Winter 2004 (12.4)
Ties That Bind
by Betty Blair
They're all gone-the
old women who used to tell those stories. Nobody knows those
stories any more." That's what we kept hearing this past
summer while researching Baku's "Old City" (Ichari
Shahar). Our staff spent many afternoons wandering along those
narrow alleyways, in search of someone who could tell us the
old tales. But everyone told us the same thing: "Nobody
knows them anymore."
Loss of memory within a community is a dilemma that folklorists
face all over the world. It's a natural phenomenon. The elderly,
many of whom have accumulated and perpetrated folklore for decades,
pass away and, with them, a large repertoire of folklore often
disappears. Young people move on, absorbed with their own affairs
and own interests.
But the circumstances of history have also accelerated this process
of erosion of memory in Azerbaijan. Take the issue of mother
tongue. When families consider it more advantageous for their
children to learn the prestigious language of the country-whether
it be Russian, Persian, English or any other language-supplanting,
instead of simply supplementing, their own mother tongue; much
of the repertoire of folklore is lost on that generation, leaving
a spiritual vacuum. Language is more than a medium of communication.
It is the embodiment of wisdom that has been accumulated through
the ages by community members who share the same values.
As well during the
20th century, Azerbaijan officially changed its alphabet four
times-from Arabic, to Latin, Cyrillic and now, since independence,
back again to Latin. So the written documentation of folklore
becomes confounded. This means that because of the expenses involved
in publishing, the huge body of work carried out during the Soviet
period in the Cyrillic alphabet has not been reprinted in Latin
script. Continuity is interrupted.
Another problem occurs when political systems reverse themselves.
Yesterday's virtues become today's violations. For example, after
the Bolsheviks seized power in 1920, most of the Oil Barons fled
for their lives rather than risk arrest, exile or execution.
In fact, merely being related to such a person could provide
sufficient grounds for arrest. Intellectuals, often guilty of
nothing, were also targeted. It didn't matter. As the Azerbaijani
expression goes: "Kill the cat to scare the bride."
Under such duress, it doesn't take long for the erosion of communal
memory to take place-evidence seems to suggest that it can even
occur within the short span of one generation. Parents constantly
found themselves on guard to be "politically correct"
for fear their children might expose the family unknowingly or
inadvertently at school.
Anar, one of Azerbaijan's most well-known writers illustrates
the fear that gripped the country in 1937 at the height of Stalin's
Repression. In his short story-The Morning of that Night-members
of eight households hear one of those dreaded black Volgas pull
up outside their apartment complex at 2 am in the morning. Lying
in bed, one couple is paralyzed by the thought that maybe agents
will arrest them because their six-year-old daughter had been
singing a tune composed by a neighbor who had been arrested a
few weeks earlier.
The Soviet government was particularly sensitive about issues
related to nationalism, Turkism and Islamism. Such topics were
forbidden. When several Azerbaijani folklorists-Vali Khuloflu,
Hanafi Zeynalli and Salman Mumtaz-started to delve into such
issues, they were arrested and later shot to death. Needless
to say, researchers imposed upon themselves self censorship and
soon avoided such issues.
Even the big push to collect folklore during the Soviet period
had its drawbacks. Of course, officials were always looking for
tales illustrating how the masses rose up to defeat landowners
and kings. But since researchers were paid by quantity, some
of them were known to have embellished the tales to garner more
pay. Or sometimes when particular themes couldn't be found, folklorists
felt the pressure to concoct such tales themselves.
But before we condemn the Soviets for the folklore legacy they
have left with all its distortions, gaps, and contrived political
agenda, we should take a closer look at what is happening these
days-13 years after Azerbaijan gained its independence. Today,
folklore studies are desperately under-funded. The Academy of
Sciences can barely pay the pittance of salaries to their professionals.
Field research is virtually at a standstill. There have been
no expeditions to the field for years.
These days, folklorists often have to provide their own funding
to get their works published. And it's not always the most deserving
scholarship that makes its way into print. Even foreign civic
community organizations, perhaps unknowingly, are interfering
with the process of folklore documentation. Some groups generously
offer training in Web design and space on their Web servers to
launch Web sites. But they insist on one caveat: no mention can
be made about the Karabakh War.
This is extremely problematic for such genres as ashug music,
where singers create or improvise poetry and accompany themselves
on the traditional instrument of saz. Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis
lost their lives in the Karabakh war with Armenia. Nearly one
million of them were displaced from their homeland, forced to
flee for their lives.
Such anguished expression exists in these ashug songs. It's impossible
to extinguish or censure it. In fact, such expression can provide
psychological catharsis and release when people feel that they've
been treated so unjustly and wrongly. Since such pain and grief
are representative of the nation, trying to prevent it from being
represented on the Web does everyone a disservice-the performers
feel cheated again and viewers, including foreigners, are denied
the opportunity to understand the depth of such issues in the
life of the nation.
And this is exactly the point. Azerbaijani folklorists have identified
more than 40 genres. These myriad expressions comprise the core
of belief of society. You might call it the DNA of values in
a culture. As such, folklore provides the key to understanding
the moral structure of a nation. As such, it should be allowed
to flourish and should be documented scientifically without distortion
or ulterior or political motive.
In this "Post 9/11 world" when we have all grown much
more suspicious of each other, we would do well to remind ourselves
that deep down in the core of our being, there is so much humanity
that we share with each other. In countless ways-our wishes,
our yearnings, our sense of fairness and justice, our quest for
happiness-are so much alike. Through folklore, we find one more
conclusive proof of this reality.
From Azerbaijan International (12.4) Winter 2004.
© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.
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