The intention of an imaginary literary stroll through distant Baku is cut down by a real and present meeting in a bar in Tbilisi.

·My essay was supposed to start with the following sentence: “There are many countries and cities in the world that I have not yet managed to visit and will perhaps never be able to, but there is one city – Baku – which I would like to visit but cannot, because political circumstances make that wish impossible to fulfil.”

In continuation, I was supposed to write that I was preparing to seek the help of literature in order to make the impossible possible, and I was offering the reader a stroll through Baku at the end of the 19th and 20th centuries through novels written by Armenian and Azerbaijani writers, in which events occur completely or partially in Baku.

The stroll was supposed to begin with 19th-century Armenian writer Alexander Shirvanzade’s novel Chaos, and I intended to emphasise that the unofficial industrial capital of the Caucasus is considered by the author to represent a state of chaos, where a windfall of Asian wealth sees the era’s bourgeoisie unwinding at the Europa Hotel in the city centre. Ethnic conflicts lie in the shadows, the White City has been occupied by Armenian, Turk, Georgian and Jewish oil magnates who organise a champagne bath for a Russian opera singer, while other representatives of the same nations languish every day in the Black City that hosts the oil rigs, and on the money that they earn cannot even dream of a modest dinner at the Europa Hotel. Shirvanzade could not continue writing about Baku while living there; he had to escape to Tbilisi, the unofficial cultural capital of the Caucasus, in order to bring his novel to completion.

The next stop on the stroll would have been provided by the three-volume novel Baku by Vahan Totovents, an Armenian novelist from the first half of the 20th century, who tells the story of the multi-ethnic community living in the depth of the Black City then, including how the Tsarist government organises inter-ethnic clashes in order to prevent demonstrations by various ethnic groups – particularly a united protest by Armenian and Azeri people – against the colonial system of governance. I was supposed to write about how the Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis realise at one point that their big brother is not really their brother at all, but rather a dictator, and how the cottages blackened by fountains of oil also contribute to the rise of the February Revolution, which rattles the Tsarist order and, a short time later, leads to the independence – albeit brief – of the Caucasian peoples in the second decade of the 20th century.

I was then supposed to seek the help of the novel The Thirst of Souls by Levon Shant,minister of culture of the First Republic of Armenia from 1918-20. After the establishment of Soviet rule, Shant was forced to flee the country and seek refuge in Beirut, where he wrote his novel in 1941 with its events occurring in Baku, to which entry was now prohibited for him. In the novel, a married engineer at an oil refinery falls in love with the niece of one of his workers who has just arrived from distant lands. He finds a single bright spot in the omnipresent black of oil, while understanding at the same time that that bright spot does not belong to the palette of that town and will one day disappear from the black city, remaining for him as simply a sparkling memory of other worlds.

After this, I had planned to move from Armenian material to Azerbaijani literature, where the first stop would be provided by Ali and Nino, perhaps the best-known novel portraying life in the Caucasus. Set in the first quarter of the 20th century, the novel narrates the love story between Azeri Ali and Georgian Nino, while Melik Nakhararyan, an Armenian, also plays an important role. Events begin in Baku and pass through Iran, Karabakh and Tbilisi. Through the character of Ali, disappointed in the First World War and dying under the city walls of Baku in a battle against the Soviet Red Army, I wanted to show that, in contrast with the increasing sense of identity in Armenians, which was completely pro-Russian at the same time, the formation of Azerbaijani national identity had an anti-Russian foundation. The Azeri schoolchildren in Ali and Nino are dissatisfied with their Russian teacher and the culture of colonisation he dictated, and those children later grow ready to sacrifice themselves in order to prevent yet another ‘visit’ by colonialists who have simply changed the clothes they wear, from Tsarist uniform to Bolshevik cap.

We were then supposed to enter Baku at the end of the 20th century, through Akram Aylisli’s novel Stone Dreams, which caused perhaps the most noise on both sides of the closed Azerbaijani-Armenian border. I was going to suggest witnessing, along with the novel’s protagonist Saday Sadihli, one of the tragic and pathological manifestations of the collapse of the empire, namely the savagery directed at the Armenians in Baku during the pogroms in the late 1980s, a painful example of the attempts to wipe out the common history (sometimes peaceful, sometimes not) of the two peoples.

It would also have been impossible for this series to avoid Seymur Baycan’s novel Gugark, the events of which occur largely in a camp in the Armenian village Gugark, but begin with the morning meditational process, involving eating honey, of a journalist living in Baku. The narrator often abruptly stops his tale of Gugark to mentally travel across the closed border back to Baku. During one of these mental trips, we end up in Baku’s Freedom Square in 1988-90, where a million people have gathered, similar to the square bearing the same name in Yerevan, where the same number of people had come together at the same time. The people gathered in Baku emotionally greet the false news in a Japanese newspaper that the Azerbaijanis have been recognised as the most combative people, and all of them together, as well as each of them individually, believe that the Soviet Union would never have beaten Fascist Germany if not for Baku’s oil. And so they demand their independence on that day not from the communist Gorbachev, but rather from a German neo-Nazi.

In Shirvanzade’s
novel Chaos,
Baku is segregated
by wealth,
not ethnicity.

I would probably have completed my proposed trip by presenting Ali Akbari’s novel Artush and Zaur, which caused a lot of controversy in both countries by telling the story of two young men in one of Baku’s Soviet schools – the Armenian Artush and the Azeri Zaur – who discover that they are different from their peers. Their gay relationship is interrupted by the war that breaks out between the two peoples and by the border that closes between them. They meet in Tbilisi years later and restart their love story, including a gay wedding, with the help of a Dutch clergyman. The novel’s climax is very similar to the traditional tale told among both peoples in the last two decades – any meeting of the two would result not in new life, but rather in death. At the end of this novel, Artush and Zaur escape persecution – caused on the one hand by their ethnicity, and on the other by their sexual orientation – by climbing up the Maiden Tower in the old district of Baku and jumping to their deaths, in what they believe is the only way to be together.

All of this is perhaps of interest to people who believe in changing the world through literature, including me. But a meeting with Azerbaijani youth in Tbilisi a short while ago forced me to review the focus of this previously planned text. I had pictured the imagined stroll as a vision that would untangle the complex knot of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, a sort of flight from the past to the future, without the responsibility of answering the complicated questions of the present. But when that tangled knot of conflict is presented to you not as the monster created by propaganda, but as foreigners who look like ordinary people, who are in fact more similar to you than any other foreign people, you understand it then, that you cannot jump from the past to the future without taking responsibility. If we have to imagine a vision for coexistence, then it must not relate to the past or the future only, but first of all to the present.

And so.

A group of Armenian and Azerbaijani youth meet in the city of Tbilisi. According to their agenda, they are supposed to shake hands and exchange names, then sit and have lunch, ordering similar dishes, drinking wine from the same jug, smoking cigarettes from the same pack, using the same ashtray…

Then they go to a pub in Tbilisi, where they find that there are no tables available. They don’t despair, but make a table of their own using the empty chairs from the occupied tables, then politely give each other space and sit next to each other. They talk to each other comfortably in English, Russian, Armenian, Azerbaijani and often with body language or facial gestures, and later, when they are tired of talking, one of the Azerbaijani girls starts to sing a song and the others try to join in, then start to laugh from the noise that results from their off-tune choir.

When they tire of this as well, they go to dance. Unusual music is playing in one of Tbilisi’s clubs, during which the people dancing on the stage suddenly start to push and shove each other, seeking release for the adrenaline that has built up within them. The group of Armenian and Azerbaijani youths dancing in the club could end up as potential victims of the skirmish, but they protect each other against the dancers carried away by the highs of adrenaline. They then find a free table and sit down to catch their breath. A single cigarette remains and one of them wants to go out to buy a new pack, but someone in the group (is she Armenian or Azerbaijani?) suggests that they can pass that cigarette around and smoke in turn, to which everyone agrees.

The multi-ethnic skirmish continues on the stage while the Armenians and Azerbaijanis pass to each other the quickly burning final cigarette and watch the clash, being careful not to take too deep a drag, so that the person after them has more to smoke…

Almost nothing in this imagined tale has been made up. This is a story that is from the memories of neither Tsarist nor Soviet times, but it is also not the future that will follow the vision of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict’s resolution. The events in this story occur in the present, in the middle of September 2015. This means we have two presents – that which the television narrates to us, and that which each participant in this story can confirm. Whichever of these presents we choose to pursue, we can imagine a matching future, both for ourselves and for the ‘foreigners’.·

Vahram, 32, is a literature critic and a lecturer on Armenian literature at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan. “Meeting Azerbaijanis for the first time at a peace seminar like that, the conversation with them helped me to move from being someone who obviously knew that Azerbaijanis are humans to becoming someone who saw and felt their humanity.”

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