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Past, present, future, and postcolonial discourse in modern Azerbaijan literature.

To gain an understanding of the modern literature of Azerbaijan, one must bear in mind two important factors that have influenced the country's artistic and cultural life: the colonial condition of Azerbaijan under the Soviet empire, and the control of the means of communication through censorship. Although restrictions on speech and thought have been the common experience throughout this empire's history, the peripheral nationalities have been restricted even further as regards the expression of their indigenous national identity.

In their experience of colonialism and their resistance to it, Azerbaijanis have much in common with other colonized peoples who have been dominated by European empires. Under the guise of narratives of equality, the Soviet regime continued the colonial relationships that had existed within the czarist empire. If the Russians were masters during the czarist period, in the new regime of federal states the Russians were, in George Orwell's words, "more equal than the others." In the name of "civilization" and "modernization," Soviet Russia secured its political, economic, and cultural dominance over the "backward" peripheries, including Azerbaijan. After recovering (with military might) territories lost to the czarist empire, the new Soviet regime offered enticements, such as formal self-governments, for the new republics; however, the policies that were carried out with such narratives, using such slogans as "equality among nations" and "friendship of peoples," were in fact unchanged. Russia assumed its dominance over these other nationalities, who were compelled to give up their independence once the Soviet empire consolidated its power.(1)

The narratives of the Soviet empire, however, did not go completely unchallenged. Despite the restraints of censorship and the control of communication, some Azerbaijani writers found ways of presenting a critical view of social conditions, challenging the Soviet narratives in their works as well as engaging in postcolonial discourse. The work of these writers shares much with that of other writers who have experienced colonial domination and whose works reflect expressions of cultural resistance.

Criticism of social conditions in Azerbaijan under Soviet rule has been reflected in a variety of artistic and literary genres. Azerbaijani prose writers during the Soviet period practiced such criticism through the use of symbols, metaphors, parables, and allegories. These devices were most useful in circumventing the prohibitions of censorship. Works such as Anar's Dantenin Jubilasi (Dante's Jubilee; 1968), Akram Eilisli's Gilanar Agajina Dediklarim (My Words to the Sour Cherry Tree; 1981) and Adamlar Va Agajlar (People and Trees; 1987), and Isi Malikzada's Goyu (The Well; 1976), along with the writings of Elchin, Movlud Suleymanov, Sabir Ahmadli, Isa Husseynov, Alaviyeh Babayeva, Ismail Shikhli, and the poet Bakhtiyar Vahabzada are examples of such challenges. The postcolonial discourse in literary texts, however, is seen most readily and most strongly in historical fiction. It is in Azerbaijani works of this genre produced during the Soviet era until just before the breakup of the USSR and the independence of Azerbaijan that a channel was opened through which the postcolonial nation has been imagined by contemporary Azerbaijani writers and readers.

Through the use of historical narratives, Azerbaijani writers have attempted to reconstitute the cultural and national identity damaged by the colonial experience. Writing the history of peripheral nationalities in a way that would suit the demands of Moscow was a key to the Soviet empire's maintenance of power. Although Russian expansion during the czarist era was first condemned, as the Soviet regime consolidated its power, particularly under Stalin, this expansion was presented as beneficial for the peripheral nationalities, who were made to believe in Russia's "enlightening missions." And although the tight grip on the writing of history was relaxed somewhat after Stalin's death, this view continued in the Soviet Union until the mid-1980s under Gorbachev, whose general programs of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost' (openness) resulted in the relaxation of censorship. It was then that the opportunity arose for a rewriting of the history of the outlying nations of the USSR. Before this time, conventional historical texts had been produced under Moscow's considerable restraints. Forbidden postcolonial discourses and historical narratives from the point of view of indigenous Azerbaijanis were expressed through historical fiction. In Pratha Chatterjee's words, "Anticolonial nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before it begins its political battle with the imperial power."(2)

Through the historical novel, Azerbaijani writers attempted to retrieve and make accessible the historical knowledge that had been censored and distorted due to the politics of the times. In order to circumvent the prohibitions imposed by Soviet censorship, authors focused mostly on foreign powers' past invasions and occupation of Azerbaijan and on the heroic resistance of the Azerbaijanis against those powers, which allegorically represented the Soviets and their colonial domination over Azerbaijan. Thus the historical novel above all provided an outlet for the construction of a national identity and became a source for the imagined postcolonial national community. Wrapping nationalist themes around a temporal narrative - what Benedict Anderson calls "calendrical time" - these texts have helped shape the imagination of historical time and nationalist history with the ultimate goal of independence. The novels are engaged on three temporal levels: set in the past, the narratives engage in the present through the device of historical allegory while becoming an outlet for imagining the future.

Historical novels have been used to convey nationalist sentiment in Azerbaijan in different eras, but it is important to bear in mind that the word nation has carried a variety of meanings. Whereas during the time of consolidation of the Soviet empire and the years of World War II (two periods during which nationalist themes were common), nation predominantly meant the Soviet Union, it is during the decades after Stalin, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, that nation in the historical novel indicated an independent Azerbaijan - the decades, in fact, that set the stage for the Soviet Union's breakup. Interest in the writing of historical novels focused on the nationalist theme increased after the relaxation of censorship and the policies of perestroika of the mideighties and continued until Azerbaijan's official attainment of independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet empire. Temporalities - past, present, and future - and the way they relate in texts vary depending on the political atmosphere and the prohibitions imposed by censorship at the time. All these texts, however, have been influential in the construction of the Azerbaijani national identity.

The 1970s and 1980s marked a period of awakening of the Azerbaijani national consciousness. The policies of the Soviet empire underwent considerable changes during this time, and more power was accorded to the local leaders in the outlying republics. During this period "the local party bosses were allowed free rein on their own turf. Russian 'colonial' apparatchiks were less watchdogs than cooperative partners."(3) This held true, of course, only so long as Moscow was not challenged and its authority was left intact. The situation, however, provided an opening for the resurgence of national and native assertions in the various republics on the periphery, albeit coded and discreet. One of the forums for this resurgence was the official publication of the Azerbaijan Writers Union, Azarbaycan. The Union published many "standard items on the importance of Russian influence on Azerbaijan's culture. But the journal also published some subtle, ambiguous pieces whose implications for national identity and consciousness were powerful and, to the Azerbaijani accustomed to code words, unmistakable."(4)

It was in this atmosphere that themes from national history became a preoccupation of Azerbaijani writers and national heroes of the precolonial past became central characters of literary texts. Among such works were Mahshar (Doomsday; 1979) by Isa Husseynov, Heykalsiz Abida (The Idol Without a Statue; 1982) by Nabi Khazri, Alamda Sasim Var Manim (I Have a Voice in This World) and Vatana Gayit (Come Back to the Homeland; 1977) and Yad Et Mani (Remember Me; 1980) and Baki 1501 (Baku 1501; 1981) by Aziza Jafarzada, Gizilbashlar (The Gizilbashes; 1983) by Alisa Nijat, and Khudafarin Corpusi (The Khudafarin Bridge; 1983) by Farman Karimzada. The last three novels revolve around the life of Shah Ismail Khatayi, a sixteenth-century king who founded the Safavid dynasty and established a centralized Azerbaijani state with Azeri as its official language. While these novels were important in the revival of national history, they were often allegories for contemporary situations as well, since, despite all the changes that had taken place, the means of communication were still heavily controlled and censored. In his article "Azerbaijan Romani: Dunan, Bu Gun" (The Azerbaijani Novel: Yesterday, Today) the Azerbaijani literary critic Vagif Yusufli writes:

During the last part of the 1970s and early part of the 1980s, interest in historical themes began. Novels were written about Shah Ismail Khatai, Mirza Shafi Vazeh, and other heroes from our past. Our people's history was reflected in literary works. Of course, this interest in historical subjects was not accidental. It had a sociopolitical reason. Going back to popular folklore, mythology, and roots was a tendency among many Soviet nationalities. The fount of folklore never stopped flowing during those years. The quest for history reflected in the novel was the same. The use of historical themes created numerous possibilities for writers.(5)

Aziza Jafarzada's Vatana Gayit provides a good example of this type of novel. Set in the eighteenth century, the account revolves around the life of the Azerbaijani poet Nishat Shirvani. The most important themes of the novel, however, relate not so much to Shirvani's life story as to the constant threats to and occupation of Azerbaijan by the Persians and Ottomans. Later on, Russia joined in the attempt at occupying and controlling the region. It is in just this setting that the most important theme of the novel is revealed: the Azerbaijanis' heroic resistance against the invading imperial powers and their efforts to preserve their national culture and history so that it might be passed intact to the next generation. Jafarzada further attempts to recapture the indigenous life lost to her colonized generation by depicting scenes of the traditional bazaar and various forgotten ceremonies and rituals.

In the prologue to Vatana Gayit Azerbaijan has been invaded by the Ottomans, who are leading Azerbaijani men and women away as slaves in a caravan that remains in motion throughout the first chapter. The caravan is a central symbol signifying Azerbaijan's continued predicament as an occupied and exploited people subjugated by imperial powers throughout history. Among those in the caravan is a female poet who writes about these events in bayaties or couplets, an important element in Azerbaijani folklore. Her couplets are passed from generation to generation and record the history of invasion and resistance. In the same way as the poet in her story, Jafarzada gives us a narrative of contemporary Azerbaijan, using the past as a means of conveying some sense of the present situation in Azerbaijan under Soviet rule: "In all my novels and stories I have brought up the important issues of today in the disguise of the old times because of the imposition of censorship. In all my creative work I have sought refuge in history."(6)

Jafarzadeh was not completely successful in Vatana Gayit: one entire chapter was censored because it contained themes considered dangerous to the existing colonial status quo. This chapter recounts the singlehanded resistance of an Azerbaijani woman against one of the Russian imperial army leaders who wanted to set up his military command post in front of her house. The woman lured the army chief into her home and finally saw to it that he was killed. For the Soviet authorities, writing of the invasion of Azerbaijan by the Ottomans and Persians was not a threat; however, once the invading power was the Russian empire, the chapter had to be banned not only because of the allusion to the Russian conquest of Azerbaijan but also due to the fact that the account contradicted the colonial narrative of the "preenlightened, backward, and passive" Azerbaijani woman: "This woman was not what [the army chief] had imagined the 'Muslim Woman' to be; she was a well-educated woman, aware of world affairs."(7)

Historical novels became very popular once again following enactment of the 1985 policy relaxing censorship; however, in contrast to the period in which Jafarzada wrote Vatana Gayit, the connections now made between past and present were much clearer. Contemporary problems were discussed openly as a direct result of colonial history, and the repressions of the Stalinist era were emphasized. It was under Stalin that the truly international nature of the Soviet Union faded and national policies secured the dominance of Russia over the outlying republics, including Azerbaijan. This was the era when purges suppressed any voice of national aspiration, giving local power to Moscow's puppets through such policies as adopting the Cyrillic alphabet in non-Slavic as well as Slavic regions, establishing the primacy of the Russian language in education, and limiting sovereignty in the non-Russian republics, whose histories were interpreted and rewritten as narratives favoring the interests of Moscow.

Literary works produced after the mid-1980s reexamined the history of Azerbaijan and explored the roots of contemporary social problems. Among these works were Gatl Gunu (The Day of Murder; 1987) by Yusuf Samadoglu, Abaddiyat (Eternity; 1988) by Isa Husseynov, Yasak Edilmish Oyun (The Forbidden Game; 1988) by Sabir Ahmadly, Gara Orpak (The Black Headscarf) by Manzar Nigarly, and Olum Hokmu (The Death Sentence; 1989) by Elchin. In contrast to the pre-1985 narratives' use of the remote past, writers after the mid-1980s tended to incorporate more recent history into their narratives. Although criticism of the present and references to repressive periods in history were now allowed, writers were still inhibited somewhat in presenting a truly postcolonial discourse. The new openness engendered questions about the power relationship between each republic and the center. Criticism was allowed, but the empire remained. In an article about the literary texts published after the relaxation of censorship, one Azerbaijani literary critic wrote:

The hidden issues were so many that their disclosure within a short period created chaos, which is very natural. One of the functions of literature is to draw on social circumstances as a source of narrative . . . and to analyze the facts about our past and present. That is why today we seem to be asking the general question: where have we come from and where are we going? What is shared in the literary texts under study is an attempt to find an answer for this very question in one way or another. What is the recent past, the present, and the future of this belligerent nation that occupies such a small space on the global map, Azerbaijan?(8)

Elchin's Olum Hokmu is a perfect example of the novels written during this period, involving itself with a quest for the past, its relation to the present, and the hope it engenders for the future. Elchin focuses here on two time periods: the era of repression and terror under Stalin, and the years of bureaucratic stagnation and corruption under Brezhnev. The background and family history of the many characters that populate this novel serve as a major theme in Elchin's multiepisodic saga, establishing cause-and-effect connections between past and present. Although these connections are freely discussed and the criticism of corruption is openly and continually voiced, postcolonial discourse is expressed only indirectly.

Throughout its history, both under the Soviet regime and in its aftermath, Azerbaijani society, as portrayed here, is divided and polarized between two groups: the collaborators (brokers of the ideology of the Moscow regime) and the ordinary people (mostly affected, repressed, and controlled by that ideology). The dividing line between the groups is demarcated by opposing political and economic positions as well as by national, religious, cultural, and linguistic identities. Connections to Moscow are expressed through the local collaborators, whose loyalties are with the center of power: they speak the language of power (Russian) and identify mainly with its culture. In contrast are the common citizens who have resisted the colonial power by preserving the marks of their national identity, their religion, their language, and their culture. The opposing groups are brought together through a central plot involving an old cemetery, "Tulki Galdi Gabistani" (The Fox-Ridden Graveyard), a metaphorical designation for a colonized Azerbaijan removed from its traditions. The cemetery director, Abdul Ordokhanovich Ghafarzada, uses the site to make money. It houses a semifactory during the day, producing goods to be sold on the black market. By night it becomes a profitable tavern and gambling house. Bribes, which travel up the ladder of connections to reach the center of power, are obtained for the empty gravesites, providing Ghafarzada with additional income.

From that money, he will take a little for himself and will give the rest to his superior. What will his superior do then? He will also take a little of the money for himself and give the rest to the minister. What will the minister do? He will take his own portion and give the rest to his own superiors. They will take their own portions, and where do you think the rest will go? To Moscow.(9)

Elchin carefully weaves into his postcolonial narrative an episode involving the death of an old woman and a neighbor's attempts to have her buried in the cemetery, an ancestral burial site. This endeavor ends in failure, since the graveyard, having been invaded by the "foxes," is no longer accessible to the community's common citizens. A young student, Murad Ildrimly, dreams that the neighbors have gathered in front of the director's office.

The office was crowded with people, most of whom Murad Ildrimly could not recognize because they did not have any faces. Ghafarzada, however, could be seen clearly. In his mind, Murad Ildrimly could hear whispers saying, "Tulki burdadir" [The fox is here]. Ghafarzada was standing in his office behind his desk singing the Soviet national anthem, his color dark yellow like that of a fox. The room was decorated with red banners bearing slogans like "Long live the friendship of the Soviet people" and "Long live the Soviet Communist Party." Portraits of Brezhnev and all the other members of the Politburo were hung on the wall above Ghafarzada's head. The color of the faces in the portraits was also dark yellow, like that of a fox.(10)

The episode ends with the old woman being buried not in the graveyard of her ancestors but in a newly created one, suggesting that Azerbaijan is not accessible for Azerbaijanis who resisted colonial domination. At the conclusion of the novel, Elchin expresses hope for the future, when the imposed power will be eliminated and the people will have access to what was once theirs. In the final scene, one of the outraged neighbors, a victim of the past who spent years in prison during Stalinist times, strangles the graveyard director.

"Calendrical time," the passage of time involving past, present and future, is used in both Vatana Gayit and Olum Hokmu. However, neither of these works directly expressed criticism of the colonial domination of Azerbaijan. It is only during the independence movement and the final years of the breakup of the Soviet empire that historical novels have involved postcolonial narrative with direct references to the invasions of Azerbaijan by the Soviet army. Also during this time, the theme of independence is no longer discussed as a wish for the future but rather as a reality in the making.

Soon after the reforms of the Gorbachev era, and starkly contrasting with the "friendship of nationalities" myth, a conflict arose between Azerbaijan and the Armenian Republic over the disputed mountainous region of Karabakh. Moscow's stance in this dispute brought thousands of protesting Azerbaijanis to Lenin Square (now Freedom Square), an initiative taken by various grass-roots groups. Although the reason for the formation of these groups was the Karabakh conflict, other issues - such as the damages caused by cultural and linguistic russification, the economic advantages and natural wealth (oil) taken from Azerbaijan to benefit Moscow, and environmental disasters caused by colonial policies - lent force to the angry Azerbaijani protesters. From these grass-roots initiatives, different political parties sprang up, the most popular of which has been the People's Front of Azerbaijan. The Karabakh conflict, then, was in fact "a catalyst for the rise of the national movement"(11) that finally led, in January 1990, to a direct confrontation between the Azerbaijanis and the military might of the Soviet empire, a confrontation resulting in the massacre of hundreds of Azerbaijanis.

The events of these most recent years provide the major theme of many of the literary works of this period, among them All Amirli's Meydan (The Square; 1992), Sabir Ahmadli's Danizdan Galan Sas (The Voice from the Sea; 1990), Mammad Oruj's Izrailla Gorush (Meeting with Azrael; 1992), Agshin Babayev's Dunyanin Akhiri (The End of the World; 1992), and Isi Malikzada's Girmizi Sheytan (The Red Satan; 1991). In Isi Malikzada's short novel Girmizi Sheytan parallel narratives represent two time periods and the two major Soviet invasions: the events of 1920, when the Bolshevik army took over the short-lived independent Republic of Azerbaijan (established in 1918); and those of the independence movement of the late 1980s and the 1990 Soviet attack.

To make direct connections between the two events and emphasize the continuity of colonial invasion and domination, the author makes the characters involved in the independence movement of the 1990s the grandchildren of the characters from the 1920s, representing both groups as victims of colonial oppression. One striking difference, however, lies in the portrayal of the characters present during the 1920s invasion, whom the writer depicts as having collaborated with the Soviets against their own people. Their grandsons, on the other hand, are at the forefront of the nationalist movement: "I want to die on the battlefield, pay my dues to my country, and wash away my grandfather's sins,"(12) says one character. Another, the protagonist Samandar, is the one who actually makes the connection with the past, sharing an image - the Soviet soldier who kills him as a red Satan - with his grandfather. In this novel the connection with the past is the reality of the present. Malikzada also provides a glimpse of the future. When Samandar is ready to leave his house and join the protesters (on the night he will be killed), his young son gives him his toy gun for protection.

If in Vatana Gayit and Olum Hokmu the nationalist postcolonial theme is arranged in a temporal narrative giving the sense of time and its passage and shaping the thinking about national history with the imagination of a future independent nation as its goal, Girmizi Sheytan blends past and future in the present moment when the goal is being fulfilled. The nationalist zeal and passion of the 1990s has given way to the realities of individuals struggling in a post-Soviet, postcolonial Azerbaijani society with all its economic, social, and political instabilities.

The hardship of life in an unstable environment with an uncertain future is the dominant theme in contemporary Azerbaijani literature, as reflected in the works of Sara Nazirova, Mehriban Vazir, Rafig Tagi, Manzar Nigarly, Afagh Massud, Sabir Azeri, and many others.(13) The short stories collected in Anar's Otel Otagi (Hotel Room; 1995) provide excellent examples of this trend, as in "Vahima" (Fright), which depicts the life of a nouveau-riche character who loses his sanity out of fear of losing his accumulated wealth, or in "Otel Otagi," which describes the exodus of many Azerbaijanis to other countries, or in "Red Limousine," which tells the story of an individual who is caught in the uncertainties and unfamiliarities of the present: "He raised his head and looked at the clouds. The clouds were familiar. A familiar rain was pouring from the familiar clouds. It looked like the rain was pouring not from the clouds but from the past, a past that had been lost forever."

New York University

1 Michael Rywkin, Moscow's Lost Empire, New York, Sharp, 1994, p. 4.

2 Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments, Princeton (N.J.), Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 6.

3 Rywkin, p. 181.

4 Audrey L. Altstadt, The Azerbaijani Turks, Stanford (Ca.), Hoover Institution Press, 1992, p. 188.

5 Vagif Yusufli, "Azerbaijan Romani: Dunan, Bu Gun," Azarbaican Adabi-Badii Jurnal, 1987, no. 12, p. 177.

6 Tahira Mammadova, "Sozum Hala Chokhdur," Azarbaycan, 1992, nos. 3-4, p. 180.

7 Aziza Jafarzada, unpublished manuscript provided by the author, p. 4.

8 Nizamaddin Mustafa, "Doral Roman Bir Problem," Azarbaycan, 1989, no. 6, p. 170.

9 Elchin, Olum Hokmu, Baku, Yaziji, 1989, p. 32.

10 Ibid., pp. 315-16.

11 Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan, New York, Columbia University Press, 1995, p. 218.

12 Isi Malikzada, "Girmizi Sheytan," Azarbaycan, 1992, nos. 9-10, p. 49.

13 Because of financial problems and a shortage of paper, many of these writers have difficulty publishing their works.

SHOULEH VATANABADI teaches in the Department of General Studies at New York University. Her major research area is contemporary Azerbaijani literature, and she is currently translating the work of several Azerbaijani writers.
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Title Annotation:Literatures of Central Asia
Author:Vatanabadi, Shouleh
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:4161
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