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Tbilisi's melting pot squat

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Artists, activists, intellectuals and travellers have finally found a focal point for the changing face of Tbilisi's cultural scene. In the spirit of European squats, the space is a melting pot for ideas and free expression. And there's even a camel

Tbil­isi has an un­ques­tion­ably vi­brant, colour­ful cul­tural scene. How­ever, poverty and so­cial ex­clu­sion are wide­spread. Mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties are often ex­cluded from the arts and from so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties aimed at de­moc­ra­tiz­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing processes and im­prov­ing the qual­ity of life for Tbil­isi’s res­i­dents. In an his­toric act, how­ever, a di­verse group of Geor­gian cit­i­zens and for­eign res­i­dents have oc­cu­pied a derelict build­ing near the city’s hip­po­drome in the Sabur­talo dis­trict, trans­form­ing the aban­doned build­ing into a cul­tural cen­tre that aims to put an end to elit­ism and fa­cil­i­tate com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties in favour of the arts and pos­i­tive so­cial ac­tivism. Al­though their pro­ject is in its early stages, it has al­ready caught the at­ten­tion of artists and ac­tivists from across Geor­gia, Eu­rope and the Cau­ca­sus.

As I walk up to the old sta­bles that now house the Al­ter­na­tive Cul­tural Cen­tre of Tbil­isi, the last thing I ex­pect is to be stand­ing in the for­est just 20 min­utes later, a jar of hot tea in my hand as I gaze into the eyes of a camel. But here she is, Tchini the camel, slob­ber­ing and sniff­ing as she gazes at me with her round hazel eyes. ‘She’s half Afghan, half Mon­gol, a rare breed,’ her travel com­pan­ion Goran ex­plains as his lit­tle horned goats frolic to my left and right in the wooded area sur­round­ing the sta­bles.

All the way from Afghanistan

Some claim that Monika and Guillermo, vol­un­teers from Lithua­nia and Spain who are com­plet­ing their Eu­ro­pean Vol­un­tary Ser­vice (EVS) in the Tbil­isi-based Droni youth as­so­ci­a­tion, dis­cov­ered the build­ing and de­cided to bring Eu­rope’s cul­ture of squat­ting (oc­cu­py­ing empty build­ings) to Geor­gia. Oth­ers claim that Goran, the nomad trav­el­ling from Afghanistan with his car­a­van of goats, pup­pies, chick­ens, and of course, Tchini the camel, claimed the space as his own, open­ing the way for oth­ers to trans­form the build­ing into the vi­brant so­cial cen­tre it is today. Goran, how­ever, claims that it was the camel who led the way. What is cer­tain is that the or­ga­niz­ers are de­ter­mined to put as much love and en­ergy as hu­manly pos­si­ble into mak­ing the space a spe­cial one.

The scene that un­folds be­fore me as I walk into the cen­tre brings a smile to my face. The De­cem­ber sun pours in through the lofty win­dows, mem­bers of Tbil­isi’s Fris­bee club are prac­tic­ing toss­ing disks, and peo­ple sit by a bon­fire in the mid­dle of the room, chat­ting and hold­ing their hands over the fire to keep warm. Artists of all stripes are busy paint­ing the build­ing’s blank walls, and two DJs with waist-length dread­locks play reg­gae music for those as­sem­bled. A makeshift swing hangs from the ceil­ing and peo­ple are tak­ing turns push­ing one an­other, shout­ing and laugh­ing.

Still oth­ers mill around, tak­ing pho­tographs and com­ing up with ideas for the space. Free dance lessons, gym­nas­tics, lan­guage ex­changes, po­lit­i­cal round­ta­bles, fem­i­nist dis­cus­sion groups and film screen­ings are just some of the ideas being tossed around. What has been de­cided de­fin­i­tively, how­ever, is that the space will be free of all recre­ational drugs and al­co­hol. This de­ci­sion aims to keep the vi­o­lence that often plagues Geor­gia’s bars and night­clubs at bay.

Alf the mysterious nomadic activist

I chat to ‘Alf’, the mys­te­ri­ous no­madic ac­tivist who orig­i­nally put me in touch with Monika and Guillermo when they were look­ing for a place to launch the pro­ject. He speaks with in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm, his blue eyes twin­kling, as he dis­cusses his vi­sion for the ACCT. ‘This is the first time any­thing like this is hap­pen­ing in Tbil­isi. What we want is to have a free com­mu­nity space to bring to­gether dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple, cre­ate com­mu­nity, chal­lenge the elit­ist sta­tus quo that claims peo­ple need money to be in­volved in so­ci­ety and make the world bet­ter,’ ex­plains Alf.

‘Not every­one can af­ford to be part of a foun­da­tion and sit in a nice, warm of­fice to brain­storm ideas to make so­ci­ety bet­ter,’ adds Gio, 24, a res­i­dent of Tbil­isi, ‘We can cre­ate a space for every­one here.’

De­spite the many chal­lenges of build­ing con­sen­sus, the group re­mains com­mit­ted to pro­mot­ing a hor­i­zon­tal, non-hi­er­ar­chi­cal de­ci­sion mak­ing struc­ture that re­spects a di­ver­sity of opin­ions and takes every­one’s ideas into ac­count. I meet ac­tivists from Rus­sia, artists from Syria, Geor­gian stu­dents and sea­soned mem­bers of civil so­ci­ety. I spend time sit­ting in the warm kitchen amidst piles of ba­nanas and tan­ger­ines as a 21-year-old Amer­i­can stud­ies stu­dent makes hot tea and vegan borsch for the crowd. I chat with Irakli, a mid­dle-aged en­gi­neer and hack­tivist who helped re­in­stall the build­ing’s elec­tric­ity.

As I scrib­ble in my note­book, I brain­storm ideas for the cre­ation of a free li­brary and info shop with Rati. I hear Goran speak elo­quently about free­dom of move­ment, peace and cit­i­zen­ship and I lis­ten, en­thralled as peo­ple dis­cuss how to pro­mote an­i­mal rights and plans to house Tbil­isi’s grow­ing home­less pop­u­la­tion.

Else­where this is a typ­i­cal Sun­day in Tbil­isi, but here in the cul­tural cen­tre I know I am wit­ness­ing some­thing spe­cial, an op­por­tu­nity for a real grass­roots move­ment to grow and thrive in a city that was de­void of prospects after years of war, tran­si­tion, and eco­nomic hard­ship.  The Al­ter­na­tive Cul­tural Cen­tre of Tbil­isi is an op­por­tu­nity for any­one, re­gard­less of age and back­ground, to come and be a part of a com­mu­nity and par­tic­i­pate in mak­ing Tbil­isi their own.  More­over, the best is yet to come.