Georgia – Lesson in Preserving Language, Religion and Culture

Skyline with Churches

The first thing that strikes one in Tbilisi, Georgia is the love Georgians have for their language and their history and their resilience in maintaining their religious and cultural identity despite centuries of rule by foreign powers: Sign boards and billboards are all in Georgian, schooling is predominantly in Georgian, daily interaction is in Georgian, books and magazines are in Georgian, cultural performances are in Georgian and of course there is this distinctive Georgian Orthodox Church with its visible presence in every nook and corner and over the skyline of the city. So unlike Pakistan, where one has the foreboding of an impending complete loss of language, culture and tradition due to a whole scale adoption of English by the ruling elites including the religious elites.  Here I would relate some of my observations and conversations in my trip to Georgia and would later contrast them with what we see in Pakistan, and would derive some lessons.

Georgian Cross

Georgia formally became Christian in 4th century although Christianity has entered the region even earlier. Georgian Orthodox Church (with its distinctive cross) established at that time and the unique Georgian Script (among the 14 world original scripts) have been an identification in this region as various parts became independent, or were taken over by one power or the other. It had been under the Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Persian, Ottoman, Russian and Soviet subjugation for extended periods spanning centuries with brief interludes of Georgian unifying independence. Even today it is being threatened by Russia after the forceful annexation of Abkhazia and Ossetia a few years ago. Despite having been ruled for extended period of times, Georgians want to stay independent and retain their identity. Hence their love for their language, culture and their association with their Church.

With Dean Dr Boris Lezhava

I was hosted by Dr Boris Lezhuva who is the Dean at Caucasus University, Tbilisi, Georgia. He showed me around the city, took me to an 11th century Georgian Orthodox church over a hill top and later to the old capital of Georgia,  Mtskheta where there is an old 4th Century Church some parts of which even date earlier to 2nd century. He also took me to some other parts of the old city. On our suggestions of going to a Turkish or an Azerbaijani restaurant, he purposely took us to a restaurant which served appropriate Georgian food. He was particular about serving us traditional dishes telling us all the attributes and special things about the dishes and their origin. He introduced us to a locally famous drink called Lemonade which comes in several flavors such as Lemon (of course), pears, apple etc. It is a refreshing drink and appears that people prefer that over Pepsi, 7up and co.

Kotler’s famous Marketing book
Translated in Georgian by Boris Lezhava

Dean Boris Lezhava produced the Georgian-English dictionary of marketing terms through a process that took him over two years and involved focused groups, consultation with Georgian language experts and coming up with Georgian words matching closest to the essence of the marketing terms. This project was completed by him while he was working on his PhD. After completing the dictionary, he started working on the translation of Philip Kotler’s famous Marketing book and translated it into Georgian and in doing so developed and substituted many of the business cases in the book with Georgian case studies including that of Caucasus University. His argument was that cultural differences necessitate that even marketing cases should highlight cultural insights and traditional values.

English-Georgian Dictionary
of  Marketing Terms

This is how painstakingly Georgians are tyring to preserve their language like all other developed countries such as France, Sweden, Germany and even less developed countries like Iran. This puts Pakistanis to shame with their mastery of English they could have done this a long time ago. There already existed the example of Osmania University, Hyderabad Deccan that had translated text books into Urdu even before the partition but then that tradition was allowed to die down as the brown sahibs with their slave mentality took control of our culture in Pakistan. The result of this control over the last 67 years has resulted in Urdu and all “other” regional languages now fighting a loosing battle for their survival. People have been predicting that Urdu ka jananza hay zara shaan say niklae!

With CU’s President, Dr Kakha Shengelia

Dr Kakha Shengalia, President of the Caucasus University was in USA and Canada for over 13 years. When his son turned 10, he was struck by the fact that he could not speak Georgian, that awakened the Georgian in him, and made him come back to Georgia. He returned and established this university in partnership with some senior academicians in 2000. Now, fourteen years later he can proudly tell that his son is back at George Mason University but is now an accomplished speaker of 5 languages including Turkish, Russian and of course Georgian! Dr Shengalia has three PhDs: in history from Tbilisi,  in economics and business from Canada and USA. His academic preparation is reflected in all the three areas namely economics, business and history:

As a president elect of IAU which is an association of thousands of universities worldwide, he would be assuming the responsibility in 2015. He is also the author of History of Georgia, published by Caucasus University Press, 2011. As vice mayor of Tbilisi, some years ago, his responsibilities included developing the building control laws (more on this later) and also managing a budget of $1.2bn. The previous government, of which he was a part, takes the credit for eliminating the corruption from some major government departments in 3 months; a case study that one must learn from as corruption in Georgia at that time was even more than the astronomical levels prevalent in Russia before Putin. Georgian government took the bold decision to overnight fire all the employees of Police and Tax departments and replace them with new recruits untainted by the previous culture. Now these departments in Georgia are corruption free to a great extent with courteous people everywhere. This could be seen on the roads where people are observing the rules, whether the police is visible or not. I noticed that on roads where there is no physical barrier between the coming or goings lane except the divider line, but yet people drive for hundreds of meters to find a U turning lane and from there they make the U-turn. I saw the gentle manner in which the police was guiding and helping the drivers who were impeding the free flow of traffic. I also noticed the courtesy and accommodating mannerism of those at the immigration and the VAT return counters.

Can we apply the same model in Pakistan? May be we can not fire all the Police and Tax employees, but we can probably shunt them out to an inconsequential place where there is no public dealing. The old employees can bide their time in that shunting yard till they retire or opt out. In the mean time the newly inducted employees are allowed to take over the departments that deal with public and develop a new culture. Overall this may be less expensive, than the hemorrhage that the corruption is daily inflicting on us.

I found Dr Shengelia and other senior management of the university as dedicated and patriotic Georgians, and traditionalists who love their culture and way of life, and would like to further develop their country. I was eager to see the family collection of Dr Shengelia consisting of over 40,000 books with some rare antique collection of books including calligraphic Quranic manuscripts dating from 14th century. Unfortunately, however, the collection was in the country side and was packed in crates as the building housing it was undergoing renovation.

Dr Shengelia had deep appreciation about the conflicts of the region and understanding about their historical dimensions. He was really inquisitive about our conflicts in Kashmir and with India and I found myself groping with my facts in discussion with him. We discussed ideas related to some joint study to find parallels between Georgian conflicts with regional powers like Russia and Turkey and Pakistani conflicts with regional powers like India and to derive some paradigms for conflicts resolution. He had deep association with poetry such as that of Omar Khayyam and we enjoyed a few Rubaiyat together. These are the dedicated people whose idea of the pinnacle of education is not to settle in some privileged first world country, but to develop their own country to a level that they aspire for. It was intriguing to learn about Dr Shengelia’s interest in Omar Khayyam and his Rubaiyat’s and his knowledge of history and cultures of Persia, Turkish, Ukraine and Russia. May be Omar Khayyam was driving his ambition to delegate the affairs of the university in a few years, and his yearning to retire before 50 and to settle down to a simple life in his ancestral home in the country side along with his family:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Maintaining the Traditional
Architecture. Renovation
of an old buildings
alongside a renovated building.

Coming out from the yoke of USSR about 25 years ago and now daily being threatened by invasion from Russia, and having already lost Ossetia and Abkhazia to the Russians, Georgians are troubled and groping for outside help. But, while this politics is being played at the governmental level, city governments are busy making the lives of people smooth and in consonance with Georgian traditions and history. This is evident by the infrastructure, building control laws, land acquisition laws and business practices.

Gradually Georgians are restoring the old Tbilisi in its grand style, keeping the facades of the buildings intact as they construct new buildings under strict construction rules that do not allow buildings to be constructed that do not adhere to a thematic consonance with the style of the old architecture. Buildings are being restored, crumbling edifices are being repaired and the architectural harmony with the past is being preserved. Not the whole scale slaughter of traditional buildings and architecture to pay homage to crass commercialization as can be witnessed in the old part of any of our city in Pakistan. Caucasus University has just acquired a large building in the old city near to the Presidential Residence. This building was constructed in early 20th century as a seminary and has walls about 6 feet thick, with wide circular grand staircase. The building was converted during the Soviet rule into a research center and was crumbling down when it was acquired a few years ago. Now it is being restored, at ten times the cost of a new construction, putting financial pressures on the university administration. But, the love to preserve the heritage trumps the commercial feasibility as I could see what a grand structure it would be when completed. I could sense the pressures this apparent infeasibility may be exerting, but could also see the commitment of the university’s president to his vision of Georgia in the context of the “cultural” feasibility of this project. Once completed and operational, this grand campus building would be providing a daily reminder to thousands of students of what Caucasus University stands for and what their Georgian nation demands.

Main Tblisi Theatre: Under Renovation

In the main Georgian Museum, I saw a reference to over 20 museums and centers around the major Rustaveli Avenue of Tbilisi dedicated to preserving Georgian history, arts and other accomplishments. In addition, I saw several impressive buildings, many of them under major beautiful renovation, housing scores of theatres and performance centers; repertoire halls, choirs, folk theatres, pantomime theatres, children art festivals, choral festivals, traditional theatres, ballet and opera theatres, symphony orchestras and other cultural and traditional centers. They provide one with the live experience of a thriving culture confidently encouraging active participation from those studying arts, performance and history and played to halls filled with youth, elders and kids all enjoying as they learn and link to their tradition and heritage.

Preservation of Georgian language, tradition and culture for them is no impediment to progress and development. Language barrier is also not in any way decreasing the tourism and people visiting Georgia. In fact, it has become an added attraction because Tbilisi promises to be a city which is not just a replica of a US downtown, displaying the same brands, same stores, and the same fast food joints that you would find anywhere else. Although many of these stores and brands are here but they are promoting themselves in Georgian language logos. The signboards are all of standard small sizes highlighting the architecture more than the commercial offerings. Here you can find the cultural tastes and traditions which give a refreshing look to those visiting a new city.

Our subservience to English in Pakistan seems to be the outcome of the slave mentality that we inherited in just one century of British hegemony, whereas centuries of domination by foreign powers were not able to make the Georgians feel this inferiority complex regarding their ancestral language. British did a really superb brain washing job in creating this clique of elitist brown sahibs whereever they went who despite the fact that the British have been gone for over half a century, are still more loyal than the king. This phenomenon is often described as a chimera of post-colonial independence, which is nothing more than an extension of colonialism and continuation of subjugation under a fancy name that hides the reality. Brown Sahib was a class that look and acted like the Gora Sahib. However, lately their ranks have been strengthened by the emergence of a new elite class from an unsuspected quarter, a religious elite that also wants to shed off the language and culture.

The adoption of English at the expense of mother tongue is now being spearheaded by none other than the burgeoning elite class of practising religious Muslims. Their mad rush towards capitalism is evident from their subservience to the culture of branded products and branded shopping centers and services. This “conversion” to capitalism is now being exploited by the upscale “Islamic” branding of products such as clothes and perfumes, commodities such as honey and natural products, and services such as banking and schools. These “Islamic” brands are over priced and could only be affordable to the rich, creating consumerism pressures on the middle and lower classes. The outcome of this would be an Islamic identity which is associated more with the elite class and not any more with the common people; middle and lower classes. The lower classes may never be able to afford these upscale and overpriced “Islamic” name brands. The “alim” educated class so produced from these English+Arabic only branded Islamic schools would have a greater association and affilitation to the elites than with their ability to communicate and interact with the common people, cutting this vital link for the first time in Islamic history. [More on this in later post]

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  1. Mr Fahad Mughal wrote a comment on my facebook page:
    Thats very true, But a question comes always in my mind, What is our Language? Urdu? or any other provincial language? What is our culture?

    Is it because Urdu became the national language of Pakistan but we actually had several different languages and cultures living under the same boundary? none of them actually accepted Urdu?

  2. Don't think in terms of national language or Urdu or other language controversies. Think only in terms of your "mother tongue". There is "mother tongue" and then there is "Other Tongue". My post is only about preservation of traditions in the "mother tongue" whatever it is. If one's mother tongue is other than Urdu, then one should be a staunch defender and promoter of that language. As you could see in this post, I was appreciating Georgians (and others) in preserving their language. I would equally support and defend the right of anyone else to preserve one's language. Our insistence on Urdu or English has complicated the matter. If Bengalis want to study in Bangla, they should be encouraged. If Sindhis want to study and preserve Sindhi, then they must also be encouraged. If Punjabis want to study and preserve Punjabi, then they must also be encouraged. Same with any other language.

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