The Lazi with whom we spent unforgettable moments in Turkey’s mountains put us in touch with their brothers in Georgia, the Mingrelians. The Mingrelians and the Lazi were part of the same people a long time ago and lived in the region comprising Sukhumi (Abkhazia) and Trabzon (Turkey). The Turks conquered part of this territory and assimilated the Lazi, while the Mingrelians remained on the Georgian territory. The Lazi are Muslims and the Mingrelians Christians. Their language shares a common root, but it was influenced by Russian in the case of the Mingrelians and by Turkish, Greek and Arabic in the case of the Lazi.
We meet Givi at a terrace in Tbilisi, not far from a summer theatre in a park where from time to time concerts with Mingrelian and Lazi music are organized. Givi is the logistic manager of a cargo firm which operates on the Tbilisi airport. He spends his leisure time gathering Mingrelian words, stories and songs. He shows an equal interest for the fate of his neighbours, the Lazi. He informs us he’s putting together a manuscript for publication; the manuscript discusses surnames in the Lazi culture, surnames which were forcibly changed to Turkish on the other side of the border. ‘Unfortunately, our language is dying away. No sustained efforts are done to keep it alive.’ Givi says that some Georgian nationalists are claiming Mingrelian doesn’t exist and that what he speaks in his family is actually a Georgian dialect. Moreover, the same voices maintain that the Mingrelians are an investment of Russian secret services whose goal is to tear Georgia apart. Such theories are grounded in the fear that, should the Mingrelian language be preserved and officially recognized, the Mingrelians might make territorial claims. ‘It’s absurd. If I try to carry out any project involving the Mingrelians, I am suddenly perceived as an enemy of the Georgian state’ Givi complains. He also tells us that the germakoci does indeed exist and that it has a counterpart in the Mingrelian culture: the ocokoci, a hideous creature with fangs on its chest which lives up in the mountains and howls from time to time, more precisely, when it chases princesses: ‘My aunt swears she heard a ocokoci howl’ Givi telss me.
Beso, another Mingrelian we met in Zugdidi, offers us a different view of things. Beso is a musician (he sings at chongs), knows how to stitch and has a degree in gardening and landscape art. Zugdidi is considered the Mingrelian capital and the main attraction is the Dadiani Palace – the palace of the family who ruled Mingrelia and at one point became related to Napoleon’s family. Beso proudly gives us a tour of the museum inside the palace whose central point is one of Napoleon’s three death masks. In the days of the Soviet Union, communist leaders would organize bean-feasts in the main room of the palace at the table where former princes used to sit. They loved drinking and eating from the aristocracy’s dinner service exhibited in the museum.
Beso’s relationship with the authorities is very affable. He makes his living from gardening and is proud to inform us that his major contracts are financed by the town hall. He has created the garden in front of the palace, has planted trees all over town and he has built a garden in the tent sheltering the skating ring. The plants are imported from Italy and he is currently planning to open up a nursery garden. Furthermore, Beso wants to build himself a pension for tourists which would also be used for camps for Lazi and Mingrelian children: ‘Children don’t speak our language anymore; it’s a miracle it has lasted so far.’