Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1999 (7.3)
Page 47

What's in a Name?
Nationality, for Starters

by Elkhan Garibli

When the Soviets came to power in 1920, it wasn't long before they required people to register their names. Azerbaijanis had to add a Russian suffix to their names. The ending "-yev" / "-ov" was added to male names and "-yeva" / "-ova" to female names. In Russian, these endings mean "belonging to". Occasionally, the Jewish ending "­inski" was maintained with no suffix attached.

When Azerbaijan first gained its independence, some people petitioned to reclaim their original names, which ended in "-li" or "-zade". Though it may sound like a very small thing to change a few letters, to those who so desperately wanted to throw off the yoke of Russian dictatorship, "reestablishing" their Azerbaijani names was perceived as a significant victory.

Elkhan Garibov, now Elkhan Garibli, was one of the first to challenge the Soviet system by reclaiming his Azerbaijani name even before Azerbaijan regained its independence in 1991. Here's how he did it.

I used to be ashamed of my last name-Garibov. Many Azerbaijanis have first names that are of foreign origin. But somehow, that seems different because parents have chosen those names. But in the linguistic structure of Azeri, where so much nuance is carried by suffixes, the ending of our last names indicates which nation we belong to. So why should our family names have imposed Russian endings?

This policy seemed to be arbitrarily applied to Muslims of the Soviet Union, as neither Georgians nor Armenians were obliged to change the endings on their names. So, to this day even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian name endings are part of the Soviet legacy, especially among Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Turkmen.

In all these countries, the Arabic alphabet had been used for more than 1,000 years. Even though Azerbaijanis themselves opted for a Latin-based alphabet in 1928, there was a vigorous Soviet movement to destroy everything that could be found that was written in the Arabic script. No doubt in our case, this also related to the question of our ties to the Azerbaijanis living south of our border in Iran (whose Azeri population now numbers nearly 30 million). This separation of the Azerbaijani people occurred when Russia and Iran signed the Turkmanchay Treaty in 1828.

In the 1980s, quite a few Soviet Azerbaijanis began changing their names unofficially, but their documents still retained the official Russian endings. For example, inside my father's books, he wrote his last name as Garibli. He referred to himself as such, but his name was still officially Garibov.

I was a university student when I first started thinking about my name. I sensed that Azerbaijan would eventually regain its independence-it was just a matter of time. There had to be an end to such a corrupt, ill-conceived system.

Around 1988 when all our troubles broke out with the Armenians in Karabakh, I started thinking about why we were having all these troubles. We had been deprived of our alphabet, our names, and even our surnames. I figured the least I could do as an individual was to reestablish my own surname. And that's what I set out to do. My friends approved, of course, but my relatives didn't seem to understand. They kept asking why it bothered me so much.

Red Tape
Changing my name turned out to be a gigantic bureaucratic headache. First I presented my official request to the Director of the District Registration office. When I told her that I wanted to reclaim the Azerbaijani version of my surname, she didn't understand. There were only a few categories allowed for name changes. You could either adopt your mother's name, or take on your husband's name if you got married. Neither of those categories fit my situation.

I didn't want to change my entire surname-just its final suffix-merely two letters-from "-ov" to "-li". That's all. I tried to explain that my case could be covered by the same procedure that she had described, but she rejected my suggestion, insisting that no policy had been established to cover such a request. When I insisted, she told me to leave her alone because it wasn't her responsibility. She then directed me to Baku's Central Registration Office.

At the Central Office, the man in charge got angry, too. I said: "OK, if you don't want to give my name an Azeri ending, give me an ending from another language. How about Swedish? Make it 'Garibson'. I don't want a Russian name."

When he said "No" again, I told him to write me a formal letter of rejection. That's when he became more cautious and asked where I worked. At the time, I was working at an office inside the Ministry of Internal Affairs (the police), which happened to be on the second floor of the same building as his office. I pointed upstairs. The fact that it was a powerful office may have made him hesitant to commit himself. That's when he wrote "Handle it" on my request and sent me back to the same woman I had dealt with earlier.

Well, when the woman at the District Office read her superior's note telling her to "Handle it," she thought that meant "yes" and she began following through on my request.

Of course, there was a lot of red tape involved. I had to gather 10 to 15 documents from various offices, including my birth certificate, my parent's marriage certificate, a reference letter from the central apartment office, another letter from the passport office, and on and on.

Finally, I managed to gather all of the required papers and pay the official fees. About a month later, my new passport was ready along with a certificate saying, "From this day forward, the surname of Elkhan Garibov shall be Garibli." That certificate gave me permission to initiate change on the rest of my documents.

Later, some of my friends also decided to change their own names or, at least, to give their newborn children last names that reflected their "Azerbaijani-ness". Some chose "-zade" (not "-li") which really means "born of", but is of Persian origin. Myself, I don't like either Russian or Persian endings attached as suffixes to Azerbaijani names, but a lot of Azerbaijanis don't know that "-zade" is Persian. My friends can do what they want to. It's their business.

Elkhan GaribliBecoming "Garibli" has somehow given me quite a sense of satisfaction. Of course, it's a small matter in the grand scheme of things. Azerbaijan has so many problems whose solutions depend upon the collective government, not
on a single individual's actions. Changing my name somehow symbolized something that I could do on my own. It was a way of asserting myself and my own identity. I'm proud I was able to achieve it even before we gained our independence in 1991.

For more about naming practices in Azerbaijan, see "History in a Nutshell: 20th Century Personal Naming Practices in Azerbaijan," by Elkhan Garibli's sister, Jala Garibova and Betty Blair in AI 4.3, Autumn 1996.

Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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