Autumn 2002 (10.3)

Memories - Erosion of Memory and the New Generation
by Betty Blair

"Recently, we learned that one of our friends has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The news came as such a shock to us at the magazine that we hardly knew what to make of it. Doctors had discovered that a massive growth was pressing down on the memory section of our friend's brain. Perhaps that explains why his conversations lately had been so garbled, with incongruous juxtapositions of people and events, much like a strange dream in which personalities and events from childhood intrude upon contemporary life decades later and thousands of miles away from their place of origin. The tragic news made us reflect on this marvelous phenomenon that we take so much for granted - memory. On the one hand, we credit memory with so many moments of sheer pleasure. Is it not memory that facilitates so many functions that are pivotal to our very survival?

Our language, though, expresses many concerns about the loss of memory. We speak about "jogging one's memory", "fading memory", "memory loss" and "memory failure". One of the most dreaded fears gnawing away at older generations is that Alzheimer's disease will rob them of this facility, making them totally dependent on others. It seems that the loss of memory carries with it more profound consequences than even the loss of any of our five senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.

Without memory, can we even claim to be human beings? And if individuals can't function without memory, can societies and nations survive without communal memory? Is it not historical memory that provides the glue of our identity, helping us understand where we came from, who we are, how we grew up, and the many experiences that have shaped our perceptions and beliefs?

The 20th century was particularly brutal when it comes to what might be called the "erosion of memory" in Azerbaijan. Consider the profound effect that three political reversals had on the national psyche, especially in relationship to private ownership, religion and any sort of national identity.

After the Soviets took power in 1920, it became politically incorrect to be associated with the ideas and ideals that had been elevated and passionately pursued just a few years earlier. One did so at the risk of death.

In this issue, three individuals that we feature paid a high price for overstepping these boundaries. Poet Mikayil Mushfig (1908-1939) paid with his life at the height of Stalin's Repression. Even in the 1970s, when his wife Dilbar penned her memories of their few short years together, she chose not to relate the circumstances surrounding his arrest and death. She's gone now; we can't ask her to fill in the blanks.

Poet Bakhtiyar Vahabzade (1925-) lost his job as a professor for several years and became unable to provide financial support for his family. He was fired for criticizing imperial Russia's policy of splitting Azerbaijan into two countries. Fortunately, today, we can still speak with him about these pressures. Vahabzade holds an esteemed position in Parliament.

Although he had committed no crime, Artist Alakbar Rezaguiliyev (1903-1974) was sent to prison for nearly 25 years, merely for being associated with someone who had espoused pan-Turkist ideas. Yet, it seems that in Rezaguiliyev's case, throughout those lonely years of exile, his memory served as his closest friend and confidante. Not until 1956, three years after Stalin's death, was Rezaguiliyev finally released from exile in Russia's frigid Arctic.

Next year his 100th Jubilee will be celebrated. Unfortunately, we can't speak with him directly about his life. But he did leave us hundreds of prints that depict the daily routine of Azerbaijanis at the turn of the 20th century, especially in the set of "Old Baku" prints that he sketched from memory. His works capture what no longer existed when he was released from prison and what no longer exists within the old citadel walls today - veiled women, peddlers hawking their goods in the narrow, winding streets and women stretching their scrubbed carpets out in front of the Maiden's Tower to dry.

Nor should we gloss over the valuable experiences of two courageous women who followed their passions and helped break religious taboos against female performers. Both went against their parents' wishes. Gamar Almaszade (1915-), who became a famous ballerina, had to contend with severe arguments with her father, who was shocked when he learned that his daughter wanted to dance on stage. "Are you out of your mind, showing off your legs?" he shouted, threatening to kill her. Shafiga Bakhshaliyeva (1929-) ran off with the circus and made a career of balancing and dancing on the high wire, again against her family's wishes.

When we first started publishing Azerbaijan International 10 years ago, little did we realize that that this decade would be a period of reclaiming lost memories. Today, obviously, with Azerbaijan's independence, a different history is being written than the one that was written a mere dozen years ago. Time flies so quickly. Young people entering universities today can barely remember what kindergarten was like under the Soviet system. For their sake, and for the sake of future generations, we have gone to tremendous efforts to document these valuable experiences while the memory sharers are still with us.


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