Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Tackling Ethnicity and Conflict No Easy Task

Reporter describes how things get very personal if you ask people how they feel about Armenians.
By Shahla Sultanova

My interview for a scholarship at the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management in Georgia was going well, when Professor Tinatin Tsomaia asked me whether I would mind studying alongside an Armenian.

“And this Armenian is from Nagorny Karabakh,” she added.

I knew that objecting might cost me the scholarship, but I could not help myself.

Also see original article:
History Lessons in Armenia and Azerbaijan

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“You have an Armenian student from Nagorny Karabakh?” I said. “Don’t expect me to be tolerant. That’s Azerbaijani land. It should be Azerbaijanis at your school.”

I was raised in the north of Azerbaijan in the ethnic Avar community, so my family did not experience the trauma caused by the Karabakh war. We did not witness the exodus of refugees who lost their homes and their loved ones. We never heard gunfire or saw people killed.

Nevertheless, like many young people in Azerbaijan, I had been conditioned by the media and my teachers to hate Armenians.

Fortunately, I got the scholarship anyway. On our first day at the school of journalism, all the students sat in a Tbilisi café introducing ourselves. We just said our first names, so we had no idea of each other’s ethnic origin.

I sat next to a girl with hazel eyes who smiled all the time. Charmed by her friendliness and taking her for a Georgian, I chatted to her. It was only in class that I discovered she was the Armenian student from Nagorny Karabakh, Lilit Asryan.

I could not maintain my reserve for long. Her positive energy made me smile back at her when we worked on group projects, and I soon reversed my views altogether. She was a great person, not just some Armenian.

By the end, Lilit was my best friend at college. We never discussed Nagorny Karabakh, guessing it would take us nowhere. But along with the other Armenian students at on the course, she removed all my prejudices against the nation.

Since returning to Azerbaijan, I have often been criticised by friends and colleagues for my tolerant attitudes towards Armenians.

I had to face the same issues when I was gathering material for a jointly-authored piece on history textbooks, called History Lessons in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

When I asked an Azerbaijani school pupil, “Is it OK to call Armenians fascists and bandits in textbooks?,” his teacher got angry with me. She accused me of asking the “wrong” questions and “brainwashing” her pupils. For her, those were the right terms to use about Armenians, and that was that.

The author of one of the history texts under discussion, Tofig Veliyev, accused me of acting against the interests of the Azerbaijani nation when I asked him if it was necessary to describe the Armenians as ‘fascists’ in his book. He said I was siding with the Armenians, and I should change my ways.

I asked the people I interviewed as many questions as I could. That made the grandfather of one interviewee, schoolgirl Guljennet Huseynli, suspicious and he asked whether I knew anything about the Karabakh war.

“I don think you know enough to report on this issue,” he said. “You’re asking such provocative questions. Of course young people will hate them [Armenians]. That’s the way it should be.”

He knew I was from the north of Azerbaijan, which is mostly populated by minorities, and he said my ethnicity would lead me to write a biased story.

My facial features caused me problems. Because I don’t look like a typical Azerbaijani, people asked me whether I was of mixed ethnicity. When I told them I was an Avar, that put them on their guard me.

“It isn’t right for an Avar to cover issues like Nagorny Karabakh. You need to be an ethnic Azerbaijani to understand what we really feel,” one person I approached said.

Faig Shahbazli, head of the education ministry’s publications department, was very friendly during the interview I conducted with him, but then he stopped and asked whether I was from a mixed marriage.

Fearing he would say the same thing as other interviewees, I replied, “No. Both my parents are Azerbaijani,” lying about my ethnicity for the first time in my life.

I have to note, however, that some people welcomed the idea of writing about how Azerbaijani and Armenian history books describe the other side. They tended to be middle-aged Azerbaijanis who had Armenian friends before the conflict.

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.