Abkhaz footprints in Yorkshire - Agency Caucasus (P1)


9 May 2002, Agency Caucasus By Fehim Tastekin - Zeynel Abidin Besleney

George Hewitt in short

George Hewitt is a controversial figure. He is a professor of Caucasian languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Beside the numerous articles he has written on the languages and the politics of the Caucasus, he is in the unique position of being the author of both Georgian and Abkhaz grammars. He is married to Zaira Hewitt, an Abkhazian. They have two daughters named Amra and Gunda, respectively.

As an outspoken critic of Georgian extreme nationalism and growing intolerance towards the minorities in Georgia during the 1990s, he has become a hate figure in some Georgian circles and is labeled as a friend of the Abkhaz.
Many attempts have been made by the Georgians and the Georgian lobby around the world to discredit him and his particular stance on the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict because of his family ties to the Abkhazians, even though what he says is not always what the Abkhazians want to hear either.

We talked to this great lover of the Caucasus about his family, his beloved languages of this region, and the rather distasteful and complex politics of it. I think that we all need to listen to what he tells us.

Part I

Ubykh waiting discovery

- Dear Mr. Hewitt, first of all, I would like to thank you for making it possible for us to have this interview with you despite your busy schedule.

I wonder if you may agree with me but in my opinion many academics who study and work on diverse regions and cultures of the world quite often develop a special kind of relationship with these regions, peoples and their cultures that is beyond pure academic interest. How did your involvement with Abkhazia commence?

I first became interested in Caucasian languages through Georgian. My interest in Georgian developed because I was in Cambridge University working towards a PhD comparing old Greek and Armenian languages. Because I was looking at Armenian for two years, I was told that I would have to take accounts of the developments in Georgia too, because Georgian and Armenian cultures and languages have been so close for so many centuries. Then, I started looking at Georgian and reading about not only Georgian but also other Caucasian languages, which led to my discovery of the North Caucasian languages. I started reading George Dumesil's works on Circassian, Ubikh and, to some extent, Abkhazian.

Around the time, that was 1973-1974, in Cambridge, someone, who had been studying with me that had come to London to work for one of the oil companies, came back to Cambridge, and heard of my interest in Caucasian languages. He told me that a colleague of his at BP, someone called Fahri Yaman, was from Turkey but from the Circassian community. He said to me that if I had been interested he could arrange for Fahri to come and see me.

What is your level of knowledge on Ubykh then?

Well, I did some work on it and I have written at least one article on it. I am hoping at some stage to do a comparative grammar of Northwest Caucasian languages, which will involve working more on the published material.


- Just before we move on to talk more about your family life I wish to ask you to what extent you were able to utilise Tevfik Esenc's knowledge of Ubykh in such a short period of time?

In reality, I could only spend 1 week with Tevfik Esenc. It was my final week in Turkey and I was staying in Istanbul on my way back to England. I was staying in a flat in Sisli. It was a rather unfortunate circumstance because the person, in whose flat I was staying, was actually dying of mouth cancer. Because his son, who could also spoke English who could have acted as an interpreter was returning to his studies at Sorbonne in Paris, this elderly gentleman was the only possible translator I had. Since he had the cancer of the mouth, he really could not speak. Therefore, I had this opportunity to speak to a native speaker of Ubykh without an interpreter. Consequently, I took the opportunity to make a large number of recordings. Well, when you make recordings, you should really make the transcriptions at the time. I was not able to do that. Now, I have all these recordings made 28 years ago but they are still untranscribed. So, there is still some Ubykh material waiting for transcription.

When I got back to Cambridge, I made use of these materials. As in those days I was interested in a particular dispute about the nature of two sounds in Ubykh I prepared, using my recordings, some spectrograms and suggesting the correct analysis of these two sounds in Ubykh. You could say this is my contribution to Ubykh. There is all this material to be worked on, including, I might add, that section of translation of Shakespeare's Hamlet the famous lyric - To be or not to be- in Ubykh. I have this in Ubykh just waiting to be worked on. 

-We did not know that!

Well, no one does!



-How did your Caucasian adventure started?

This was in 1974. Around this time, I developed an interest spending a year in the Caucasus through the British Council Exchange Scheme with the Soviet Union. Of course, Georgia was the only place where foreigners would be allowed to spend a year in the Caucasus. Obviously, I applied to go to Tbilisi. As result, I was accepted for this programme in 1975-1976. I got to Tbilisi and arranged to have practical tuition for Georgian but I also made it clear that I wanted to continue studying Circassian because Circassian was the language I had worked on in Turkey and that I knew most about amongst the Northwest Caucasian languages. In addition, I wanted to do some work on Chechen and Avar, too. Somebody was found for Chechen. In fact, the same person also taught me some Avar. 

I was told that nobody was found who could give me further lessons for Circassian in English but somebody was available who could give me instructions in English in Abkhaz. At that stage, I had studied on Circassian and had worked with Tevfik Esenc on Ubykh. These were the two Northwest Caucasian languages that I had wanted to work on. Abkhaz I really had not looked at.

However, the opportunity presented itself that you can do Abkhaz or you can do nothing. Therefore, I chose Abkhaz. Since I knew I was going to be looking at Abkhaz, I started asking around in the accommodation block where I was staying if there were any Abkhazians who could give me some instructions as native speakers as the person who was teaching me was a Georgian girl. Then, I was told that there was a room upstairs in the block and two Abkhazian girls were living together there. I arranged for a meeting with them around September in 1975.

When I went in to be introduced to them, the two girls were there. They had a Circassian flatmate along with a Georgian flatmate. There was also a Circassian boy, a historian, who was doing a PhD in Georgia. He, luckily, spoke English and his name was Almir Abregov. He said that his real family name was Abrec and he was an Ubikh. So he spoke English to me and spoke Russian to the other people present. Of course, he could also speak Circassian.

Anyway, one of these two Abkhazian girls, who was in the room, started to provide food for me on a number of occasions because "she was a good cook" and it was not easy to find something to eat in Tbilisi at that time. That of course led to me spending more time in this particular room talking to her through that Circassian who spoke English to me and Russian to her.

Because this girl, Zaira Khiba, who was also a post graduate student studying phonetics of her native Abkhazian, had picked up some Georgian simply by living in Tbilisi but never spoken it we were bot able to communicate through Georgian around Christmas time. Subsequently, the relationship developed and in the summer of 1976, before I returned to England, we actually got married in Tbilisi. Well, I can say that an accidental possibility to study Abkhaz led to a meeting with a native Abkhaz that led to a marriage which has now lasted for 26 years.

Of course, later I was introduced to her family in Abkhazia and I found myself in the rather unique position of being an Englishman who spoke Georgian and had relations with Georgians, but who also had a family on the Abkhaz side of what became an actual conflict as in 1989 and more especially in 1992. This is why I got involved in the situation there and why I, today, have political problems in Georgia.

-Some people say that George Hewitt's particular position on the Georgian-Abkhaz issue is related to his family ties…

However, I would say at this stage that it is not simply because I had an Abkhazian wife that I decided to speak out in 1989 against the Georgian nationalism which is a charge that has been laid against me by certain people in Georgia. They say that the only reason George Hewitt took this particular position regarding the politics of Georgia was because he has an Abkhazian wife. This is not true. My wife knows this very well. I am interested in all the languages of the Caucasus and those that are in danger have a particular fascination for me. Because my meeting in 1974 with Tevfik Esenc or the fact that I actually met the last speaker of a Caucasian language had an important influence on me ever since. I could see that the way the politics was developing [in Georgia in 1989] was such that would have to endanger the Abkhazians as a community.

Therefore, I spoke out in 1989 because of the language connection not because I was married to an Abkhaz, as many Georgians think. I think it is important to say this.

This is the story of how my involvement with the Caucasian languages started, which also includes part of my family history. Just before I conclude I wish to add that the other Abkhazian girl sharing the room with Zaira, Aza Yinalipha, eventually married to my interpreter Alik Abregov and they have been living in Maikop and have two children. Moreover, we, off course, have two daughters of our own. Therefore it is fair to say that it was quite an important meeting that resulted in Alek the interpreter marrying one of the Abkhazians and I, the foreigner, the other.


- Did the fact that you were married to an Abkhazian cause any problems before the Georgian-Abkhazian war? 

To be honest I did not have any problems in any real terms until 1989. However, when we travelled to Georgia, if I told the Georgians I was in the company of that I was married to an Abkhazian their first reaction would always be " Oh how wonderful! A foreigner who has a daughter in law in Georgia!" In other words, they were interpreting the Abkhazians as part of the Georgian community. Yet, very soon they would start to ask me "tell us please, why it is that the Abkhazians hate us and we have so many problems with them."

In other words, initial reaction was one of joy, but it would soon turn into one whereby the situation is not deemed quite right! Very often, the conversation would go on a little bit further and I would be told "you know, you really should have waited longer as we would have found you a Georgian girl!" That was an indication that the relations between the two communities were probably not actually good at a deeper level.

It was as a result of carrying out some research in Georgia at the end of 1987 for a paper for a talk I was due to give in London in January 1988 on language planning for Georgia that I discovered something about the history of this relationship. It was that in middle years of 20th century the Abkhaz schools were closed, the Abkhazians were forced to learn Georgian and various members of Georgian-speaking community-particularly Mingrelians, were forced to leave Georgia to settle in Abkhazia in order to reduce the number of Abkhazians in Abkhazia. These were carried out as parts of the process of Georgianisation.

I then discovered to my surprise that many people who had been alive in those years in Georgia did not know about it. Or rather, they claimed not to know about it when I started speaking about it. Then I realised that this was the source of this hostility between the two communities.

At any rate, I wrote my article and I gave my speech at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. This article eventually was published. Then when I saw that nationalism was beginning to swell up in Georgia in late 1988 and early 1989 and started reading some of those nasty stories and articles in Georgian newspapers about the threat from minorities, the so called Muslim minorities among whom of course the Abkhazians were included even though the majority of the Abkhaz are not Muslims, that I decided to make a statement using the information that I gathered during that research in Georgia in 1987.

Because of this statement, I was regarded as betraying Georgians. They felt that they had educated me but I was stabbing them in the back by taking the side of a minority whom they felt was hostile to Georgia's possible independence.

Consequently, the statement that I made at SOAS was eventually published in Georgian newspapers after the first clashes took place in Sukhum in 1989. I, myself, was abused across the whole Georgian media and subsequently have not been back in Georgia although we do try regularly to visit Abkhazia.

That was 1989 and you could say this was when my problems really started in Georgia.

Part II

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