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A majority of minorities and a kaleidoscope of culture

5 May 2011 One Comment

Azeri Novruz, Marneuli, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2011

“Why should we be enemies at the whim of some politician? You cannot separate a nail from your finger without bleeding and causing yourself severe pain. We cannot do without the other. This is how we were and how we will always be.”

—— Nazkhanim, Khodjourni, Georgia

A rainy Easter Monday morning in Tbilisi, Georgia, and the weather had already disrupted my sightseeing plans as I concentrated on jumping over the puddles. But, coming from a predominantly Moslem country, I could not help but satisfy my curiosity once again when I found myself in front of an Armenian Church. A dim and almost medieval building, a priest stood in a black robe while mainly women whispered prayers as candles burned intensely before them. Instinctively following the crowd, I lit a candle too, ushering in a whole new experience among people who reminded me of Azeris simply practicing another religion.

A few days later, however, another journey was to offer additional insight into coexistence among the two largest ethnic minorities in Georgia. Heading to Marneuli, mainly inhabited by ethnic Azeris with an Armenian minority, I had already heard much about this hybrid town from others contributing to this project and was eager to witness this symbiosis in reality. A boy named Luka with the face of an angel was sitting next to us, identifying sights through the window in Georgian and Azerbaijani. Born to a Georgian father and Azeri mother, Luka was travelling to Marneuli, hometown of his maternal family. That was already a good sign.

Arriving in Marneuli, it felt like Azerbaijan. The faces, colors, sounds and smells from the local market were all so similar albeit with some significant differences not to be found back home. An Azeri man was playing Azeri music from a stall which also sold Armenian CDs while an Armenian woman spoke to a customer in Azerbaijani albeit with a slight, pleasant accent. Ruzanna, a 60-year-old ethnic Armenian had been working in this market for 30 years, selling spices and dry fruits used in Azerbaijani cuisine. Having lived through so many days of Armenian-Azeri coexistence, questions about this situation were met with puzzlement and confusion.

For her, the fact that Armenians and Azeris lived and worked together was not extraordinary. “There are a handful of villages here where this harmony exists,” she said smiling.

Ruzanna, Marneuli, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2011

Unlike Ruzanna, however, the majority of sellers at the market were Azeri, as you might expect in a town where they form the majority, and many eagerly posed for the camera.

Our main destination, though, was to visit two Armenian-Azeri co-inhabited villages, and first up wasTsopi, a rural settlement where ethnic Azeris form the overwhelming majority, but live side by side with ethnic Armenians. For them the war [over Nagorno Karabakh] never really happened. It was an artificial, imposed game and a conflict they could not grasp. Continuing to live together on friendly terms, they shared the same land, similar traditions and a rich culture that was almost a mirror reflection of the other. Aside from two mischievous ethnic Azeri boys who followed us around the village, Tsopi was remarkably relaxed and calm.

On learning that one of us was from Azerbaijan, Olya, a 62-year-old ethnic Armenian, invited us in for coffee. Despite the poverty and hardship the family was going though, delicious homemade sweets including walnut jam was laid out on the table. Her neighbor, a half-Greek half-Armenian woman named Maria shared the magic recipe. Considered to be the sole preserve of Azerbaijani cuisine, and likely considered the same way in Armenia, the walnut jam was instead a regional specialty as you might expect given the way both cultures overlap or have influenced each other.

Olya, however, did not join in. She couldn’t. Suffering from diabetes, her meager pension is not sufficient to purchase her medication. She continues to hope that the Georgian government will one day turn its attention to people like her.

The lack of adequate health care is not the only problem in the village. The same is true for education and there have been no employment opportunities since the closure of the local quarry when the former Soviet Union collapsed. Depending on their ethnicity, young men have to instead leave to work abroad in neighboring countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan or Russia. Like elsewhere in the region, girls generally marry at an early age and most do not bother to pursue a career in what remains a patriarchal society. Dinar, a 15-year-old ethnic Azeri, however, was different.

A bright teen hoping to study journalism at university, Dinar also has many Armenian friends at the local school. Armenians and Azeris are taught in separate classes in their own languages, though, and Georgian proficiency remains a problem. Higher education in some subjects is available in Azerbaijani in Marneuli, but universities in Tbilisi effectively remain off-limits as a result. Meanwhile, the school in Tsopi is seriously dilapidated and in desperate need of repair.

Tsopi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2011

Next stop is Khodjourni, a village the reverse of Tsopi. Here the overwhelming majority of the 350 homes are ethnic Armenian with a small number of ethnic Azeris living among them. Two of them sit on a bench on the approach to town while another reclines against a green shack. All three speak Armenian as well as Azerbaijani and an elderly Azeri woman appears from her house to offer her village’s foreign guests freshly baked bread. About 20 meters away, a group of young men sit idly on benches, while others kill time by playing cards. They greet us in Armenian although at least two are ethnic Azeris and another half-Greek.

Again, like Tsopi, unemployment has blighted the village. “Work?” one responds jokingly. “That’s what we’re doing sitting here,” he says, explaining that Russia is not an option for finding temporary work as it is in Armenia proper because everyone has Georgian passports.

Unlike Tsopi, however, there are no women outdoors. One Armenian says that the situation is natural given that in his opinion women should spend most, if not all, of their time at home looking after children or doing the housework. What else would they be interested in, he rhetorically asked. Nevertheless, on a nearby street another ethnic Azeri woman invites us in. Nazkhanim, 66 years old, has fond memories of her teenage years spent at the house of an Armenian family who worked with her parents.

In later life, an Armenian doctor was the only one trusted enough to circumcise her son while this year Armenian friends joined her for the Novruz celebrations while they in turn brought special holiday bread to her for Easter. “Why should we be enemies at the whim of some politician?” she asked. “You cannot separate a nail from your finger without bleeding and causing yourself severe pain. We cannot do without the other. This is how we were and how we will always be.”

By Reader in Baku

One Comment »

  • admin said:

    This entry was originally posted on the old version at:

    Comments left for the post were:

    05.05.11 / 7am

    Dear Onnik,
    I have written to you in the past .I commend your well intended tries at friendship/confidence building between the two.But ..I doubt it very much that this can be worked out on nation wise basis. An isolated village on a third country..well, it could be an incentive perhaps,but it will require long period of time.Can you explain to me how come India and pakistan have not been on very friendly terms since being seperated after British rule.Whereas latter in no way can be considered as examples w/above two
    kind rgds,

    05.05.11 / 10am

    Gaytaz, thanks for your comments although I’d like to point out that this post was written by someone else and not me. Regardless, your points are valid although I’d personally say that this situation is not confined to just one isolated village, but among Armenian-Azeri communities in and around Marneuli as well as Tbilisi.

    And while I would say that a comparison with India and Pakistan is an interesting one, although I have yet to experience the kind of hostility between Indians and Pakistanis on a human level as can be found sometimes between Armenians and Azeris, there are some interesting differences.

    Firstly, Marneuli and other regions around it are where most of Georgia’s 280,000 ethnic Azeris reside. It is also the main route taken by most of the road traffic from Armenia to Tbilisi which operates on a daily basis and without problems. It could also be noted that in terms of its southern border, the same is true of the millions of ethnic Azeris residing in N. Iran.

    So, we can see that despite the common notion that Armenians and Azeris are destined only to fight, in the case of Georgia and Iran, which have the majority of their ethnic Azeri populations on the border with Armenia, this is not the case. Relations between Armenians in Armenia and Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan is another matter, however.

    Throw in the more relatively tolerant attitude displayed between Georgians and South Ossetians, Abkhaz and Russians, and perhaps we can see that there are other factors in play. For one, I’d suggest the media in both Armenia and Azerbaijan does not help the situation and nor does the political situation which sees Karabakh exploited in order to maintain or come to power.

    Indeed, pretty much this has defined domestic politics since just before, during and after the process of independence. Now, all that said, my personal opinion is that we remain very far away from peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but I do not believe this is as the result of people. Instead, it is because of other processes still in play.

    In order to change that, perhaps, is a local grassroots peace process where the conflict might still exist on a national governmental level, but where the personal citizen-citizen dimension has been reduced significantly or even removed from the equation, is necessary. Such a situation would be more conducive to peace than what exists at present.

    Of course, those holding such views remain a very small minority in both countries and some perhaps even inclined to take such an approach are also often hesitant to openly make such a position known for obvious reasons in the current climate. Nevertheless, the situation in Georgia and elsewhere shows that conflict between the two groups is more often a political rather than ethnic one.

    Incidentally, the India-Pakistan conflict is an interesting case study, and not least because the differences between the groups is more of a religious rather than ethnic nature. But, like the Israel-Palestinian conflict, individuals and groups do openly operate in the area of peace building unlike the situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan where it is arguably more difficult to do so.

    This needs to change in order for the possibility of peace (in an unfortunately distant future) to exist. Certainly the conflict itself needs to exist primarily on a political and national government level instead of between people who are told their very identity depends on it. In Georgia, and also elsewhere, we can see that away from domestic politics and a nationalist media, this is possible.

    It is also incredibly necessary…

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