Nino Devnozashvili-Shainidze, 36 years old, Bolnisi/Zemo Adjara
The Bible and the Quran in my family are kept side by side.
I was 13 years old when I fell in love with an Adjarian Muslim boy. Back then I didn’t realize that it could be a challenge. I didn’t recognize the two different beliefs in our culture could cause confrontation.
The first time I asked myself that question was when I was a student. I was already a strong Orthodox Christian. Once he visited me in Tbilisi and we took a walk to Narikala church. He said he didn’t want to come inside and he’d wait outside instead. It was the first time when I realized something was unusual and I was scared. I wasn’t angry, just nervous since I knew we would get married soon, I’d have to live in a Muslim family, and I couldn’t see the whole picture of how our life would be together. Our love was strong and we didn’t consider religion as something to worry about. We weren’t annoyed by each other’s beliefs. The important thing was that people around us would understand our differences and we could avoid social pressure.
My parents didn’t go to church regularly and weren’t very religious, so they didn’t resist much. But I remember my grandmother’s reproaches. I don’t know how, but she found Zaza’s friend, a girl from the same village, who told us that a girl with ”self-respect” wouldn’t marry him and live in “those Muslims'” family. My grandmother warned me it would be hard for me to get used to their traditions. Society, of course, has some influence. There were times when I was ashamed to tell my friends that my boyfriend was a Muslim. Then Zaza told them himself about his religion and I remember the shocked looks on my friends’ faces.
My priest confronted my decision at the beginning. But when he saw that I wouldn’t refuse to love him, he advised that I had to take everything I saw there calmly and without objection.
I loved Zaza so much that I couldn’t imagine giving him up. I couldn’t give up my religion either and I was sure I would never have to choose between those two.
My husband also met some resistance from his family – they said a Christian girl would not be able to get used to their traditions, putting our new family in jeopardy.
When I finished my sophomore year, we galloped without telling anyone. I remember Easter was on the 5th of May and it was exactly the day I entered Zaza’s family. Zaza’s parents are deeply religious Muslims. The house was full of Muslim shrines: Arabic prayers from the Quran hanging on the wall, Muslim symbols everywhere, the shelves full of old Muslim books. According to the Muslim tradition, a new daughter-in-law has to look through a sieve and has to drink special sweetened water made for the occasion. For the first three days, I was so exhausted from the cultural shock that I couldn’t get out of the bed. My father-in-law sat by my pillow praying. He didn’t leave the place until I get up.
The first year was a year of adaptation to life in the two different cultures and religions. Every day I realized more and more how many misconceptions people have against Muslims. Under these labels, I discovered educated, kind and delightful people.
Just once did my mother-in-law tell me that they were a bunch and I couldn’t change them and maybe it would reasonable to think about accepting their faith. I replied that since I was happy to be a part of their family and their faith didn’t bother me, it should be the same for them. I even carried my cross openly. She agreed and after that, we never had that conversation again.
My father-in-law, by tradition, prayed loudly every morning. As a gesture of respect, I never refused to cook Muslim meals on their Bahram and I helped them set the table. With great respect, I cleaned the dust from their religious books and before the prayer I changed the water. I believe that there are not many Gods; God is one and we have different forms of expression and if we don’t respect these forms, we’ll lose first God, then ourselves.
At the same time, I had a corner with Orthodox icons where I prayed. At every Easter, my mother-in-law honored my traditions by painting eggs red and baking Paska (Georgian traditional sweet bread prepared for Easter). Despite their traditions, they never asked me to wear special clothes. While I was continuing my studies and caring about my career progression, I didn’t get any objections from them. I always congratulated them to Bairam and they did the same when it was my Orthodox holidays. It was how we broke stereotypes and opened a door to a new world.
I was heartbroken sometimes, not from the family but from society. I often heard our neighbors talking about me in Turkish, rebukes about Gurji(Georgian) daughter-in-law. As if I was different because of that. Also, I have been heartbroken when my relatives visited me and mocked me for the Arabian aesthetics at home. Later, when I started working in the educational system, I had some conflicts with teachers when they talked about the differences between Georgian and Adjarian people. The narrative is well known that if you are Adjarian, then your appearance, cultural and social levels are low. I said loudly that yes, my children and my husband are from the Muslim Adjarian family, but we have to look beyond peoples beliefs, look deep inside and only see them as they are, nothing else.
Zaza and I initially agreed that we would allow our children to choose their faith, but after some time my husband and his brothers and sisters were baptized as orthodox. Nowadays most of the family members are orthodox Christians. Zaza’s mother is very worried about it, but she never mentioned anything in our conversations. She is suffering silently. Because of finances, we had to move to Bolnisi. Zaza and I are both working here. I’m the school deputy and I teach Georgian language and literature. We visit Adjara at least 4 times a year. Our children know that some of their family members are Muslims and it’s not a shame for them. They know that they have to respect other religions, just as they want their own to be respected.
Author: Maiko Chitaia
Photo: Nino Baidauri
Translation: Mariam Kajrishvili