Tamed Orient. A Lapidarium of Emotions
What is the common thread between Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania—the countries visited by the artists Robert Rumas and Piotr Wyrzykowski?A quick glance at a map reveals the obvious key: all of them border the Black Sea. Does anything follow from this observation? What is that awaits us in Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia and Romania? Why would one choose to go there?
The Black Sea is a junction of continents, yet one that is soft, seamless, even unnoticeable. This is not the Mediterranean Sea: edged by the Côte d’Azur on one side and Libya on the other; or the British Gibraltar and the Middle East. No, in the case of the Black Sea, the cultures of Europe and Asia permeate and supplement each other. Europe, more and more diluted as one moves East, meets with a still not-so-distinct
Asia which seems to be yet looking for a form of its own. Nevertheless, let us try to trace the border. Romania un-
questionably falls within Europe (and is the only one among the four to have joined the eu). Ukraine? That one should raise no doubts either—although it might be difficult to ac- knowledge for some Europeans in the West (perhaps it will change after the continent’s football championships). Turkey? Merely a stretching of Europe, while the rest of it is Asia.
Georgia causes the most trouble. Geographically speak- ing it’s rather Asia, although some geographers are willing to count it, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, as part of our continent. But mentally and culturally, Georgia has little in common with Asia, and is eager to manifest this on every occasion: from the eu flags blowing across the country (one of which I saw in person in the director’s office at the Stalin Museum in Gori), to the repeatedly expressed will to join both the eu and nato.
For Georgian political scientists, Georgia is part of Southern Europe. One of them, Alexander Rusetsky (of Polish descent) recently said at a conference: “To be pre- cise, it is not Southern, but South-Eastern Europe, however, I would rather use the term Southern as we have more in common with the South than the East.” Rusetsky claims that Georgians are the typical southern type, much like the Spanish, Italians, or Greeks. This fact being manifest in their belonging to wine culture, passion for feasting, weakness for children, love of soccer, strong family ties, individualism and a diluted sense of time—a lack of punctuality, much in the spirit of mañana.1(1. The conference Southern Dimension of European Security, Tbilisi, 5th November 2007.)
Mateusz Gralewski (1826–1891), who spent twelve years of his life in the Caucasus in the 19th century, diligently noting down his ob- servations and experiences,2(2. Mateusz Gralewski, Kaukaz. Wspomnienia z dwunastoletniej niewoli, Lviv: 877.) portrayed the Georgian nobility as “honest, coarse, extrava- gant, willful, pious, hospitable, brave, and vain,” suggesting that it had a lot in common with the nobility in Poland. “Not counting Armenians, more blended into Asia Minor”—Gralewski continued—“the Georgians are the only ones among the Caucasian tribes to create a na- tion out of themselves.”
Taking a closer look at Georgian history, one notices a number of similarities with the history of other European countries. Georgia has never been an oriental despot, the monarch’s rule was always limited by powerful magnates, while the nobility could enjoy its freedoms. One of the na- tion’s pillars was the autonomous Orthodox Church. The nation was united in the 11th century (having before been divided between two centers: Colchis in the West, remaining under Byzantine influence, and Iberia in the East, at times independent, though for a certain period subject to Persian rule). After an era of bloom (in the 12th and early 13th cen- tury) the country entered a period of feudal fragmentation, splitting into three kingdoms and several duchies. Towards the early 19th century Georgian lands fell prey to Russia. Following the fall of the tsarist rule, Georgia was reborn (becoming an independent country from 1918 to 1921), yet it was soon conquered by the Bolsheviks. Up until 1991, Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union.
Women came to play an important role in the nation’s history. Two of them earned the status of Georgian national symbols, representing its spirituality and culture. St. Nino of Cappadocia brought Christianity to Iberia in the 6th century, while Queen Tamar, who ruled between 1184–1213, has long been considered Georgia’s greatest ruler in all its history.
An Orthodox monastery in the village of Bodbe, in the Kakheti province (in the east of the country), where St. Nino was buried, holds the tomb of Bishop Ioane (Giorgi Makashvili), who died in 1837 at the age of ninety-four. His tomb bears the following inscription (in Russian): “Here lie the venerable remains of the reverend metropolitan of Bodbe and cavalier and descendant of the Kacheti dukes Makayevsyus.” The Latinized surname and the expression “cavalier and descendant of dukes” testify to the fact that the deceased bishop (and the person who executed the plate) undoubtedly saw themselves as Europeans.
One could say that the countries on Rumas and Wyrzykowski’s itinerary share a common European aspiration. This is also true for Turkey: a member of nato and a candidate for the eu (although, it should be noted that the enthusiasm for accession has visibly waned over recent years—both on the part of the European Union as well as amongst Turks). Do they have anything else in common?
Paradoxical as it may seem, they also share a common religion and a tradition that stems from it. Romania and Georgia are entirely dominated by the Orthodox Church, while in Ukraine, the Orthodox Catholicism is the largest and the most influential creed. In what is today Turkey, Christianity had taken root already in the first centuries of our era and, whereas its Orthodox version retained
a strong presence up until the 1920s (when the Greek mi- nority was practically forced to leave the country as part of a population exchange).
For over a thousand years Turkey remained under Muslim rule, a time in which the religion has spread into present-day Georgia. Its most distinct traces are to be found in Adjara, which was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878 (when, as the last of the Georgian provinces, the region was seized by the Russians). There is a fairly small number of Islam fol- lowers in Batumi itself, but in the Adjarian villages up in the mountains Muslim Georgians are still in the majority.
In Ukraine, or in the Crimea to be more precise, Islam has also been present for centuries. It was adopted by Tatars (whose Crimean Khanate was a dependent of the Turkish sultans), who constituted a majority among the peninsula’s population up until the end of the 19th century when ethnic Russians emerged as the leading force. In 1944, Stalin expelled the Tatars to Central Asia. They did not be- gin to come back until perestroika (in the 1980s), and now they make up a few percent of Crimea’s population (with the majority—ca. 60 percent—Russians). In the time of the ussr, Crimea was initially part of Soviet Russia. Only to be handed over to Ukraine in 1954.
Horia-Roman Patapievici, Romanian physicist, philosopher and essayist, the author of The Sky Seen through the Lens, noted that both the Orthodox Church and Islam are oriental in their spirit.3 (3. Quoted from Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, New York: Random House, 2000.) It is a valuable remark, however, in the above context “Islam” should probably be narrowed down to Turkish Islam, which takes its roots in Byzantine culture and is different from the strict Islam of the Arabian Peninsula or the passionate Shia Islam of Persia. It seems that this is where we reach the heart of the matter: the one common trait shared by Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, and Georgia is their Byzantine heritage—the legacy of Europe’s second, eastern lung, without which our continent would have been deficient, crippled, limited.
The American journalist Robert D. Kaplan, who traversed Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, as well as the Middle East, South Caucasus and Central Asia several years ago, sought the answer to the question of the future of this part of the world in its distant past. In Ankara, he visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations: “But the objects inside taught another lesson: that no system of states is secure, and that ancient history may be as good a guide to the destiny of the Middle East as current
media reports. Perhaps more so.”4 (4. Ibid, p. 112.)
The post-Byzantine, Orthodox and Muslim Orient, which comprises both the unapparent Orient of Ukraine (if we focus on the Crimean Peninsula explored in the project of Robert Rumas and Piotr Wyrzykowski), the subtle Orient of Romania, in the spirit of Horia-Roman Patapievici, the Caucasian Orient of Georgia, and, finally, the well-known Orient of Turkey—this Orient is, in a way, recognizable to a Pole, or even familiar; it became part of our culture, taking the form of sarmatism, cloth sashes, ornamental tapestries,
horse tacks and cold weapons, as well as with the Greek Catholic Church and the Polish Tatars. That Orient is tamed. Living between the West and the East, Poles seemed to navigate their way well enough in both worlds while sustaining their ties with the former. In the era of the partitions of Poland, Istanbul (long after referred to as Constantinople) was one of the settling places for Polish political immigrants; not yet as popular as Paris or Brussels, but equally important. One should remember that it was also the place of the death of Adam Mickiewicz, and that the Polish settlement of Adampol-Polonezköy emerged on the periphery of the rapidly growing city.
An expert in Turkish affairs, Jerzy S. Łątka, noted the names of several Polish officers who were appointed as sultan’s generals in the 19th century. Among them were: Konstanty Borzęcki (as Mustafa Djelaledinn), Józef Bem (Murat), Michał Czaykowski (Mehmed Sadik), Aleksander Iliński (Iskender), Seweryn Bieliński (Nihad), Zygmunt Freund (Mahmud Hamdi), Ludwik Bystrzonowski (Arslan) and Władysław Kościelski (Sefer).5 (5. Jerzy S. Łątka, Słownik Polaków w Imperium Osmańskim i Republice Turcji, Krakow: Księgarnia Akademicka, 2005.) During the Crimean War the commanders of
the Turkish troops received news of the death of Tsar Nicholas I. Since none of the Russians in the besieged Sevastopol knew about it, the Turks decided to pass the message on. The envoys were headed by none other than pasha Sefer. While the Russian troops that came to meet them were led by general Leon Radziwiłł. “During the meeting”— noted French officer Eugène Perrot—“eight out of eight par- ticipants were Poles, four from the Ottoman side, and four representing the Russians.”6 (6. Quoted from Polacy i ziemie polskie w dobie wojny krymskiej, eds. Jerzy W. Borejsza, Grzegorz P. Bąbiak, Warsaw: Polski Instytut Spraw Międzynarodowych, 2008.) Unfortunately, we seem to have moved away from “our” Orient over the last decades. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Turkey was still a popular country for trading parties seeking to buy leather jackets, sheepskin coats, and mottled jeans. It was a time when almost everyone in Istanbul’s Laleli district (the centre of marketplace tour- ism), knew Polish and the names of local stores and hotels were quite self-explanatory: Biały Orzeł, Wawel, Boniek. Polanin is probably the only one to remember those days and still be in business. Today we rather visit the Turkish Riviera, by the thousands, but (unlike marketplace trade) this has lit- tle to do with experiencing the country and the people.
When we finally broke loose from the socialist bloc and wrested ourselves from Moscow’s control, we ran away West without looking back. From then on Romania—which was nev- er as popular a holiday destination as Bulgaria—would be only associated with Gypsies begging for money; and Ukraine— with a post-Soviet mess, poverty and crime. I remember the surprise of a young border guard at a crossing in Hrebenne when he heard that I was going to Ukraine as a tourist (which was still in the late 1990s). “How’s that?”—he asked in disbelief—“But they’ll beat you and steal your car right away!” The expression on his face as he was lifting the barrier was as if he was letting me out of paradise straight into hell. As if on the other side of the barrier lay the land of Gog and Magog, an impure territory filled with wild beasts. He was not in the slightest bit curious to see how it really was. He knew what he knew. Though we have been discovering Georgia over the recent years, roaming through Ukraine and Romania is still largely the domain of the young, students, backpackers (and—in the case of Ukraine— participants of sentimental journeys across the former “Eastern borderlands”). As far as tourism is concerned, it is still a mar- ginal phenomenon, short of statistical significance.
Robert Rumas and Piotr Wyrzykowski traveled across Turkey, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine to meet people, their stories, places, events, and signs. They set out like con- temporary nomads, unburdened by the need for a precise plan, detailed scenario, or pre-existing arguments. Open to whatever life might bring.
The Black Sea region, culturally and civilizationally diverse—yet, as we have already learned, to a certain extent homogenous—serves as a good “destination” for such a trip (to use the language of travel agency catalogues). As Neal Ascherson wrote: “On the shores of the Black Sea were born a pair of Siamese twins called ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’. This is where Greek colonists met the Scythians. A settled culture of small, maritime city-states encountered a mobile culture of steppe-nomads. People who had lived in one place for unaccounted generations, planting crops and fishing the coastal sea, now met people who lived in wagons and tents and wandered about infinite horizons of grassy prairie behind herds of cattle and horses.”7 (7. Neal Ascherson, Black Sea, London: Vintage, 1996, p. 46.)
The Polish artists, taking the role of “nomads,” met on their way both settled, deeply rooted people, as well as other nomads, like the Israeli shoe manufacturer they met in Istanbul, who came to Turkey for materials.
As both Rumas and Wyrzykowski admit, they set out, above all, in search of emotions. Again, it turns out that they made a good choice. Our tamed Black Sea Orient is probably the last stretch of Europe (except for the Balkans, perhaps), where emotions are not something to be embarrassed about, while human contact is characterized by frankness and authenticity.
In Toast za przodków [A Toast to the Ancestors] I wrote that the people of Caucasus “Cannot stand anonymity and formal contacts: when a customer meets a clerk, a patient meets a doctor, or a buyer meets a salesman. A policeman stopping a car extends his hand to greet the driver. The television news would not report that the court has sentenced a Timur S. for a year in prison. Rather, one would hear that a certain named judge has ruled in the case of Timur Sultanishvili (Sultanin, Sultanzade). The police column would include the name of an elderly man hit by a car, or even his address (in case someone would like to express their condolences to the family).”8 (8. Wojciech Górecki, Toast za przodków, Wołowiec: Czarne, 2010.) I wrote this with Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijani in mind, but I have also witnessed similar scenes in Turkey, and in the Ukrainian countryside.
Once, I was traveling across Turkey in a car with my colleague. Having spent a good couple of hours driving, in the middle of the night, somewhere near Ankara, I felt sleepy. I pulled into the nearest gas station. Without looking around too much, we stepped inside—a bar, café or cafeteria are a norm in Turkish gas stations (the largest of them are a few hectares big and, apart from gas pumps, include
a number of restaurants and several dozen stores of various kinds; these are also the usual major stop for long-distance buses—the Turkish railroad network is poorly developed).
We spotted a small door. It didn’t look like the way to the café, but it didn’t cross our mind that there simply could be no café. We saw two small tables, with two Turks sitting at one of them. Bingo! We asked for a coffee. And we got exactly what we were hoping for: thick, black as pitch, coffee that gets you on your feet. When I wanted to pay, the “bartender” started waving his hands: “It’s not a café!” As it turned out, we stepped inside a backroom of mechanics working at a nearby car workshop. What I found most striking was the fact that they were not surprised at all: Two strange guys turn up in the middle of the night asking for coffee—so you give them their coffee. It’s all there is.
The ease of making contacts in this part of the world can be truly amazing. “This is how acquaintances begin”—again, this is a fragment from Toast za przodków—“with a smile and a few simple questions: What do you do? Do you like it in Georgia (Armenia, Azerbaijan)? Where did you get such a great backpack? They’ll ask you, and introduce them- selves—on a street, a marshrutka, a train, in a small shop and a bar, or even in an office where you are on official business, or at the border you are crossing. They usually ask selflessly, out of curiosity for other people and the world they carry inside. Girls in which country are more pretty? Do you drink a lot? How much do you earn? And in dollars? When do you usually start a family? Do you also have mountains?
They ask also to name and to comprehend reality—you can’t just spend two hours next to a person on a train, bus, or a plane, and not know his name, if he is married, how many children he has and what brings him to our country!”
Our artists are open to “civilizational marginalia.” In Ukraine, they went to the Crimea, the least Ukrainian of all Ukrainian provinces (where they met typically Crimean characters—a retired Black Sea Fleet officer and a Muslim clergyman). In Romania, they found a Roma Elvis (contrary to stereotype, there are a mere few percent of Roma in Romania). In Georgia, they went to Svaneti, the land of bare rocky mountains covered with eternal snow. Mestia, the capital of this province—which, for other Georgians is synonymous to the edge of the world—lies at an elevation of 1500 meters. The village of Ushguli, Svans’ spiritual heartland, lies 600 meters higher. Though the vegetation is sparse, the Svans try hard to grow grapes on the placid, sun-drenched stretches of land—no Georgian would be himself without wine!
The explorations of Robert Rumas and Piotr Wyrzykowski could be compared with those of Monika Bułaj, a photographer and reporter, who has long lived in Italy (and is better known there than in Poland). Bułaj has been exploring the outskirts of Europe for years: filming, photographing, and describing forgotten religions, dying traditions, cultural borderlands and microscopic communities which struggle for their right to exist in the era of globalization. As a result of her journeys, which have reached as far as Africa and parts of Asia, the artist began her project The People of God, developing it over the years in the form of single exhibitions and publications, which eventually grew into a book.
In the introduction to the Polish edition, Bułaj wrote: “It seems to be a mystery that this particular part of Europe was able to earn a chance for a meeting that is now being lost by today’s world with a bang . . . Having traveled on foot, bicy- cle, sledge, cart, canoe and tractor, I learned to explore the borderlands of religion and the sweet taste of waiting, just as I learned to haste to speak with the elders, before they too disappear with their load of memories. Those are the small worlds ignored by the media.”9 (9. Monika Bułaj, Boży ludzie. Podróż po kres Europy, Olszanica: Bosz, 2011.)
Both Bułaj, as well as Rumas and Wyrzykowski observe an atomized world. Its small communities—or sometimes individual people—are microcosms living their own lives: the retired Major from Balaklava lives no more than fifty kilometers away from another protagonist of Emotikon, imam Sabri Suleymanov from a mosque in Bakhchysarai—but they might as well be living on different continents, or even plan- ets. An exhibition such as this one is the only place where they can meet—although not physically, but in the form of sound and image recorded by the artists. I wonder what would result from this meeting?
The exhibition Emotikon is in fact a lapidarium presenting photographs and films of people and their stories that were brought back from the journeys. It is a lapidarium of emotions. Although the arrangement of the show is by no means acciden- tal, its subsequent elements—aside from their originally “ori- ental” origin and character—have little in common.
Ryszard Kapuściński, the author of a six-volume series Lapidarium, popularized both the word as well as the vi- sion of shattered, “fragmented” reality it conveys. In the foreword to the first volume (which still did not have a number of its own—the numeration only appeared later with Lapidarium ii, Lapidarium iii, etc.) he explained: “Lapidarium is a place (a city square, a castle courtyard, a museum patio), where found stones, remains of sculp- ture and fragments of architecture, are deposited. A piece of a torso or a hand, a section of a cornice or a column, in a word, things that are part of a nonexistent (already, still, never) whole with which nobody knows what to do.
Perhaps they will remain as a testimony to a time past, or a trace of attempts, or as signs? Or perhaps in our world that has grown so large, so vast, and ever more chaotic and dif- ficult to grasp and organize, everything is heading towards a great collage, toward a loose collection of fragments, there-
fore—towards a lapidarium?”10 (10. R. Kapuscinski, Lapidarium, Warsaw; Czytelnik, 1990.)
Perhaps there is no other way to narrate the world anymore?