Tbilisi’s Armenian “Azeri Teahouse”

Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Walking through Tbilisi’s Old Town, it seemed only natural to pop in to my favorite teahouse in Tbilisi. Run by ethnic Armenians from Azerbaijan, I’ve taken countless Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists to the chaikhana and with good reason — it’s a breath of fresh air in the conflict-riven South Caucasus. Alas, when I got there it was already dark so the light was only artificial and less than perfect, but anyway, some photos from tonight.

Cafe Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia  © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Cafe Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia  © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Margarita Petrosian, Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Incidentally, special thanks to Azerbaijani journalist Seymur Kazimov for his article, Tea and Memories in the Caucasus, published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Without it, I and many others would probably have never found out about the teahouse.

Margarita, 55, and Alexei Petrosian, 63, decided to open the café five years ago, looking for a way to make money from their house after Alexei became ill. They filled what had been their bedroom with tables, and now sell tea for 1.50 lari (about 90 US cents) a cup. It costs two laris if you want lemon too.

Margarita comes from the Azerbaijani town of Ganja, which had a sizeable Armenian population until the war started in Nagorny Karabakh in 1988. She is nostalgic for the age before the fighting when Azeris and Armenians ate each others’ food, enjoyed each others’ holidays and spoke each others’ languages. Her mother-in-law was Azeri, and Margarita still enjoys serving food the way her husband’s mother taught her.

“She came from the Agabekov clan. Apart from making tea, my mother-in-law taught me how to cook Azeri dishes,” Margarita said.

[…]

There used to be an Azerbaijani flag on the wall of the café, but Alexei said one of the customers asked if he could have it. He said the Azeris and the Armenians here in the old town live together well, and do not mimic the problems surrounding Karabakh, which the ethnic Armenian rulers have proclaimed to be an independent state.

“In our café, we speak about everything except politics. Here we do not divide people up into nationalities,” Alexei said.

Customers say the easy atmosphere reminds them of Soviet times, when the whole South Caucasus was ruled from Moscow and everyone was a citizen of the same state. When they learned that this correspondent had come from Azerbaijan, they were careful to say that the war had made no difference to their friendships.

Albert Musaelian, for example, is a regular customer. He is an Armenian, but he loves Azeri poetry and music and has even written songs in the traditional Azeri folk style.

“This tea-house unites us,” he said, as he sat at a table with Azeri friends.

Margarita said that all the café’s customers enjoy each others’ national or religious holiday.

[…]

Her dream would be to go back to her home in Ganja and see her Azeri relatives who stayed behind when the Armenians fled, but there is little prospect of that.

Her neighbour, an Azeri woman called Fatmanisa, nodded her head.

“Here in Tbilisi, we share our happiness and our sadness. We always support each other,” she said.

It’s a great article and an important one too. Seymur has my respect.

Cafe Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Cafe Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

At the end of 2009 I took Radio Free Europe’s Vusala Alibayli to the teahouse, as well as another in Marneuli, to record a podcast for my Caucasus Conflict Voices project then in a publishing collaboration with Transitions Online.

Margarita grew up in Tbilisi, but she was born in Ganja, formerly Kirovabad, in Azerbaijan, during a family visit to relatives there. All her family has since left Ganja, and she can no longer visit because of her Armenian surname. But she recalls her native city fondly whenever she sees it listed on her Georgian ID card.

PETROSYAN: I loved Ganja, and I love it now. I love it very much!

Mahammad Hasan Xiyabani is a regular at Margarita’s teahouse. After a long day at work me makes his way here to have a drink and relax. Xiyabani is 45 and an ethnic Azeri from Tabriz, in Iran. He goes to Iran to visit his family three or four times in a year. He misses them very much, he says, but the teahouse helps ease his loneliness. Here he can meet with Azeris and feel like he is home.

XIYABANI: There is no chance for Azeris and Armenians to be together – not in Azerbaijan, nor in Armenia. But here they are living as they like – friendly. No one says anything like, “Don’t go there, that’s an Armenian teahouse!” That’s definitely not the case.

[…]

Avonik Miskaryan, 39, sells fruits and vegetables at the Marneuli bazaar. An Armenian, she conducts business in both Azerbaijani and her native language. She is surprised to be asked where and how she learned Azerbaijani.

MISKARYAN: How can we not learn this language? Our neighbors are Azeri. And we use this language to communicate with each other in the bazaar.

While relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been tense since the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1993, Miskaryan says that in Marneuli Azeris and Armenians get along the same as they always have. The same appeared to hold in the teahouses here and in Tbilisi. Everywhere we went, questions about the relationship among ethnic groups were met with puzzlement and surprise.

You can listen to Vusala’s podcast below:

Incidentally, around the corner is another teahouse, but this time owned by an ethnic Azeri with an ethnic Armenian waitress serving customers. Both teahouses are definitely well worth a visit, but it’s this one that stands out the most for me. You can find it half way up Grishashvili Street near the Turkish Baths in Old Tbilisi.

Cafe Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Alexei Petrosian, Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

Alexei Petrosian, Chaikhana, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2013

1 Comment Add Yours

  1. Arty Om

    Armenians from Azerbaijan are big tea lovers!! 🙂

    Reply

Leave a comment