‘Nationalism leaves little room for the voices of the in-between’: Armenians and Azerbaijanis on identity, war and peace

'Nationalism leaves little room for the voices of the in-between': Armenians and Azerbaijanis on identity, war and peace

23 October 2020

On Sunday 27 September, citizens of Armenia and Azerbaijan woke up to a war over Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territory, a region known to Armenians as Artsakh. In 1921, Armenians objected to its inclusion of Soviet Azerbaijan, and in 1988, its majority ethnic Armenian population began a movement to gain independence from the Azerbaijan SSR and join the Armenian SSR. The movement was supported by Armenia and opposed by Azerbaijan, and led to a bloody war that lasted until a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994.

Three weeks ago, Azerbaijan launched a military operation in a bid to take the land, restarting a conflict which has claimed over 30,000 lives and displaced more than a million since 1988. In a new, violent chapter of an old conflict, we asked Armenians and Azerbaijanis what the conflict means to them, how they see themselves, and how they envisage peace.

Anna Kamay

Independent curator and cultural manager, founder of Artsakh Fest

Image credits: Areg Balayan/F8 project

“From day one, I started to see this ‘we will win’ hashtag. It was everywhere, I’d scroll and every second person would share it. What are you going to win? This is a war. Nobody wins in a war.

It was disappointing for me to see that the peace discourse has disappeared completely. Curators, artists, and creatives became the ones who were reproducing that rhetoric about how we are just protecting ourselves, we did not want war, but they are attacking, so what can we do? For me this is crazy. What about the impotence of diplomacy for over 30 years, what about the fact that we’ve been just trying to keep the status quo, conducting all negotiations behind closed doors, what about all the initiatives, including ArtsakhFest, that were not powerful enough to change the discourse so that peace narratives became more prevalent? It did not happen. I am not blaming myself, I feel like I’ve done everything I could, it’s only possible to engage so many people.

I was hoping that the new generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, those who did not experience the atrocities of war, who do not bear PTSD because of the war, could find a solution together. The youth in Karabakh, in Armenia, and in Azerbaijan, were ready for this, and there were so many different initiatives, but apparently the diplomacy failed.

Now the war threw us 26 years back again. It feels like we’re in the 90s, when peace was impossible. For those of us who were working towards peacemaking, it just broke our dreams of peace between the two nations anytime soon. This devastated me. Diplomacy failed. We could not prevent the war.

If I had the chance, I would just start doing my work all over again, the same way. We couldn’t have done a collective consciousness revolution in one year or two. I do blame the impotency of Armenian diplomacy for not being able to resolve this conflict and prevent the war. Still, I do believe that we need grassroots initiatives and a bottom-up approach. If enough people believe in peace, our governments’ way of approaching things will change.

I’ve been working on a film about collective memory for the past years, and I finally got some funding. It is about documenting the peaceful coexistence of Armenians and Azerbaijanis before the conflict erupted. I have seen academics like Noam Chomsky, who have no idea about the region, sign under a peace statement that reduces our two nations’ collective memory to the false and primitive argument that ‘before the ravages brought in by World War I and the 20th century, Azeris and Armenians in the area lived in [...] conflictual coexistence’ This enrages me. I want to interview some people here, and I have a partner in Azerbaijan and they are supposed to do it there, it will be something very human. It is not about politics, it’s about how people lived peacefully regardless of the politics. The aim of my film is to document these memories to show that it was possible, so of course it will be possible in the future.”

Maya Gulieva

Artist, writer, publisher and visual story-teller

“My understanding of the narrative of the conflict comes from oral storytelling through my poly-ethnic family. I grew up with my grandparents in Moscow suburbia. My grandmother is Armenian. Her parents were originally from Zangezur, but she grew up in Baku, and considered Azerbaijan her homeland—she centered herself in the land of Baku. My grandfather is Azerbaijani, from Baku. They are one of the many living proofs that interethnic marriages took place — they still do! They had to flee violence in Baku in the 90s, leaving their lives and livelihoods behind. Although bringing very little with them to Russia from the past, they almost entirely lived within it. I grew up almost living their stories of a shared, international neighbourhood where any disagreement was settled peacefully.

I could never really separate Armenian/Azeri cultures; I am not even sure where one culture begins and the other ends. I have not lived in either country, but I visited Baku in the summer as a child. My family never emphasised the inter-ethnic strife, but it’s during those trips that I became aware of the divide, because my grandmother couldn’t join us. It saddened me deeply that the person I loved was excluded by events and narratives beyond her control or consent. I remember my grandmother mention how during the tensions she once caught herself wishing that she could “carve the Armenian out of her”, just so that she didn’t have to be “carved from her motherland” — Baku. Whilst rooted in Armenian culture, she never had to confront her ethnicity, or nationality, until the USSR collapsed. This is why the idea of nationalism spreading like wildfire, burning through a collective memory of peaceful coexistence (literally and physically), is a tragedy, but not one that is ignited by people — it’s fuelled by colonialists and is set alight by corrupt governance and militarisation. This burning fire — this war — is a diversion from the internal problems in both countries.

Since the war, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have had very little space to intersect, which is what perpetuates the divide. There is a logistical issue of segregation, preventing the collective narrative from being questioned, from evolving past nationalism, healing old trauma, and imagining new futures, rather than replaying an old myth like a broken record. A distinct lack of new critical frameworks in education (especially in teaching a one-sided history of Nagorno-Karabakh) is a huge issue, and there are not enough initiatives that facilitate uncensored knowledge or encourage diplomacy. New generations of Azeris and Armenians are systemically conditioned to hate each other.

From where I am standing — a privileged vantage point of being a poly-ethnic and living in London — I’ve never had to contemplate my identity within these frameworks. This is why I see borders and nations as a manufactured idea, and any conflict framed by nationalism is absurd, a total fiction. Borders are conceived by a predominantly colonial mindset, and Armenia and Azerbaijan have colonial histories. I do not subscribe to the colonialist win/lose mentality, to capturing territories, taking something back/giving away, or any kind of dividing, tearing, severing, rupturing, and especially not against people’s will. That is a humanitarian violation.

Right now, this conflict is excavating and making new trauma, shattering lives, imaginations, and ideas of peaceful co-existence. Meanwhile, competing narratives churned by the media are reducing, oversimplifying, and erasing memories of a recent, shared past. Nationalism is leaving little room for the voices of the in-between, which are not only demanding peace but are also open to dialogue. We must make room for them. These voice that don’t subscribe to the binary victim/oppressor logic, are abused by hate speech on social media, censored by government and media news outlets, and even silenced and “othered” by their neighbours and families. There are many of these voices, and we must protect, platform, and amplify them.”

Sitara Ibrahimbayli

Multimedia artist and founder of varyox.az art platform

Courtesy of Sitara Ibrahimbayli

“In Azerbaijan, since the 1990s, a narrative of longing for Karabakh has emerged. It naturally finds its way into songs, paintings, and poetry, ever since Azerbaijan lost that territory. Such a large population grew up as refugees, so the feeling of loss and trauma from the war remains omnipresent.

I have never lived in the epicentre of the war, but its consequences, such as the massive flow of internally displaced persons to Baku, and many other events, have left their marks in my childhood consciousness. Having such a baggage of injuries, I am afraid to even imagine what the children, whose families were subjected to brutal ethnic cleansing, who fled barefoot in winter from those who drove them out of their homes, who saw all these horrors with their own eyes, have suffered. The country has always been in mourning, and therefore the main content on the television was devoted to the broadcast of classical concerts. I had to work hard to change my attitude towards classical music, because, until the age of 18, I could hear the sound of classical music everywhere, and I always identified it with mourning.

In 2009, I began my work on the study of conflict. The project I have devoted myself to is called Frozen Conflict, and it brings together different elements, including personal belongings of the missing persons, testimonies from war veterans, stories from the borderline, from refugees, and the story of two villages that agreed on a peaceful exchange of territory between each other during the war. I have had a chance to present my series at Venice Biennale twice and both times I have witnessed the same unpleasant experience by representatives of the Armenian Diaspora.

Once, during an internship in Berlin, a young Armenian woman said that she expected to meet the personification of evil, and told me how surprising it was to her that she liked me. Many of the Armenians that I have met because of my work engage in nationalist propaganda. This openly distorts our history, justified the atrocities against Azerbaijanis in Khojaly, and does not respect the territorial integrity of my country. How can we come to peace?”

Vigen Galstyan (PhD)

Curator, art historian, Head of Film Heritage Department at the National Cinema Centre of Armenia

“The resistance of Artsakh during the 1988-94 war allowed Armenians to discard our complex of victimhood and look towards a more productive future. Nothing speaks of it more powerfully than the 2018 Velvet Revolution, which overthrew the oligarchic ‘Ancien Régime’. This marks the big difference between our situation and that of Azerbaijan: today, we are able to trust and stand behind our political leaders.

I’m part of the last generation that witnessed the peaceful cohabitation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Armenia during the early 1980s. I remember Azeris working side by side with Armenians on collective farms in the village I grew up in. It is a memory I try to hold on to, even if it seems like an entirely impossible image today. There are too many traumatic events, however, that make it difficult to overcome this line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, not to essentialise. Perceptions of Azerbaijanis are still distinctly coloured by contrasting images: the massacres of the Armenians in Sumgait and Baku, the vile acts of recent violence, versus the memories of our grandparents enjoying Azeri ‘mugham’ [traditional folk music] on the radio.

As an art historian, I try to assume a more disengaged perspective that looks at the wider picture. It is not a pretty one. The consistent attempts of Azerbaijan’s dictatorial regime to destroy all traces of Armenian presence on its territories, the complete destruction of Jugha’s medieval cemetery, the ‘Albanisation’ of Armenian monuments, speaks to me of a profound crisis of cultural identity reflected in skirmishes about ‘national’ origins. It appears that critical reflection on identity there has been replaced by a collective myth-making operation that strives to demonstrate Azerbaijan’s credentials as an ‘emancipated’ nation by fabricating a non-existent past in which Armenians play the role of a mortal enemy. This is a sad state of things in which nothing seems to exist outside of a crude binary picture. A collective identity built on hate and misrepresentation cannot lead to a tolerant coexistence.

To be truthful, Armenians have not made a great effort to engage either. Instead of hate, there is simply absolute distrust and dismissal, with no desire to look back and find past models of peaceful cohabitation or shared narratives. Our respective perceptions of each other are mired in extremes, and finding a middle ground seems like an unrealistic endeavour right now.

Critical re-evaluation of history and mutual acceptance of past sins is an essential step towards achieving peace. But this could never happen without governments and leaderships that have come to power through democratic means and can prepare their people towards a bilateral resolution. Returning all parties towards human-based, rather than territorially or nationalistically-conditioned imperatives is essential for the end of this conflict.

I do believe that when some form of a truce becomes feasible, ordinary people will eventually mend the broken bridges and find a common language towards a constructive future within the wider region. And art can play a crucial role in this healing process, if only the noise of shelling and warmongering rhetoric would stop.”

Rufat Hasanov

Filmmaker, Head of the Department of Cinema at the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan

Courtesy of Rufat Hasanov

“In Azerbaijan, our being has been directly affected by the trauma of the first Karabakh war. We’ve seen footage of the Khojaly massacre of 1992 on national television, we’ve witnessed hundreds of thousands of refugees living in refugee camps and dormitories, not to mention the approximate 20,000 people we lost during the first war. All of that couldn’t have been just swallowed without a trace. Our narrative is about the injustices we faced, the indifference of the international community, the longing for occupied territories, and the faith to restore them. This can be witnessed in our contemporary art, music, and cinema.

I met the first Armenia person, Aram, when we were both around 15, during an exchange programme in Philadelphia. Everything seemed to be fine, up until we began to introduce ourselves. When he heard I was from Azerbaijan his attitude completely changed. We didn’t really talk to each other up until the final part of the event, which was a talent show. I was really into hip-hop music (still am) and hilariously enough decided to rap in Azeri on stage. Aram came up to me afterwards and said he was really into rap music as well. We talked for a bit. And then he said something like ‘you know, you seem to be cool, but my mother says to (metaphorically speaking) hold a knife behind my back when dealing with a Turk’. Apparently I was also the first Azerbaijani he met. So that’s pretty much how I see people from Armenia: decent people but scared and scarred by the destructive and toxic ‘dashnak’ [an Armenian nationalist and socialist political party] ideology. That’s where I see the root of the problem.

[Both countries could live in peace] just like we did before the conflict, sharing each other’s joy and grief, attending each other’s weddings and funerals. The ongoing information war and propaganda tries to shift this conflict and turn it into a Christian-Muslim narrative. That is blatant manipulation aimed at spreading the conflict instead of solving it. With the withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from Azerbaijani territories and the return of Azerbaijanis to their homes, I am sure we will live in peace and harmony like we did before the war. A personal example: I am 33 years old and I have never visited my ancestral city of Shusha. We really don’t have a problem with Armenians, but rather with its leadership and ideology.

We live with collective trauma. I am sure that the overwhelmingly tragic cultural narrative of war, genocide, injustice, humiliation, and indifference that has been accompanying us for as long as I can remember will be finally replaced by a new narrative. I am truly happy that we have a chance to be the last generation to have witnessed this. My friends and I jokingly call the generation of artists who will live without this trauma ‘The New Romantics’. In both countries. Amen to that.”

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