|Author: Florian Mühlfried|
|Affiliation: Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany|
Original text by Florian Mühlfried
‘I have a problem understanding someone whom I know really well when suddenly [at a banquet this person] begins to behave completely differently. And then this behaviour becomes so normal, it’s like a “blurring of the borders.”…The borders between the real me and this imagined me, which I want to play, become so blurred that you don’t know who you are. And the people with whom you interact are also lost.’ (Interview with a young female employee of an NGO, conducted by the author in the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 2004).
The confusion that this young Georgian woman describes concerning the identity of her acquaintances is provoked by a fundamental personal transformation that takes place in the process of proposing a toast (sadghegrzelo) at a festive meal (supra) in Georgia. A toast should come ‘from the heart,’ which is why, sometimes, Georgians place their left hand on their heart while holding a glass of wine, vodka or cognac in their right hand. Underlying this display of emotional veracity is a rigid behavioural and linguistic code. A toast may be proposed only to shared values—dissent must be avoided at all cost—and should be phrased in a specific, grammatically complex manner. This mixture of authenticity and strictly formalised behaviour may cause confusion (as expressed in the quotation above). The borders between ‘me’ and ‘not me’ (or ‘real me’ and ‘imagined me,’ as in the quotation) become so blurred that they are indistinguishable (Schechner 1983). It is this ambivalence that lies at the heart of toasting.
The term sadghegrzelo is a compound of the words dghe (day) and ghrdzeli (long). In this form, sadghegrzelo means ‘to a long life,’ a wish that is expressed in the form of a toast. In the context of a festive meal presided over by a toastmaster (tamada ), the toasts follow a generally uniform, yet not entirely fixed, structure. The tamada raises the first toast in each of the many rounds of toasting and introduces a topic that is then taken up and elaborated on by the other participants in the ritual. Certain topics are obligatory, such as toasts to the family and the deceased, and a certain pattern is prescribed, such as following a toast to the deceased by proposing a toast to life, often presented as a toast to children. In addition, toasts to attributed identity (such as family or gender) are commonly proposed before toasts to acquired identity (such as profession or hobbies, Chatwin 1997).
Some toasts reinforce national values (especially the toast to the motherland, also more subtly expressed in toasts to culture, song and history); gender identity (particularly the obligatory toast to women); family values; and peer-group identity. The toasts should express honour to the addressee or the topic in question and should not contain any colloquial expressions, let alone swearwords, gossip or criticism. Each toast ends with a ritual formula, often gaumarjos (‘cheers to…,’ literally ‘victory to…).
One should not however merely repeat formulas in a toast; that would be considered poor performance. The challenge is to improvise and propose toasts in an original, personalised way. Thus, the topics of the main toasts and the overall structure are given, but the transmitted factors, or ‘tradition,’ must be acquired and integrated into personal, intentional behaviour in order to complete the performance and make it successful. Consequently, a ‘correct’ performance of the supra is based not on a faithful reproduction of an ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ procedure, but on the willingness and ability of the performer to adjust the formulas to their personality.
It is not possible at a Georgian banquet to drink alcohol without relating it to a toast. Merely sipping wine is a deadly sin. The ritual consumption of wine and its connection to food has obvious parallels in the Christian Holy Communion. But wine in the context of the Georgian banquet is not exclusively attributed to the blood of Christ. Since many Georgians believe Georgia to be the birthplace of wine, and since there are many traces in Georgian culture that indicate the primary importance of wine for Georgian identity, wine becomes a metaphor for Georgian blood, and those who share wine at a supra become virtual kinsmen.
The rules of etiquette at the supra are strict and serve as a formalised process for attributing honour. Everybody should be included in the process, but a hierarchy based on social structures must also be observed. Who is addressed by the toastmaster, when and how, who speaks after whom and for how long, who drinks when and how much – all these factors may be considered part of a performance of status. Boys show that they have become men when they stand during a toast to women or the deceased, while women and children remain seated. Men who have stopped actively participating in the process of drinking and toasting are most likely no longer considered the head of their family. Hence, toasting in the Georgian way encompasses both competition and solidarity.
The supra is a mainstream representation of Georgian tradition, said to be too old to be dated accurately. Historical sources suggest however that the supra in its current form is a product of the 19th century, and that it is closely related to the rise of bourgeois and aristocratic culture in Tbilisi as well as to the formation of a national movement. Western travelogues from the 15th- 18th centuries (von Busbeck 1926 ; Lamberti 1654; Chardin 1686; Contarini 1873 )describe the long and vivid history of ritualised drinking, but the Georgian words for toastmaster and toast cannot be found in these sources, nor can the description of cultural practices comparable to these concepts. According to the travelogues, moreover, wine was frequently drunk without any ritual framing.
These observations are supported by Georgian literature and historiography. Feasts have been a common topic in Georgian sources ever since the ‘Golden Age’ of the 11th-13th centuries, but no mention of toasting or toastmastership can be found. As late as in the 19th, the poet Akaki C’ereteli (1989 : 24–82, in particular p. 25.) , wrote that the ‘ancestors’ did not propose toasts at the table and would have been ashamed to have witnessed the present-day phenomenon. There is no mention of ‘toast’ or ‘toastmaster’ in the dictionary compiled in the early 18th century by Sulxan Saba Orbeliani (1991 ) , an omission that would be hard to explain had the Georgian banquet at that time been the same as today’s.
The word “sadghegrzelo” first appears in written form in 1827 in a cycle of poems by the Georgian aristocrat Grigol Orbeliani (1959), often considered one of the fathers of the national liberation movement (Ram 2015). The poems are written in the form of toasts and recall national heroes as well as their deeds. This genre quickly became popular at banquets. Remembering the past as a toast had become a form of national education following Tsarist Russia’s annexation of Georgia in 1801 and the consequent suppression of national sovereignty. In this context, the verbal evocation of the past turns at the table into a patriotic mission. It also becomes a way of relocating national sovereignty from the realm of the official (from where it had disappeared following the Russian annexation) to the sphere of informality.
This sphere of informality proved of crucial importance during the 20th century, when Georgia was part of the USSR. During the Soviet period, the supra provided space for informally addressing the shortages of the Soviet economy and the problems of making a living; it was here that networks were forged, information traded, deals made and scarce resources exchanged. In other words, it was here that blat (exchange of favours) blossomed (Ledeneva 1998) . Occasionally, too, a supra would be used for undercover meetings of political dissidents. No wonder, then, that the supra aroused the suspicion of the authorities in the late Soviet period. On 15 November 1975, the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party issued a decree entitled ‘Measures to increase the fight against harmful traditions and customs’ (Gerber 1997: 261) . This denounced large banquets associated with important events such as births, marriages or deaths as public displays of traditional attitudes, irrational lavishness and asocial accumulation of wealth.
In the chaotic, post-Soviet 1990s, when many Georgian citizens became impoverished, the supra remained a primary venue of dealing with (or compensating for) social and economic problems. Following the Rose Revolution of 2003 and the coming of power of Mikheil Saakashvili, however, the supra became associated with Soviet mentality and waste of time (Mühlfried 2014) . Once again, toasts became associated with ‘harmful customs.’ In today’s independent Georgia, the suprais a less common phenomenon than during the preceding decades, especially in the towns and cities. Even so, the supra remains for many people an essential means of dealing with social shortcomings (this time mostly emotional in nature), as it provides a counterpoint to the logics of neoliberal time-management, body politics and sociability (Curro 2017) . In diasporic circles, the art of toasting and feasting in the Georgian way continues to act as a major signifier of belonging to the Georgian nation.
Note: Parts of this text were published in Mühlfried, F. 2005. ‘Banquets, Grant-Eaters, and the Red Intelligentsia in Post-Soviet Georgia,’ Central Eurasian Studies Review 4(1): 16-9, and in Mühlfried, F. 2007. ‘Celebrating Identities in Post-Soviet Georgia’ in Darieva, Ts. and Kaschuba, W. (eds), Remaking Identities on the Margins of New Europe. Frankfurt and New York: Campus: 282-300
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