Autumn 2002 (10.3)
- Erosion of Memory and the New Generation
by Betty Blair
"Recently, we learned that one
of our friends has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The news
came as such a shock to us at the magazine that we hardly knew
what to make of it. Doctors had discovered that a massive growth
was pressing down on the memory section of our friend's brain.
Perhaps that explains why his conversations lately had been so
garbled, with incongruous juxtapositions of people and events,
much like a strange dream in which personalities and events from
childhood intrude upon contemporary life decades later and thousands
of miles away from their place of origin. The tragic news made
us reflect on this marvelous phenomenon that we take so much
for granted - memory. On the one hand, we credit memory with
so many moments of sheer pleasure. Is it not memory that facilitates
so many functions that are pivotal to our very survival?
Our language, though, expresses many concerns about the loss
of memory. We speak about "jogging one's memory", "fading
memory", "memory loss" and "memory failure".
One of the most dreaded fears gnawing away at older generations
is that Alzheimer's disease will rob them of this facility, making
them totally dependent on others. It seems that the loss of memory
carries with it more profound consequences than even the loss
of any of our five senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell and
Without memory, can we even claim to
be human beings? And if individuals can't function without memory,
can societies and nations survive without communal memory? Is
it not historical memory that provides the glue of our identity,
helping us understand where we came from, who we are, how we
grew up, and the many experiences that have shaped our perceptions
The 20th century was particularly brutal when it comes to what
might be called the "erosion of memory" in Azerbaijan.
Consider the profound effect that three political reversals had
on the national psyche, especially in relationship to private
ownership, religion and any sort of national identity.
After the Soviets took power in 1920, it became politically incorrect
to be associated with the ideas and ideals that had been elevated
and passionately pursued just a few years earlier. One did so
at the risk of death.
In this issue, three individuals that we feature paid a high
price for overstepping these boundaries. Poet Mikayil
Mushfig (1908-1939) paid with his life at the height of Stalin's
Repression. Even in the 1970s, when his wife Dilbar penned her
memories of their few short years together, she chose not to
relate the circumstances surrounding his arrest and death. She's
gone now; we can't ask her to fill in the blanks.
Poet Bakhtiyar Vahabzade (1925-)
lost his job as a professor for several years and became unable
to provide financial support for his family. He was fired for
criticizing imperial Russia's policy of splitting Azerbaijan
into two countries. Fortunately, today, we can still speak with
him about these pressures. Vahabzade holds an esteemed position
Although he had committed no crime, Artist Alakbar
Rezaguiliyev (1903-1974) was sent to prison for nearly 25
years, merely for being associated with someone who had espoused
pan-Turkist ideas. Yet, it seems that in Rezaguiliyev's case,
throughout those lonely years of exile, his memory served as
his closest friend and confidante. Not until 1956, three years
after Stalin's death, was Rezaguiliyev finally released from
exile in Russia's frigid Arctic.
Next year his 100th Jubilee will be celebrated. Unfortunately,
we can't speak with him directly about his life. But he did leave
us hundreds of prints that depict the daily routine of Azerbaijanis
at the turn of the 20th century, especially in the set of "Old
Baku" prints that he sketched from memory. His works capture
what no longer existed when he was released from prison and what
no longer exists within the old citadel walls today - veiled
women, peddlers hawking their goods in the narrow, winding streets
and women stretching their scrubbed carpets out in front of the
Maiden's Tower to dry.
Nor should we gloss over the valuable experiences of two courageous
women who followed their passions and helped break religious
taboos against female performers. Both went against their parents'
wishes. Gamar Almaszade (1915-),
who became a famous ballerina, had to contend with severe arguments
with her father, who was shocked when he learned that his daughter
wanted to dance on stage. "Are you out of your mind, showing
off your legs?" he shouted, threatening to kill her. Shafiga Bakhshaliyeva (1929-)
ran off with the circus and made a career of balancing and dancing
on the high wire, again against her family's wishes.
When we first started publishing Azerbaijan International 10
years ago, little did we realize that that this decade would
be a period of reclaiming lost memories. Today, obviously, with
Azerbaijan's independence, a different history is being written
than the one that was written a mere dozen years ago. Time flies
so quickly. Young people entering universities today can barely
remember what kindergarten was like under the Soviet system.
For their sake, and for the sake of future generations, we have
gone to tremendous efforts to document these valuable experiences
while the memory sharers are still with us.
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AI 10.3 (Autumn 2002)
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