Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1994 (2.3)
Page 56

When A Tree Isn't A Tree
The Topkhana Demonstrations of 1988

by Azar Panahli

It was November 17, 1988, and hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis had gathered in Baku's Lenin Square to protest the cutting of trees in one of the State Preserves. It was an awesome sight as never before in our history had such a mass demonstration taken place.

Six years have passed and when I speak with friends about that event, they remember it as vividly as if it happened yesterday. What they're often puzzled about is why the trees were being cleared in the first-whether it was because Armenians living in Karabakh, an Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, were clearing land to build an aluminum factory or for a retreat for Armenians who worked at the Aluminum Plant in Yerevan. Perhaps, that's the main point. It really only mattered that the forest was being destroyed, and that others, not Azerbaijanis, were wielding the axes.

The Media's Version

I was studying in Moscow at the time. When the news appeared on the television, my landlord called me immediately. The screen was filled with demonstrators. The news was brief and, characteristically, vague. As usual with controversial subjects, there was insufficient explanation to understand the real issues-no way to know who was to blame-who was right or wrong. The Azerbaijanis, as was often the case, were made to look very stupid and aggressive, carrying on so-about a few trees.

But demonstrations had never occurred on such a large scale in the entire history of Azerbaijan. People only "demonstrated" on May 1st-Labor Day when they were supposed to. Any other uprising would have been immediately dispersed. The KGB was all around. People knew they could be arrested for protesting.

Symbol of Topkhana

Back in Azerbaijan over winter break in January, I asked my parents what had happened. "Topkhana," they said. "Armenians were cutting down Topkhana." No further explanation was needed. Any Azerbaijani could understand everything with that one word. Topkhana is a forest. A large old forest in a State Preserve. It has grand oak trees which have been standing, they say, for more than 300 years old.

But it's more than that. The forest is associated with the entire region around Topkhana, especially the vicinity of Shusha, which symbolizes the best, the noblest and the highest level of our culture. We're so proud of the level of civilization that has emerged from that region-the depth of thoughts and dimensions of beauty. It's the birthplace of so many cultural giants-artists, writers, poets, playwrights, musicians, composers, and intellectuals. And so the land has become sacred to us. Historically, we are psychically and emotionally attached.

So those demonstrations about Topkhana were not really about trees or ecology at all. The issues penetrated so much deeper; outsiders had challenged our authority over our own resources-both physical and cultural.

Self Consciousness Emerges Through Pain

When those axes started cutting the trees, the steel blades hacked and brutalized our own souls. We were mutilated and left bleeding. Deeply humiliated. And in that pain, a strange phenomenon began to emerge. We started turning inward to examine our own reality. True, people talked about trees during the first days of those demonstrations, but gradually the topic widened. Instead of Topkhana, we started questioning many things. Why, for example, were we being dominated? Why were we being discriminated against? Who was the real enemy? What were the real obstacles to our freedom and independence? There had been several disagreements with Armenians over land issues before; but they had always been resolved by the government or by environmentalists. But not this time.

Always before we had accepted the systematic effort to neutralize national identity in the Soviet Union which fostered the notion of generalization, not individualism-the masses, not the personal.

We had grown up believing that we were one nation-the Soviet nation, and one people-primarily Soviet. To be Azerbaijani was to be weaker, somehow inferior, to being Soviet. The truth is we didn't even know who we were. We had never been taught our own Azeri history except when events paralleled Soviet interests. In literature our writers were always scrutinized through Soviet lenses; we were never allowed to freely explore the writer's multi-dimensional levels of meaning and depth.

Consequences of Self Identity

But after Topkhana, we realized there was no such thing as a Soviet people. Our best interests had been abused and subjugated. No one but our own people could understand that Topkhana symbolized more than trees; it was our own identity-our own being.

Sometimes, it's said that the demonstrations in Baku were orchestrated to cause unrest; the same is said of Topkhana. Perhaps so, maybe we'll never know. But the issues touched a nerve that was so sensitive that there has never been any going back.

Six years of war have followed. The consequences have been so costly. There's been too much blood shed; too much land lost, too many people left homeless, too much pain. Today, November 17th is marked as a "red letter day" on our calendar, a holiday known as "National Revival Day." And that awareness-that revival of our whole identity began when we started protesting over what seemed to be the mere cutting of some trees.

From Azerbaijan International (2.3) Autumn 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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