with a shirt. 

The lesson, as always: there's nothing cooler than the Turkic-Russian borderlands. Makes me glad I didn't listen to the professor I had at Princeton who told me to 'forget about Russia.' You know, so I could be more like every other Ottomanist he'd ever trained.  

Anyway, here are some shotz from Batumi and Tbilisi. They hardly do justice (especially re Tbilisi, but I've been shut inside here since my arrival, for the most part), but it's the best I can do right now.

Actually, I took a lot of photos on my first trip to the GA, back in 2009. You can see some of these in my blog posts from that trip and even more on the photo album from my website.

As for Fatih Kerimi, the end of his journey was a tragic one. Staying in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution, Kerimi became an important cultural commissar in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1937, however, he was executed on charges of 'pan-Turkism.'
Photographs of Kerimi before execution

Anyway, I'll be staying in Georgia for a little while longer, continuing my research, before taking to the road again.

Yollarımız açık olsun, arkadaşlar!

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