Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Getting Past East and West

Disclaimer - much of the ideas behind this post were inspired by the fascinating, vastly-superior, Carpetblogger:

If you've ever thought, as one does, of traveling to the Caucasus, you may well have picked up one of a number of travel books on Georgia, and they more than likely began something like this:

Standing at the crossroads between East and West, Tbilisi encompasses an organic blending of two cultures.

The book will then in all likeliness continue to use "East" and "West" as convenient reference points (i.e., "Westernized" Rustaveli Avenue, "East"-ern baths (with conveniently placed mosque to tell you precisely HOW Eastern Abanotubani is), and measure everything in Tbilisi, implicitly or explicitly, in that frame of reference.

The problem is, however, East and West are relatively meaningless terms. Geographical issues (East of WHERE?) aside, Rustaveli Avenue looks a fair bit like Paris or Vienna, but not a great deal like Rome or New York City. Abanotubani looks a bit like Ischia, and a great deal like New Orleans.

But of course, it isn't about architecture, really; nor is it about geography. What every (American or European) travel writer is saying, consciously or consciously, is this:

Standing at the crossroads between Things I Understand and Things I Find Foreign, Tbilisi encompasses an organic blending of Stuff That Makes Sense to Me and Stuff that Doesn't. 

There's nothing wrong with this statement, of course. But it's terribly generic. What travel experience, with the exception of the local grocery store or Mars, doesn't involve a blending of the familiar and the strange? Yet fetishizing that experience, as all too many travel writers seem to do*, allows visitors to sort their experiences neatly into "Western" (chain stores, stuff that works) and "Eastern" (people in funny scarves, languages I can't read), without participating in any meaningful discourse about what Georgia is in and of itself, without reference to other countries, cultures, or hegemonies. No self-respecting Toqueville-in-training would begin a discourse on America with "Well, it's less liberal than Canada, and it's colder than Mexico" - and it's equally intellectually lazy to start every conversation about Georgia with reference to familiar cultural archetypes, whether they're reassuring golden arches of McDonalds, or the oh-so-exotic baths and bazaars of Otheristan. Just once, I would love to read an account of Georgia that considers Georgia on its own merits, rather than as a useful playground in which to toss around evocative but ultimately meaningless images (oh look! People can have cows AND cell phones!) that serve to replace challenging discourse.

So, how to write about Georgia? I don't have any answers yet - and I'm all too easily enchanted by oh-so-exotic things to pretend otherwise - but I hope that the rough sketches of thought in this blog lead me towards a better understanding, and make me a better writer.

Is this Moorish opera house, based on architecture common in Medieval Muslim-ruled Spain, Eastern or Western?  I can't tell! What will I do without  my easy frames of reference! My head is exploding!

*And I can be as guilty of fetishing Other-ness as this guy.

1 comment:

Deborah Nagy said...

I'm absolutely loving this blog! Keep up the good work! :) c