The Sevda of Sadakhlo

by Ana Kvichidze, Catherine Steiner & Klara Böck

A house facade in Sadakhlo (2022), by Nutsa Lomsadze

Borderland and common territories. When we started field research in the context of the summer school, we had little idea how the place where we were about to spend a week manifested these topics.

Trying to understand the analogy of bordered places and common territories in Sadakhlo, a village on the Armenian- Georgian border inhabited by Azerbaijanis, three different border constellations became apparent:

  1. The physical, geopolitical border point as characteristic landmark dominating the village’s atmosphere;
  2. The bordered structure of the built environment within the village itself, where the public sphere seems to be shielded from the outsider’s eye and divided from what might at first sight appear to be public; 3. The inner division of common spaces, especially in forms of gender borders. This becomes visible in the usage of the spaces behind the walls – the male dominated Chaikhanas and the female marked courtyards.

By bringing the Chaikhana, a public tea house belonging to the Azerbaijanian culture of the village, to the exhibition space in Tbilisi and counter framing it with the “female” world of mystery and superstition, we newly assembled the border structures we experienced during our fieldwork.

Space and its usage is a language that changes its meaning and implications by context, usage and angle of perspective. While we were stunned by the borders dominating the village life, when we left by the end of the week, we were no longer focused on the divisions but on the life that happens between and behind the walls. Just as “sadness” can become “love” when changing the cultural context (“Sevda” meaning love in Azerbaijani and sadness in Georgian სევდა), the walls of Sadakhlo were no longer borders. They became carriers of stories and simply the surroundings of the places we were able to get to know.

Sadahklo is by definition a border place. It is the town located closest to the Armenian border and the checkpoint is a part of the town’s structure. At the same time, borders seemed for us to be in many different ways the main characteristics of the town as we experienced it.

Border passing

The official, geopolitical border is prominent within the town’s imagery. Trucks, buses and marshrutkas wait on the main square of the town as well as in the area in front of the checkpoint to pass the border. Tourists, usually scarcely seen in this region, pass the village to continue their journey in the next country on their tour of the Caucasian region. We saw travelers in camping vans stopping at the bakery before leaving Georgia. Cyclists rang their bells and waved while rolling up to the border and experiencing the process of border crossing in a much more physical way than those traveling by bus or car. The acts of crossing, waiting, leaving, and returning are omnipresent on the streets of Sadakhlo. The area around the border point is full of street vendors bringing fruits and vegetables from the region to sell to the travelers, drawing a reminiscent picture of what this area had been before the border closed: A place of transaction and exchange. Even though these words might still be used descriptively when talking about Sadakhlo, it felt as if they have lost their power and have become empty shells of bureaucratic transactions.

Bordered streets

The spatial experience of Sadakhlo itself and its built structure is a translation of the presence of the border in a built environment. Walking the streets of Sadakhlo, one is surrounded by borders. Houses are closed off by high walls and gates, the main street is a vein leading the passers-by straight through the center and to the border. Its side roads end in narrow labyrinths or dead ends. On the other side of town, a river and mountains frame the street as a natural border. The political border is a clear focus point of the movements on the street, while the village is bordering itself against the eyes of the visitor. The social life of Sadakhlo is not visible at first sight.

Abondoned bazaar area in Sadakhlo (2022), by Onur Ceritoglu

Common places

When looking for the common places – spaces for exchange and community – we were again confronted with the image of the border. The main street becomes the main space of interaction and transgression. Here too, street vendors sell produce and chicken, shops open up to the street and men are standing on the sidewalk, observing. The horizontally oriented structure of this common area again mirrors the idea of the border. There does not seem to be a gathering but rather a passing and waiting, giving space to social interaction that feels both temporal and static. Just like the border is a place of constant movement and total stagnation, for the visitor the streets of Sadakhlo become spaces where action seems visible but not tangible.

We saw men sitting or standing alongside the road but not interacting with one another. Chicken for sale in cages, but no one there to sell them. Shops open, but not frequented. Horses grazing in a dried- out riverbed.

We reached a point of frustration, running against an invisible, yet more than obvious border of social interaction. Not only were the houses and places of Sadakhlo closed off by high gates, but we didn’t even seem to see the doorknob. Not speaking the language, most of us not familiar with the cultural context, all of us were having a very personal border experience.

Behind the borders

We knocked on doors, trying to start a conversation and to understand where the public life was taking place.

In the center of the village, we found two Chaikhanas where the men spend their day. There, we found ourselves confronted with the reality of another border: the gendered one. While some of us spent time in this strictly male meeting point, the rest went out to find the female counterpart. We were able to join a wedding celebration, met local teachers and learned how to bake bread.All these different experiences were connected by a common ground: the sharing of food, and thus a sharing of Sevda – in its Georgian, but mostly in the Azerbaijani meaning.

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