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Review of The First Toast is To Peace by Stephen Powell

February 5, 2020


Oh my goodness, what a fascinating and alluring book. I’ve never been in the slightest bit interested in Georgia or Azerbaijan; neither had I any clue about the break-away states of Nagorno-Karabakh or Abkhazia. So why did I embark on reading this marvellously enlightening book? Well, for me it was firstly because it included Armenia, a country that has interested me for quite a while now, and the second reason was simply the intriguing title. What was it about the first toast? What about the southern Caucasus. Well, as the saying goes ‘I learnt me so much.’

Stephen Powell, retired Reuters editor and journalist who has seen and witnessed many of the world’s hottest spots and conflicts, embarks on a journey through the southern Caucasus region that reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurie Lee. Admittedly, he doesn’t make his journeys in one long trip as did those young men in the 30s, but he does his in similar style: walking and riding for most of his year-long travels. In this way, he sees places and meets people he would not otherwise do and what incredible company he keeps. Even farmers in remote places can talk to him of politics in northern Europe. Just astonishing. Not to mention the border guard in Abkhazia who could discuss Celtic history and language with him. The book is revealing, disarming and personal, but at the same time it observes and comments on the troubled regions of the Caucasus with the broader view of an experienced eye. It is a story of dispossessed people and people possessed; of those longing for lands they have been evicted from and those who are fighting to retain their national identity against many odds. And above all these troubled but rich cultures, broods the mighty power of Russia, playing one Caucasus country off against another, leaving the region uneasy with itself and its neighbours

I loved the descriptions of the scenery in Georgia and would love to now visit Tbilisi and meet its vibrant people, visit its vineyards and enjoy its culture of toasting. The chapters about Armenia were tragic, given their focus on the genocide of 1915 and its ongoing aftermath as well as the terrible earthquake that devastated Gyumri. Even so, its people remain positive and resilient despite their unease with being a Christian country sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Stephen Powell finishes his book with a summary of the longings of people evicted from the lands of their birth and history: the Georgians from Abkhazia and vice versa, the Armenians from Azerbaijan and so on. It is a tale that represents the tragedy of so many parts of the world where boundaries have been redrawn forcing thousands of people to be deported from land they have called home for centuries.

As for the title, it is an acknowledgment of the wonderful tradition that is so much part of the culture of the region; that of making toasts at gatherings for meals or drinks; toasts that acknowledge proud ideals worthy of…well…toasting.

All in all, I found this book profoundly moving, hugely informative and incredibly stimulating. It led me to study maps, look up personalities, writers and historical figures, and to record the names of other books I would now like to read. Wonderful stuff. Many thanks, Mr Powell. I would now like to have a hard copy of this book to accompany my other favourite travel books.

The link to the Amazon product page is here.

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  1. Terry Tyler permalink

    Loving the look of this, Val – just gimme those mountains! I miss Jo Carroll’s books, too 🙂

    • Me too, Terry. I would be so pleased if she’d take up her pen again, figuratively speaking of course!

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