Koko And Me
A short story with pictures
Tbilisi, November 2014
THE PANKISI GORGE: Beautiful, raw, rugged, poor… and more recently dubbed as a breeding ground for ISIS recruits joining the struggle against Syria’s President Asad, with estimates of up to 200 young men and women crossing the border into Turkey and onwards into Syria. With a population of just a few thousand people this number is not insignificant.
Change was afoot in the sleepy villages of the Gorge, so naturally I wanted to go there.
Suffering from insomnia for weeks on end in the humdrum Tbilisi suburbs, I knew that if nothing else, I would find rest In Pankisi. There would be silence in the countryside. The distant narrative of Syria, the festering fundamentalism in Pankisi - did not thrill me — but would remind me, oddly enough, where home was.
Getting to Pankisi is no easy feat in the middle of winter. My dream of riding-up solo in a hire car, the distant panorama of the Greater Caucasus slowly drawing closer, is defeated by heavy snows. A snarling woman behind the rental desk flicks my Australian driving licence back to me, “You won’t manage.” she says, “Not in this weather.”
So on a miserable winter’s day, I sit in a cafe in old town Tbilisi wondering what to do. I order tea and in the warm embrace of my cup, I find myself making excuses not to go. It is only about four o-clock but looking through the window, I see how the headlights of passing cars illuminate the crumbling 18th Century facades on Asatiani Street; how the faces of three rotund women in heavy coats making their way back from the Sioni church, become obscured by clouds of vapour as they pant their way up the hill. Pankisi feels pointless all of a sudden.
However, moments after this quiet contemplation, I meet KoKo.
In the end, it is with KoKo that my trip up the gorge is realised. When I tell him about my plan, he immediately offers to take me there himself, imploring: “You should not go alone, it’s a dangerous place!” While unsure about going on a journey with this perfect stranger, the cafe owner, a mutual friend of mine and KoKo’s, nods to me and exclaims, “Go! Go with him, he can drive you!” So we head off together the next morning in KoKo’s old Mercedes E-Class.
Wild are the tribes of those ravines, Freedom is their god, their law is war: They grow up among acts of secret brigandage, Cruel deeds and unusual deeds… There it is not a crime to strike an enemy; Friendship there is true, but revenge truer; There good is given for good, and blood for blood, And hatred is as measureless as love. - Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time
But KoKo is not just anyone. When we stop the car to get gasoline, people look and stare. At lunch in a downbeat canteen in Telavi, a neighbouring party of old men excitedly whisper to one another; the waitress blushes.
“I voted for you!” one of the old men finally cries out. KoKo, who it transpires was a former Minister in the Georgian parliament, smiles gracefully back at him. KoKo seems happy for a moment before his mood settles; his big black heavy-set eyes stare out into the distance.
KoKo’s grandfather was a novelist, a poet, a celebrated academician. He translated Dante and Shakespeare into Georgian and found friendship with other leading contemporaries such as Thomas Mann. A man who miraculously escaped Stalin’s purges and is remembered today as Georgia’s most influential 20th Century writer.
KoKo’s father was a dissident, a writer too. After periods of exile and imprisonment under Soviet rule, he rose to lead the newly formed Georgian republic as President while the country descended into bloody civil war. He was soon ousted and fled to Chechnya only to return to
Georgia in a futile attempt to re-establish his power. He was found dead in December, 1993. The investigation KoKo and a parliamentary committee carried out afterwards concluded murder but the incumbent rulers of Georgia had already pronounced suicide, leaving the
matter unresolved in the national consciousness.
As we begin our ascent into the Caucasus, I’m unsure what to make of KoKo. I’m nervous even. The suspension in KoKo’s old Mercedes is terrible and I can feel every pothole, every crack in the road, reverberate through my body. With a hangover to boot, petrol seeping into the carriage and the car heating blowing strong in my face—for the best part of the journey I’m doing my best not the to throw-up on the dashboard.
KoKo does not seem to notice my sickly state; he is keen to talk. Our conversation is frantic and doesn’t find common ground easily. KoKo asks me nothing personal; not even why I want to visit Pankisi, an unusual destination choice even at the height of summer. He talks only in the abstract: about ideas, concepts, movements, theories.
We ricochet from one topic to the next, or at least he does while I struggle to clutch onto threads of his monologue. KoKo speaks five languages, possibly more, and he is switching gear between Russian, French, German and English with complete fluidity. He sporadically breaks into verse, reciting poetry in Arabic and Farsi. At one point when he is talking about the etymology of our Greek names, Saint Constantine and Saint Helena, he suddenly cries out:
“We are Saints!!”
In this moment he releases his hands from the wheel and lets them fly above his head to make fluttering angel wings. The car swerves sharply for a split second and the skeletal winter trees that line the road briefly blur out of focus.
‘KoKo is unhinged and I’m adrift’ I think to myself.
‘What am I to this man?, Why has he come with me?’
KoKo tells me about his own personal life only briefly. He rolls off the events of the past few years in a quiet and solemn voice: “I lost my job in Switzerland… My wife and I divorced… My sons are studying in Berlin… I can’t get back into Georgian politics”. Out of paid work he, like his grandfather before him, has been translating great literary works into Georgian and writing.
When I ask him what he misses about life in the Soviet period, he replies:
“Nothing… it was a peculiar and grotesque experiment”.
“And what about today?” I persist.
“You know modern man is like the story of King Lear, we are a society of fakers. Do you know the difference between a liar and a faker?”
My mind goes back to England. I imagine Lear in the hovel on the heath, sightless and mad. I see KoKo’s face, my face, coming out of the darkness. We are physically close, but unaware of each other; lost in our own thoughts, our own madness, our own delusions. It’s not so strange to be on a journey with a stranger, I tell myself.
When we arrive in the valley, the sun is setting. After a long grey winter’s day, it has pierced through the clouds in the final hour to create a quivering golden chain of light around the peaks of the Caucasus which rise majestically above the ravine. I unwind the car window; the cold air pours-in and my nausea subsides. We pass the last few ramshackle Georgian towns before entering the fabled Pankisi Gorge. Churches give way to mosques; heavily bearded men stop in their tracks to peer through the tinted windows of KoKo’s Mercedes. The Adhan — the Muslim call to prayer — sings out across the valley and I couldn’t feel more alone.
KoKo slows the car to a crawl while we look for signs of activity; we must find a place to sleep. We are flagged down by a middle-aged man who invites us into his home for food while he makes enquiries for us.
The man’s wife and daughter are dressed in full hijab and work away diligently in the kitchen, serving up dish after dish. When they finish cooking, they don’t join us at the table, but sit by the stove and stare at the wall. When they do ask us questions, they shoot us a quick glance before returning their gaze to the wall to listen to the answer. As we are preparing to leave the mother stands up, finally, and says: “We have applied twice for a Georgian passport for my daughter, but we still don’t receive anything. Maybe it’s because there is a wolf on the birth certificate?” The wolf is the national symbol of Chechnya. The family are refugees from Grozny. The statement seems to come from nowhere. ‘Maybe they think KoKo can help them’, I think to myself.
We are escorted to a house to sleep by following a mud track off the main road. The headlights of KoKo’s car briefly reveal life in the village: out of the darkness, chickens scurry through a gate; thick scrub disappears under the front wheel; young men gaze out from a frozen-over orchard.
We arrive at a tall iron gate which is hauled open by an elderly lady in a colourful headscarf. We drive through it, and the gate rolls backward again, clicking decisively into place behind us.
The house is large, wood panelled from floor to ceiling and equipped with Soviet-era utensils and appliances. It resembles a dacha, a Russian summer home. KoKo is exchanging words in broken Chechen with the landlady and I am astonished he seems to know yet another language. There is no gas in the village despite promises from the government to build a pipeline into the valley so the house is fucking freezing. There is used linen strewn across the beds and the kitchen table is covered with uneaten foodstuffs now gone mouldy, rotten. A fish head sits in the middle of the table on a napkin secreting a glutinous fluid. Used tea bags sit in saucers and bread crumbs are scattered between them. Buckets upon buckets of old fruit growing soft and wrinkly sit on the floor around the table. It’s as if someone threw a harvest party on the last day of summer and then left without warning, without knowing they would not return. It’s eerie, but then again I’m tired.
The elderly Chechen landlady flies past the mess in the kitchen but proceeds to fix the situation with the bedding. As she prepares to leave us, I see she has made just one double bed and ignored the second and third bedroom, leaving bare mattresses on wrought-iron.
Suddenly, I find myself in a spout of fatigued anger. “Why have you only fixed one bedroom? Dvye komnatii! Dva!” I am looking at both of them for an explanation. “It’s a mistake. We can make up the other bed after she has gone”, KoKo says.
Both KoKo and the landlady look embarrassed and are doing their best to placate me as I pace up and down the living room like a caged tiger. She taps her head as if to say she has been stupid and misunderstood. KoKo reassures me again:
“We can make the second bedroom up ourselves.” I persist still: “But why didn‘t she make the bed? She should have done it!”
I tell KoKo that I don’t know him very well and sleeping in a vacant, cold house in the middle of a remote village was not what I had in mind. It’s an awkward moment but somehow we both leave my words hanging in the air, and walk away from them.
Once the landlady is gone, KoKo turns-on the stove-top in the kitchen for warmth and we sit by it with our novels. I am reading but not absorbing the words are going straight through me.
I am thinking to myself:
‘I will leave in the middle of the night if I have to. I’ll wait by the mosque and hitch a ride back to Tbilisi when morning breaks’.
But when I cautiously look up from my book, KoKo is buried in his.
He looks a million miles away. Without warning I curtly whisper, “Goodnight” and go to my bedroom. I put on every item of clothing I have brought with me, crawl into the damp sheets and pray for morning to come. I immediately fall into a most profound slumber. Not a single dream, flicker of light or rustle of activity do I recall. Just a deep, viscous black; devoid even of the surreal or anything that resembles life.
Morning breaks and sunlight is streaming through the windows of my room. Everything glows gold and caramel. I stumble into the kitchen to make tea and I can hear children laughing in the school next door. Chickens and goats walk past the kitchen window in the garden below. I laugh; they look like pedestrians purposefully going about their daily errands in town as they appear from the left and disappear to the right of the window frame.
KoKo suddenly appears out of nowhere to join me and my heart jumps into my mouth in fright. He is brushing his hair obsessively with a comb and then flattening it with the pressure of his other hand. We sit by the stove again, hovering our hands above it for heat, and engage in further stop-start conversation. As we talk, our breath turns into clouds of vapour.
“This place is not very civilised,” KoKo admits.
It’s the most real, in the here-and-now thing I’ve heard him say so far. Unshowered, hungry and cold we decide to venture into the village in search of hot coffee and food.
There is only one restaurant in Pankisi which is, of course, closed. But KoKo’s presence is causing the locals loitering around the restaurant to spring into action and phone calls are made. We are soon joined by a short, corpulent man — the cook — and a kind-faced, lanky man with piercing blue eyes — I’ll call him Aalam. Together they serve us an array of dishes without charge to honour KoKo’s presence. Before too long, we are sucking the meat from cow hooves, dipping cheese-filled bread into a homemade chilli salsa and gnawing on delicately cut raw radishes, carrots and spring onions. It’s superb.
By 11am wine is brought out and the cook, energetic and eager to entertain, takes a seat at the head of the table. The men drink to KoKo’s father and, seemingly because there is nothing to bind us together other than our differences, to the acceptance of “All people on earth: Christian, Muslim, all faiths”. KoKo is explaining the truth of his father’s death, the angle of the bullet wounds, after the men ask why he took his own life. I wonder how many times KoKo has told this story.
As the sun sits high in the sky, Aalam takes us on a tour of the village. We make our way across the Alazani River on crude half-built bridges and the ravine looks truly beautiful. I can hardly focus on maintaining my balance on the thin planks of wood I must follow, for the horizon is mesmerising.
Aalam and KoKo are walking arm-in-arm and Aalam seems genuinely happy to have us there. The two men, who must be about the same age, are lost in conversation. Alaam occasionally points off into the distance, beyond the mountain ranges, towards the Russian-Chechen
Pankisi ravine: a lawless passage for arms deals and drug smugglers, or so it has been called in the past, a meeting place for Chechen and Russian criminals who traded their black s goods in times of war against the backdrop of an alpine paradise, a romanticised bandit country, but a hotbed for ISIS recruits, a keeper of hostages. None of this seems to matter in this moment. None of it even seems true.
We arrive at the home of Aalam’s sister and her family on the other side of the river where I ask questions about the men in Syria. A heavily bearded young man offers no personal accounts of the men although he surely must have known them. He answers generally:
“There are no jobs here, there are no prospects. They are offered money and they go.”
When he says this, I am reminded of all the journalists that who must have visited Pankisi before me; the intimate stories of their childhood friends splashed across the headlines.
But in this instance, it is KoKo that is the centre of their attention.
“I have seen you on the TV so many times, I can’t believe you are sitting here with us!” one of the men says.
The men are keen to flex their brain muscle and talk politics with him - conversation that comes naturally to him but he listens more than he talks, not the dynamic I experienced in the car ride from Tbilisi. He is leaning back on the sofa, legs crossed and arms outstretched. He is grimacing and then nodding calmly as they explain their views on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. KoKo, all of a sudden, seems like a prodigal son returning home. His face softens.
We continue our tour around the village. Young men loading hay onto a pick-up truck stop and stare suspiciously at us. They exchange words with one another and I see their lips moving, but their eyes are cold and expressionless. They return to their work in the fields and don’t look our way again. The young women look at me cautiously, but curiously. Some of them run up to me — out of their houses, out of the fields — panting and giggling at the same time, they ask “Where are you from?” “Australia” I say, and they laugh and applaud.
KoKo and Aalam are racing ahead. When I linger and get too far behind, I begin to look anxiously for KoKo in the distance.
We return to the restaurant at nightfall. The feast is immense and wine is decanted into our glasses every few minutes. There are now three men in our company: Aalam, the cook and a deer hunter who spends his days up in the mountains. The cook is excited and leads a series of toasts. Overweight, red-faced and unkempt, his food is surprisingly delicate. There is a sophistication to it.
All three men are native Kists— ethnic Chechens who settled in the valley some 150 years ago. They are known as Sufis, practitioners of a mystic strand of Islam that developed in the 19th-century. Yet they drink like the Georgians and identify with the people of Chechnya. They fought alongside their fellow Chechens in the wars against Russia and tell stories of loss and devastation. We are reminded that KoKo’s father was buried in Grozny before his remains were repatriated back to Tbilisi some 14 years later. So we drink to KoKo’s father again, to KoKo’s grandfather, to their fallen brothers. They finally toast my presence: “May you meet a nice man and have lots of babies!” I’m cringing, but down my glass of wine all the same.
As the evening rolls on, the cook grows louder; KoKo is reciting poetry, Aalam is sanguine, the hunter withdraws further into solitude and I am there like a fly on the wall, taking it all in. For a brief moment in time, it feels everything is the way it should be. We are playing the roles that come most naturally to us, or at least it seems that way. We return to the cook’s house where his wife prepares beds for us. The cook, now extraordinarily drunk, demands one final toast.
We drink to Allah.
Happy and drunk, I disappear into my room of pink satin drapes and Uzbek rugs. I coil up in a blanket marked with the Al-Haramain Humanitarian Foundation initials. It is warm and soft and I imagine who has sort refuge in it before me. I fall into a contented sleep but am awoken at 6am by the call to prayer. A choir of howling village dogs join in chorus. The chorus builds into a crescendo as I watch from the balcony the pink sun rise over the Caucasus.
That day, after several more home visits and 90 minutes glued to the TV with the other villagers to watch a press conference of Vladimir Putin, KoKo and I leave for Tbilisi. As we are bidding our hosts farewell, the cook reveals with a boyish grin that KoKo and I have been followed by the Georgian security services. We all laugh. What sense could they have possibly made of our presence? What could they even write in their file?
KoKo is relaxed and jovial, and so am I, as we our car rolls out of the gorge. We drive past an enormous pig licking at the dirt on the side of the road, “Welcome back to Georgia!”
KoKo jokes. I am correcting every word of his English at his request and he is teaching me Russian phrases. We take the mountain pass home and the snow clad Caucasus are breathtaking. KoKo tells me of a lone road trip he once made through the French countryside from Switzerland to deliver some paintings for his then-wife’s exhibition; and how he thought that was the most beautiful landscape he’d ever seen. He occasionally slows the car to tell me a story of some seemingly insignificant hillside town we have just passed: its origins and medieval history.
As we draw closer to Tbilisi and the open marshy planes morph into suburban sprawl, shopping malls and traffic, I feel the level of tension rise in the car again. KoKo tells me there is a good chance he will be offered a diplomatic post abroad but he seems sad:
“What should I do there? Who will I talk to? I don’t have a wife. I know people here, I have friends.”
He seems to be soliciting my advice. When I ask him why he doesn’t seek a position locally he says,
“No one is offering me anything here. They should come forward and offer me a position. I have a doctorate, I have been a Minister, I speak English, I have the right training, I am personable, I am not totally introverted… so why don’t they give me anything?”
I don’t know what to say. Georgian politics is a big, murky mess and there might be forces at work to keep KoKo on the sidelines. Who am I to comment? What would it matter what I think?
I feel sad after this conversation, but we have arrived near my dingy Soviet apartment block and it’s time for me to go. I kiss KoKo good-bye on the cheek and walk into the night.