TBILISI, Georgia—On a day when some 70 Iranians protested outside the Iranian Embassy here against the killing of General Qasem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike, other Iranian journalists, dissidents, digital nomads, diplomats, and teachers mingled until dawn with Americans at Tbilisi’s Dive Bar.
Sahar, Dive Bar’s manager, is an Iranian artist. Across the walnut bar mounted on illuminated glass blocks, she gazes at the room with an ironic smile. Addressing the recent tensions between our countries, she says, “Fine, let there be war. At least it will get rid of our crazy government!”
On nights like these, Tbilisi feels like Casablanca for hipsters—émigrés torn between two worlds, who wait, “and wait … and wait … and wait.” The difference is that everyone isn’t trying to get out. They are trying to stay.
This hole-in-the-wall is not as exclusively a pro-Western land as some Georgia-watchers might have you believe. Indeed, few countries outmatch Georgia in its ability to balance opposing foreign powers. At the moment those opposing powers are Washington and Tehran, as well as Brussels and Moscow.
Tbilisi feels like Casablanca for hipsters—émigrés torn between two worlds.
Georgia’s entire existence has been defined by a diplomatic balancing act, caught between various empires. Georgian survival has been a result of its innate ability to charm its enemies over a supra (or “feast”) instead of a battlefield. Georgian culture thrives off of this geopolitical dissonance by welcoming would-be invaders as guests. Call it “tactical hospitality.”
Not that Georgians have much of a choice, but the key to this small, Christian, democratic country’s survival has been to offer a culture more appealing than, and equally adaptive to, that of its visitors and conquerors.
“On the seventh day, God looks at the Georgians and says, ‘Oh, no, I forgot about your land,’” goes a popular Georgian toast. “‘It’s O.K.,’ God says. ‘I’ll give you mine.’”
Like a cultural Rorschach test, this ancient land of absurdities has a way of being everything to everyone—from Stalinists (he was unfortunately born here) to libertarians. Iranians come to Tbilisi to find the West, and Israelis come here to escape it. Somehow the local hipster joints offer both options.
Looking for tradition? Go to a Georgian supra, where often only men are allowed at the table for toasts choreographed by a mustachioed tamada (“toastmaster”), who issues drinking orders like a dining-room dictator.
If it is the West you are looking for, this deregulated Utopia is trying to join both NATO and the E.U.
Iranians come to Tbilisi to find the West, and Israelis come here to escape it.
Roughly 600,000 Iranians visited Georgia in 2017 and 2018 combined, a boon for a country that relies more each year on tourism. According to Forbes Georgia, visitors from Iran spend more money per average visit to Georgia than they do in any other countries except the U.A.E., Israel, and Germany. Officially, Iranians can visit Georgia without a visa, though in the past year this has become difficult. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Radio Farda recently reported that 3,000 Iranians were turned away in the first half of 2019.
In December 2018, Iran’s foreign ministry frantically advised Iranian nationals not to visit Georgia, citing the “inappropriate treatment of Iranian tourists,” after reports that several Iranian women were forced to remove their headscarves at a security check.
Some interpret Georgia’s pushback against Iranian visitors as a result of Washington’s pressure on Tbilisi. Yet for the Iranians who choose to stay, Georgia’s freedoms, both financial and cultural, outweigh the Georgian government’s problematic immigration policy. The numerous Iranians who assimilate into Georgia each year are testament to that appeal.
Americans and Iranians check their geopolitical conflicts at the doors of Tbilisi’s many expat bars and fine restaurants. Here, on common ground, over bitter I.P.A.’s, sweet Georgian wine, backgammon boards, and beer-pong tables—listening to American hip-hop and South American bossa nova—we marvel at how determined our governments are to go to war.
“I left Iran when I was 33,” Sahar at Dive Bar tells me. “That may sound late. But for getting out of Islamist dictatorship, it’s never too late.”
As U.S.-Iranian aggression escalates in our respective countries, so do our friendships. At times like these, empathy may very well be Georgia’s greatest resource.
Americans and Iranians check their geopolitical conflicts at the doors of Tbilisi’s many expat bars and fine restaurants.
Here, young visitors from both countries can be found at places like Woland’s Speakeasy, co-owned by an Iranian, and the Dive Bar, American-owned and Iranian-managed. (Full disclosure: this correspondent is a 5 percent owner.)
Even as diplomatic (or lack thereof) relations plummet, Americans and Iranians swap stories instead of slights and hash it out over cheap draft beers instead of geopolitical cheap shots.
Iranian rapper Justina (@justinaofficialll) offers a frequent window into her life in Georgia to her 208,000 Instagram followers.
“I like it here,” she says, referring to Georgia. “But I was forced to live here. Because I’m a female singer and in Iran, singing for females is forbidden. The security police arrested me at my home because of [my] singing.”
Nearby, at the Uruguayan-owned LPM Bar, the young Iranian comedian Mo Salimoghli delivers a one-on-one stand-up routine just for me: “Hi, I’m Mo. I’m from Iran. Not all of us are religious fanatics. Most of all, not all of us are terrorists. Anyway, I’m here to represent my country, my people, my family, so I’m gonna try my best not to bomb tonight.” (Ba-da-bum.)
Georgia may be a geopolitical refuge, but it is not neutral territory. Few places are, after the killing of Soleimani. In a tweet, Georgia’s minister of foreign affairs, David Zalkaliani, condemned a “provocative attack to the US Embassy in Baghdad,” saying that the United States has “the legitimate right to defend its citizens.”
Meanwhile, next door in Armenia, which shares a border with Iran, the foreign ministry offered its condolences for Soleimani’s death and called the strike a “threat to peace in the region.” Azerbaijan also offered condolences.
“The struggle [between Washington and Tehran] is not between two countries but between two ideologies,” one Iranian man tells me. “If we face any problem and go to our embassy for support, they will ask us, ‘Why did you leave the Islamic heaven we made for you?’ Iranian expats are neither welcome inside nor outside.” He wants to convey that no matter how much Iranians criticize their own government when living abroad, they are punished for the actions of Iran.
“Why did you leave the Islamic heaven we made for you?”
Indeed, the same is true for Americans in the age of Trump, just as it was in the age of Bush, though the consequences for Americans are usually far less. Georgia, meanwhile, is facing the age of Putin, as Kremlin cronies slowly consume the country mile by mile, driving South Ossetia’s boundary line ever onward into Georgian territory.
Twenty percent of Georgia is already occupied by Russia. Putin knows that logistically he could take the country in a matter of hours. What the Kremlin does not know is how Trump would respond. Democracy in this small Caucasian country is hanging by a tweet.
It is easy to see why Putin both covets this cosmopolitan escape and fears it so. Despite the unwelcome guests from the north, one can only hope that Georgia will leave its doors open.
Tonight, all over Tbilisi, a question hangs in the air above the tequila howls, the vapors of vapes, the combustion of tobacco, and the wafts of marijuana (which is now legal in Georgia to smoke but not to buy). Onward, the contradictions abound as the fog machines fill the dance clubs and ravers dance until Monday morning, even on Tuesday night.
Will Cathcart is a journalist and editor based in Tbilisi