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Just around the riverbank

In the highest peaks of the Caucasus mountains, snow is melting. Snowflakes become water droplets and collectively form the Mtkvari river. A stream of clean water from the mountains, passing by small towns with big factories. Clear blue at first, but turning more brown by the kilometre. Eventually, the filthy brown water enters Tbilisi: the capital of Georgia. A city with 1.2 million people and an equal amount of perspectives on their river. I’m ready to wander and meander with Mtkvari: a river debouching into a variety of complex social and political interactions.

Text & Image: Marije Nieuwland

‘I do not have any bond with the river, it's merely a symbol in my head. And if you remove that, it's just a stream of dirty water in my city’ - Elene Pasuri, producer, writer and art manager

A peaceful walk alongside the Mtkvari in Tbilisi is not as appealing as it might sound. My friend Elene and I are walking on the high boulevard above the river, with a noisy highway next to us. The other side of Mtkvari doesn’t seem any more attractive. The river is surrounded by the busiest roads of the city, drowning out the sounds of rippling water. Getting really close to Mtkvari to watch, hear and feel the water, seems to be difficult. Only once every kilometre we pass half broken stairs which could bring us down to the river. But when I go down these stairs, they don’t bring me to a romantic spot where I can sit and get in touch with the river. Instead, they lead me straight into the water, and all I’m left with is garbage and the smell of urine. To avoid the half-broken stairs completely falling apart and Mtkvari taking me with her, I climb back up to the boulevard.

‘The citizens have lost their river’ – Merab Bolqvadze, urban planner

Elene tells me there used to be a lot of interaction between Mtkvari and the citizens of Tbilisi. People who wouldn’t meet each other in their day-to-day lives, would meet at the river where they drank the water, caught fish, took water for agricultural activities or searched for a moment of refreshment during hot summer days. Through all these varying interactions between citizens and the river, interaction between cultural groups in society was stimulated. According to Elene, ‘Mtkvari brought different cultures together’.

This all changed in Soviet times. Tbilisi was being redesigned to be as functional as possible. The Mtkvari was hemmed in by huge roads serving cars and trucks driving in and out the city. Soviet urban planning cut off the river from the citizens of Tbilisi. Urban planner Merab Bolqvadze reflects on this in the bookTbilisi Archive of Transition: ‘Nature has been chased out of the city, now we should at least attempt to invite it back’. However, recent capitalist-oriented governments are not showing any effort to invite the river back into the city. Political policies obstruct the interaction between the citizens and their Mtkvari river even more: ‘an all-encompassing process of privatisation in Tbilisi has affected public spaces as much as the state-owned means of production, institutions and city building seen in the Soviet past. The process of sale includes not only parks, recreational areas, and forest preserves, but also portions of streets and squares and even areas of the Mtkvari river.’

Elene grabs a taxi and leaves me with Mtkvari: a river stolen from the people of Tbilisi. I can observe the moving water, but I cannot find the human interaction with it. Am I searching for the wrong thing? In days passed, I asked friends about their perspectives on Mtkvari and they almost seemed a bit dazed by my question, as if they never thought about it. And today I seem to be the only one walking the boulevard, exploring Mtkvari and connecting with her.

Still Mtkvari flows straight through this vibrant city. Hidden, but always there. While I’m following Mtkvari, I wonder. Perhaps the citizens have relations with their Mtkvari, not because of the way they interact with her but precisely in the way they don’t interact with her.

‘On the left side of Mtkvari your street creds won’t cut it’ – Levan Babalshvili, rapper MOON G

Even though interactions between citizens and the Mtkvari seem fully lost, the river nonetheless functions as a social border within the city of Tbilisi. People living on one side of Mtkvari have entirely different lives than people living on the other side. The members from rap collective MOON G live on the left (West) side of the river: a part of Tbilisi with decrepit Soviet buildings and a lot of poverty. Opposite to that, the right side is being developed into a modern and wealthy metropolis designed according to West-European urban planning standards. And this distinction doesn’t stop at different buildings and living standards. In fact, the river separates totally disparate social worlds and realities. Levan raps about how norms of behaviour are just not the same on the other side of the stream of water. He mainly criticises how citizens on the right side of Mtkvari are adopting left side urban street culture in their language, clothing, music taste and behaviour while they don’t have any idea what it is like to live on the other side. These ‘street creds’ won’t help them once they cross the bridge.

‘The river is dirty. The fish is dirty…, but tasty.’ - Tornike Revia

It’s difficult to get back to the city from the boulevard. First, I must cross a big road with a sincere lack of pedestrian crossings. Somewhere far away I see traffic lights and faded white stripes on the road. I plan to end my Mtkvari walk up there. But when I nearly reach the crossing point, I notice a group of guys drinking beers alongside the river. I haven’t seen this before: people hanging out and having fun together at the Mtkvari riverbank. One man bends over the railing. A second later, I watch him picking up a net full of small fish. He notices me and we start a conversation. ‘Fish for dinner tonight?’ I ask him. ‘Well, the river is dirty, so the fish are dirty’ Tornike tells me: ‘But yeah, still tasty though’. Tornike’s words sound hopeful to me. If he can find something flavorful in the water, maybe the river isn’t lost yet. But for the citizens to rediscover the taste of Mtkvari, they should be given at least a chance to reconnect with her.

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