Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A Flag of Many Colours
The author, Zaur Qurbanli, was released at the end of 2014 after being granted a presidential pardon. Arrested in March 2013 after the NIDA youth movement he belonged to took part in demonstrations against the deaths of army conscripts, Qurbanli was convicted with seven other members of the group in May 2014. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.The judge accepted the prosecution case that the accused had stored Molotov cocktails and were planning to stage an armed uprising financed from abroad. The defendants denied that the charges had any foundation.
This piece is about Isa Shahmarli, an LGBT activist in Azerbaijan who committed suicide one year ago.
We watched the film Groundhog Day today. Dubbed by AzTV, the phrase "he's gay" was translated as “he isn’t a good person”. It prompted me to write about an issue I had long wanted to deal with.
We live in a racist country, one where women are treated as second-class citizens or humanoid apes, and where men are “not good people” if they are seen as effeminate because of hormones or because of their behaviour. In a country like this, it is natural that “bad people” will commit suicide; it is natural that conscientious, decent, honourable, honest and assiduous people – whether religious or atheist – commit suicide.
This is not to blame those who do not commit suicide, of course. Besides, our not committing suicide does not detract from the fact that in this environment, we live in a somewhat contradictory reality, and each of us leads two or more different lives simultaneously.
We are two-faced, however you look at it. Men intimidate their wives at home and suck up to their bosses at work; female teachers give classes in [early 20th century poet] Huseyn Javed and hide leaflets in their bras; doctors take the Hippocratic oath but put up with selling their labour for 120 manats; boys smoke but hide it from their fathers; women drink beer but make sure their mothers don’t find out; judges who grow weary of issuing false, political verdicts; girls who engage in oral and anal sex but preserve their virginity; boys who look to marry virgins – all of us are two-faced.
Those who are not two-faced include [opposition activist] Faina Kungurova, who died after going on hunger strike [in prison, 2007]; Zaur Hasanov, who committed suicide [by self-immolation, 2013], and Elmar Huseynov [journalist, died 2005], who would not remain silent until they put a bullet in his mouth.
My heroes are not all dead. I have named only the dead ones here out of respect to them.
I found out only a month ago that Isa Shahmarli hanged himself using an LGBT flag. This wasn’t symbolism – it was a declaration by a straightforward man to the two-faced people who fill this country. It wold have been the same if a liberal hanged himself with the flag of the European Union or the United States, a socialist with the hammer-and-sickle banner, or a patriot with the Azerbaijani flag. Who would have the courage to do such a thing?
We are so two-faced that we even die quietly without leaving a message. We may condemn those who shout “jump!” to someone who is about to throw himself off a bridge, but that call should be regarded as acceptable. All of us need to be able to jump when we reach the brink like that.
“This world is not strong enough to bear my colours,” Isa Shahmarli said. To be frank, we are all in the same position as Isa. Is this country strong enough to bear all our colours? Why does a thinking person put up with such dishonour and dishonesty? How can a liberal put up with such inequality, or a socialist tolerate such social injustice? And more generally, how do all of us endure so much humiliation?
Isa could not endure it, he was sincere, and he hanged himself with the colours that represented him. I am a lesser being than Isa, as I am unable to hang myself with the banners of humanism, liberalism or feminism. What a shame it is that we carry on living while our values are trampled underfoot every minute and every hour.
It was recently reported that Tural Mustafayev [journalist; complainant against Khadija Ismayil] lived in the same house as Isa Shahmarli at one time. The implication was that this was a humiliating fact. The reverse is true – it is we who are humiliated and lowered because we lack Isa’s strength. If we were all like Isa – sincere and straightforward – we would be more decent people.
The true citizen is one who sees the truth about his country and at least conveys it. For those who can see terrible things happening yet lead a quiet life, I would wish a flag of many colours and a personality like Isa Shahmarli’s.
Kurdekhani, December 28, 2014.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight