“Stone Dreams,” the latest novella by one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent writers, Akram Aylisli, which depicts Azerbaijanis lending a helping hand to Armenians, has caused an uproar in the country, as the nations have been engaged in hostility since the early 1990s, when Armenia seized Azerbaijani territories resulting in more than 1 million Azeris becoming refugees.
Completed in 2007, “Stone Dreams” was first published in the Russian literature journal Friendship of the Peoples (Druzhba Narodov) in December of last year and received harsh criticism from Azerbaijanis for going against official statements from Baku.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have had no diplomatic relations since a war erupted over Azerbaijan’s Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region in the early 1990s, when Armenian-backed forces occupied it, along with seven adjacent Azerbaijani territories, in a conflict that killed 30,000 people from both sides. A truce was signed in 1994, but there was no peace treaty.
Nagorno-Karabakh has adopted a declaration of independence, which is not recognized by the international community, and has run its own affairs with heavy Armenian military and financial backing since then. Azerbaijan regularly vows to take it back by force, though it says it favors diplomacy. Violence still flares sporadically along the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Aylisli’s novella portrays the drama of two nations at war over Nagorno-Karabakh. In the story, he depicts Armenians being attacked by Azerbaijanis who were kicked out of Armenia in the wake of the bitter war and the local Azerbaijanis helping the Armenians in Baku. The sympathetic depiction of Armenians drew massive protests from young Azerbaijanis outside the house of the 75-year-old writer, calling him a traitor to his nation and urging him to leave the country.
The reason why there was so much anger around the novella in Azerbaijan is because people are afraid of acceptance and understanding, says Arzu Geybullayeva, editor of the Neutral Zone, a platform for alternative voices from Armenia and Azerbaijan on social and cultural issues with a focus on the conflict. “It is easier to get angry, to dismiss, to belittle, than face up the reality and show a sign of understanding, a sign of forgiveness and apology,” Geybullayeva said to Sunday’s Zaman, adding that the story by Aylisli is about the bonds between people that are not easily broken and might pertain to any two countries where there has been a long-term conflict.
After being harshly criticized at the opening session of the Azerbaijani parliament on Feb. 1, Aylisli was stripped of national honors for “insulting the dignity” of his country, and as such, his title of “National Artist” was taken away and his pension was stopped. His books were burned by intelligentsia and compatriots in his hometown, while his wife and son were reportedly fired from their workplaces.
In the meantime, Aylisli described the novel as a peaceful message, adding he did not expect such a harsh response.
“Armenians are not foes for me. As a resolution of the conflict is delayed, the hatred and antagonism between the two nations grows dramatically. I have depicted an Azerbaijani helping a troubled Armenian. How can I be a traitor?” Aylisli said in an interview with Radio Free Europe, adding that both nations have lived together for a long time and can continue to do so.
The campaign of intimidation against Aylisli is still going on, and the leader of Azerbaijan’s opposition Modern Equality Party (Müasir Musavat) has offered 10,000 manats, nearly $13,000, to anyone who will cut off Aylisli’s ear. Reiterating that Aylisli had insulted the entire Azerbaijani nation, party leader Hafiz Haciyev said, “As he has insulted us, we wanted to respond, and that is why we have decided ... that his ear must be chopped off.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the threat against Aylisli on Tuesday and urged the authorities to protect the Azerbaijani writer.
Praising Aylisli’s “Stone Dreams” as a type of work that no Armenian or Azerbaijani public figure has done so far, Philip Gamaghelyan, co-director of the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, said to Sunday’s Zaman that the novella “elevated the conflict discourse from a primitive ‘I am right, you are wrong’ dichotomy into ‘I also have a level of responsibility’. And, in my book, that deserves huge respect.”
Gamaghelyan thinks Aylisli’s novel is an antidote to the extradition of Azerbaijani officer Ramil Safarov, a move that reignited the tension between the two countries. “If Safarov’s case fed into all the negative stereotypes that are floating around about Azerbaijanis, then Aylisli broke many of those stereotypes,” Gamaghelyan said, adding that the actions of those who are persecuting him provide powerful ammunition for those who would like to continue stereotyping Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Safarov killed an Armenian colleague with an axe during a NATO-sponsored English language course in Budapest in 2004 and served eight years of a life sentence in Hungary. President Ilham Aliyev pardoned Safarov after Hungary agreed to return him to Azerbaijan, which drew angry protests from Armenia and expressions of concern from Western powers and the international community.