Azerbaijan International

Spring 1994 (2.1)
Pages 20-21

We Used to be Friends
(Armenians and Azerbaijanis)

by Svetlana Turyalay
Translated from Russian by Umid Azari

Editor: In the Western Press, Armenians and Azerbaijanis are often described as "ancient enemies". This was not the attitude that we evidenced in our visit to Azerbaijan in October 1993.

Everywhere we went, even refugee camps, Azerbaijanis provided examples of the personal friendships that used to exist. Svetlana Turyalev, one of Azerbaijan's outstanding journalists, an Azerbaijani who had to leave Armenia herself at the beginning of this conflict, captures the memory of the friendships that used to exist between the people of these two nations.

Shafaq: Goranboy Region, 1991. Photo: O. Litvin

No matter where you go and whom you meet in Azerbaijan, whenever you bring up the subject of the war, the majority of Azerbaijanis will pause and reflect, "Armenians used to be our friends."

However, as the conflict continues-already it has been going on for almost six years, which is even longer than World War II - many people are repressing the memory that these two nations and peoples had, indeed, been true friends not so long ago. At this moment when 20% of Azerbaijani's territory is occupied by Armenians, it is somehow strange to talk about friendship. That's why I've decided to write about what I know about the friendship of Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

I don't know who first invented the notion of the self-determination of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Obviously, history will provide the answer. Up until that time, Azerbaijanis and Armenians lived in harmony and friendship. Armenians, moreover, themselves, recognized that they had a much higher standard of living in Azerbaijan than Azerbaijanis themselves.

In the very rich region of Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians lived in two-storied houses with large gardens-everything necessary for a prosperous life. Armenian villages in Azerbaijan were more attractive and wealthier than those populated by Azerbaijani's.

Azerbaijanis and Armenians marked many of life's passages together. They shared everything - both sorrow and joy. If there were an Azerbaijan wedding or funeral, Armenians were invited. Armenians held the sons of their Azerbaijan friends during circumcision ceremonies and both groups invited the other to farewell parties when their sons were drafted into the Soviet army.

Perhaps, the greatest evidence of friendship that existed between these two cultures can be seen in the prevalence of mixed marriages. Today, these are the families that most deeply feel the impact of the war; its sharp, cruel blade severing husband from wife, and children from parents.

In 1988-89 both Azerbaijanis and Armenians felt unsafe and threatened in the other nationality's country despite having been born there themselves and they began to flee for their lives. Armenians living in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia, Russia, and, sometimes, even the U.S.; while Azerbaijanis from Armenia found refuge in Azerbaijan.

During the bloody upheavals of January 1990, Azerbaijanis hid Armenian families in their houses and drove them to the airport or to the border at the risk of their own lives.

Many Azerbaijanis recall the agonizing scenes of saying good-bye to Armenian friends, teachers, co-workers who left for Russia or Armenia. They'll tell you that those good-byes were so difficult, "We didn't know if we would ever see each other again. Parting forever was like death for us."

Despite this "population exchange" as it is sometimes called, all Armenians did not leave Azerbaijan. Unbelievable though it may seem, there are still to this day thousands of Armenians, especially Armenian women, living in Baku whose husbands are Azerbaijanis.

When foreigners ask whether Armenians still live in Azerbaijan, it's not uncommon for Azerbaijanis to volunteer, "Do you want to meet an Armenian? I can bring you one right here within five minutes." But the same, unfortunately, cannot be said in Armenia as not a single Azerbaijani has been allowed to remain in what for many has been their birthplace, as well.

Even at the time when the flag of separatism was being raised in Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia's support, Azerbaijanis and Armenians did not forget that they were friends and many guarded and protected those relationships.

For example, a very famous Azerbaijan journalist who had been deported from Armenia once told me that, while living in Yerevan, a group of youngsters attacked him when they discovered that he was Azerbaijani. It was Armenians who rescued him from inevitable death by hiding him in their homes.

Just last month, one of the Azerbaijan refugees told me that he knew of an Azerbaijan woman who had been kidnapped by Armenians in that hideous practice of hostage taking that is now going on in this war. It was her former Armenian neighbor that recognized her, and, who managed to arrange her release.

And nobody right now wants to remember those friendships. But Azerbaijan and Armenia are two planets in the same universe. Armenia is not geographically located in Australia; nor Azerbaijan, in Africa. We are two countries which exist side by side and I don't know how many years it will take for this mutual hatred which is consuming nearly everyone to be stamped out and transformed into a willingness to build friendships that once were so prevalent among us.

Glimpses of Friendship

Editor: Here are a few of the stories that circulate in Baku these days about friendships and sensitivities that still exist between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Our Family's Tragedy: Cousins Forced to Fight Each Other
I live in Baku. My husband is Azeri, but I'm Armenian. There are a lot of such families in Baku. At this
moment I have lost all my relatives. I don't even know where to begin to look for them.

My sister, by some miracle, escaped death in Sumgait (the large industrial city near Baku in which some Armenians were killed in 1990) and now she's living somewhere in Armenia. All I know is that her son is about the same age as mine. And in a few months, they will both be 18 and drafted into their respective armies. They're cousins, who used to live in neighboring cities in Azerbaijan-now, they'll probably have to fight each other-one for Armenia and the other, for Azerbaijan. The possibility exists that one might even kill the other.

I have only one plea to God these days and that is that this tragedy shall never happen, "O Lord! Stop this war."

One of my neighbors told me the following story when he, himself, returned from front on leave a few days ago. He said that two months ago (September 1993), three Azerbaijan soldiers came face to face with seven Armenian soldiers at the battle front. Death seemed so inevitable and so close.
But when the men got nearer, the Armenians called out asking the Azeris where they were from. "Baku," came the reply. The Armenian soldiers were so excited and, yet, at the same moment, so sad, because they themselves used to live in Baku.

Incredible as it may sound, they all sat down together, smoked, and shared their problems and sorrows for a while. In the end, everybody agreed that nobody really needed this war. After awhile, both groups of soldiers returned to their respective sides of the battle front. No one was killed, though all of them feared they might be shot in the back. -Alla

Embrace in a Moscow Elevator

Not long ago, I was in Moscow when a young man got on the elevator I was riding. He looked at me, then asked whether I were Azerbaijani. I nodded.

"From Baku?" "Yes," I answered. I begged the same question of him. "Yes, but I'm Armenian. I had to leave." "How are you doing there without us?" he wondered."Not so well." I confessed.

And at that moment, two of us - total strangers to each other - spontaneously embraced each other, fully aware of the sorrow and pain this war had caused the other. We were simply two brothers torn by strife. -Yagub

Armenian/Azeri Friendship and Romance in Literature

Editor: The following romances have been depicted in Azerbaijan literature of the intriguing love between Armenian women and Azerbaijani men.

Nariman Narimanov
, one of the First Bolshevik leaders of the Communist party in Azerbaijan, who is still highly revered as great historical figure, wrote a novel called Bahadur and Sona in the early 20th century about an Armenian women and Azerbaijani man in love.

Alexander Shirvanzade, an Armenian writer from Azerbaijan, wrote a novel called, Namus in the early l900s.

Uzeyir Hajibeyov composed an opera, "Asli and Karam," which was staged in 1912 in Baku. The plot is based on folk tradition sung by ashaqs (roving singers) accompanied by saz (stringed musical instrument). The story describes an Armenian priest living in Isphahan (now Iran) who refuses to give his daughter, Karam, in marriage to an Azerbaijan nobleman. The basis for this folk tradition may originate as early as the 17th century.

Mir Alishir Neva'i (1441-1501) writing in classical Uzbek, created an epic poem based on the familiar Central Asian folk tradition of Farshad who in quest of his beloved Shirin channels water from a huge boulder. What is distinct about his version is that Shirin is an Armenian and the drama unfolds in Armenia, a beautiful land which he takes several pages to describe.

Abdul Rahin Hagverdiyev wrote a major theatrical work of five acts for a cast of 60 per in the beginning of the 20th century which was translated into Persian by Beluhar Asefi and published by Amir Kabir.

One of the scenes describes Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers at the battlefront living in the trenches. One moonlight night during a cease-fire, an Azerbaijani starts to sing. An Armenian recognizes his voice and calls out to him; whereupon, the Azerbaijani asks if the Armenian has his tar (musical instrument) with him. And so the Armenian on one side of the battlefront accompanies the song of the Azerbaijani on the other. Then others join in the song and gradually both sides come out of the trenches and embrace each other.

From Azerbaijan International (2.1) Spring 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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