Autumn 1996 (4.3)
Wisdom of the Ages - Verbal Folklore
by Betty Blair
Illustration by Nusrat Hajiyev
"Once upon a time," as the Azerbaijani folktale goes, "there was a devil who fell in love with a beautiful bride - somebody else's bride, that is. Since she was human and he, superhuman, he decided that it wouldn't be so hard to convince her to leave her husband. But no matter how often he approached, she always refused. Finally, he hit upon a plan to transform himself into the exact image of her husband. This time she was so confused, she didn't know what to do. Each "husband" started pulling at her, claiming that he was the true spouse.
No one could solve the problem until one day a wise old shepherd promised to help. And with that, he spread his coat on the ground and challenged the two to jump seven times its length. Obviously, only the impostor could do it, the task was impossible for a human being. And so the beautiful bride was reunited with her true husband.
Back in 1978, Morvad Suleymanli, currently Deputy Chairman of Azerbaijan State Radio, used this fairy tale as the basis for his first novel, "The Devil" when he wanted to show how the Soviet system operated. The people clearly understood his analogy. The KGB did, too.
But the comparison should not be limited to the Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan (1920-1991) when it comes to kingdoms and powers which have tried to impose their own identities on Azerbaijanis.
The same situation has repeated itself through the ages. Geographically vulnerable and resourcefully enviable, the country has been buffeted and badgered by czars and shahs, caliphs and khans from Persian Achaemenians (4th century B.C.), Arabs (7th century A.D.), Mongols (12-13th century) to the Russians (beginning with the 19th century down to the present) and Armenians (present day). Who knows what kind of hostilities occurred before historical records were kept? Perhaps that's why epics, carried down in oral tradition, are so full of bloody stories.
Folklore as Identity
Despite how often historic and geographic boundaries blur when it comes to oral traditions, still there is a body of verbal traditions that Azerbaijanis consider their own. Folklore, by its very nature, equips a community to get in touch with its own origins and its own ancestral memory. Through vivid imagery, pithy sayings and dramatic tales, folklore provides a charter, describing the way things should be done in a given community and how people should behave towards one another.
It is for this reason that the international community should take Azerbaijan folklore extremely seriously as a means for understanding the Azerbaijani nature and character. Folklore is the eternal thread that connects people to themselves, no matter what kind of external circumstances they have lived through. No matter who has tried to woo or violate them.
The preparation of this issue, "Wisdom of the Ages: Verbal Folklore," has been a fascinating journey, especially for me as editor, since my own professional training (UCLA) has been as folklorist.
Since the power, nuance, and complexity of folklore is embedded in language, we've tried "to go the extra mile" to provide the Azerbaijani translation (Latin script) along with the English for the proverbs, Molla Nasreddin stories, tongue twisters and even "meykhanas" (rap).
Folklore in Azerbaijan is still mostly studied from a literary point of view, meaning from texts alone. Here we've tried to examine texts within their natural contexts. We've tried to ask "who says what to whom, why, and under what circumstances." The most obvious example is the article developed by seven-year-old Ayten (see "Me and Granny and Granny's Granny: Rearing Children with Azerbaijani Proverbial Expressions," page 26).
We've also carried out the first Azerbaijani socio-linguistics study ever in regard to naming practices (see "Names - History in a Nutshell: 20th Century Naming Practices in Azerbaijan", page 54). We're convinced that histories could better be understood by a thorough study of name practices. Like DNA, an incredible amount of information is embedded in names, including gender, nationality, age, values, aesthetics, religious inclinations, political preferences, social and economic status and more.
Another issue that we've tried to explore is how folklore was treated during the Soviet period; in other words, how it was manipulated (ashugs), censored (Koroglu), denied (Dede Gorgud), and even how they tried to stamp it out (meykhana).
For example, official policy makers quickly latched on to the power of the poetic word via the songs of "ashugs." (traveling minstrels). Prior to the Soviet period, ashug poetry and song had always included an extremely broad range of human experience. According to Israfil Abbasov, head of the Folklore Department at the Academy of Sciences, "It wasn't long before some ashugs were persuaded to raise Lenin to the heights of Prometheus, the ancient legendary hero, describing him as "the Sun which never sets," and "savior of all the nations in the world."
Folklore, by its very nature, is universal in spirit. However, out of necessity, it always manifests itself through a specific culture and specific language. And this was troubling to the Soviets.
Especially material related to Turkey or anything Turkic was held in suspect as Soviets feared it would provide an excuse to reorganize links that extended from Turkey through Azerbaijan to the Central Asian Republics of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
And so they changed texts, such as the epic "Koroglu" to make Turks appear more hostile. Though in original versions, Koroglu made some trips to that region to establish political economic relations, the Soviet version always showed him at war, according to Abbasov, who wrote a dissertation on the subject.
Adopting new alphabets has also taken its toll on folklore in the Republic. Four times this century the alphabet has been official changed: Arabic to a modified Latin (1929), to Cyrillic (1939) and now, since independence, to a new modified Latin (1991). Essentially, each time the script is changed, classics have to be reprinted and this leaves fewer resources available for other books to be printed.
For example, Azerbaijan has an incredible wealth of proverbs - thousands of them are in everyday use. But try to find any printed version except tiny, thin volumes. We found one in the old Latin (1929-1939) and one in Cyrillic. But nothing in the new Latin and nothing in English much less other languages that Azerbaijanis in the Diaspora could and should compile.
Loss of Language
Perhaps, the most serious damage inflicted during the Soviet period has nothing to do with manipulating "ashugs," altering or censoring texts, stamping out genres or even adopting new alphabets. For the most part, these forms are, more or less, recoverable since not so much time has lapsed and someone can always be found who remembers the ways things were (if the task is undertaken soon).
Much more problematic is the loss of knowledge of one's own mother tongue. When families deny children the repertoire of their own native language and urge them embrace the prestige language of the region - whether it be Russian, Persian, English or any other language, a spiritual vacuum is created. Language is more than a medium of communication. It is the embodiment of wisdom that has been accumulated through the ages.
Many Azerbaijanis in the Republic, Iran, and abroad have become orphans to their own rich heritage. What is even worse is that, too often, the new language system and its culture seem so attractive that Azerbaijanis rationalize tha it doesn't matter any more that they are no longer in touch with their own roots.
"Folklore is as strong as air. It's like water or the sun. The climate of your country affects you physically, but it's folklore that shapes you morally," says author Suleymanli, who has been working in folklore for the past 30 years. Folklore provides access to the ancestral treasury of the "Wisdom of the Ages." But it takes the knowledge of one's own language to open the lock.
From Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.