“It is like being pregnant all your life..."
“Isn’t it terrible that there proved to be no spiritual authority among an entire nation who could tell the truth without venturing his life?” These are the words of Akram Aylisli, a living Azerbaijan literary classic and the first and only Turkic writer who has published a story about the massacre of Armenians. Why should becoming a nation’s conscience make you its enemy? “Russian Reporter” correspondent met with Aylisli and traveled to the mountainous village, where his story begins.
It was the night of February 18, 2004, in Budapest. In his room in an officers’ dormitory Ramil Safarov, a lieutenant in the Azebaijan army, was sharpening an axe he bought in a local shop. A month earlier he came to Budapest to participate in a workshop organized in the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Among the students of the course there were two young Armenian lieutenants whom Safarov had come across in the corridors several times. At first the Armenians used to say “hello” to him but he didn’t return it. Once he noticed that on seeing him in the corridor again one of the Armenians said something to the other one and smiled. It was then that Ramil decided what has to be done. It was his way of implementing the Partnership for Peace program.
At 5 a.m. he entered Gurgen Margaryan’s room. The door wasn’t locked. Ramil turned on the light, came up to the sleeping Armenian and chopped his head off with several blows. Gurgen’s room-mate, a Hungarian officer, woke up, let out a scream of horror and ran out of the room. Ramil lit up a cigarette, finished smoking, dropped the stub on the agonizing body and went looking for the other Armenian. The room door was locked and Ramil tried to break in. Then other officers came running and started pleading with him to stop breaking the door. It should be mentioned that Ramil was a tall man of strong complexion. As he was not sure he was breaking in the right room he relented. Then he lit up another cigarette and when the police arrived gave himself up. In court, Ramil didn’t show any sign of remorse. He said he regretted that he hadn’t killed the other Armenian too. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
In August 2012 Azerbaijan declared its intention to purchase Hungarian state bonds to the tune of 3 billion Euros. Shortly after Ramil Safarov was extradited to Baku on condition that he would continue serving his term in his home country. He was freed on his arrival at Baku Airport in accordance with President Ilham Aliyev’s clemency. The Defense ministry conferred him the rank of major, granted a new apartment and ordered to reimburse his salary over eight years he had spent in prison.
Ramil Safarov became a national hero. Thousands of people flooded the streets, rejoicing. For days all local television channels showed him laying flowers at the grave of Heydar Aliyev and thanking his fellow countrymen for their support. Even his wedding – that soon followed - became an occasion for a nation-wide celebration.
On seeing all that Akram Aylisli, a living classic of Azerbaijan literature, decided to publish a manuscript, which he had kept in his desk for six years. It was a story about the massacre of Armenians in Baku in the winter of 1990, named “Stone dreams”. In December 2012 the story was published in the Moscow magazine “Druzhba Narodov” (Russian for “Friendship of Peoples”). In January 2013 the publication became known in Azerbaijan and it was then that Akram Aylisli was proclaimed a traitor. In February his books were burned in public squares; all over the country people held rallies screaming that “Aylisli is Armenian!”
Young guys from the ruling “Yeni Azerbaijan” party carried a coffin filled with Aylisli’s books around Baku and burnt his portraits with a cross drawn on his forehead.
The President stripped Aylisli of the “People’s writer” title and personal pension. The Ministry of Education withdrew his works from school curricula. The Caucasus Muslim Board declared him an apostate. His wife and son were fired. Writers, artists and academics competed in condemnations. The Writers’ Union deprived him of membership. Incidentally he had voluntarily left the Union 20 years before. MPs demanded that Aylisli undergo a “genetic test” to find out if he was an ethnic Armenian. On top of that, a pro-ruling party “Muasir Musavat” (Modern Equality) announced that it would pay a $12,000 reward to anyone who would cut off the writer’s ears.
I’m boarding a plane together with generously mustachioed men. They have that cold and frowning look so frequent in the Caucasus. It seems to relate that its bearer believes not in common truth but in common rules.
Baku smells of money. Its downtown is luxuriously decorated and reminds me of the Petrovski Passage shopping mall of Moscow. Street lamps cast orange lights reflected back by limestone facades and it seems that everything around you is made of gold. There are lots of fountains and emerald lawns of refined shapes. The boulevards are flooded with rich and happy strollers. The streets are busy with stylish cabs imported from London. The bay is illuminated by gigantic tongues of flames that decorate three petal-shaped skyscrapers. Compared to Baku, Moscow now seems like a gray provincial town. It’s obvious that the there is more money that they know how to spend.
On the way from the airport you see a cosmic cuttlefish-shaped building of the Heidar Aliyev Center of Culture. The late “father of the nation” looks at you from every third billboard with a stiff smile under a cold, boa-like gaze. On other billboards his princely son makes vain attempts to project a serious look, but he seems sated and non-aggressive. The father and the son are everywhere: on each vacant piece of granite you can see their quotations or a bas-relief of the father’s face. The cult of personality style has been imported from Turkey. The authorities are trying to make a national symbol out of Heydar Aliyev, a second Ataturk.
Azerbaijan is rapidly embracing Turkishness. Today you can hardly distinguish whether you are in Baku or in Ankara, first of all by the look of the people. The police and the military wear Turkish uniforms. Heydar Aliev grasped the historical trend and proclaimed the motto of “One nation – two states” with Turkey. You can still often hear Russian spoken in the streets of Baku, but the dominant context has changed and the country is now part of this new world.
I spend a day wandering around the city center, I join people sitting on street benches and I ask them about Akram Aylisli and Ramil Safarov. They are polite and friendly. But when they hear Aylisli they grimace in discomfort as it is against local customs to discuss unpleasant things with foreigners. They say: “I don’t understand why he did what he did”. “Why didn’t he write about the Khojali events?” “He had everything. Everyone loved him and held him in respect. I think he just took it for granted…”
But as soon as I mention Ramil Safarov their faces light up with happy smiles. “Of course, we know Ramil. He’s our hero! We are so happy that he is back”. The people of Baku are not blood-thirsty. They just don’t believe that Safarov had slashed to death a sleeping Armenian without any cause. They believe that the Armenian was awake and he had outraged Ramil by shining his shoes with an Azeri flag and spitting on it. That’s what they heard on television.
The happy and friendly climate in Baku doesn’t square with the news that we get from Azerbaijan: opposition is crippled, independent journalists are imprisoned, dissidents get killed in prisons, and young activists are framed on drug charges and beaten in jail. One recent crackdown came when a protest against hazing and peace-time deaths in the army was organized via Facebook. They were dispersed with water cannons. Organizers were identified and arrested on trumped charges of preparing Molotov cocktails. No one is allowed to disturb the tranquility.
“Heydar was a politician, he knew how to negotiate. As for Ilham, he’s a prince and he thinks negotiation is beneath his dignity” – says my friend Arif Yunusov, a human rights activist. “At first everybody was hopeful that being young and well-educated he would give us democracy. But instead he either suppressed or bribed all those who disagree with him. He even managed to bribe the Americans, why would he care for the opposition!”
People in the streets agree that Ilham Aliyev is a prince, but express no qualms with that. They discuss it with a smile as some kind of a fairy-tale. “Sure, he’s a prince, so let it be. All we want is that he let us be.” As long as the oil lasts the monarchy is secure.
A train to Etchmiadzin
Saday Sadigli, the main character of the “Stone Dreams,” is a theatre actor. He was brought up in a small mountainous village of Aylis in the region of Nakhitchevan, near the border with Armenia, Turkey and Iran. The story begins in Baku in late 1989. The war over Karabakh is about to break out. With every passing day the nationalistic hysteria is growing stronger. Streets are full of mobs poised for a pogrom. Armenians throw themselves off balconies “of their own will” and evil men with empty stares move into their vacated apartments. Patriotic rubbish flows out of television sets. People try to adjust to the new realities. Lies are now embraced as truths. Saday Sadigli is unable to take the mass atavism. He feels alone and is gradually losing his mind.
”It is as if he has some nameless Armenian hiding deep inside him. And with each beaten, abused or killed Armenian he feels like it’s him, who’s been beaten, abused or killed.”
He becomes obsessed with the idea that in order to redeem the collective sins he has to go to Etchmiadzin, Armenia [the seat of the Armenian church], and be christened there. That is tantamount to death and Saday cannot share his obsession with anyone. Unable to bring himself to do it, day after day he goes to the railway station to see off the trains departing for Armenia.
One windy and rainy night he came back home in such terrible state that his wife Azada nearly let out a scream. He was soaked to the bones, his pants smudged, collar and buttons torn off. Crying Azada undressed him, made him a hot bath and then gave him some cognac and a cup of tea. She then started asking questions:
“Who did you fight with?”
“I didn’t fight.”
“Then who’s done this to you?”
Saday didn’t have an answer. For a long while he remained silent and then burst into such bitter tears that Azada deeply regretted asking him questions.
“Oh, Azya, can you imagine, they burnt to death a young woman! At the railway station. They drenched her with oil and set her on fire!
“Who did that?” – Azada asked wiping tears from her face.
“A mob of women. They went wild as if they were not human beings but evil spirits.”
“Please, Saday, you can’t continue like this. You can’t change the world. You’re only destroying yourself. What were you doing at the railway station? Why did you go there?”
“I just wanted… I… Oh, Azya, I just want to die” – he uttered with difficulty.
Seeing that her husband was on the verge of a breakdown, the woman fell silent.
Finally, Saday Sadigli withdrew into his own world. Away from his wife and everything around him. Azada understood why he kept going to the train station day after day: he was there to see the Baku-Yerevan train familiar to him since his childhood. And in his mind he cherished a crazy dream to take that train and go to Etchmiadzin and embrace the Christian faith.”
But Saday never left. He was killed while trying to rescue an elderly Armenian being drowned in a fountain.
It is hard to describe how seditious this story sounds in Azerbaijan. Any book about the massacre of Armenians would be like an exploding bomb and its author would have to pay for it. But that “train to Etchmiadzin”… was like a shot fired straight in the head. This sort of truth no one could express. Once uttered, it can’t be argued with, and all that is left is to attack the messenger.
The word “Armenian” is a terrible curse in Azerbaijan, akin to a “Jew” or “Nigger” in other places. As soon as you hear “you behave like an Armenian!” - “No, it’s you, who is Armenian!” – that is a sure recipe for a brawl. The word “Armenian” is equivalent to “enemy” in the most deep and archaic sense of the word, something like “Tatar” for our Russian forefathers, an evil and an age-old enemy. Of course it was not always like this. Before Perestroika one-third of Baku residents were Armenians. The two nations had lived side by side for centuries. Thousands of Azerbaijanis risked their lives sheltering Armenians from pogroms. But the defeat in the Karabakh war became a terrible blow for the local self-esteem. I suppose that it was the disgrace rather than the loss of territories that was most painful.
The “all-mighty Armenian lobby” is considered to be the number one enemy of Azerbaijan. All problems are connected to Armenians. This paranoia is reinforced by the daily propaganda. The fact that the West has taken the side of the Armenians and hasn’t condemned the occupation of Karabakh is deeply insulting for Azerbaijan. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis consider Karabakh to be their own land but de-jure it belongs to Azerbaijan (and “the buffer zone” occupied by Armenians was not even disputed). Nevertheless, after Azerbaijanis had been driven out, European protests amounted to keeping up the appearances. In general the Western world has traditionally been sympathetic towards Armenians. That’s partly due to the memory of the genocide and partly because, just like Jews, there are lots of ethnic Armenians all over the world and they shape public opinion in their favor.
Having shut its eyes to occupation of Karabakh, Europe has in a way made the massacre less painful. Yet that didn’t give Azerbaijanis much relief. They just couldn’t understand why the West would side with Armenians. The default answer was a conspiracy by the Armenian lobby.
As the feeling of offence grows stronger, Turkey remains the only faithful friend. Like Azerbaijan it also denies the fact of genocide. Both countries refuse to recognize it and have developed a methodology of fabricated history. Hundreds of intellectuals in both countries adhere to the axiom that no Armenians have ever lived on their territories and thus there couldn’t be any genocide. They are working to come up with alternative histories.
For Armenians the victory in Karabakh war was a kind of moral compensation for the massacre. But their gloating over the defeated enemy did a disservice to them, leaving Azerbaijanis with a victim’s complex. For them the war was about Khojali. In the winter of 1992 that small town was invaded by Armenian fighters and six hundred locals were brutally murdered. That was only one of many tragic episodes of that war, which took tens of thousands of lives from both sides. But Azerbaijanis recall only Khojali as a symbol of unjustified brutality of the occupants. They speak neither of the massacres of Armenians in Baku and Sumgait, where hundreds of people were burnt alive and thrown off balconies, nor of the million Armenians massacred in 1915. For them there is only Khojali. And they are absolutely sincere in that belief. That’s where Ramil Safarov comes from.
The arrogance of Armenian nationalism and boastful talks of their ancient culture, “while the rest of the world was still climbing trees,” also adds fuel to the fire. In Russia we take those talks with a shrug. But it’s different for Azerbaijanis. When you hear such things from your enemy who has occupied your land, it is hard to appreciate the humor of it.
The youth raised watching local television programs have no idea that Karabakh war was about a disputed territory. For them it was just Armenia’s aggression. They say “We can wait. You know, our budget is ten times bigger than Armenia’s. And our army is so strong that we could take Karabakh back within a day. But we can’t do that right now. Russia won’t let us do it. But that day will come.” This is said in a calm voice, evidently with the assumption that the fighting will be done not by them, but some well paid professionals.
I meet Aylisli walking in a Baku street. He’s a short, portly old man. His sweater gives him a cozy look. When you see him peacefully strolling along the street it is hard to believe that someone offered 12,000 dollars for his ears.
“You’ve got a lot of new, good-looking buildings here...”
“Yes, that’s true,” Akram speaks with a funny old-Baku accent. “But quoting Heinrich Boll ‘I feel so miserable here that, if I don’t go to the cemetery, it gets absolutely unbearable.’”
“You are not afraid of going out?”
“Frankly speaking, for me it is not easy to stay here. I’d rather leave. My heart is no longer as healthy as it used to be. But I’m seventy-five now and feel free to give my life to those who stand for peaceful human relations between neighbors. As for my family, you know, they wouldn’t like to lose all this” – he looks around modest interior of his apartment. For them inter-ethnic peace is an abstract concept. But for me it’s a question of crucial importance. I don’t want to die before I see our two nations living together in peace. When I wrote my “Train to Etchmiadzin” I thought I wouldn’t have it published for a while. But then I said I have to. Whatever it takes, I must stand against what’s going on. I believe that everyone born into this world ought to return to the world the light that God has given us. We must leave that light behind him in this world”.
"But is it wise to tease this world?"
“Shura, my friend, I think in my case that was predetermined. If I had not been persecuted, nothing would have changed. It depended neither on me nor on the authorities. Such is the world. You remember in physics any action is only apparent where there is a reaction. Though for me it proved to be more than unexpected. But the most surprisingly, after that little story Armenians grew kinder towards us. Of course, among them there are some provocateurs who would prefer that I had been killed and for Azerbaijanis to be painted as wild and uncivilized. Nevertheless, Armenian intellectuals and lots of common people have become a little softer, freed themselves of anger, took a breath of air…”
“Yes, but here people think you offended the nation…”
“If I had any doubt that I had disgraced my people that would break me. But they think that when I say two good words about some Armenian I must say three good ones about an Azerbaijani. But it’s not my business to keep that foolish balance! In my story I depict a character and his perception of reality. His mind is very fragile; he’s on the brink of insanity. He remembers the stories told in his village and that adds to his frustration. It’s a big drama of a man whose heart and mind cannot accept the existing realities. Hey, people, just admit that you’ve committed ugly things! This is the only way to accomplish anything good.
“My persecutors even questioned my blood origins. Even though they know for a fact that I am a pure Turk. Some say that I long for Nobel Prize… Am I selling goods in the bazaar or something? But the most annoying thing is that all that rubbish is said on behalf of the nation. How can some office drudge know what people think? Since my young age I’ve only heard good things about Armenians from my mother, my grandmother and uncle. Usually those who have never known any Armenian are more aggressive nationalists than those who have lived next to them. In general our people are not prone to swear-words, except some crazy ideologues and uneducated country bumpkins. You can see such demagogues in some villages. Russian writer Vasili Shukshin depicted them brilliantly. Oh, I always loved to translate his short stories. I’m sure that if today a referendum was held, the majority of people would vote for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. If the state ideologues stand for rebuilding relationships, people will immediately support them. But the problem is that should Armenian and Azerbaijan presidents agree to a compromise, they will immediately lose political power.”
“Did your friends support you?”
“Well, there was a friend of mine who shed tears while reading the story. He said it was a great deed, etc. But then he just dropped out of touch. People are scared, you know…And there is nothing you can do about it.”
“Sometimes it seems to me that the whole country went crazy. People don’t want to realize what’s going on. Wouldn’t you like to keep away from all that? There is no use to try to convince a schizophrenic of something, is it?”
“One becomes exasperated when knowing what the truth is, but being forced to replace it with a lie and accept this lie for the truth. If you live between the lie and the truth you get morally crippled. I’ve always longed for clarity. All my life, I wanted to be left alone. You know that in my books I often depict one and the same character – a lonesome boy who wants to get away from others as much as possible. Just like myself. I’ve always been on the run; I fled from my village to the city, then back. I’ve refused high positions, shirked meetings and even my own desk. Yes, believe it or not, but I don’t like writing. Yet I can’t escape it. Where can I escape from myself? It is like being pregnant all your life.”
“You know, here I am most worried by the cold, frighteningly stiff looks of some mature-looking men as if they harbor some deep distrust of good in their heart of hearts. Where does this attitude come from?”
“Yes, they are like spiders or silkworms, aren’t they? They spin webs and dwell in there not knowing that there is no way out. And there is nothing we can do about that. I might be too subjective, but I believe that Russians are less rapacious than peoples of the Caucasus. And it’s not accidental that so many of our people have fled to Russia. They instinctively understand that Russians can be easily deceived and you don’t have to be afraid of them. I might sound like an idealist but I still remember the Moscow of 1960s. I lived and studied there. It was a different city. People were so naïve. If you told any girl you loved her she would believe without any doubt. She didn’t know how cunning guys from the Caucasus could be.”
“How did you become so different from others?”
“I was raised free. My father perished in WWII and there was nobody around to tell me what to do or where to go. And you know that in our culture it’s customary to be dictated how to look, who to marry etc. It was different for me. Nobody pushed me to do anything. Nevertheless I was a good student. But that’s because I couldn’t bear hearing any insults. I took offence when a teacher told me I had done something wrong. So I tried to avoid such situations. Yet now I have to take lots of insults.
My mother was the most freedom-loving soul I’ve even known. She just couldn’t stand any pressure by others. She raised three children and had never raised her voice at any of us. When she became a grandma and someone shouted at her grandchildren in front of her she wouldn’t take that. She was a very special character. I take after her. And imagine now they spread a rumor that she was Armenian…”
“Maybe some people believe that you are different and don’t belong here, because you didn’t grow up with family violence as a child?”
“Ha, may be you are right. My mother was very religious. All her life all she knew was her beloved prophet Muhammad and she prayed all the time. She also knew lots of verses and fairy tales, she was a storyteller. By the way, she loved Pushkin’s tales. They had been translated even before the 1917 revolution. In our village there were special people who would walk door-to-door. They would sing and tell fairy tales mainly for young girls’ attention in order to foster them in “namus.” “Namus” means female chastity and acceptance of her lot. My mother was eager to go to school, but instead she was married off at the age of 14. She lived a long life and to her dying day couldn’t forget about school. What a freedom-loving soul she was! She’s never ever put any pressure on me. If sometimes she got discontented with me, she would somehow show it in her own subtle way. That was the culture of common people we had then. And it’s the Soviets’ fault that it was destroyed. I had a friend – Vasili Belov. He had a knack for depicting characters like my mother. Oh, Vasya, we drunk so much vodka together!”
“How much has the local country life changed?”
“It has changed radically. In our village every family was different, but all were united by their attitude towards work: one shouldn’t possess anything for free. Those who were in possession of a land-plot and water were considered wealthy. And that was fair, because your property hadn’t been stolen but earned. Life has changed dramatically in this respect. Today, ninety percent of my fellow-villagers are working at Moscow markets. In my boyhood days every single piece of land was cultivated. Today it is left untilled and nobody cares. The economic system has been destroyed and so has peoples’ inner life. The state must have responsibility and control the economy. Former Turkish President Turgut Ozal used to say that in order to lift up a nation, it’s necessary to provide peasants with land and machinery, free them of taxes for a long while and eventually ensure the sale of produce. This is what the state should be obliged to do. But our authorities have done nothing of the sort. Well, we have oil! And that corrupts terribly!”
“Yes, in this regard Russia and Azerbaijan are companions in misfortune.”
“Neither Putin, nor Aliev are masters of the land. They are masters of natural resources, oil bosses. We fight for land with Armenians, but nobody here is in need of that land. It turned out that the land is not something people would like to fight for. Well, it can’t be helped. Perhaps such is God’s or devil’s will. I don’t know.”
“Do you think it makes sense to visit Aylis?”
“I don’t think so. Most likely you won’t be allowed to do so. Besides, people won’t like to talk to you. They’d better say nothing than either lie or tell the truth.”
“And how about village idiots that always speak plainly? Are there any in your village?”
“Oh, - Akram is smiling, - nowadays everyone has become clever.”
My trip to Aylis started ten years ago, when I hitchhiked through Turkey. I visited villages where you could knock on any door and get free food and pass the night. And for some reason I was longing to travel farther eastward. I wanted to figure out that country’s people and get in deep into its back-to-basics lifestyle. It seemed to me that somewhere nearby, under dust, rocks and dung, there still were the original human feelings which we had somehow lost little by little.
One night I arrived at a lilac plateau. On both sides I could see the huge black-and-red ruins of Armenian churches. They looked like remains of some now-vanished world. Never before had I seen anything more strange and otherworldly. Inside the very first church I got a strong feeling as if it hadn’t been erected by human beings, but existed out of time for some unknown purpose. Within its walls there was some ancient cosmic precept given in some unknown language long time ago. The window openings stared emptily and I understood that the church had been built just for the sake of that emptiness to convey the idea that everything is nothing.
Some of the ruins were rich in carvings. There were vines and pears, lions, horses and lambs, bears and men aiming at them, an eagle holding a hare in his claws. And all that, including the hare, was beaming with life and awe. I remember an amazing depiction of a saint holding a temple in his hands. That was an individual with genuine feelings. His face showed foredoomed understanding of the frailty of his life. And I understood why those people needed God and why we can easily do without one.
Armenians were great at fitting their churches into a landscape. You might think that God himself put his brush into the artist’s hand and guided him in putting the last stroke to complete a picture. The mountains wouldn’t have looked that perfect without the churches. As I was standing there and contemplating a small temple situated amidst the vast expanses I experienced a vivid sentiment of joy, clarity and freedom. The church was right then and there and it belonged to eternity and that gave me an acute feeling of my own existence.
As for the Turks, they were dwelling in their own parallel reality that was noisy, sunny and dusty. Peasants dug into the soil and donkeys carried basketfuls of apricots. Nobody took the slightest interest in antiquities of unbelievers. Occasionally shepherds with their flocks took shelter and burnt wood there and boys desperately tried to get stone noses smashed. I was wondering how they could fail to perceive the beauty that was so exciting for me. But ten years later I read Aylisli and got to know a country boy standing spellbound under the dome of an empty church, knowing nothing but feeling something.
Fate of a village
I’m flying to Nakhichevan. All the way long a video screen is showing an endless vignette with Heydar Aliev. It gives me a terrifying impression that the poor guy spent all his life with a false smile on his face, sitting in a presidium and clapping his hands. I arrive at night. I walk out of the airport, find a taxi and ask the driver to take me to the cheapest hotel. It’s a hostel for truck drivers. Three hundred rubles per night, five beds in each room and beddings changed once a month. But you are not asked any questions.
In my room I’m reading Aylisli and he takes me to that rural Turkish world which I like so much. All his life Akram wrote short stories set in the same location. They are all about Aylis, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, and altogether the stories make a kind of one big novel. “Stone dreams” is its final part.
Aylis is a very old village; at least a thousand years old. In Akram’s childhood it numbered twelve churches. Some were half ruined and some intact. The Armenian majority of the village was massacred by Turkish soldiers in 1918. Only a few young girls survived. As a boy he heard that story told in terror by old people and he even knew those girls who by then had become old women. He also remembers the churches left behind by Armenians.
“Each time she entered the church yard through its high unassailable gate and seeing the church itself she would be losing her mind. Like crazy she would go around in circles. Then she would start crossing herself and kissing almost every single stone of the walls. Finally, the old Aikanush would come up to the door and stop. There she would cross herself several times in front of a stone-carved depiction of Mother and Child whom Muslims of Aylis called a “Woman in turban holding a child.” And that was the end of her pilgrimage, which from outside looked like a funny performance…”
Story by story I come to know the village life and that little boy who will grow into Saday Sadigli and will die trying to rescue an Armenian. The village life hidden behind straw brick fences spreads out in front of me in full view. As I’m sitting together with the 8 year-old Sadyk on the top of the hill facing the village, I hear dogs bark and radio play on a pole nearby the administration building and I learn something about each living soul of the village.
I know the thoughts of that man who is standing perplexed on his “aivan” (balcony), as well as the ones of the veiled old woman who is stumbling along towards the well. I know that by night aunty Medina sits down on her bed and laughs hysterically, because her unanswered love has driven her mad. Granny Zeinab keeps her chervontsi (Tsarist-era golden coins) on the table so that her late son could see from his picture on the wall that she is fine. I know that Saltanat wanted to drown herself because her man Kadir had told her in front of a neighbor: “If you bear a girl, I’ll kill her! I will strangle her with these very hands or drown her in the latrine!” I can see the blackberry bush which had given refuge to Adjar, who is said to have stolen money from the cannery and I know how happy he is about having done so. Each story brings me closer to the village and makes it my own.
All his life Aylisli has been writing about this tiny part of the world, which reflects the whole human world. I have a weird sentiment that I too have lived in this village all my life and that I know its every single dweller. I feel that some endless circle is formed inside me. There are neither Russians, not Turks, but mere country folk and the village itself with its own lot. Aylis feels like a living being and Akram Aylisli is its creation. He’s like the only fruit on a lemon tree. It is as if in its old age this village needed someone who could reflect on its past.
Little by little I come to understand that Saday Sadigli had no choice. His fate is connected to Aylisli’s other characters: to Liska the cow who kept coming and mooing at the gate long after she had been sold; to Mukush who had been devoid of his orchard; to his childhood love Merdjan, taunted as a “whore” by village boys; to his grandpa’s ghost that used to come to check if there was sufficient stock of kerosene in the family; to the war and to the collective farm; to blind Islam who used to hang around the mosque; to the endless history of those mountains; to all men, women, children and aged people; and to moonlight that shone upon Gulshen as she opened the door for uncle Elmurad.
There was only one way out for Saday: the world overwhelmed with lies was pushing him towards the train station, to Etchmiadzin.
I believe Akram Aylisli has written a great book and I see that he had no choice either. Moreover, I come to understand Ramil Safarov. He’s not a maniac, he’s just as naïve as the characters of Aylisli’s story.
At the crack of dawn I am on my way to Aylis with the same taxi-driver. Ginger mountain desert land is flickering in hot haze. There are only rocks, silence and drought around; no people. They are gone either to Baku or Moscow or Istanbul. The highway is great, the oil money has reached this place. We pass by neat military installations encircled by barbed wire and machine-gun control towers. They are replicas of Turkish ones. The mountains across the Araxes river belong to Iran, while the ones across the valley – to Armenia.
One hundred years ago Armenians and Muslims were represented here almost equally. We are passing through Djuga. This is a village which just ten years ago had a huge Armenian cemetery with three thousand ancient khatchkars (stone-crossed tombs). In 2005 the authorities razed it to the ground with the help of soldiers and heavy equipment. The khatchkars were milled into rubble. The same year all Armenian ancient monuments of the region were wiped out. Dozens of cemeteries and about three hundred churches were gone; all of Aylis temples among them. According to the authorities no Armenians have ever dwelled here. And they also deny that Armenian monuments have been destroyed. Over the past eight years neither foreign journalists, nor PACE inspectors, nor European MPs and even American ambassador were allowed to visit this place. The catastrophe still remains largely undocumented.
I stayed in Aylis for about twenty minutes. I saw flat roofs, straw brick houses and fences and shady mulberry trees. Playful creeks carried water to apricot orchards. Women in headscarves and baggy trousers were toiling away. A vendor had displayed his nickel-and-dime goods right on the ground of the main square. Donkeys were grazing on steep hill flanks. No sight of any churches. And it was only a new school built of concrete with a square parade-ground in front of it and Turkish-style police station with a flagpole that disagreed with the rustic landscape. Right on that parade-ground Akram’s books had been set on fire by a thousand of poorly clad people, screaming and waiving arms.
The streets are almost deserted and I ask the taxi driver to take me to a chaikhana (a local teahouse).
“There are no chaikhanas any longer. They are banned throughout Nakhichevan to avoid any unwanted conversations.”
It turned out that in 2007 Vasif Talibov, the almighty “Khan of Nakhichevan” had in fact banned all chaikhanas. If you are aware of the role that chaikhanas play in a Turkish man’s life you can imagine how powerful the local regime is. Prohibition against chaikhanas is more drastic than would be a prohibition of alcohol in Russia. Along with chaikhanas a lot of other things have been banned, such as Shiite religious ceremonies, private satellite dishes and even cars with non-local license plates.
Yet I manage to find a bunch of bristled men hanging out in the street. I wonder who is who – whose brother or son… I ask what they think of Aylisli. An aged man says in broken Russian: “Akram is a very decent man. No man in our village can say anything bad about him. As for (here comes a prominent public official’s name), he’d rather shut up his fucking mouth.”
“Well then, how about mass demonstrations against Akram?”
“People were brought from the regional center on buses.”
At that point a car pulls up nearby. Men in suit coats get off. They are from the local KGB. I wonder how they found out about me. For the next three hours in a row I was questioned in the regional KGB office that was decorated with as many as three portraits of Ilham Aliyev. The KGB officer was trying to find out whether I was an Armenian spy.
“Are there any Armenian among your editorial staff?”
“As far as I remember there are not”
“What’s your editor in chief’s ethnicity?”
“He’s a Jew”
“Well, we don’t care whether he’s a Jew or not! Now tell us what you’ve been told by Aylis folks.”
“I’m afraid I cannot repeat that.”
“Let me assure you that people of Aylis are outraged by that book. If Akram ever ventures to come to Aylis they will tear him to pieces.”
A local Russian teacher is our interpreter. He’s a smart man, but hardened by life. He says that he loves Pushkin and Tolstoy and that for ten years he had to sell clothes in Luzhniki (a Moscow market) and he was a participant of that meeting. According to him Akram Aylisli has disgraced his nation and presented it as savages and murderers and distorted the history of Azerbaijan.
“Did you burn his books too?”
The teacher says embarrassingly: “That was done spontaneously. People were overwhelmed with anger. What Aylisli wrote in his book had never taken place! Nobody here has ever massacred Armenians. On the contrary, in 1918 there was a genocide of Azerbaijanis. Have you heard of that?”
“No, I haven’t”
“And do you believe that Armenians have occupied twenty percent of our territory?”
“That has nothing to do with my belief. It’s a fact”
Suddenly the somber KGB officer gives me a childish look and says in a trembling voice: “Thank you very much. Thank you...”
“You know, I’m sure that in twenty years you are going to be very proud of Aylisli. He’s the first to have stepped forward and extended his hand to the enemy.”
“And why didn’t Armenians do that first?!”
“One has to be a very brave man to do so. Unfortunately there is no such man among Armenians. But you have one.”
And I see how, in spite of his effort, a smile begins spreading over the teacher’s stern face.