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Armenia-Azerbaijan: Does culture unite or divide?

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

With a recent survey indicating that the majority of Armenians and Azerbaijanis are against mutual friendship, hopes for peace between the two neighboring countries appear very bleak indeed. Locked in a bitter stalemate over the the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, successive attempts to broker a peace agreement since a 1994 ceasefire have consistently faltered.

The war fought in the early 1990s left 25,000 dead and forced a million to flee their homes. Skirmishes on the frontline continue to claim many lives every year since, and, thanks to an almost daily barrage of news and opinion demonizing the other, neither side seems prepared for peace. One of the co-authors of a report examining the role of the media in perpetuating the conflict sums up the situation in a guest post [EN/RU] for my personal project on Armenia-Azerbaijan cross border communication and cooperation.

[...] statistics highlighting the number of people who approve or disapprove of friendship between Armenians and Azerbaijanis illustrate that quite well. Only 28 percent of Armenian respondents approve of friendship with Azerbaijanis while just 1 percent of Azerbaijanis approve of friendship with Armenians.

Yet, even though hostility towards Armenians appears to be stronger in Azerbaijan, intolerance and ethnic hatred exists in Armenia as well. This was illustrated only too well by recent attempts to host a festival of films from Azerbaijan in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Meeting with strong resistance from nationalists, it had to be canceled. Writing on his recently launched blog, Charles Lonsdale, the British Ambassador to Armenia, comments on the news.

So a modest festival of Azerbaijani films had to be cancelled because no venue in Yerevan was prepared to host it, apparently in the face of threats. We've not been involved in organising the event, but I'm disappointed. Not least as a simple question of freedom of expression and what this says about the openness of society in Armenia.

I appreciate some people are frustrated, arguing, for example, that it wouldn't be possible to have a festival of Armenian films in Azerbaijan, so people shouldn't show Azeri films here. Or that there is anti-Armenian propaganda in Azerbaijan or Turkey, which means no films at all should be seen here (though the films to be shown on this occasion hardly qualified as propaganda). [...]

[...]

[...] The planned festival should be one small step in challenging people on both sides to think differently, however difficult that is.

Although disagreeing with the festival for other reasons, and also noting the role that social media played in mobilizing online opposition, Caucasus Edition was also concerned.

One of the negative stereotypes about Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis that I often hear from Armenians is that the ‘majority of Azeris are intolerant, they are full of hate toward Armenians and not ready for cooperation.’ Then there is the mirroring positive stereotype among Armenians about themselves who, unlike the Azeris, are ‘tolerant, open-minded and ready for cooperation.’ Based on some recent events, I have to question the latter notion.

[...]

Ultimately, however, for me this is not even an Armenian-Azerbaijani issue, but an issue of freedom of expression. Whether any of us agrees with the organizers or not, they should have a right to organize any festival, in any format at any time except if it promotes hatred and violence, and this one clearly does the opposite. [...]

Unzipped also feels the same.

I strongly believe that art, and culture, do not recognise borders. Even if countries are at the state of war. Art, and films, are the best way for ordinary people to get to know each other better, to break the ice, even or especially in case of closed borders. There is also internet, of course, and meetings outside the national borders.

I have no problem if there are people who protest the idea or the fact of the festival. It’s their right. But do it in a (at least remotely) civilised way, without engaging the lowest possible denominator of nationalist/racist crap, personal attacks and threats to individuals. There is a fine line when freedom of speech gets transformed into something that should be considered within the frames of legal/criminal code. Many have already crossed that line.

Yet, even if such attitudes exist on both sides, there are at least a few who feel differently. Writing for Caucasus Edition, Gulara Azimzade, a young activist in Azerbaijan, provides examples of Armenian music that she likes, and agrees with Unzipped that culture should not be constrained by borders.

We all love music and films. After a long day at work, during a workday, or at home when we are bored, we listen to music and at least once a week watch a movie. Music and movies are believed to be spiritual food- we forget about the stress, it brings us joy and at times sadness. We even like listening to songs that we do not always understand, so long as they sound pleasant, it doesn’t matter in which language they are. But sometimes, in some circumstances this might not necessarily be the case…

[...]

It would be a moral crime to deny and sacrifice their valuable work to war and conflict. More so, I believe its wrong to discriminate creative work by race, gender or nation. They belong to humanity, to the world and to art.

Ironically, however, in neighboring Georgia, ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis co-exist in peace in Tbilisi and the regions. In another guest post for my own project, Reader in Baku recounts a recent trip to the Georgian capital [EN/RU], visiting locations where culture and friendship is indeed shared.

The old part of town. Nicely tired after walking around. The weather is chilly. A cup of tea would be so good now. We spot a teahouse on one street and decide to walk in. As I sit down I can hear a couple of men nearby speaking in my mother language – Azerbaijani.

It turns out this teahouse belongs to an ethnic Azeri. Now and then, though, the language of conversation over the table smoothly flows into another language. It is not Russian, or Georgian…

Seeing my puzzled face, one of the men greets me in Azerbaijani, and as it always feels somehow warm to run into your fellow compatriots in a foreign country, I move my chair closer to his table without hesitation.

He has been living in Tbilisi for over 10 years and just two minutes later takes me on a journey I rarely get to travel. The South Caucasus, a region more defined on the map with its funny abrupt borders, appears to be sitting at the little square table.

In fact, he is not my fellow compatriot, even though his Azerbaijani is better than my own. His name is Albert and he is an ethnic Armenian.

He also sings folk songs in Azerbaijani by the legendary Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova, and quotes poems from the great Azerbaijani poet Samad Vurgun. Albert also has a large family with his wife, an Azerbaijani, and a dream – to cross the Azerbaijani border.

He introduces me to his best friend sitting next to him at the table.

His name is Ramiz, a 74-year old ethnic Azeri singer who sings Armenian songs. I ask him to sing a little for me, but he politely refuses, saying that there has been a loss in the family. His beloved wife recently passed away. She was Armenian.

The musical friends wax lyrically about each other’s beautiful cultures, fascinating us with the similarities connecting them, and ponder the futility of the game that is the conflict between the two countries…

[...]

If only the entire Caucasus could be like this, harmonic and synchronic. And why not? With overlaps in cuisine, culture, mentality and human emotions connecting us, is it so wrong to seek to coexist peacefully together?

Marine Ejuryan also makes a guest post, examining examples of shared culture throughout history, but now forgotten by many. The Armenian student concludes that it is time for people on both sides to realize this.

Tragically, [...] many years of war, enmity, and negative propaganda have resulted in the current perceptions of the ‘other’ in each of our societies. Without a doubt it is now time to break the stereotypes Armenians and Azerbaijanis have of each other.

The idea that Armenians and Azerbaijanis are “ethnically incompatible” is certainly nothing but pure fallacy.

We used to live together in peace and still do on neutral ground which means we can also do so here – in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. What we need to do first, however, is to end the propaganda wars on both sides.

We also need time.

Time for both societies to learn to live together peacefully again.

Incidentally, on the same theme, several of the guest posts written for my own project are now available in the form of an electronic book freely available for download or reading online. A Russian translation will be available soon. Meanwhile, Global Voices will continue to monitor developments in the use of new and social media in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. A special coverage page is available here.

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

  • Jean Weingartne

    Azeri law keeps the democratically elected president of Azerbaijan in office as long as they are at war with Armenia. President Aliyev will continue the anti-Armenian propaganda in order to keep the war going. If President Aliyev really cared about his people more than holding office, he would do all he could to bring peace. However, it is in his own best interest to continue the hatred so that he can stay in the office where his 12-year-old son can afford to buy multi-million dollar properties in Dubai. And I though we had corruption on Wall Street!

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