Gay Novel Shocks Azeris

Book about love affair between Azeri and Armenian sells well, despite uproar over its publication.

Gay Novel Shocks Azeris

Book about love affair between Azeri and Armenian sells well, despite uproar over its publication.

Monday, 16 March, 2009
Artush and Zaur were two schoolchildren growing up in the great multi-ethnic city of Baku, but fate was not kind to them. Just when they were discovering their love for each other, they were torn apart by war.

Artush, an Armenian, ended up in Armenia, while the Azeri Zaur was left to mourn the memories of his lost love as he walked the streets of Azerbaijan’s capital.

As a plot for a novel, it is not the most original in the world. But the twist has shocked Azerbaijan and made author Alekper Aliev infamous in his homeland. For both Zaur and Artush are men.

Setting a love affair between two men in the midst of the conflict over the region of Karabakh, which is ruled by Armenians but claimed by Azerbaijan, has proved controversial.

“I think that only a sick or completely cynical person could write such gibberish, someone who spits on his own country and on the millions of people harmed by the Karabakh war. It is just filth, that’s what it is,” said Sultan Gafarov, a student in Baku.

Such attitudes are widespread in the country. Homosexuality has been legal in Azerbaijan since September 2000, and it is illegal to discriminate against homosexuals, but openly gay Azeris meet abuse in many areas of life.

“There is xenophobia against homosexuals in society, which is stirred up by publications about AIDS. It is not universal. For example, homosexuals who achieve a high place in society are not criticised. In society, a rich homosexual appears more of a man than a poor heterosexual,” said Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan.

In such a complex atmosphere, Aliev knew that publishing his book would not prove easy.

“In Azerbaijan not one publishing house would agree to issue a homoerotic book, which in their opinion dirtied the good name of the Azeri people,” he told IWPR.

“The main theme of the book is the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the theme of homosexuality is not essential, just a way of attracting attention. Everyone knows the negative opinion of homosexuality in the South Caucasus. Against this background, I tried to show the mosaic of conflicts in the three neighbouring republics.”

He finally had to publish it through a private publishing house last month, but it has proved successful. One shopkeeper said the controversial novel had been “selling like hot cakes”.

“I am very glad that a novel finally emerged to shock conservative opinion in Azerbaijan. This is long overdue, to break stereotypes, to have a joke with public opinion,” said Khanlar Agayev, a businessman in Baku.

“I hope now the author manages to survive the many attacks that will come from readers and critics.”

Such attacks have come from all sides, including from the religious hierarchy in the mainly Muslim country. Haji Fuad Nurulla, dean of the Baku Islamic University, is among the strongest opponents of homosexuality, which he thinks has come in from abroad and is weakening national culture.

“In the Koran this is strongly condemned. It is a sin, abnormal. It is completely unacceptable for a man to wear women’s clothes, to behave like a woman,” he said.

“Such people must be isolated from healthy members of society, so they do not infect them.”

Only one charity is helping Azerbaijan’s homosexuals with the difficulties of life in such an environment, the Union of Gender Development and Flourishment, which started work in 2006. Its funding primarily comes from The Netherlands. According to its chairman, Kamran Rzayev, homosexuals in the country have most trouble within their own families.

“There have been cases when parents, finding out about the non-traditional orientation of their children, have beaten them and thrown them out of the house,” he said.

“In such cases, we provide psychological support to these boys and girls and try to speak to their parents. Some parents, particularly those who are younger, come to our office themselves, and we explain that their children are not drug addicts, are not criminals, they are normal people who work, earn money, study, have their own interests.”

Natavan, a lesbian, is among the young people who gathered in the organisation’s kitchens to smoke and talk about their lives. She said her parents knew about it, but they did not talk about it in the family.

“Any conversation turns into an argument. They think it is a perversion, and probably think I am an ill-fated child,” she said.

“I want to have a normal family, I would like to live together with a loved one. But men just don’t interest me, and if I lived with a woman then everyone would spurn me.”

Rzayev said that a handful of single-sex couples do live in Baku, and that some of them had even been together for a decade or more. Some had even gone abroad to have their union recognised in one of the countries were gay marriage is legal.

As it turned out, that is exactly what happened to Artush and Zaur. After long years separated by the tense relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have still not signed a peace deal, they find each other in Tbiliisi – a city where Azeris and Armenians can go and be friends again – and were married by a friend of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s Dutch wife.
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