Tea and Memories in the Caucasus

Tbilisi tea-house gives glimpse of lost ethnic harmony.

Tea and Memories in the Caucasus

Tbilisi tea-house gives glimpse of lost ethnic harmony.

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 café 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 café 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 café 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 café, 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 café, 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 café’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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