Autumn 1999 (7.3)
A Century of Tears
by Mirvarid Dilbazi, poet (1912-2001)
Mirvarid Dilbazi's first poem, "Women's Emancipation," was published in 1927. Her first book, "Our Voice," followed in 1934. Since then, she has written numerous poems and children's books. Dilbazi has also translated works by writers such as Pushkin, Khagani and Nizami. In 1979, she was named "People's Poet of Azerbaijan". President Aliyev awarded her with the "Istiglal" (Independence) Order in 1998. For this issue, we asked Dilbazi to explain how women in Azerbaijan have been affected and transformed by the changes of the 20th century.
When I reflect back on this century, the first thing that comes to mind is why when a child is born, does he enter the world crying? Is it because he foresees the troubles he'll face in the future? Is that why he cries? I entered this world crying, and I've spent my whole life shedding bitter tears. I've witnessed so many troubles.
I witnessed Stalin's Repression of 1937, the tragic losses of World War II, and now I'm witnessing this Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. I wish no one had to go through all of the troubles that I've experienced.
Russian Czar Nicholas II was overthrown when I was a small child . Then a period began that was called "Years of Freedom." But to tell you the truth, that freedom was more like a taste of anarchy-people did just as they wished without worrying about being held accountable.
Then the Musavat government was created [1918-1920]. We were happy because finally we were beginning to establish our own government-our own independent state. But our happiness was short-lived. The Bolsheviks came  and established their government in Baku and left us under the Soviet oppression for more than 70 years [1920-1991].
I was eight years old when the Soviets established their power here. I may have been a child, but I was very conscious of the process that was going on in my country. Even as a child, you can't be indifferent to the troubles of your Motherland. During my lifetime, I witnessed the fall of the Soviets just as I had witnessed the fall of Azerbaijan's first independent government-the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan.
A lot of things might have gone differently if we had been able to save our Republic back then in 1920. At least, the decision-making process would have been in our own hands, the official language would always have been Azeri and the alphabet would not have been changed to Cyrillic against our will.
After the Soviet government established itself in Baku, Nariman Narimanov, one of its leaders, opened a school in Baku in 1921. The director was a very noble and educated woman-her name was Madina Giyasbeyli. Once this lady came to our village of Dashsalahli which is located in the Gazakh region in northwestern Azerbaijan. She happened to stay at my grandfather's house. Since my father had died, we were all living there with my grandfather. My sister Yagut and I were attending the village school at the time. This lady liked us very much and took a great interest in our classes. She loved it when we recited poems to her.
When it was time for her to return to Baku, she asked my grandfather if she could take us with her so that we could attend her school. My family consented. So that's how my sister and I came to Baku.
Rights for Women
Between the 1920s and 1930s, the most burning issue among the Azerbaijani intelligentsia related to women's emancipation. This theme became very popular in literature. For example, there was Jafar Jabbarli's play "Sevil,"1 Mammad Said Ordubadi's "Misty Tabriz,"2 and others. What was meant by women's emancipation was first of all taking off the chadors [veils], then women's participation in governmental affairs and women's literacy.
Women's literacy had been forbidden by the religious leaders. Girls were not taught to write; a few of them had managed to learn how to read a bit of the Koran, which was written in the Arabic script.
Chadors (veils) have been one of the greatest tragedies of Eastern women. I must tell you, however, that as far as Azerbaijan was concerned, only women living in the southern regions near the Iranian border and some in Baku wore them. Women in the northern regions were not familiar with them.
For instance, I was born in Gazakh [northwest corner bordering Georgia] and I never saw a single woman from that region wearing a chador. Our women weren't familiar with such dress requirements. In my own family, my mother, sister and I never wore them. Women in our region wore only silk kerchiefs, not the full-length veil.
I wrote a poem entitled "Mahsati" (1945) about a progressive poetess of the 12th century. In this poem she is censured for playing the kamancha,3 for writing and reciting poems and for opening a school for children.
Shah Sanjar4 demands that she appear at his court and she arrives wearing a black kerchief. When he asks her why she has arrived in his court with her face unveiled, she replies: "Let those who have defects on their faces veil themselves.
I have no defect, so why should I cover my face? We don't have a tradition of hiding our faces under a veil. A woman's honor is completely related to her morality, not to what she wears."
Jafar Jabbarli wrote a play called "Sevil", a story about a progressive woman who exerted her own will. In the episode where Sevil dramatically removes her chador on stage, many of the women attending the performance also took off their chadors.
That was in the late 1920s. I would say that the play clearly contributed to the end of women wearing chadors in Baku. After "Sevil" finished its run, there were only a few women still walking around Baku wearing them.
Each family held its own opinion about the chador. Some women were afraid of their husbands, some of their fathers or brothers. Some held firmly to traditional religious beliefs advocating the veil.
I remember that one father killed his daughter in Baku because she refused to wear the chador. She was buried at a large ceremony, and the newspapers wrote about her for quite some time. Her father was arrested.
During this period, both the government and the intelligentsia encouraged women to take off their veils. There were a lot of publications devoted to this campaign. Of course, the Soviet government had its own strategy and self-interests. It opposed religion (Islam) and as you know, the chador is a matter of religion. It was only natural that the government would support the campaign against it.
I can't explain the process in great depth, but there was no ultimatum made by the government. There were no bans on wearing the chador. But there was a considerable effort made to persuade women to take them off. In 1928, when I wrote my first poem, it was dedicated to the issue of women's freedom and emancipation. You could hardly find a writer back then who didn't write about this subject.
The campaign for women's rights was limited, but it opened many great opportunities for women. Women began working in governmental affairs. They became scientists and poets. They started traveling to foreign countries. Basically, society began changing its attitude towards the worth of women.
Then a major campaign was launched against illiteracy. The idea was to make everyone literate, no matter how old they were. My sister was a teacher and was involved in this campaign. She went house to house, registering people, so that no one could be left out. Then the teachers would go to the homes and instruct the people, especially women. Schools opened later on. People were very interested in learning how to read. Later when the schools opened, attendance was compulsory. If parents didn't send their children to school-both boys and girls-they were held accountable.
One of the greatest difficulties for our nation has been that we have changed our alphabet four times in this century. First, there was the Arabic script that we used for more than a millennium, then the Latin script was introduced in 1927, then Cyrillic in 1937. Then we reverted to Latin again in 1991 as soon as we gained our independence.
Changing the alphabet is a violent blow to the cultural heritage of any nation. It means that the entire legacy of the older generation cannot be read and accessed by the younger generation. Changing our alphabet four times this century has resulted in isolating us from our own thinkers. I guess under such circumstances, I should consider myself one of the lucky ones to be born in an era where I was exposed in my youth to all three alphabets-Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin. But so many people didn't have that chance.
Photo: Dilbazi with her daughter
In 1937 the Soviets made us change our alphabet to Cyrillic. They feared that if Azerbaijan and the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia used the Latin script just as Turkey did, it would pose
a gigantic threat to Russia's authority. And so they followed another strategy-which was very clever in dissipating any consolidation against them. In Cyrillic, they further complicated the issue among Turkic speakers by identifying different symbols for the same vowels in various Turkic languages-Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Azeri.
For example, Azerbaijan uses a schwa (upside-down "e") to represent the "a" sound in "fat cat". Other Turkic-speaking republics had to represent that same sound with a different symbol. It seems the old adage, "Divide and conquer" applies to the alphabet as profoundly as it does to politics.
It's been a great cultural loss within the Turkic world that during the Soviet period our efforts to read other Turkic Soviet writers, poets and activists was confounded by a mere few letters in the alphabet. It's just another reason for shedding tears in our century.
1 "Sevil" was a play by Jafar Jabbarli (1899-1934) dealing with the emancipation of women. Its story challenged Muslim women to take off their veils. "Sevil" was made into a movie in 1929 and again in 1970. It also served as the basis for an opera composed by Fikrat Amirov in 1953.
2 Mammad Said Ordubadi's "Misty Tabriz" consists of four volumes written over 15 years (1933-1948). Ordubadi wrote about the fight for freedom and equality for men and women, which was carried out by South Azerbaijani people at the beginning of the 20th century.
3 Kamancha is a traditional Eastern stringed instrument that is played with a bow.
4 Sanjar Malik Shah was the last sultan of the Saljug State. He reigned from 1118 until 1157.
Mirvarid Dilbazi was interviewed in July 1999 in her home in Baku by Aynur Hajiyeva. For samples of Dilbazi's poetry, see this article on the Web at AZER.com.Photos are from the film, Sevil, 1931. National Archives.
From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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