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Q: Can you brief us about your trip to Fereidan?
A: I left for Fereidan in December. As I had to pay my travel costs, I chose a roundabout way. I took a train from Tbilisi to Baku, then caught a taxi from Baku to the border town Astara, then traveled by bus from Astara to Tehran and then from Tehran to Ispahan, and then had to hire a cab again to reach Fereidan (Martkopi).
As we arrived in Fereidan, we saw two fellows walking on the roadside. The taxi driver pulled out, got out of the car and asked them in Persian how to get to Martkopi. After exchanging a few words, the driver turned to us smiling and gestured that everything was OK. I turned to the fellows and thanked them in Georgian instinctively. The fellows startled, ran up to me and asked how I knew the word. I explained with agitation that I was coming from Georgia in order to meet and make friends with the Georgians living in Fereidan. I told them that everybody in Georgia knows about their painful history and that many would like to meet them. These young boys explained to me that Fereidan is the same as Martkopi (as I found out later, everything here has two names – one Georgian and one Persian). This was my first encounter with Fereidani or Martkopian Georgians.
As for the impressions, for some reasons I felt spiritual conflict. I knew that they were my people, my blood and flesh – I heard the old Georgian voices, I saw Georgian faces – but I was a bit stricken by the women wearing yashmasks. I was reading notices written in Georgian: “Mobrdzandi” (Welcome), “Kvavilebis Maghazia” (Florist), etc. I had a feeling as though I were in a region of Georgia where I had not been before.
Q: What is your impression of Iran as a country?
A: Iranians are very warm people. I always felt the attention of simple Persian people. When I was telling them about the purpose of my visit, they were very welcoming, offered me juices, cakes and were giving me their addresses. During my travels in Fereidan I never heard any word of cursing, and never saw anyone begging in the street. Instead, there are special boxes in the streets and roads, and people donate whenever they want. The donations are then distributed by the city administration.
Q: What do Fereidani Georgians know about Georgia?
A: They know much about us, and closely follow developments in Georgia. They were asking where we moved the Davit Aghmashenebeli monument to, and were interested in the fate of Alexander Chavchavadze’s house-museum. They even knew that the Murates wanted to get the Dadiani palace in Zugdidi. When I jokingly ‘disclosed’ that the real goal of my visit to Ispahan was to take photos from the bridge built by Alaverdi-Khan and wanted to launch a legal action to lay a claim to the bridge, they got the joke and replied with the same humor that the River Ziande Rud (which means ‘mother), over which the bridge is lying, has its source in Fereidan, so that both the River and the bridge belonged to Georgians. (One man even disclosed his childhood dream – to build a bridge that would connect Fereidan directly with Georgia.)
Q: The Fereidani Georgians who returned to Georgia in the late 1970s had some problems. How ready is Georgia to accept them now, and how easy will their integration into the Georgian society today be?
A: These were just everyday problems. It is well known that people in Iran sit on the floor with their legs crossed. (400 years is a very long time). Because of their pose of sitting, local Georgians called them ‘Tatars,’ and this irritated and offended repatriated Fereidani Georgians. Things worse than that happened, and some could not stand the pressure any more and opted to stay ‘Gurjs’ (meaning Georgian in Iranian) in Iran rather than becoming ‘Tatars’ in Georgia.
As for the present situation, now many already understand their painful history and are viewing them differently. If their repatriation were possible, many Georgians living in Iran would resettle to Georgia. Perhaps they are not in poverty but feel a strong nostalgia for their historic motherland, which they have never seen. We have plenty of land – I mean the abandoned villages. Just visit the villages in Kakheti. You will often come across “House is For Sale” notices. I want to tell you a story to this point: I took two Fereidani fellows to a vintage in Kakheti this fall. On our way to Kakheti both of them were carefully watching the roadside villages. There were signs of inner struggle on their faces that their hearts were struggling against the sea. If not for a twist of fortune, they could have been children of any Kakhetian family.
Q: What policy do you think the government should pursue to deal with Fereidani Georgians? What programs should be developed to bring them closer to us?
A: In my opinion, our government should give a hand to the Fereidani youth in education- and employment-related issues. Many would return to their historic homeland. They are hard workers. They are amazing people – honest, frank, patriots.
Q: How would you compare Georgian society and that of the Fereidani Georgians? How different are their values?
A: First of all, I would like to stress that throughout 400 years there was not any disagreement with the Georgians. They have been living in harmony and supporting one another. When I hear profanity from our Georgian boys and see half-naked girls, I want to take them to Fereidan, so that they learn something about respecting one another from Fereidani Georgians.
Q: Do you know if Georgians take Georgian literature to Fereidani?
A: I myself took several books: The Knight in the Panther’s Skin and Mother Tongue. I saw some 200 Georgian books on the shelves of one of the families where I left my “Poems to be carried in pockets”. This was the collection of poems and paragraphs that I had gathered from various books and that I carried with me all the time.
Q: How do Iranians treat Georgians? What kind of relations do they have in everyday life? Iranians are said to be paying a great respect to Gurjs. Is it true, and if so, can you give us an example?
A: Yes, this is true. Georgians were respected greatly at Shah-Abbas’ court for their bravery and wit. This might be one of the reasons why Georgians then were resettled to desolate and forlorn deserts. Firstly, the Georgians defended then from the invasions of enemies; secondly, they made them cultivate barren lands; thirdly, they got rid of Georgians and prevent them come to power.
Anyway, I would like to note that statues are forbidden in Iran, as they are considered to be part of the practice of idolatry. There are just three or four statues in the whole country. One of them is of Georgian – Imal Kuli Khan Undiladze.
Q: How active is Fereidani society?
A: Georgians occupy all the high-ranking positions in Fereidan. Even the governor and police chief are Georgians.
Q: Do they have any distinguished statesmen, and if so, who are they?
A: I would recall, first of all, Alaverdi-Khan Undiladze, who was the first qular-aghasi, beglar-beg of Fars, a well-known commander, and organizer of Shah Abbas’s military reforms. As a commander he showed his excellent combat skills in the war with Turkey. He built a bridge on the River Zenderud in Ispahan that is still named after him. As far as I know there is no Georgian statesman of such level in the contemporary Iran.
Q: What political opinion do they have of Georgia, and what do they think of the Georgian government?
A: President Saakashvili’s visit to Fereidan inspired hopes of going back to Georgia. They were more disappointed before: they used to say that when our women lose a chicken, they cannot sleep the whole night. Georgia lost 300 000 people and doesn’t think of us? Do Georgians think we have become Iranians?
Q: More specifically, what elements have they preserved from Georgian traditions and culture, anything that is already missing in contemporary Georgia?
A: First of all, they have preserved Georgian first names and family names: Kakha, Giorgi, Ariel, Arsena, Niko, Tariel, Tedo, Soso, Vakhtangi; and surnames: Moolinau, Sepiani, Onikadze, Ioseliani, Mikelani, Batvani, Aslani, Gogonani, Paniani, Khosiani, Azimani, Galani and Lachinani.
They always speak old Georgian at home. They have 36 letters in their Georgian alphabet. This is why they pronounce the first letter in the old Georgian way in the words like: Khmali, Khidi, Khortsi, etc, which was lost in the modern Georgian language.
Their customs and traditions are Iranian-Georgian-Islamic. They raise swords during weddings and have some other habits, which should be studied more profoundly. One of the Fereidani Georgians told me that the death of the elderly is very painful for them – this equals tearing out one more golden page from the book of their 400-year-long history.
Q: Finally, tell us a few words about your activity and goals.
A: I am eager to see ‘our co-roots, co-nation and warm-bloody Georgians” (these are the words of Fereidani Georgian Said Mulian); I also want to visit ‘painful forest-mountain’, as the war on the mountain had a big psychological impact on the Fereidani Georgians.
I want to go and see the only and unique icon of Alverdi-Khan Undiladze painted on one of the walls of Shah-Abbas’ Chehel Setun Palace, Shirazm – the place where Georgian Queen Ketevan was tortured to death – and the cemetery of those 80 Georgians who were killed in the Iraqi war.
Finally, I want to let you know that we have created a very original website to display the photos and diary of my travel to Iran. Those interested can check out www.fereidani.ge
By Lela Kedelashvili , Georgian Times