Rest in peace, Giorgi

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

There was a wake for “our” Robin Hood on Thursday and Friday evenings in Giorgi Jalagania’s home. Friends came by to spend a few moments to view the casket.

On Saturday, our video team was permitted to document the burial, and, after the burial, we were included in a dinner for about 70 people.

It may seem strange that we would want to attend a burial for someone we never met, and it may seem even stranger that the family granted permission. When I took a group of USC students to Jamaica in March, we were invited to attend a wake, called a “dead yard” and the funeral services for a friend of our host. I said, “yes,” and the USC students said, “no.” For me it was very interesting and because I was with our host, Matthias Brown, I never felt uncomfortable. Similiarly, Tamaz Jalagania and his family made us feel welcome. In fact, they made us feel extremely welcome. As a “thank you,” we are going to make an album of photos, both of the day’s activities and of happier times.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Family and close friends removed Giorgi’s casket from his home and set it across two chairs in the yard, where people had a last chance to say goodbye. Then we drove behind the hearse to the cemetery, where the casket was lowered into a grave in the family plot. Family and friends shoveled dirt over the casket, laid wreaths of flowers, toasted with wine, poured some wine into the grave, and drank the rest. I was asked to make a toast. I said, sincerely, “May God bless Giorgi’s soul. Although we are not old friends–we are new friends–who have become good friends. Thank you for including us.”

Then we drove to a banquet hall for a delicious Georgian meal. Tamaz’s son, Vladimir Jalagania, was the tamada (toast master). He made many eloquent, elaborate toasts to our ancestors as well as future generations. For each toast, all of the men stood and drank wine, while the women remained seated. After toasting the Americans, Vladimir asked me to say a few words, which is really an opportunity to return the toast. I again asked God to bless Giorgi’s soul. Then I continued and asked God to bless all of the people present, as well as their ancestors, children, and grandchildren, according to Georgian tradition.

I’m grateful to Tamaz, Nana, Vladimir, and their guests for including us. I’m grateful to Nana Mghebrishvili and Mari Papidze for filming the occasion. And I’m grateful to Susanna Melo for photographing throughout the day. My role evolved into supporting the video team, supporting Tamaz’s family, and participating in the toasts.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

A Robin Hood dies at 100

Let’s not romanticize Giorgi Jalagania’s life. After all, he robbed many people and went to jail nine times. Moreover, he could have chosen a different path. Giorgi came from a wealthy, prestigious family. But, for whatever reasons, he chose to become a gangster. And not a hum-drum gangster, but one of the richer, more powerful ones in Georgia. Even the other gangsters were scared of him. In fact, no one would rob or harm people in Giorgi’s neighborhood. Except one, young, inexperienced thief, who unknowingly broke into Giorgi’s home and stole some possessions, including a photograph of Giorgi with his siblings. When this young thief showed the photos to others, everyone said, “Oh my god; what have you done! You’ve robbed Giorgi!” The young man was so scared, he returned everything he had taken. Then he visited Giorgi in jail; admitted his “error,” and asked for forgiveness.

On the good side, Giorgi followed the gangster code of honor. He robbed the rich, and he gave much of what he stole to the poor. He never extorted money from people who struggled to earn a living. In addition, Giorgi was a “fixer.” If someone had a problem, and the government either couldn’t or wouldn’t help, Giorgi would often find a solution. When Giorgi grew old, became ill, and “retired,” the people he had helped showed their appreciation. They couldn’t give money directly to the ailing man because Giorgi had too much pride to accept such gifts, but people would sneak into his home and leave some cash beneath his pillow. So one could say that Giorgi was a Robin Hood appreciated by his neighbors. This photo shows Giorgi, front row and center, along with his four younger brothers. We will video the wake and funeral, as well as several stories about Giorgi—the Georgian Robin Hood.