The Muteli Monologues: feminism and activism converge in Georgian theatre

The first complete Georgian-language production of Eve Ensler's feminist performance piece <em>The Vagina Monologues</em> caused substantial controversy. Tara Isabella Burton meets two of the women behind it.

Lika Barabadze and Sonya Tamazovna do not look like revolutionaries. They are petite, soft-spoken, dressed in tank tops and jeans. Throughout our hour-long interview, they giggle about inside jokes; they spar back and forth, jokingly correcting one another's memories. When they talk about the men who tried to “beat us up”, who “were coming at us”, who “wanted to kill us,” they do so with awkward laughs, exasperated eye-rolls. From the casual tone of their voices, they might well be complaining about a difficult colleague, an intractable boss.

But when Lika and Sonya, along with around twenty volunteer actresses, performed the first complete Georgian-language production of Eve Ensler's feminist performance piece The Vagina Monologues at Tbilisi's Shota Rustaveli Film and Theatre University on 26 June, the controversy they attracted was anything but prosaic. Admission to the play, organised by LGBT rights organisation Identoba, was by invitation only – a necessary security measure in a country where feminist and LGBT rights activists are routinely subjected to violence (even the play's director refused to make her identity public out of fear for her safety). Yet a few male students from the Theatre University found their way in.

They began by laughing, Lika and Sonya recall, giggling at words like “clitoris” and “orgasm”. But after one particularly incendiary monologue – in which audience members are encouraged to shout a particularly taboo word for the female anatomy – the hecklers grew angry. “They called us rude, dirty,” Sonya recalls, demanding to know, “how dare [we] say such filthy words on a stage where actors regularly portray Georgian saints.” They were escorted out of the theatre, but not before the lighting technician had left “in protest”: over the play's frank discussion of sex.

“The day before, [in rehearsals], he was fine,” Lika sighs. “But when he heard that people didn't like it, he left. It's a classic case of conformity.”

The show continued, but the atmosphere was tense. “Some of my friends were so scared,” Lika recalls, “They were all thinking – what if these three guys go and come back with a crowd to beat us up?” Such a situation was far from unlikely; one month earlier, on 17 May, 50 non-violent anti-homophobia protesters on Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue – Lika and Sonya included – attracted a counter-rally of 20,000 self-identified Georgian conservatives, led in large part by Tbilisi's Orthodox priests. “You never know if someone's going to come after you and say, “I saw your picture in an article [about the protest] and beat you up,” Sonya says. The play was originally scheduled for May, but was postponed to avoid inciting additional violence.

The hecklers did not corral their friends, but they did return, accosting one older actress and demanding to know if she'd received the patriarch's blessing to perform such “filth”, accusing her of being a Jehovah's Witness, and therefore in league with Satan (in Georgia, Lika explains, Jehovah's Witnesses are popularly associated with the Anti-Christ). “They were aggressively going towards her...they wanted to hit her,” Sonya remembers. Eventually, the actresses had to barricade themselves inside the dressing room to fend off the hecklers, who insisted that such “shameless” women had no right to preserve their modesty out of sight of men. “They wouldn't let us out.” The police were eventually called.

Yet, in spite of – or even because of – the commotion it caused, Lika and Sonya alike argue that the performance represented a vital method of protest in a society all too often dominated by misogyny and homophobia: twinned and often indiscriminate prejudices that have in turn led to a firm alliance between Georgian feminists, the gay community and their allies. The Vagina Monologues is, Lika notes, about “straight women, gay women, any kind of woman”, yet, in the eyes of many Georgians, it was seen as promoting wantonness, homosexuality, and a whole host of sins against the Georgian national identity. “LGBT member, feminist, activist, supporter, human-rights activist – [Many Georgians] don't care. They don't know the difference. They think [we're]  all just as bad,” says Lika.

Yet, Lika feels, the performance's greatest success was in demonstrating to an ardent, if small, group of Georgian feminists and LGBT rights supporters, that they were not alone.  “[Yes,] we are preaching to the choir, but those people were really encouraged to see someone doing that. Yes, they're [already] feminists, but they need support too. They're tired of fighting and yelling and demonstrating all the time. Sometimes they want to see something that confirms their beliefs, and feel that they are not alone – those five or ten girls in the world – that something is being done in Georgia that they can believe in, [which] gives them some hope.”

Such hope, Sonya and Lika agree, is more necessary than ever after the violence of the 17 May riots, which stands out in their memory as a watershed moment in the history of Georgian activism. Police were simultaneously ordered to “make sure nobody [got harmed]” and to ensure that “the rally didn't take place” - as Lika puts it, “to avoid upsetting the international community [while] avoiding making all of Georgia angry.” What resulted was a mass mob attack that resulted in no deaths, but which effectively ended any possibility of civilized discourse about homophobia in Georgia.

As Sonya and Lika remember 17 May, their tone grows darker. “I was under the impression that [the situation] was getting better before 17 May,” says Lika. “Then all my illusions were shattered.” She'd hoped that Georgia had been undergoing a gradual change in recent years, as the country as a whole sought to cast itself as Europe's eastern frontier: “In the beginning you have to fight for survival, for recognition of your right to be alive. Many people in Georgia have accepted that. I think we're on the second stage, where people are fighting not for their existence but for their happiness. Our demands are now – you should let me live a full life, rather than 'you should not stone me.' But after 17 May, I think we've regressed.”

Yet, Sonya suggests, the controversy caused by the 17 May riots and by the The Vagina Monologues forces a discussion about homosexuality and its relationship to concepts of “Georgianness” that all too often goes unspoken in Georgian society. “[At least] people saw that there is a community, that it's not a made-up fact,” Sonya says. “[People] usually say that “there are no gay Georgians”, that these gay people are imported from foreign countries (“Western countries,” Lika clarifies), “or are under foreign influence. Now they have to face the fact that they really do exist.”

Lika agrees. “I know that many people have a very hard time with reconciling their national identity with their sexual identity after 17 May. If you're gay, [it seems] you're not Georgian. Several of my gay friends complained – I don't know who I am anymore.”

It is for this reason, Lika says, that the act of translating The Vagina Monologues into Georgian felt particularly transgressive. Several of the actors, who worked together to translate their monologues, found it unsettling to translate particular words into Georgian; one monologue, dealing with orgasms, initially found no willing takers. “It's different when you hear it in Georgian,” says Lika. Educated in America, she is perfectly comfortably swearing liberally in English – she reels off a laundry list of colloquial terms for female genitalia – but found that to speak about similar topics in Georgian was to encounter a “mental block”. “I associated it with swearing,” Lika says, “with men in the street who swear by their mothers' vaginas. After performing, I finally felt comfortable saying the word vagina [in Georgian] in public. It was one thing to break taboos in English; it was quite another to practice transgression in her native tongue: to reconcile her Georgian identity with her identity as a heterosexual ally to the LGBT movement.

Valuable, too, Lika notes, was the degree to which performing in the all-female Vagina Monologues allowed the actresses involved to challenge Georgian conceptions of patriarchy and female visibility. While many Georgian conservatives equate feminism and homosexuality as products of insiduous, so-called Western, influence – threats to Georgian nationalism – Lika argues that all too often misogynistic attitudes find their way into the country's LGBT politics. On both the pro- and anti-gay-rights sides, she says, the discussion constantly focuses on gay men: because women are rarely seen as sexual agents (and, indeed, are expected to be virgins before marriage), they are almost invisible in the discussion. Such invisibility can be useful – says Lika,  “it's easier for a girl to hide her sexual preferences, because less is expected of her.” – but it comes at a cost: the issues of gay and straight women alike become subordinate to those of gay men.

After the 17 May protests, Lika says, several male Identoba members used Georgia's nineteenth-century kinto culture among Tbilisi tradesmen, in which homosexuality was perceived as common enough for Russians to refer to it as the “Caucasian sickness"1 to argue for the possibility of reconciling Georgian identity and homosexual orientation. The best case for tolerance of homosexuality, it seemed, was to argue for its fundamental, historic, Georgianness. “My lesbian friends got so mad,” Lika says, “like – we don't exist anywhere on the map? Not in the nineteenth century? Not even now?”

The Vagina Monologues, it seems, allowed for a twofold breaking of taboos, an attack on the “double discrimination” that faces LGBT-allied women in Georgia – at once challenging conservative Georgian ideas about the “foreignness” of feminism and homosexuality alike, and addressing the more insidious problem of female silence still prevalent within the Georgian LGBT-community.

As we wrap up our interview, I ask Lika and Sonia about the Georgian word that so incensed the hecklers. They laugh, half-embarrassed, before teaching me the word muteli. “Don't call your article that,” Lika says. “You'll get a lot of angry emails from Georgians.”

The Vagina Monologues was performed for a second time at the State Medical University on 23 July 2013. The performance went off without incident.

_______________________

cf. Paul Manning and Zaza Shatirishvili, “The Exoticism and Eroticism of the City: the “Kinto and His City”, in Urban Spaces After Social: Ethnographies of public Places in Eurasian Cities, ed. Sypylma Darieva et al, Campus Verlag 2011

 

Sonya Tamazovna, Lika Barabadze and another member of the company.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

Illustration by James Albon
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The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle