Friday, December 01, 2006

Caucasian roundtable

here some space

There were eight of us round the table: two festival organizers from France, two women representing Armenian agriculture, a man and a woman representing Azeri agriculture, a man from Georgia - also representing agriculture - and me. We were at the Est-Ouest festival in Die, a small town in France near Lyon. This year’s festival was about the Caucasus, and there were representatives of these three countries
from the fields of culture and agriculture. We had gathered round the table because the agricultural representatives urgently wanted to discuss the work that I had made for the festival. This work was somewhat provocative; it consisted of a series of politically incorrect sentences describing ethnic relations in the Caucasus region. They were based on well-known sayings and jokes that are widely shared within each ethnic group, but which are never discussed outside one’s own circle. The sentences were printed on stickers in Russian and French and were put up across the town on festival posters.

As our discussion began I could hardly have imagined that it would reveal the character of the entire Caucasus region so clearly and the manner in which each country tries to resolve its problems.

I opened the talk, explaining my reasons for putting up the stickers. My main purpose was to get people talking about subjects that each nationality talks about at home behind closed doors but which it never openly discusses with its neighbours.
I said that if we want get anywhere we have to open up mentally, we have to try to see our problems from different perspectives. And by posting up these stickers outside the museum or Gallery context I wanted to talk to a larger audience and not just to people involved with art - who’ve heard it all already, are surprised by hardly anything and are rarely, if ever, shocked or offended.

The first to reply was the Georgian man. He said that he had found the little provincial town so very pleasant and peaceful (not surprisingly, given that we were in a beautiful southern part of France, with free food, free wine and carefully planned cultural program) until he saw these stickers; then he felt depressed and sad. There was one that especially worried him: “Why do Georgians kill each other when they have so many Armenians in their country?”-Azeri guy asks. It was a joke that everybody knew but he was worried that a Russian or a Ukrainian reading it would think that Georgians still are killing each other. He said that we [Georgians] understand it’s a joke, but other people won’t.

Then the Azeri man spoke. He said that he would represent the view of the entire agricultural delegation on this subject and asked for five minutes to speak on the subject. First he asked whether the festival organizers knew of the proposal to put up these stickers and, if so, what their content was. The festival organizers replied that they did know, and at this he expressed his deep disappointment. The fact was, he said, that I was being malicious by putting up these stickers, and to put a stop to it he has taken some photographs of it and would make sure that they found their way up there, where they belonged. (Here one needs to understand that some things are always left unsaid: in Azerbaijan the government is never directly referred to, just as it never was under the Soviet Union). This, he assured us, would guarantee that Sophia Tabatadze would become as famous as the Danish cartoonists who drew the caricature of Muhammad. I replied that this was clearly a threat and that I was not afraid of it. He was silent for a while and then, having reflected a little, announced that he had found a solution. The posters with stickers on them would, he said, be replaced by the new ones, so that this discussion need not go any further than our table. I replied that this was not a solution to the problem; the festival organizers voiced their objection to replacing the posters. Once the festival organizers had backed me up, there was little this Azeri man could say or do. He became suddenly charitable, he forgave me: he told me that, he now understood me, and felt sorry for me sitting there, being attacked by everyone. As I sat there watching him pursue his strategy, I found I felt nothing: I knew his time was over, and I knew I had to develop this work further, since it so clearly had touched a nerve. No other work of mine has created so much discussion. Later on an Azeri writer, another participant at the festival told me that the two people representing Azeri agriculture at the conference were KGB agents, and had come with the rest of the group to make sure that everything should run to plan.

Two Armenian women said they had not read the sentences and therefore could not comment on them, but later on they privately showed me the thumbs up and said that I had been very brave. The fact was, though, that they were just glad I had stood up to the representative of an enemy country.

No comments: