For the last nine years, pastoral Azerbaijani nomads in southern Georgia have celebrated their traditions with the annual Elat feast. Since last year, they say that the government has been cracking down on their small celebration — forcing them to make it ‘more Georgian’.
Elat, is a celebration of Terekeme — a nomadic Azerbaijani people — culture held exclusively near the village of Armudlu, officially known by its Georgian name Pantiani, in southern Georgia’s Dmanisi Municipality. The holiday, held on 26 July, coincides with the time the nomads return from the mountains back down to the plateau for winter.
Zaur Mammadov, who is currently grazing his cattle on the plateau, says that all the cattle breeders will come down for the celebration. He has joined the annual Elat horse racing event for many years.
‘I have 300 heads of cattle; this is my livelihood. For three months of the year we go to the mountains. Cattle feed well there in cool weather. We have both dairy cattle and pedigree cattle — that is for meat. From the middle of May we go to the mountains. But by the end of July we come back to be on the plateau for the Elat feast. The day is very interesting, I ride a horse, my brother and cousins wrestle… We reconnect with ourselves and our culture on this day. We remember each of our traditions which we have forgotten; we teach them to our children’, Mammadov told OC Media.
It’s not only cattle ranchers that go to the mountains in Dmanisi. Beekeepers also spend the summer season in the mountains, because specific flowers grow in these high, cool places.
Ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Georgia say that the Elat feast is a unique celebration in that it is the only only celebration celebrated by Azerbaijanis in Georgia alone, with their traditions exclusively on display. Tents are set up, national dishes are prepared, young people ride horses, young girls play national music in national costumes, they dance, women make bread, and the elderly talk to the young about their traditions.
Ethnic Azerbaijani Abbas Sahabov says that the Georgian government is preventing them from enjoying what he says is an extremely valuable holiday for them. For the last two years, the government has interfered, not allowing them celebrate in the way they wish to.
‘Is there some political goal or what? I cannot say, but our people have been humiliated. They did not allow us to celebrate the feast last year either. Rather, we were ordered to celebrate the holiday under a Georgian name, and the feast was named Dmanisoba — there was Georgian songs and music. The Turkic spirit can no longer be that felt during the holiday’, Sahabov laments.
Zalimkhan Mammadli, chair of the Borchali Society — an Azerbaijani rights group active in Azerbaijan and Georgia — and founder of the Elat feast says that the head of Dmanisi Municipality even prevented the society from flying their own flag or displaying their logo during celebrations last year.
‘When we celebrate this holiday we always get official permission from the municipal head and executive authorities — every time — so we didn’t violate any laws. But they claim that we have made some threatening, dissatisfied speeches’, Mammadli says.
He says that there were plans to celebrate the holiday in nine municipalities in Georgia, and as a result, the Georgian government worried about its geographical expansion.
Activist and sociologist Samira Bayramova says that the Elat feast is very important for Georgian Azerbaijanis.
‘This is a feast that exhibits traditions from old generations. The most important thing here is that all kinds of Turkic people gather, helping with our social cohesion. Ethnic Azerbaijanis have been working for years to celebrate this holiday. This is the only common holiday for ethnic Azerbaijanis alone. If there is such a ban, this represents unequivocal discrimination against an ethnic minority’, Bayramova says.
No sign of Elat
Alibala Asgarov, Chair of the Honour People’s Movement — a local Azerbaijani rights group — says that there are many types of discrimination practised against ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia. The ban on this holiday takes away the right to remember and celebrate the unity of Georgian Azerbaijanis and their Turkic history and traditions, he says.
‘The name Elat was changed and renamed Dmanisoba. The last two years the head of Dmanisi ordered us to celebrate a holiday of this kind, and there is no sign of Elat any more’, Asgarov told OC Media.
‘Many Turkic-speaking people from Turkey, Iran, and other countries came to take part in the feast because they wanted to attend a Turkic holiday. What’s going on? What are they doing to this holiday?! The Georgian government was afraid of the unity of Turks. Now they made a fake excuse about a lack of space and decided that Elat would be abolished’, he continues.
‘There is no political problem’
Head of Dmanisi Municipality Gogi Barbakadze, who is responsible for approving (or prohibiting) such celebrations, denied that there was a problem.
‘It cannot be said that the Elat festival was banned. We have just changed the format of the holiday as a government. At present, it is not just a feast for Azerbaijanis but is also celebrated as a holiday of national friendship. There is no political problem’, Barbakadze told OC Media.
Zaur Mammadov, who is very eager to celebrate Elat, says that he hopes this year will be the real thing. He will ride his chestnut horse and show that there are many brave men in Armudlu.