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In the Ezo: Behind Closed Doors in Tbilisi

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Things move quickly in Tbilisi, when they move at all. The haggling takes ten minutes—the rent holds steady, but Dato will replace the washing machine and install wireless internet throughout the ezo—and when it is over, we drink.

“Drink is included in the price,” Dato tells me, pressing his lips to my palm. He hands me an enormous plastic water container filled with wine the color of honey, wrung from the deflated grapes that shield the terrace from the sun. “If you are having a party, you must ask me, and I will bring you wine. Everybody knows me here. They know I am a good man.” He owns half the flats on the ezo—the shared courtyards Georgian inexplicably refer to as “Italian-style.” The other half belongs to relatives from the village. They know him, and soon, he hints, they will know me. As his lodger, I am under his patronage. Shopkeepers will warn me off the expired milk in the refrigerators, and young men will refrain from speaking to me in the street.

By midnight, I am his daughter. His wife Eka, an animated woman with a heart-shaped face, presses me to her breasts and coos blandishments into my hair. I am, as ever, the kargi gogo, the good girl, the American girl who studies hard and does not come home with strange boys, and who pays the rent three months in advance. She has a feeling about me, she tells me. She loves me as she loves her own daughter. When I am in the ezo, all is at peace in her soul. I am like the sun, radiating all manner of wonders, easing the ache in her bones—she works so hard! And of course I must come to her son Giga’s wedding next month.

I move in three weeks later. The washing machine shoots pernicious sparks into the sink and the Internet stops working by sunset, but I don’t mind. I am home. My window looks out over the Metekhi Church. From my terrace, I can see the Narikala Fortress, which at night is lit gold like a circus tent. Dato forces a bunch of balcony-picked grapes into my hands; it takes every ounce of my appropriated Englishness to glide smoothly into the kitchen before I frantically shake off the spiders. Eka brings me presents: a plastic rabbit, a jewelry box, a cured goatskin tapestry. Dato brings me more wine.

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A few days after I arrive, an American couple moves out of the upstairs flat. They leave in the night, without warning, a wad of cash wedged underneath the door. I get the story through the black-market whisperings at the expat cafe: The heat didn’t work. Dato refused to fix it. There was a scene in the ezo. Things were said.

I tell myself that this will never happen to me. I am the kargi gogo, the adopted daughter. I sit with Eka at the kitchen table, eating her food and refusing her cigarettes. Over tea, I am effusive about the Georgian mountains, about the Black Sea, about the places I have gone or will go, about the marketplace I have discovered in the underpass beneath Pushkin Street, about the new French cafe hidden behind the synagogue. She complains to me about her daughter, Khatuna, brilliant but mulish, whose piercings and sitcom-English are at once a source of consternation and secret pride. I pay my rent three months in advance.

Their son gets married; we skin a goat. He and his new wife Anushka, nineteen and breathtaking, live at home. Eka cleans up after them. Anushka, she insists, must study for her exams. I leave briefly for England, subletting my flat to a Spanish journalist, and then return again, bringing gifts and sweets in my suitcase. This offends Dato. I am the guest, the daughter, the gogo. I do not bring gifts.

I visit Eka at nightfall. By now I am intelligible, if not conversant, in Georgian. In our blend of languages, I tell her about my research, about my travels. She tells me about her past. Once she was a professor of Iranian studies at the university. She still teaches sometimes, she says, but she holds down another part-time job with the electric company, a position that far from guarantees our own power supply. Like Dato, she started out as a refugee, an ethnic Georgian expelled from one of the breakaway regions on the border with the Northern Caucasus (he from Abkhazia, she from South Ossetia). They met in exile in Tbilisi; they married soon after.

tbilisi 1“My mother did not want me to marry a Georgian man,” she tells me. But Dato kisses her hand at the kitchen table. They flirt, and Khatuna rolls her eyes. “My Khatuna is clever,” she tells me. “She is moving to Paris. She will not marry a Georgian man.”

I tell Eka that I am thinking of converting to the Orthodox Church. I ask her to be my godmother. She cries with joy and force-feeds me cake. In the absence of my own family, I become used to our routine, our evening teas. It is Eka who comforts me when I fail to win a scholarship I’d been counting on; it is Eka who strokes my hair when I have a telephone argument with my boyfriend. When my own mother and I fight—an inevitability even with five thousand miles between us—Eka makes me tea.

The first problem is the neighbors: a young Georgian couple barely out of their teens. The walls between my flat and theirs are thin like ricepaper. I have a looming deadline; they have sex at four in the morning. There are fights—the smashing of furniture, the smack of flesh on flesh. There is a child, four years old at the most, who holds conversations with her teddy bear on the terrace. She speaks slowly, deliberately; she is the only one I can understand.

I complain to Eka about the noise, and she buries me under an avalanche of apologies. “Some people,” she sniffs. “They are not educated people, you know.” Eka is educated. She has art books on her coffee table. She holds a doctorate in Persian studies. She lets out one of the flats to an American lesbian, quietly enjoying the scandal it causes in the ezo, and effusively welcomes her Russian girlfriend, bringing them bowlfuls of potato soup and flushing at her own daring.

Soon we learn the whole story. Eka hears from a waiter at a nearby hotel that our neighbor is a prostitute, soliciting clients at the local bathhouses, sometimes bringing them home. Her putative husband is a gay man (“blue,” Eka calls him); they protect one another. When I come downstairs they are gone. “Think of Khatuna’s reputation,” Eka sighs.

There are new problems. By now, half the apartments on the ezo are empty—there have been too many departures—and, short of money, Eka grows frantic. I pay rent four months in advance; I circulate the flat details among my expat friends. But Dato’s method is swifter. He cuts a deal with local taxi-drivers serving the Ortachala bus station, where marshrutkas from Iran come in every morning. Groups of young men, come to Georgia for the licit gambling and the free-flowing wine, stay for a night or two or three, six to a room.

This offends Eka’s sense of propriety (“They are not educated people. Not like Georgians,” she says, expecting me to agree with her, and lights a cigarette) but she says nothing to Dato. He owns the building, after all, and when the whole courtyard is awakened by the shrieks of two prostitutes pounding frantically at the door, it is Eka who dries the blood, who throws away the broken furniture, who sends the guests away.

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I come upstairs one night to find Eka weeping. The lights are off. Dato and Giga are out drinking. Khatuna is asleep; she has an exam in the morning. Eka hasn’t had the heart to ask her to help with the chores—she must focus on her studies, after all—and so she has been cleaning for the past six hours. She has cleaned until her fingers began to blister, and now she can do no more.

Dato is having an affair, she tells me, but she doesn’t mind. It comes as a relief to her. It means one less thing to deal with. Eka tells me about the man she loved before Dato—her true love, she said, the only man she’d ever loved. He was killed, like so many others, in a car crash in the mountains, where shrines to the dead mark every hairpin turn. In despair, she’d married Dato soon after.

“But he is a traditional Georgian man,” she says. I hold her hand and she sobs into my shoulder. “Did you know? The first time my mother came to our house, after we were married, she took one look at me and she started to cry. She saw me cleaning for him, and she cried, because she knew my life was over.”

She cannot regret it, she says. She has Khatuna, and Khatuna is her life. Khatuna will not marry a Georgian man—she is too clever for that. She has piercings and hair dyed an uncanny shade of red. She studies hard.

“You, genatsvale, are my daughter,” Eka says. “Ra kargi gogo!

That night I believe her. I hold her in my arms and try to understand. For this, she does not forgive me.

Eka stops inviting me upstairs. She is unfailingly polite, even effusive, when we run into each other, when I pay the rent, but she no longer looks me in the eye. She knows that I know, now, and when Dato puts his arm around her she flushes, and I know that I have shamed her. She proffers a few halfhearted invitations—come for dinner next week, let me teach you to cook ajapsandali—but we both know the phone will never ring.

The heater stops working for hours on end. The water spits out of the faucet, intermittently at best and never on command. The terrace has become a storage facility for flea-ragged sofas, broken chairs, mildewing blankets.

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The ezo remains a source of concern. Dato builds two more apartments and lets them, almost exclusively, to groups of young men. There are Armenians on the ground floor; ten Iraqis share the one-bedroom next to mine. They hold parties until dawn and leave the front door unlocked. Sometimes they stumble, drunkenly, against my window. They play music and invite girls downstairs. Sometimes I complain, to little avail. After one orgy, my neighbor comes over to apologize. His wife is coming on the train from Baku next week, he explains. Things will be quieter then.

At times I hear the sounds of violence—more slaps, more screams. My Georgian is insufficient for me to call the police, and nothing will happen if I do. I will only shame Eka. Word will get out that all is not well in the ezo. They will be the laughingstock of the neighborhood. People will think Khatuna was involved.

Eka declares that she has had enough. “We are educated people,” she insists. They are landowners, not slumlords. In any case, they have always let to Georgians—maybe an American or two, at most, but certainly not to Turks, Armenians, or Azeris. Even in Abanotubani, a neighborhood known for its diversity, our ezo has always been Georgian.

But Giga’s wife Anushka is pregnant, and Khatuna must go to graduate school, and Dato owns the land, and so the ezo is filled with cigarette-smoke, and none of us can sleep at night.

When Eka asks me for money she does so with downcast eyes. The fiction we maintain is that this is a loan, or else an advance towards the bills. The rent, after all goes to Dato directly. We both know this is a lie. She needs money to leave him. She needs five thousand dollars. I can afford one hundred. I don’t know what offends her more: that I can pay her so little, or that I pay her at all.

Within days of her departure, Dato rents out the master bedroom. Khatuna comes home from class to find a strange man sleeping in her bed. He refuses to let her take her schoolbooks from the shelf. He has paid for the room, he shouts, and that includes everything in it. She and Eka stay, briefly, with friends.

I run into Khatuna in the courtyard. “You know he beats her, right?” She lights a cigarette and throws her scarf over her shoulders. “Typical,” she snorts. “When I earn enough money, I’ll get us both a place.” She has two master’s degrees. She can’t find a job paying more than a hundred dollars a month. Paris is indefinitely postponed.

Of course, Eka returns. I learn through the gossip of the ezo that she had no choice. The house, the ezo, everything, is in Dato’s name. The lawyers wanted a hundred thousand dollars to challenge it. She appears one morning on the terrace, dressed in black, and greets me as if I don’t know where she has gone. She calls me a kargi gogo and offers me tea. I know enough to decline.

When the noise starts up again at four in the morning—the smashing of furniture, the echoing screams—I think at first that it is coming from downstairs, where a group of Iraqis have instated a makeshift speakeasy on the terrace. It is only once I’m outside that I realize the noise is coming from above.

Their fight lasts for hours. I can hear Eka scream. Anushka’s new baby starts crying; plates smash against walls. The wails are so long and loud that I consider, briefly, putting in earplugs. Immediately, I am ashamed. Khatuna, stoic and awake, posts pictures of cats on Facebook. We don’t contact one another. This happens every night for two weeks.

tbilisi 2The night before I leave Tbilisi, I pack my bags. I can’t bring myself to knock on the door. I can hear the fighting from my room, and I don’t know what to say. I want to hold Eka in my arms, as I did the night she told me about her first love, to take her in, to repay her kindness with my own. I want to call the police, to physically wrest Dato off her. I know nothing would shame her more.

I do not say goodbye.

Georgia has new leaders now: the national Georgian Dream Party. The graffiti has started in my neighborhood: swastikas, racial slurs, warnings to immigrants, to my neighbors, Azeri and Armenian alike, that soon the violence will come. The Narikala Fortress is half-shadowed—the new regime, the rumour goes, wants to save electricity.

Anushka has dropped out of university. She helps Eka with the housework, now, and tends to the baby, whom Giga doesn’t see. She has lost her looks; she doesn’t need them. Giga stays out like his father does, going to see prostitutes at the bathhouse. Khatuna still can’t find a job.

Eka and I stay in touch. Sometimes she posts comments on Facebook, going into raptures over pictures of my boyfriend, our new house, our English life. She tells me how beautiful I look and reminds me how much she misses me, how much she loves me. “You are my daughter,” she writes. “Chemi kargi gogo.”

I write back, tell her I love her and I am thinking of her. It is not, and never will be, enough.

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Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared at The Spectator, The New Statesman, Guernica Daily, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission. Her website is http://www.taraisabellaburton.com. More from this author →