This month, we step into the territory of the former USSR, through the transcontinental country of Azerbaijan.
Located in the Eurasian region on the silk route and being oil rich, the country has a unique influence on the politics of the region.
Azerbaijan has a rich tradition of ballads since medieval times. There is a vast culture of poetry from which the country draws it’s strength through troubled times. After independence, several modern and post modern works were published as well.
When it comes to works of fiction available in English translation, one’s options are really limited. The only popular novel in English is Ali and Nino. However there is some controversy regarding the identity of the author. Even though there are a few other titles one comes across, most are not available with any international book vendors.
Hence, this time I decided to go with Aurdrey L. Altstadt’s “The Azerbaijani Turks“. This is the first non-fiction work for this blog. This academic work is ideal for someone like me, interested in learning about the country in detail.
the time of its formation. The region was populated since the very early days of human existence. The book says both Caucasian Albania and Iranian Azerbaijan are predecessors of the current day Azerbaijan. In its earliest days, it was populated by pre-Christian and later by Christian people. One of the etymologies suggest that the name might mean ‘land of fire‘ since ‘azer‘ means fire or it could indicate some connection to the Zoroastrian fire worshippers.
Later on, when turks from Iran and the Ottoman Empire started settling in the region, it transformed in to a Muslim-majority country. The earliest turks to rule were Shirvanshah and Safavid dynasties. Shah Ismail is considered the unifier of Azerbaijan and contributed immensely to it’s culture. Shah Abbas the Great built walls around the capital city of Baku in the 16th century.
The neighbouring giant of Russia has always had its eye over this oil rich country. The Russian rulers not only wanted economic but political and cultural dominance as well. In the initial days of Russian occupation in the 18th century, the region was ruled by the tsarist military. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Russians tried to tip the demographic balance of the region by massive resettlement of Azerbaijani peasants and herding nomads. As the author puts it,
“the Azerbaijani turks were the largest community in Azerbaijan and, until the turn of the century, in Baku. When they ceased to be the most numerous, they remained the largest indigenous group in Baku with their network of extended families throughout northern and southern Azerbaijan. They commanded wealth and influence. Discrimination was merely de jure – they felt themselves to be in de facto control of Baku. ”
The Azerbaijani Turks had cultural and religious differences with Russians and Armenians, whom they viewed as the proxy of Russians. However, they did not seek unity with the other turks like Ottoman and Iranian turks. To quote,
“only briefly after the fall of the Romanov dynasty would sentiments for unity with the Ottoman Empire surface and then only among a few. Rejecting political unity with other turks would later be a major element delimiting the National program of the Azerbaijan Republic. “
The country had a history of subtle and sophisticated literature long before the Russian occupation.
“Perhaps the oldest cultural and historical traditions are embodied in the dastaans, which were composed in prose and poetry and often recited to music. They are the principal repository of ethnic identity, history and customs and the value systems of (their) owners and composers.
Dastaans combine the arts with the reporting of history and traditions using examples of heroism and morality. Being an integral part of identity, historical memory and historical record itself, the dastaan stands, as it always has, as a final line of defense against any attempts to dominate it’s composers. “
A new language, Turki – Azerbaijani dialect of Turkish, was also developed during the 19th century, complete with grammar, used in textbooks later.
Control over the mountainous region of Karabhak and Nakhjivan is the biggest bone of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leading to much violence and loss of peace till date. In his time Lenin himself kept an eye on the issue and tried to provide a Territorial settlement, which lauded as “the shining example of Leninist nationalist policy” , ensured that neither Republic could feel safe from border adjustments or interference.
The book takes detailed looks into the rule of secretaries of Azerbaijan communist party namely Hayder Aliyev and Gorbachev. The author displays hope in the type of rule of Aliyev, signified by the phrase, “Broadly strides Azerbaijan“. The book ends after the events of Black January
, on an optimistic note, acknowledging Azerbaijan’s struggle for survival amidst tough neighbors, not knowing that, Aliyev comes back to seize power and become the third president of the country, which is currently being ruled by his son. This is an excellent introduction into the history of Azerbaijan and proves worthy of the time invested into it.
Other Options from Azerbaijan:
A romance set in the desert
Stone Dreams – Akram Aylisi
Azerbaijani novella about the struggle between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabhak region