Sunday, February 3, 2013

Aylisli’s Artful Challenge

Akram Aylisli, the eminent Azeri writer who has stirred up a hornets’ nest with his recently published novella on the Karabakh conflict - “Stone Dreams” - is evidently a courageous man.  A ‘People’s Artist’ of the Republic of Azerbaijan, a recipient of the country’s highest state honours, he has taken upon himself to do something extremely dangerous, reckless even by the standards of nationalist conformism that suffuse politics in the Caucasus.  It takes a lot of daring to break through the taboos and manipulated historiographies constructed by subsequent nationalist governments and their subservient ‘intelligentsias’, and place oneself in “the other side’s” shoes, even for one moment.  For this, Mr. Aylisli deserves respect and consideration, and not the relentless, apparently government-sanctioned harassment of which he has been the victim over the past week.

In the novella, Armenians, not Azeris are the ones being persecuted and massacred; and, contrary to orthodox Azeri historiography, Armenians are not portrayed as almost-innately ‘fascist’ intruders subservient to Russian imperialism (the standard Azeri nationalist trope) - but as people, ordinary, frightened, fragile human beings caught up in a period of history when awful things were done by and to all sides of an ethnic divide.  Aylishli correctly identifies the major pathology of the Caucasus – selective memory - and, in doing so, breaks a cardinal rule in all narratives of hatred that pervade the region, and in so many other regions of the world saddled with sectarian divides:  “Ignore the other’s suffering, especially when it is inflicted by yourself.  Wallow in your own suffering, especially when it is inflicted by the other”.  

The reaction to Aylisli has been one of furious indignation.  Among others, nembers of the youth wing of president Aliyev’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) organised a demonstration during which the author was accused of ‘being Armenian’ and no-so-politely being told to emigrate.  Azerbaijan’s parliament – the Milli Mejlis - opened its first session of the year with a debate on the matter, with pro-government MPs again using the ‘Armenian’ epithet as an insult, and one individual even demanding Aylisli undergo DNA analysis – assumedly, to look for the ‘Armenian genes’ that may have muddled his patriotic thinking.  Unfazed, Aylisli asked these gentlemen how they could unite their wish to rule over the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh with their obvious racism towards that very ethnic group.  More importantly, however, he issued a challenge to his Armenian counterparts: the response he expects is not applause – which he obviously knew he would get – but an equal level of self-examination, over events like the Khojaly tragedy of 1992, or the expulsions of Armenia’s Azeri minority at various points in the 20th century.

How unfortunate, then, that this call was made in the very week of premiere of what is probably the highest-budget film to have been produced in Armenia since independence (at a cost of USD 7 million), on “national hero” Garegin Nzhdeh.  Problem is: apart from being a military leader at during the First Armenian Republic (1918-1920), Nzhdeh also developed an ideology called ‘Tseghakron’ (a fanciful, racist combination of nationalist, Christian and pagan mysticism) during the 1930s, and actively collaborated in the setting up of Hitler’s Armenian Legion, with the aim of liberating the Armenian SSR from Stalin’s Soviet Union, facts that are either minimised or whitewashed by the country’s nationalist historians and politicians (as seen and heard in this government TV documentary). The premiere of the film contrasts dramatically with Aylisli’s actions: just as one public intellectual used his art to question and critique the assumptions held within his own society on his side of the divide, Armenian artists allowed their elite to abuse an art-form, in order to uncritically lionize an individual associated with an openly racist creed and –to boot – the Third Reich.  (That Nzhdeh and his balderdash 'ideology' have been adopted by the country's ruling Republican Party makes this situation all the worse: as if they couldn't choose out of a plethora of far more deserving historical figures.)

It would indeed be a pity if Armenian intellectuals now shrugged their shoulders at the somewhat unfamiliar sight of an Azeri counterpart breaking through the selective memories that plague all societies in the South Caucasus, and proceeded with ‘business as usual’ in response (except perhaps for a few predictable snippets of uneasy praise).  Armenian memories are just as selective, and hampered, among others, by the routine conflation of Turks and Azeris, and an entirely unfounded fear that admitting ‘their’ atrocities against Azeris would somehow undermine the historical veracity and moral repugnance of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey.  The right answer, from the Armenian side, would be a frank examination of historic episodes like the March 1918 events in Baku, or the forcible expulsions of Azeri populations from the country in 1918-1920 and 1988-1990, or the Khojaly tragedy of 1992.   

In so doing, intellectuals and artists in both societies could eventually end up redeeming themselves from their sheepish subservience to nationalist narratives since independence. Azerbaijan and Armenia are both authoritarian, patriarchal societies whose nationalists have thrived on spoon-feeding unfortunately all-too receptive populations with falsehoods, upheld through the disciplining force of the taboo, and, failing that, the use of intimidation and physical force.  Aylisli has fired the first shot in challenging these falsehoods on his side of the ethnic divide.  Let’s now see if his Armenian counterparts pick up the gauntlet, and perform their role in questioning, critiquing and piercing through the very same taboos that govern discourse on their side.  Unless, of course, they believe that uncritically parroting the languages of power and conformity is all they are supposed to do.

(UPDATE: According to latest reports, President Aliyev issued a decree today -7 February- depriving Aylisli from the title of 'People's Writer' of Azerbaijan.)


Anonymous said...

Dear Kevork, what is your email? Or is it a state secret?

patrick abrahamsson said...

Extremely pleasing and satisfying to see a true intellectual presenting simple facts in a non discriminating way . Its a pity for armenia you are in london and not in armenia running for president !