London: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.
You cannot persuade a party of frenzied nationalists that two blacks do not make a white; consequently, no day went by without a catalogue of complaints from both sides, Armenians and Tartars, of unprovoked attacks, murders, village burnings and the like…
– C.E. Bechhofer (1920) (qtd. in
De Waal, Black Garden, p. 128f.)
Azerbaijan Diary is an interesting book to read, and a troubling one to comment on; especially troubling while sitting in the ‘strategic’ town of Goris on the road to NK (Nagorno-Karabagh).1 In short, the book is a journalist’s account of the conflict over NK2 and the development of independence in Azerbaijan during the break-up of the Soviet Union.3
Part of me wants to complain about the proof-reader falling asleep for the second half of the book, leading to sentences entirely in lower-case, and young men stripped to the ‘waste’; part of me wants to complain about infelicities of style: surely one need not compare all war-profiteers to Milo Minderbender, nor say that all politicians talking out their ass are speaking ‘delphically’, however prophetic they end up being? This, however, would not be fair, and is merely an attempt to hide my unease with irrelevant fault-finding.
The source of this unease is simple: I feel a deep affection for the town of Goris and for the people who live in it, for the students and teachers I work with, for the friends that I’ve made, and even for the random kids on the street who shout ‘bonjour’ after they’ve passed me in the street (being too shy to say it to my face, of course). Life is hard for the people who live here; there’s not a lot of money, and they have indeed suffered at the hands of history. This is something that Goltz notices during a brief visit to Yerevan in 1993, but with a twist:
What did it all mean? Why was everyone so uniformly happy to tell us how bad things were? Had they been programmed, or had everyone in the country somehow instinctively ‘felt’ the need to use a certain vocabulary to express it? In a weird way, everyone seemed eager not only to accept the miserable state of affairs brought on by the war, but to advertise it – without mentioning the war itself. Although no official would say this, we were left with the lingering sense that the government had succeeded in making the war touch everybody, that is, they had managed to put the country and its citizens into a war economy and a war psychology… (311)
Which makes sense for the purpose of nation-building, and surviving the trauma of the USSR falling apart, but for the purposes of truth and justice,4 it seems cynical and disheartening.
After reading this book it is more than ever clear to me that if Armenia the nation5 wants the state of Turkey to acknowledge the genocide of 1895–1915, it would behoove the state of Armenia to acknowledge the ethnic-cleansing it did in NK in the 1990s, or for that matter in Zangezur/Syuniq in the 1920s.6 Sadly, it would be political suicide for any politician brave enough to attempt it, and that is a great shame, and I am sorry for it.7
- A note to the reader: if you are Armenian or Azerbaijani or a Turk or a journalist, you might want to stop reading, because nothing that will be written here will satisfy you.
- Horrid euphemism.
- If you wonder or are offended by my repeated emphasis on the author being a journalist, please be assured that I mean nothing more than that his account is based on his experience in the field, on his reporting, rather than entirely through research done at a safe distance, though in some cases, I suppose, this would also be considered ‘journalism’.
- As abstract and perhaps illusory principles to guide the actions of humanity towards goodness and happiness and other such unattainables.
- including the diaspora
- No one that I met has denied that there was an Azeri presence in Syuniq, entire villages even, but the manner in which they were abandoned is always glossed over, or is painted rather unpleasantly as a heroic episode for partisans led by folks such as Andranik Zoravar & Garegin Njdeh; thanks to PF for the reminder.
- I was at first tempted to lay all the blame on Stalin, but increasingly I think it is more a problem with the entire concept of the nation-state as international entity. The concepts of a ‘country’ and ‘self-determination’ just don’t seem to work without bloodshed.