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Culture That Unites Rather Than Divides

21 December 2010 One Comment

By Onnik Krikorian

TBILISI, Georgia – An Azeri teahouse, and naturally Azerbaijani can be heard spoken inside. A dozen men, identical in appearance, sit at tables, chain smoking and drinking cups of çay (tea). “Salam,” we say, before approaching the waitress. The owners of another Azeri teahouse, ironically run by ethnic Armenians just around the corner, directed us here, saying that the waitress too is Armenian. She is, even though the teahouse is owned by an ethnic Azeri. Anyway, we take our seats at a table with the intention of once again exploring the reality of peaceful coexistence in at least one part of the South Caucasus.

Considered neutral ground by international organizations and local NGOs engaged in regional cooperation, communication and peace-building activities, the situation is, of course, very different than in Armenia and Azerbaijan proper. A recent survey by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC), for example, found that 70 percent of Armenians disapproved of forming friendships with Azerbaijanis. That figure is alarmingly high, but the situation is even worse in Azerbaijan. There, 97 percent of Azerbaijanis said they didn’t look favorably on friendship with Armenians.

True, thousands of ethnic Armenians, mainly the wives of Azerbaijanis, are believed to still live in Baku, the capital, but they do so with some difficulty, maintaining a low profile to avoid discrimination. The same is true to a lesser extent for significantly fewer Azeris in Yerevan, although their ethnic kin from Iran do indeed operate more openly in the Armenian capital. Of course, locals don’t view them with quite as much hostility as they might if they were from Azerbaijan. Indeed, even a festival of non-political contemporary films from Azerbaijan had to be canceled recently after strong local nationalist backlash.

In both cases, however, it’s probably no wonder. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody war in the early 1990s over the disputed mainly Armenian-inhabited territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Over 25,000 were killed and a million on both sides were forced to flee their homes. Despite a tentative peace, the frontline remains tense, with dozens of young conscripts on both sides dying each year. Moreover, with the mutual massacre of civilian populations throughout history selectively taught in schools and kept alive by the local media, once could hardly expect that an environment for mutual understanding could exist.

Arpine Porsughyan, the co-author of a CRRC report on media bias in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, notes the role the media plays, but also says that the general public is to blame too, especially as consumers are eager to digest such information. “Some argue that those with a strong interest in politics and access to various sources of information are subject to ‘biased processing,’” she says, explaining that people tend to filter information based on already existing views even if they otherwise say they would prefer a more unbiased media.

In Georgia, however, the situation is very different. Free from the nationalist rhetoric of Armenian and Azerbaijani political forces, and isolated from the negative stereotypes and propaganda usually disseminated on an almost daily basis in the local press, ethnic Armenians and Azeris coexist quite well, and do so without regrets and by no means reluctantly. As in Moscow or elsewhere outside of the conflict zone, they naturally congregate together, recognizing a similarity in terms of culture, cuisine, and mentality. Back in the teahouse, examples sit before us at nearly every table.

At one, the conversation changes as Georgian television news cuts to footage of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents meeting in Astrakhan, Russia, for yet another high-level meeting to finally resolve the conflict. “I used to take the similarities between our nations for granted, but this war made me appreciate how similar, if not the same, we all are,” says Albert, an ethnic Armenian singer, as the conversation shifts to discussion of the news on the screen ahead. Away from politics, though, he sings mainly in Azerbaijani, especially those songs written by Sayat Nova, the 18th-century Armenian troubadour.

“It’s like when you fight with your brother or sister,” adds one of his closest friends sitting next to him. “They are your own flesh and blood, but still you hit them just for nothing. This is how it is with our nations too.”

That man is 74-year-old Ramiz, an ethnic Azeri musician who prefers to sing in Armenian. He even married an Armenian while — further completing the picture of mutual coexistence — Albert married an ethnic Azeri. “My Armenian friend is worth a thousand other friends,” says Ramiz as the teahouse starts to resonate with the sound of Armenian and Azerbaijani being spoken interchangeably. The war between two neighboring countries is a political, rather than an ethnic, one, they say, before the eyes of both of them start to shine when the conversation once again turns to Sayat Nova.

Like Sergei Paradjanov, whose last film before his death in 1990 was based on an Azeri love story and filmed in Azerbaijan despite the rising tensions, Sayat Nova was very much a cultural figure for the entire Caucasus and not restrained by national ideology or borders. The legendary bard wrote most of his songs in Azerbaijani, then the lingua franca of the region. Indeed, a statue of Paradjanov can also be found nearby, as can a monument to Sayat Nova, although it’s a mainly ethnic Azeri area of Tbilisi, and soon the location of a new Azerbaijani Embassy overlooking Heydar Aliyev Park.

In fact, it marks the approach to St. Gevorg, a 13th-century church and seat of the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia. Sayat Nova is also buried there, but it is unclear whether Azerbaijanis will be as welcome as Armenians appear to be in Tbilisi’s Azeri teahouses. As it turns out, they are very welcome indeed, and as the conversation switches to Russian, the eyes of the Armenian woman selling candles in the church light up when one of us, an Azerbaijani from Baku, identifies herself as such. Karine says that ethnic Azeris also visit the church and some even pray.
She also has many Azerbaijani friends, many of them with Armenian spouses, and dreams of visiting her friends in Baku.

It might not be the capital of Azerbaijan, but its namesake – a restaurant just five minutes away on foot – is yet another example of peaceful coexistence in the city. Save for the substitution of pork for lamb in some dishes, the menu is nearly identical to that found in almost any restaurant serving national cuisine in Armenia. It’s no wonder then that both ethnic groups dine here. The manager, an ethnic Azeri, says there are no problems between the two, although she does admit that not every visitor from Azerbaijan proper is happy with the situation.

Nevertheless, Tbilisi’s Azeri restaurant welcomes customers, Armenian and Azeri alike.
Yelena Osipova, a student from Armenia now studying in the U.S., knows this only too well. “As a freshman at college in a country far away, I happened to attend an Azeri cultural evening,” she remembers, admitting that she was unable to differentiate the tradition of music, national dress and cuisine from her own. “At a certain point, I became confused since it was very difficult to consider that it wasn’t an Armenian cultural evening. The main reminder of that was the Azerbaijani flag hanging on the wall.”

The situation is even more acute for those who lived in the other’s country before being forced out as the conflict erupted around them. Zamira Abbasova, for example, is a 26-year-old ethnic Azeri from Armenia who recently returned to Baku from the U.S. where she studied Conflict Transformation and Resolution at the School for International Training.

“Meeting Armenians for the first time shook my feelings and emotions up and down,” she says, even though she was only four when she left Armenia and has only vague memories of her home situated close to Lake Sevan. “I made lots of friends, talked openly to them, and heard their perspective.
Since then, every time I see an Armenian, be it in the street or any other social gathering, I feel some kind of invisible tie to them and to the land in which I was born, ignoring the fact that ‘they should be my enemies.’ That is the power of ‘good’ over ‘evil’ which we have ignored for too long.”

Although not representative of the majority in either country, another alternative voice is Marine Ejuryan, a 21-year-old student activist who has participated in many cross-border projects with her counterparts from Azerbaijan and Turkey. She too can cite other examples of shared culture and friendship, especially that which has been expressed in literature. “In ‘Bayram Ali,’” she says, “the Armenian poet and writer Avetik Isahakyan wrote about Armenians and Azerbaijanis living together and fighting against a ‘common enemy who took their territories and water.’”

Ejuryan also refers to a story by Aksel Bakunts about the friendship between an Armenian and an Azerbaijani during inter-ethnic clashes at the beginning of 20th century. She can also cite examples in literature from the other side too. “Nizami and Khagani, two famous Azerbaijani poets, speak with praise about Armenians in their works, and these are only a few examples, telling of a time when there was friendship and cooperation between our nations. Even today we still live side by side with each other elsewhere in the world.”

Scary Azeri, a prolific and well-known blogger from Azerbaijan now based in England who can count many Armenians among her loyal readers, agrees. “In Moscow, Bakuvians hang out together, and when I say Bakuvians, I don’t mean only Azeris,” she says. “As in Tbilisi, on neutral territory, many Azeris and Armenians happily co-exist. They share toasts, laughs and happy memories. They date, make friendships and forget the problems they left behind. Every war eventually comes to an end and I sincerely hope there is going to be peace in the region sometime in my lifetime.”

True, the path to peace remains as elusive as ever, especially with concerns regarding the possibility of renewed fighting increasing since the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. Fueled by its revenue from oil, Azerbaijan’s military expenditure looks set to hit $3.1 billion next year, more than the entire national budget of Armenia. However, despite Armenia’s exclusion from regional communication projects which arguably hinder its future development, the majority of Armenians in Armenia and Karabakh are reportedly more content with preserving the status quo.

Recent town hall meetings conducted by the Yerevan-based International Center for Human Development (ICHD) indicate that, at a little over 50 percent of respondents, this is currently the most popular position, with only about 17 percent of Armenians supporting the return of territory surrounding Karabakh in return for its independence. In Azerbaijan, only 0.3 percent of Azerbaijanis were willing to accept such a development although 32.9 percent were prepared to consider Karabakh determining its own status sometime in the future after the return of other territory currently under Armenian control.

In such a situation, is there any hope? First, says regional analyst and London School of Economics PhD candidate Kevork Oskanian, attitudes in Armenia and Azerbaijan towards each other have to change. “There is no doubt that most people in both Armenia and Azerbaijan desire peace,” he says, “but the difficulty in coming to an agreement is due to the limitations in any ability to shape their social environment as they please. This ability is limited as it collides with the values that govern appropriate behavior within a given society as it contradicts powerful interests in the status quo.”

“Some citizens and politicians might want to change the situation, but soon enough they would be counteracted by the nationalist norms that still govern their societies. Ordinary citizens have it in their power to help fashion an alternative narrative that emphasizes the many commonalities within the different ethnic groups of a once culturally unified region,” he continues, “but perhaps the greatest key to becoming an agent, rather than a victim, of history, lies in that elusive thing called ‘visionary statesmanship.’ And that is in very short supply on all sides in this long-suffering region.”

Ejuryan is more direct when it comes to promoting dialogue. “Many years of war, enmity, and negative propaganda have resulted in the current perceptions of the ‘other’ in our societies,” she says. “Without a doubt it is now time to break the stereotypes Armenians and Azerbaijanis have. The idea that Armenians and Azerbaijanis are ‘ethnically incompatible’ is certainly nothing but pure fallacy. We used to live together in peace and still do on neutral ground, which means that it’s possible in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Karabakh too. What we need to do first is to end the propaganda wars on both sides.”

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