Sunday, September 25, 2011

geographies don't lie

When you descend into Maçahel (or Mach'akheli in its native Georgian) from the Maçahel Pass at 1,800 metres, you start to wonder why this is not already part of Georgia. At 600 metres elevation, Maçahel is an area that is home to some 18 villages, split between Turkey and Georgia, with 6 of them on the Turkish side, and the remaining 12 on the latter. The valley formed by the River Macahela (or Machakhlistskali) is surrounded by mountains on all sides at varying elevations, starting from 2,000 metres high and slowly decreasing to sea level as the river flows into the Black Sea near the Georgian town of Batumi, the capital of the Adjara Autonomous Republic.

The area had long been home to Georgian communities as part of the Georgian Kingdom until it surrendered to the Ottoman Empire at one of Mehmed “the Conqueror”’s eastern campaigns during the 16th century. Quite surprisingly, however, it was not until the 18th century that a number of the communities of the region started to convert to Islam. That being said, this conversion was not much different than those practiced by the neighbouring Armenian or Laz communities who, until today, keep a special part of their ethnic identity intact and in some unique harmony with their religion, in a way not much pronounced as one finds in other parts of the country. As such, the customs, as well as the native Georgian language remained dominant for all communities across the Maçahel region.

Through the decline of the Ottoman Empire and following the Russian advance through the Southern Caucasus, mass migrations outside the area have started to take place. However, it was in 1921, when the Turkish-Soviet border was drawn, that the remaining communities on either side of the border would fall into what could be seen as an eternal division. 6 villages have decided to remain within the confines of the newly founded Turkish Republic after a popular vote, leaving not only some of their relatives behind, but also valuable minerals like salt and natural resources, whilst opting to settle in a country that embraced their religious beliefs.

One can still come across the "nazar boncuğu", the evil eye bead amulet, to keep from bad luck during the construction of new timber buildings across the valley.

In the earlier days of the Cold War, relatives and friends from both sides were able to pay rare visits to one another as we learn through oral history. However, following the end of the World War II and the joining of Turkey into NATO, the area has become a sensitive frontier for the Soviet Republic. Many of the villages were emptied around Mach'akheli and populations have migrated to other parts of the country. The Soviet-Turkish border issue was so sensitive that dynamites were installed on a bridge spanning over the River Çoruh (or Ch'orokhiin Georgian) in the nearby district of Borçka, so that if the Soviets were ever to come through to attack the town, their efforts could be damaged by exploding the bridge. Fortunately, the occasion never arised, meaning that an unlucky one of the two soldiers guarding the eastern side of the bridge did not have to swim over the river for his life. Already by this era of the Cold War, the earlier generations of relatives from the divided communities started to pass away and the centuries-long bonds have started to vanish. This did not imply a total breakdown of communication, though, as legends have it, folk songs were sung in harmony over the mountains from each side so that the communities remaining in Turkey would not forget about their language and history.

At the end of the Soviet-era, those who have come back to the villages around Mach'akheli would barely recognise anyone, were they to be taken to the Turkish villages. Even the village names would now be beyond recognition, all renamed in the republican era, the central one now being called Camili (meaning the one with the mosque). Today, the new generations of Camili still speak Georgian with their grandparents, however, unlike their parents, many of them learned Turkish before they started primary school. Majority study or work in the major cities across Turkey and often come back for a summer retreat, a harvest or to help with their relatives, many of whom now include Maçahel as part of their “Black Sea and Northeast Anatolia” trekking and historical tours.

Geographies do not lie. It has always been a curious indicator of many myths and reminder to those who once forgot the stories that lay behind it. Up until 1963, the only way to access Maçahel was via foot. This was at a time when trekking in the region was not yet a popular activity but the only means to reach this mountain-locked area. The beginning of the construction of the dirt road on that year had granted relative access to trucks who helped with exporting some of the goods produced in the region; now famous for its beekeping and honey. It was also not until the mid 1980s that the villages around Camili were wired with electricity. Asphalt pavement on the initial dirt road is still taking place at different times of the year. It is, due to this lack of access to and fro Maçahel that the contemporary Turkish residents of Camili have started to enjoy a limited journey through the land that was once united with their villages.

The road leading up to Macahel Pass transforms from finely-paved asphalt to a pebbly dirt road. Flocks utilise the road, sharing with the few vehicles that pass by, at times at a fog reducing visibility to a few metres. That is bad for driving but good if you don't like to see hundreds-metres deep exposed cliffs on the side of the road.

Because there is still no official border crossing between Turkey and Georgia at this location (the actual border, being a hypothetical line that runs through bushes over the mountain and its exact details known only to locals, the high authorities and the Turkish and Georgian gendarmeries, conveniently located on either side of it), when the roads are closed due to heavy snow – in some years, for up to 6 months – the only way a Camili resident can reach the provincial capital of Artvin is through a rare international journey that does not require a passport or a visa: we were told that a few times throughout the winter, groups of Camili residents would walk to the gendarmerie at the border and would be handed over to the Georgian authorities, who would then drive them with their shuttle buses, down the river path into Batumi and then to Sarpi, where one of the only two border crossings between Turkey and Georgia is located. The Turkish authorities would then pick them up and let them pass back into Turkey so that they can take another one-hour bus ride back to Artvin to complete an almost full-circle. All the more a reason to believe Camili is, by nature, a part of the Georgian Republic. Or, another way to say, that the political boundaries may know no geographical boundaries, but will always succumb to the common will.

The border between Turkey and Georgia was drawn along, what is recognisable to a careful eye, a dried stream bed. It makes a funny loop where it meets the Camili village. This was because, an elderly lady did not want to give up three households that were adjacent to the village to the Russians and had the border loop around it.

Midsummer in Camili and nearby villages is a time when the explosion of all shades of green has come to its full-bodied maturity. The early spring’s blossoms have slowly faded and the valleys and the mountains have given full exposure to green leaves of pine, chestnut and linden trees. Youngsters helping their parents build new timber houses, cool their sweat in the fresh and cold waters of the stream as the communities gather their harvest, only a small portion of which can be exported outside the city in time to keep fresh, while the rest will be stored in serenders, large timber storerooms elevated by long legs to keep the rats away, as the villagers will prepare for the long months of winter.

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