April 19, 2010

Kakabadze, Visiting Cornell Scholar and Georgian Exile, Will End Residency Soon

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Irakli Kakabadze, the 2009 recipient of the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award and a visiting scholar at Cornell, is nearing the end of his two-year residency with the Ithaca City of Asylum this semester. In a class Kakabadze teaches at the University, his students use art and theater to express their political opinions and try to find peaceful solutions to conflicts in the Republic of Georgia.

The Oxfam Novib/PEN Award is given every five years to writers and journalists who have been forced to flee their home countries due to writings and actions against the governments of the home country. The Ithaca City of Asylum, in which Kakabadze has been working, “is part of a worldwide network that supports writers in exile whose works are repressed and whose lives are threatened,” according to the University.

Kakabadze was forced to leave his home country of Georgia after protesting the 2006 murder of Sandro Girgvliani, the 28-year-old head of the United Georgian Bank’s Foreign Department. After the murder, political activists and others who protested the Georgian government, including Kakabadze, were persecuted, Kakabadze stated in an e-mail.

“There are many political prisoners in Georgia as well as  many people who are abused, neglected, raped and killed by government cronies and death squads. Many of my friends have been arrested and abused by the regime,” Kakabadze stated. Authoritarian governments led by military forces, including Georgia’s government, go to great lengths to cover up these casualties using worldwide public relations camcampaigns, he continued.

Kakabadze said that he wants to improve the peacefulness of both the country of Georgia and the world.

The Oxfam Novib/PEN Award, which is meant to encourage continued political involvement despite the winner’s oppression, carries great significance to Kakabadze, he said.

“I feel very honored, and this places a lot of responsibly on me. It is very important for writers to be involved in humanitarian efforts as well as fighting for basic human rights,” Kakabadze stated.

As a part of the Ithaca City of Asylum program, Kakabadze was placed in Cornell’s government department and taught a senior seminar — Govt 4000: peace-building and creative arts — which allowed his students to come up with peace-making ideas through creative expression. This year, his students developed a comprehensive plan for peace that attracted the attention of the Georgian State Minister in charge of peace-making in Abkhazia, a self-proclaimed independent state within Georgia. The official saw class videos of the students on the internet and contacted Kakabadze to ask students to e-mail him recommendations for advancing the peace process, according to Rammy Salem ’11, one of Kakabadze’s students.

Kakabadze believes that art is an integral part of the peace-making process.

“My concept of understanding art is that art can change the world and that every human being is an artist,” he stated. The use of art as a peace-making tool is the act of incorporating the creativity that art allows into the policies and social problems that already exist, according to Kakabadze.

“I believe that each student can make a great discovery and we work together to find best solutions to existing problems. Problems in relationships, community building or international affairs,” he stated.

Prof. Matt Evangelista, government and the chair of the government department, who helped guide Kakabadze through the ICOA program, said he believes that the combination of a peace studies course and the creative arts is a good combination of Kakabadze’s interests in street theater and other arts that express political sentiment.

“In addition to his writing, he has that area of expertise, so we thought it would make a good combination and [be] beneficial to our students,” Evangelista said.

Salem praised Kakabadze and his Arts and Peace Building seminar, stating that “[Kakabadze’s] class was the most enlightening and refreshing course that I have taken in my four years at Cornell.” Salem emphasized that Kakabadze’s experiences within his home country of Georgia were inspiring.

Because everyone has a voice in a peace making process,  “you don’t need to be a high-ranking government official to have a profound impact on a situation — and we saw this play out firsthand,”  Salem stated.

Kakabadze’s students were taught “art serves as an equally valid method of conflict resolution that can be performed by an ordinary citizen,” Salem stated. Everyone is an artist in some way and that art is not restricted to its typical forms, he said.

“It is very inspiring and transformative to learn under someone who didn’t just read something from a book, but who actually lived it,” Salem stated.

Kakabadze had a profound impact on his students and his students also had a great effect on him as well, Salem stated. “The creative students in the class took this opportunity to do yoga, sing operatic melodies and deliver impassioned speeches.”

“I believe in human talent. I believe that each student can make a great discovery and we work together to find best solutions to existing problems,” Kakabadze stated.

Original Author: Ginny Johnson