The publication of Akram Aylisli’s 2012 novella Stone Dreams marked the beginning of a spectacular fall from grace for the well-established Azerbaijani author. Angry crowds across the country made bonfires of his books; he was stripped of his official title by President Ilham Aliyev; his wife and son were fired from their jobs; and one politician even offered a reward to anyone who cut off his ear.

Six years later, some of the urgency has gone out of the official campaign against Aylisli, but a wall of silence has been built around the once-popular writer. “My books were removed from all the country’s libraries and publicly burnt. My plays were pulled from all theatres. My films were removed from circulation. My works were taken out of school textbooks. In short, I find myself in a full spiritual blockade,” Aylisli, 80, says in an email exchange. “The only thing I have left is my own spiritual space, which any ‘real’ writer is obliged to preserve.”

Aylisli’s supporters hope the publication of Stone Dreams in English by US publisher Academic Studies Press this week will help raise awareness of the writer’s situation among the international community. The novella appears in a volume called Farewell, Aylis as one a trilogy of short novels by Aylisli. Yemen (1992), A Fantastical Traffic Jam (2011) and Stone Dreams are all remarkable for their exploration of how power is exercised in Azerbaijan, but the taboo-busting courage of Stone Dreams makes it unmissable for anyone familiar with the recent history of the South Caucasus. 

Aylisli provokes such anger among his compatriots because of his treatment of the conflict between Armenians and Azeris, which erupted during the collapse of the Soviet Union, first with killings and pogroms, and then as a full-scale war over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Sporadic fighting continues to this day, and years of relentless propaganda has entrenched a culture of hate in both countries. More than any other writer in the region, Aylisli does not shy away from describing the brutal violence, political failure, and moral bankruptcy of his own side. 

The main character of Stone Dreams, Sadai Sadygly, is a famous Azerbaijani actor whose empathy for the Armenians drives him to the brink of madness. He dreams of travelling to the Armenian holy city of Echmiadzin but ends up being assaulted by an anti-Armenian mob in Baku when he tries to help an elderly Armenian man being kicked to death. Aylisli also writes evocatively about the violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s in his descriptions of Aylis, Sadygly’s home village in the landlocked Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Here, he filters a modern hatred of Armenians through stories of a massacre of Armenians in 1919 by Ottoman forces supporting local Azeris. Sadygly’s future father-in-law tells him: “In every Aylis family… that seized an Armenian home, there are mentally ill people; I say that to you as a doctor. Did you ever once see peace in any of those homes?” 

A screenshot of people in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja burning Aylisli's books

The similarities between Sadygly and Aylisli himself are hard to miss. They are the same age, both hail from Aylis (whence the writer’s pseudonym; his real name is Naibov), both are artists who cannot reconcile themselves with political sycophancy, and, perhaps most importantly, they both experience the interethnic violence of the late 1980s on an individual level. Sadygly, the reader is told, hid a “nameless Armenian” within himself and “with every Armenian beaten, offended, and killed in that giant city, it was if he himself had been beaten, offended, and killed.” Echoing this, Aylisli says that, “from the very first I understood the hostility between Azerbaijan and Armenia as a personal tragedy.”

Born in in the 1930s, Aylisli remembers the death of his father in the Second World War and the “hunger and cold” of the post-war years. Despite these hardships, he became a rising literary star, moved to Moscow to study at the prestigious Maxim Gorky Institute of Literature, and was part of the generation of writers associated with Khrushchev’s political thaw of the 1960s. In Soviet Azerbaijan, he was known for his championship of young writers and after independence he was influential as a friend of Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s strongman leader. He was a deputy in parliament between 2005 and 2010. 

More than any other writer in either nation, Aylisli does not shy away from describing the brutal violence, political failure, and moral bankruptcy of his own side

While Aylisli provoked some ire in the early 1990s with a public condemnation of an anti-Armenian pogrom in the Caspian Sea city of Sumgait, the response was nothing compared with the reaction to Stone Dreams. He had written the novella in the mid-2000s, but only decided to publish it in reaction to the return to Azerbaijan in 2012 of Ramil Safarov, an army officer who had brutally murdered an Armenian colleague during a Nato training exercise in Budapest. In Baku, Safarov was not just pardoned but hailed as a hero. In this climate, Stone Dreams created a firestorm. Aylisli was castigated as a traitor and an Armenian apologist. President Aliyev published a special decree stripping Aylisli of his title of “People’s Writer”.

With hindsight, Aylisli says he knew the novella would produce a reaction, but was not prepared for its ferocity. “It never even crossed my mind that, for my ‘sins’, my wife and children could lose their jobs,” he says. “Understanding that they could not break me morally, the authorities decided to publicly frighten and smear me. Many members of the creative intelligentsia from whom I expected support and defence took part in this campaign. And this has radically changed my attitude towards my country.” 

Southern Nakhchivan, near Aylisli's hometown of Aylis. Image: Svln4821 under a CC License

The intimidation has not eased much. In 2016, Aylisli was not allowed to leave the country after an alleged altercation with a border officer — an incident he says was fabricated. Amid the ongoing criminal investigation, he is confined to Baku. Even before then, since summer 2012, he was unable to visit his hometown, Aylis. Some of the most moving passages of Stone Dreams are set in Aylis, with its “yellow-rose light” that illuminates the remains of ancient Armenian churches, abandoned for over 70 years. These very churches would later be systematically dismantled by Azerbaijani soldiers. 

In a special afterword to the English edition, Aylisli describes watching a video of the Aylis crowd who assembled to burn his books in February 2013. “It is real torture for a writer when a people turns into a mob literally before his eyes,” he writes. “Just ten days before this ‘rally’ practically all of them had been proud of me as their famous writer and distinguished deputy; their children knew me from their schoolbooks. And now, having turned into a mob, they’d already forgotten all that.” A Russian journalist who visited Aylis a few months later recounted how local security officers told him Aylisli would be “torn to pieces” if he ever visited.

“It never even crossed my mind that, for my ‘sins’, my wife and children could lose their jobs”

Unsurprisingly, Stone Dreams has never been published in Azerbaijani, the language in which it was originally written. It has been translated into German, Italian, Russian, Finnish, and Spanish; perhaps predictably, the Armenian translation became a bestseller. Aylisli says he only writes fiction as a cri de coeur, and otherwise focuses on translation. He has translated authors like Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, and Heinrich Böll into Azeri and his immersion in the international literary scene perhaps goes some way to explaining his collision with the Azerbaijani authorities.

Regardless of the persecution, this man of letters has, late in life, taken up the role of Azerbaijan’s conscience. As the conflict between Baku and Yerevan shows no sign of easing, the very existence of Stone Dreams, and Aylisli’s public position, represent an answer to agonised questions posed by Sadygly, the book’s main character. “It’s so terrible,” Sadygly laments, “that there didn’t turn out to be a single spiritual authority in the whole country who was able to tell people the truth, who was unafraid for his own skin. Where is our humane nation? Where is our celebrated intelligentsia?”

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