Aitaj Khalilli, 23 years old, village Vakhtangisi, the municipality of Gardabani

“I was born in a border village, Vakhtangisi. 90% of the population in this village is Azerbaijanian. I didn’t have the opportunity to travel beyond the village. So, I thought the whole world was this village and I couldn’t imagine there was also Georgia beyond it.

Before the fourth grade, the Georgian language was taught only 3 times a week in school. Our Georgian teacher was very strict. Instead of teaching the language, he had a negative attitude towards us and I only did my homework to avoid punishment.
I remember, when I was little, I overheard elders quote a widely known Georgian – ‘’Georgia is a country meant only for Georgians”. Imagine being in the process of developing as a person and hearing such a thing – how much influence it would suddenly have on you. For almost a month, I mulled over these words and their meaning and thought about how we were being persecuted in our own place of residence. It also laid the ground for the attitude I initially had for my country. That’s why I was planning to move to Azerbaijan after 9th grade.

When 9th grade began, a new Georgian language teacher arrived in the village as part of one of the state projects. I entered her classroom because of curiosity. She was a new person and I got interested. I was so fascinated by her personality that I started actively engaging in her lessons. This woman changed my attitude and my worldview. Apart from teaching us the Georgian language, she brought us, Azerbaijanian children, who had never been outside the village, on class trips, organized competitions, events, and so on. That was when I realized that there was another Georgia to which I belonged. I realized that it was the place where I wanted to spend my life and as the first order of business, I had to start learning the Georgian language.

When I was in 10th grade, I participated in the civic camp. I had just started learning Georgian language and I didn’t know it well. Although I’m an active person by nature, because of the language barrier I wasn’t able to express myself in the camp. I was afraid that if I said something wrong, people would laugh and I preferred not to say anything. They even gave me a nomination of the quietest participant, which at the same time meant being a passive participant. This fact affected me negatively, but that same day I promised myself: ‘’Aitaj, you’ll learn the Georgian language so thoroughly, that it will be difficult to distinguish you from a native Georgian’’ and I started working on it as hard as I could. When, during the break, everyone was outside, playing, I would sit in the classroom and read ‘’The Knight in a Panther’s Skin’’, ‘’The Torturing of Shushaniki’’ and other Georgian masterpieces, that weren’t taught in Azerbaijanian schools.

One year later, I participated in a poetic reading competition of Galaktion Tabidze’s poems. The competition was held for non-Georgian school students. After my speech, the jury didn’t believe that I wasn’t Georgian. They asked me for an ID for proof. I said to myself that I had kept the promise to myself and that was my victory. After that, I realized that I was able to do anything I set my mind to.

After some time, I could already compare Georgian life with Azerbaijan. I love the freedom here, which does not exist there. I love our attitudes, our places, and nature. When I talked with many Georgians, I was convinced that the painful notion – that “Georgia belongs to Georgians” – is foreign to a majority of Georgians. There is also another issue, which is accepting us – ethnic Azerbaijanis.

I have been a curious person since childhood and I always wanted to continue my education. In our community, there is gender discrimination. Especially back then, 5 years ago, the girls had to cross more barriers to get educated and in this regard, I was very lucky, since my family always supported me. For ethnic non-Georgians, there exists a so-called 4+1 program in Georgian universities, which means a 1-year preparation period in the Georgian language. However, I studied like the Georgians do, without a preparation year. This is also a great achievement for me. There weren’t any non-Georgian students at my university and I first experienced a culture shock. You spend 18 years in a completely different culture and suddenly you appear somewhere else. I endured this hard time with the support of my friends.

I have been studying business administration and from the second year, I started working in the private sector in my profession. On the other hand, I already felt aggression towards my own community, because they didn’t speak Georgian. I blamed my parents for not knowing the language. Whatever reason they had for that, I wouldn’t consider it valid. Later, I reconsidered these critical attitudes and began to understand them. My mother had an interesting story about that. Her Georgian teacher in school was charged with ethnic nationalism. Georgian lessons were held once a week at that time. This teacher oppressed children on the grounds of ethnic identity and directly expressed how he hated them as human beings. He even said that they deserved to be beaten, but because she couldn’t touch the Azerbaijani children, she avoided this method as punishment. As a result, my mother developed the same feeling that I had in the beginning – intolerance towards the Georgian language, even because of that one teacher. She wasn’t as lucky as me and didn’t have a teacher who could help her change her entrenched negative attitude.

Nowadays, I’m a member of the civil movement ‘’Salami’’ and we are working to make the local community stronger. I believe that slowly, but steadily, we’ll make changes’’.

Author: Maiko Chitaia
Photo: Geda Darchia
Translation: Mariam Kajrishvili