“Turkish coffee?” The throaty Armenian was clearly affronted. “Sure, it’s Turkish when I buy it. But when I make it, it’s Abkhaz coffee.” Insisting eyes awaited an apology, which I promptly offered. I never made the mistake again.
The promenade of Abkhazia’s Black Sea capital Sukhumi is an ideal place to muse on this at times surreal unrecognised Republic. There is a lot here on which to muse – the crumbs of burnt out buildings from the 1993 war particularly difficult ones to digest. Wash them down with a cup of Abkhaz coffee, and stare out of this agreeable black hole into the Black Sea, where the occasional Turkish cargo ship of dubious legality carries its caffeinated cargo across the waves.
U Akopa, (“Akop’s Place,) named after the former Armenian owner is the most famous of the coffee houses which line Sukhumi’s promenade, also known as the Brekhalovka – roughly translated as “gossip house.” Abkhaz coffee seems more an approach to preparing the drink than a special taste or secret ingredient – the copper Jezve coffee pot kept warm in a tray of heated beach sand. Tea is available, yet not nearly as popular; proof perhaps that claims of this land being Russian-occupied territory are unfounded- for the time being.
The Armenian’s small white hut contains a fridge, stocked mainly with Auadkhwara, the peculiar salty local mineral water and a small bottle of cognac, perhaps for favourite guests. U Akopa is no stranger to local luminaries- journalists, politicians and the Republic’s cultural elite often take coffee here. It is said that the late President of Abkhazia Sergei Bagapsh used to take a stroll over to U Akopa on weekends to discuss politics with the locals.
Strolling around Sukhumi one can hardly fail to miss the burnt-out hulk of the nation’s former parliament building, shot to pieces during the 1993 war and kept as a monument both to military valour or the prowess of squatters ever since. The Abkhaz secessionist parliament has since moved to a nondescript concrete cube elsewhere in the city centre. Sukhumi journalist Nikolai Medvedsky pointed out that U Akopa could be seen as something of a national parliament. Northern Abkhazia’s village of Lykhny is home to Lykhnashta, a tranquil glade flanked by an ancient Church where Abkhaz elders would assemble to solve political problems and address concerns.
Watching the columns of locals strolling through a grandiose marble arch of unclear significance and perching beneath a palm tree to play dominoes and backgammon, Medvedsky’s theory has a high probability of truth. Tradition too plays its part, for better or for worse. “The Brekhalovka is entirely male’ points out Lola,” a local resident “I don’t know how I’d be received if I just sat down there with coffee and tried to talk with the regulars.” This is what Tom De Waal called the “Coffee Republic,” a nation he portrayed as one of table orators (pure gold for journalists’ scoops,) in perpetual discussion with no resolution.
“The coffee in the Brakhalovka is watered-down shit.” Rauf, an English teacher who used to live and work in America, has tasted Starbucks and nothing else compares. “I used to commute in Boston, and every morning buy creamy coffee in one of those paper cups with the special lid which stops it from ever spilling…” he mimes said cup, and sensually strokes its lid. “I lived in America for eight years, earnt over three times what I earn here, but I wouldn’t go back if you paid me… if you paid me a thousand dollars. Because I have friends here, and friends are real hard currency’. He smiles. We all smile.
The next day, I see him in U Akopa haggling with the argumentative Armenian. He looks at me sheepishly and when out of sight of the coffee vendor, points at his cup, and shakes his head in a pantomime of disapproval. He stays there and an hour later is already arguing in Abkhaz. The coffee’s taste or lack thereof is, it would seem, not the issue. Timur Dzyba, one of the leaders of Sukhumi’s Muslim community, points out that other attempts to mimic Sukhumi’s brakhalovka have failed miserably. “The mayor of Ochamchira once tried to make a replica of U Akopa. He bought tables, chairs, backgammon, chess, set up a coffee booth, but nobody came. He told himself that perhaps, after a month, people would come. After two months, the place was still empty. There was no tradition… no soul.”
The coffee booths along the length of the promenade are many. Yet few are afforded the respect of U Akopa. A far fancier alternative stands a few metres to the north, where the coffee is an extortionate twenty roubles (U Akopa’s costs seventeen) and comes in porcelain Turkish cups. Two Armenians sit down next to me and begin to glare at a Russian in a drunken stupor lying on the next bench along. The waitress is incensed, and tells him to move along.
‘This place is for respectable people- move along or I’ll call the manager’.
‘Fuck off’ the drunk roars, only less politely. ‘I bet you I’m more cultured than… than… all these people here!
He slowly slides my book from my hands, and upon noticing that it is in English, and not Russian, he returns it to me and, defeated, reminds the waitress that he ‘speaks Tolstoy’, and could she please serve him coffee. An hour later after some difficulty, he is removed from the premises. The Armenians shout something witty, and the waitress collapses in a fit of giggles. I return to U Akopa.
Dominoes are the national sport- a game where nobody is a pawn and refreshingly predictable. U Akopa itself is decorated with a picture of a smiling domino in national dress, heralding the international domino championships the country hosted in 2011. U Akopa is intensely relaxing, a place for reflection where a country comes to reflect upon itself. A ruined pier stands to the south, a statue of a character from a Fazil Iskander story to the north. Iskander, who still lives in ripe old age in a house resembling the Old House Under the Cypress Tree in his powerful fables of an Abkhazia since disappeared, wrote an essay called State and Conscience, in which he outlined the meaning of government and its connection to the citizen. “Iskander believed that every government discussion and decision should be stuck up in public places – complete transparency! Imagine that!” enthuses Medvedsky.
Naunadgza Apsny (“Abkhazia for Eternity,”), declares a poster not far from U Akopa. First President of Abkhazia Ardzinba salutes the national flag. “The right man for the right time,” as he was once described. The eternity is palpable. The rhythm of daily life slows down in U Akopa. ‘Day mnye dva Mingrela dlya dela, dva Armyana dlya Abmana, i dva Abkhaza dlya pakaza’ goes a not entirely politically correct local saying. (“Give me two Mingrelians to do the work, two Armenians to cheat them, and two Abkhaz to stand back and watch.”) Beneath silver moustaches and flat caps, the arguers are as diverse as their arguments. Abkhaz, Adyghe, Russian, Abaza, Turkish, Arab and Armenian all jostle for space.
Once united in Soviet labour, these coffee shop regulars are now united in languor. Perhaps, behind the slogans, they always were. Abkhazia’s coffee drinkers will always be there, through war and peace, Georgia or Russia. Their discussion must be taken like their coffee – the quintessential Abkhazia – initial sweetness on top with the layer of sour grains resting not far beneath. Fazil Iskander, his tales a window into the Abkhazia of bygone times, was not mistaken when he wrote:
People’s souls seethe with drugs
the whole world over.
But black coffee does not deceive:
clarity of thought is only good.
I accept the real world before me,
that is not clothed in rainbows,
I drink from the oval cup
my share of mourning and hope.
At my bedside they will ask me:
“Do you have any final request?”
I will answer: “Bring me
one last black coffee.”
Photographs courtesy of the author