People tell us that conditions in Georgia are nothing compared to a couple of years ago, during the civil war and the gangster heyday that followed it. But in Tbilisi in the 1990s, any 10-block walk downtown is likely to take you past at least one young man in a suit jacket and open shirt with an AK-47 dangling casually from one hand. I’m used to uniformed American security guards with pistols; in a store in Tbilisi with expensive goods (jewelry or Chanel perfume, say), the guard is usually a young man in ordinary clothes, sitting by the door, reading a newspaper with a submachine gun across his lap. It’s the kind of thing best observed out of the corner of your eye, and after a while I teach myself not to register surprise or even turn my head when I see a gun on the street –– even when, on one occasion, a car pulls up sharply to the curb next to me and four guys in the regulation dark-suit-but-no-tie jump out, all carrying Kalashnikovs, and run past me across the sidewalk into an apartment building. Other passersby keep moving, and so do I.
Tbilisi in August is muggy even with the windows wide open, and the drawback to having the windows open is the noise. My room looks out directly on the street at ground level. During the day, passersby on the sidewalk can glance straight in, and people who know us often stop and chat through the bars. The only entrance to the building is from the courtyard in back, and, besides being out of their way, that would constitute a formal visit. Since telephones are so unreliable, many people just pull up in the street in front of our building, leaving other cars to weave around them, and shout to get the attention of their friends.
“Acho!” a man standing ten feet from me with his car door ajar hollers up at the fourth floor through cupped hands. No response from Acho; whoever he is, he seems to be very popular at all hours of day and night with a set of people who can’t bring themselves to climb the stairs to his apartment. “Acho!” Long pause. Suspended, I wait for Acho to answer. The friend tries again. “Acho!”
“Gesundheit already!” I hear Carl mutter from his window next to mine. The visitor gives up and drives away.
But the worst of all noises from the street is the dogs. In the collapse of the Georgian economy, families who are having trouble feeding themselves –– and families like our landlords who leave for Moscow or Munich or some other place with jobs that pay real money –– abandon their pets on the street. The strays roam in packs, eating garbage. They mate and multiply, producing revolting, horror-movie mixtures: a poodle crossed with a mastiff, a sheepdog crossed with a terrier.
By day the dogs claim the sunny side of the street to bask in, and cautious pedestrians cross to the shady side to avoid them. By night the dogs carry on a war –– a war taking place on two levels simultaneously: pack against pack and dog against dog. Each pack roams the streets that bound its territory, hoping to meet a rival pack and destroy it or push it back a street. Neighborhood garbage dumps are territorial prizes; our dump is straight across the street from our windows. At the same time, each dog, every hour of every night, fights his fellows for higher status within the pack. I try to think of the process as merely the loud but unavoidable entrance of the post-Soviet dog into the global economy.
To someone lying in bed with a window opening onto the street, though, the resulting sound –– the sound of portable, perpetual dog revolution –– resembles an Act of God: a distant murmur, like surf, when the pack is a few blocks away; then a gradual crescendo to a rolling, never-ending snarl from a dozen throats; then the panting, yelps, and clicking toenails of the outriders; then the maelstrom itself, when you feel as though you can hear their very saliva as it swings from their snapping, snarling jaws, when –– if you are so unlucky as to have slept through the overture –– you awake from a dream of dogs, dogs with bodies by Dr. Moreau, their black throats open, pouring through the barred window and onto your bed; after a few seconds the pack is past, followed by the whimpers and toenails of the lame ones trying to catch up; gradually the roar recedes to a soothing murmur, and you drop back to sleep –– until they come back the other way.
My wife, Marie, has come to visit me for three weeks, partly for my company and partly to find out what it is about Georgia in post-Soviet collapse that would make me want to spend five months of my life there. In answer to my last-minute e-mail plea, Marie has brought earplugs from America for all of us. But it’s her first night here, and she hasn’t completely unpacked yet. It’s hot, we’re excited, she’s in the wrong time zone, and the bed is too narrow, so at 3:30 in the morning Marie and I are still awake, listening to the sounds of the street. A few dogs have gone by, but nothing unusual. Then we hear a truck growling slowly up our steep street in low gear, and over the sound of the engine we hear a dry, discreet, tac… tac, tac, and dogs screaming. It’s the sound you hear when you step on a dog’s paw, only angrier. Marie and I sit up in bed but feel no great urge to look outside.
The truck makes a ponderous K-turn and comes to rest a few feet away, facing downhill. Since I haven’t heard any shooting for a couple of minutes, I get up to take a peek out the window. It’s a flatbed militia truck. Furry bodies are piled several deep on the bed. A militiaman with a silencer-tipped submachine gun climbs out of the cab and stands by the open door, smoking. When he’s done he looks around, then climbs back in. The truck drives away, the bodies in back shifting and rolling as it turns the first corner. The street is very quiet.
The nighttime dog-killing squad that in our house we have dubbed the Inhumane Society seems to have a soft spot: they spare the cute ones. By dark of night, however, the cute ones are just as loud as –– and no cuter than –– the sports of nature. In addition, not even a machine gun fired into a scrambling pack of dogs is sure to get them all. Over the next few weeks the survivors regroup. Though fewer in number, they seem proportionally louder than before. I speculate that what we’re hearing now is the sound of decimated packs disbanding and new packs forming, with all the boundaries to be redrawn, as well as leaderless packs forming new governments, with consequent unforeseen opportunities for advancement for an ambitious dog willing to fight all night. Whatever the reasons, even with earplugs I lie awake, praying for the return of law and order and the Inhumane Society.
About a week after Marie has left, I lurch awake at six a.m. when a pistol goes off a few feet from my head, immediately followed by a single agonized dog scream. Someone else has apparently been lying awake with the same dark thoughts, and he has run out of patience and taken steps. I hear four or five more shots, irregularly spaced, while the screaming continues but gets further away. This freelance shooter has such bad aim that he has emptied his gun without being able to finish off one miserable dog. I lie rigid in bed, staring at the ceiling. I hear the sound of a squeaky spring as the vigilante ejects the last spent shell, right outside my window. I hear him walk away. Waiting for a decent interval before getting up to look outside, I fall back asleep instead.
When I look out later in the morning, I see nothing out of the ordinary. The puppy who has a daytime claim on our stretch of the street –– one of the cutest of the cute –– is alive and well and, as usual, following passersby in the hope that someone will take him home: up the street at the heels of a granny who gives him something to eat before shooing him away, then back down the street with a child who laughs at first and then shouts and runs when he gets too close.
I develop an ear for pistols in the night. In the same week, I am again woken by shots around dawn. This time they are not under my window, but I would guess less than a block away. Four pistol shots, spaced very regularly over about two seconds: bang, bang, bang, bang. Then the sound of a car starting up and speeding away. I lie awake, listening for the inevitable commotion: screaming, shouting, wailing, running. All I hear is the barking of a few dogs woken up by the shots.
It sounds to me like a mob slaying, but what do I know about mob slayings except what I’ve seen in movies? Still, my small acquaintance with gangsters –– and it’s impossible to go for long in Georgia, indeed even to get on a plane headed to Georgia, without meeting gangsters –– suggests that they know the same movies I do and have watched them more carefully than I have. Georgian gangsters look to The Godfather and Scarface for tips on how to dress, how to walk, how to hold a cigarette, what to order in a restaurant –– so why not for guidance on the stylish way to take somebody down?
In the morning during my Georgian lesson I start to tell Ivdit about the incident. “No, no, tell me in Georgian.” I start over again, in Georgian. For a beginning language student I am remarkably well supplied with vocabulary for guns, shooting, and death. (In the words of one of my first translation exercises, Father let me shoot first). At the end Ivdit shakes her head sadly. “Bad men. Ay, Georgia!”
During the three weeks Marie is here, we make an effort to see something outside Tbilisi. Our friend Maia helps us organize an overnight trip to Vardzia, the ruin of a monastic complex of caves carved out of a cliff in southwestern Georgia in the twelfth century. To get there we borrow a van from our friend Marina. Along with the van she supplies a driver and a bodyguard. We pay Abo the driver and Beso the bodyguard, in dollars, and out of that money they pay for gas.
Beso is Marina’s boyfriend. For our much better-paying trip he is taking a couple of days off his regular job as a secret service agent: he works as one of Eduard Shevardnadze’s personal bodyguards, on the early morning shift. (He was at home the evening of the recent car bomb that grazed Shevardnadze, but Maia teases him about it anyway.) Off duty, Beso wears a nice but casual knit shirt, cool secret-agent mirrored shades, and a pistol tucked into the waist of his pants. In the front of the van next to Abo, he rides shotgun, feet on the dashboard, cleaning his pistol.
Before we leave, we Americans are a little skeptical of the need for a bodyguard on a five-hour trip by daylight on main roads, and inclined to suspect that Marina, who is coming with us, just wants Beso along for company. But Marina and Maia (who also is coming along, for fun and to translate, since none of the other Georgians speaks English) are adamant that venturing out of Tbilisi without an armed guard means delivering yourself into the hands of highwaymen.
In the end we meet no highwaymen, but Beso still earns his pay many times over. We are stopped repeatedly at police roadblocks. Normally that would mean a long delay while the police shuffle through papers. Even if the driver’s papers are in order (and who decides what “order” means?), an officer angling for a bribe to make ends meet doesn’t have to look very hard to find some kind of vehicle violation: the windshield of Marina’s van, for example, is so badly shattered that I keep waiting for it to drop into Abo’s lap.
But neither the decrepitude of the van nor the state of Abo’s papers turns out to be a problem for us. When we are pulled over, Abo stays put while Beso hops out and flashes his secret service ID. The traffic police either snap him a crisp salute or grin and slap him on the shoulder if they know him. Either way, we’re rolling again within a minute. Maia, who likes Beso but not the people he works for, says that he is essentially KGB, no matter what you call it, and that the KGB runs Georgia, using Shevardnadze as its instrument. She says it to his face, and Beso just smiles. Whether or not it’s true, as long as the traffic police believe it, it works for us.
We stop for the night in the village where Marina’s sister Madona lives with her husband and half a dozen daughters. Telephone and postal service being what they are (or rather, are not), the first inkling Madona gets that she is about to put eight people up overnight is when Abo honks his horn in the courtyard an hour or so before dinner. Without running water, which as usual is off most of the day, Madona and the girls throw together a feast. Then our hosts give us their own beds for the night and melt away, presumably to stay with neighbors.
Marie and I get the master bedroom, which opens onto the dining room, where Abo is sprawled on the couch. Beso gets a bed on the glassed-in porch visible through the dining room windows. In the morning, woken by pigs grunting in the alley below, Marie and I get up and come quietly out to the dining room, trying not wake Abo, who drank a great deal the night before; but he is already up and gone. Through the windows to the porch we are just in time to see Beso, who slept in his clothes, roll off his bed and head for the bathroom.
A few moments later, our hostess Madona appears on the porch looking for Beso. Seeing that he has gone, she begins to turn away, but her eye falls on Beso’s pistol, lying on his bed. There are small children in the house, so Madona picks up the pistol and, holding it gingerly between two fingers, hurries away, calling for Beso. All this we have seen through the dining room windows, but Madona, on the sunlit porch, has not noticed us in the relatively dark dining room.
Now Madona passes the open door into the dining room and spots Marie and me. The pistol is at that moment hidden by her body. She can’t ignore her foreign guests, who are standing in the middle of the dining room looking confused; on the other hand, to greet one’s company brandishing a pistol doesn’t seem like quite the right tone to strike, especially first thing in the morning. Without a moment’s hesitation, Madona smiles brightly and comes in to greet us, gracefully holding the pistol out of sight behind her. She keeps one hand behind her back throughout the conversation.
“Good morning!” she says cheerfully in Georgian. “How did you sleep?”
“Very well –– it’s so quiet here.” I’m trying not to laugh and not to stare at her hidden left arm.
“Well, it’s just a little village, you know, not Tbilisi.” (Indeed, if anything could have kept me awake after the amount of Stalin-brand vodka I drank, it would have been the eerie absence of dog noise in the night.)
Madona coolly tidies a dishtowel off the table with her free hand. “Breakfast will be ready soon at my cousin’s apartment downstairs. You can go down there now.”
While she says this, she retreats with great composure to the doorway. There she turns, so that her back is against the door, her pistol-packing hand still held behind her. With a smile she beckons us to precede her into the hall. As I pass her and go downstairs, I have the feeling that we have just witnessed some kind of apotheosis of gracious hospitality. When I see the pistol again, at breakfast, it is safely tucked back in Beso’s waistband.
Stuart Gelzer grew up in West Africa and India and wanted to be an archeologist. Instead he’s been a screenwriter, a film editor (check out his work in the indie Fallout), and a high school drama teacher staging weird dark plays, but these days he’s mostly writing novels. Through all those years and careers he’s also been a singer specializing in folk music from the Republic of Georgia, and he’s got some stories. “Guns and Dogs” comes from a memoir in progress, about music and adventure in post-Soviet Georgia. Another excerpt, “Song Collectors,” appeared in the July edition of Hippocampus.