Where They Burn Books: A Writer Pays the Price for Honesty




IN 2012, Akram Aylisli (born Akram Najaf oglu Naibov, 1937), one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent and respected writers, who turned 81 on December 6, published his novella Stone Dreams in the Russian literary magazine Druzhba narodov (Friendship of Peoples). He was not sure what to expect. Aylisli originally hadn’t intended to publish the novella at all. He changed his mind, however, after witnessing the unexpected hero’s welcome in Azerbaijan of army officer Ramil Safarov after his release from a Hungarian prison, where he had been serving a life sentence for the 2004 ax-murder of Armenian army lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan during a NATO-sponsored training exercise in Budapest.

Stone Dreams, set on the eve of the real-life January 1990 pogrom against Armenians in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, explores the limits of one man’s ability to live a moral life amid conditions of sociopolitical upheaval, ethnic cleansing, and petty professional intrigue. The novella is also a love letter to Aylisli’s native mountain village of Aylis, an ancient Armenian town in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan. The majority of the Armenian inhabitants of Aylis had been slaughtered in 1919, an event witnessed by Aylisli’s mother and briefly depicted in the novella.

The publication of Stone Dreams set off a firestorm in Azerbaijan. Many perceived the work as unpatriotic, or worse. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, stripped Aylisli of the title of “People’s Writer” and his presidential pension. Aylisli’s books were burned, his son and wife were fired from their jobs, and he received death threats. A bounty was announced for anyone who would cut off the writer’s ear. Aylisli’s case has been chronicled by the Washington Post, The Independent, the Guardian, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, Index on Censorship, and many others, and championed by human rights organizations including PEN International and Human Rights Watch. In 2014, supporters in Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere nominated Aylisli for the Nobel Peace Prize. He currently lives under de facto house arrest in Azerbaijan.

Stone Dreams is the second in a trilogy of novellas. The complete trilogy, Farewell, Aylis: A Non-Traditional Novel in Three Works, translated by Katherine E. Young and from Academic Studies Press, is followed by Aylisli’s essay — from which this excerpt is adapted — on the furor surrounding his novellas and his current situation as a prisoner of conscience in Azerbaijan.

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February 9, 2013, turned out to be the most terrible day of my life, as well as an unexpected turning point in my fate: on that day, in my native village, they burned my books!!!

In Aylis, February is reckoned to be the coldest month, with a great deal of snow. However, in the video I watched on the internet, there was no snow visible. But I saw a great number of people, the majority of whom came from Ordubad itself, the district capital. Many people from neighboring villages were gathered there. Also in that crowd were several of my fellow villagers — 15 to 20 people. And from the way they were dressed, I understood that February temperatures there were below freezing.

The action occurred in the place called the bazaar, which formerly really was a bazaar. Located on high ground, the main market square of Aylis had once had the good fortune to be one of the lively points on the Great Silk Road. Camel caravans arrived from many countries, and carriages stopped from Tabriz, Ardabil, Isfahan, Izmir, Tiflis, Yerevan … There they sold excellent Iranian rice, Iraqi dates, Indian and Moroccan spices, and, it goes without saying, the fruits of Aylis itself: walnuts, almonds, dried mulberries and apricots, and the renowned Aylis silk valued more highly than gold. And it was right there one summer that one-eyed Farhad, the brother of the butcher Mamedaga, shot the son (who had studied in Paris) of the landowner Arakel — Arakel who himself had completed the pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and received the religious title of mugdisi.

Now the administrative center of Aylis was located there: the executive committee; post office; first aid station; and the pompous, two-story House of Culture whose doors opened only occasionally when meetings were conducted and regularly scheduled elections took place.

The House of Culture didn’t appear in the video. But I easily imagined the people collected right in front of it, people who’d come from all corners of the district for this “historic event.” Under the feet of those people I saw not just gray asphalt but the sandstone and stones — now hidden under asphalt — that my bare feet had once touched. A little way off stood the mighty, aged plane tree — the beauty and pride of the former Aylis bazaar. No one knew how old it was, just as they didn’t know the age of the bridge nearby. And a little below that bridge once stood the luxurious, three-story mansion of Mugdisi Arakel that had now turned into a melancholy ruin.

That day, looking at the people who’d crowded into the square, I saw all those places where the Aylis churches once rose, and all the flower and vegetable gardens established there now to hide that fact and deceive history. I saw my own home, built with my own hands all of 25 years ago, and every tree and bush I’d planted.

Among those people on the square, was there even one person who knew why he’d come there? If all that brouhaha were indeed connected to Stone Dreams, wouldn’t it have been possible to organize it just a little more plausibly? You know, my book still hadn’t even been published in Azeri. And the journal Druzhba narodov in which Stone Dreams had been published in Russian was arriving in Azerbaijan in just two copies at that point. So, that meant no one cared what Stone Dreams was about or why it had been written; one part of the crowd appeared there for the free spectacle, the other part hoped to find something to their own benefit from that spectacle.

It is real torture for a writer when a people turns into a mob literally before his eyes. And having blended into the mob, a person immediately becomes not just faceless and soulless but horribly corrupt. You see, just 10 days before this “rally” practically all of them had been proud of me as their famous writer and distinguished [parliamentary] deputy; their children knew me from their schoolbooks. And now, having turned into a mob, they’d already forgotten all that. For them, I no longer existed as a creative person. And, believe me, Stone Dreams interested them no more than any of my other books collected from all the city and village libraries of Nakhchivan so they could burn them right there in Aylis itself. Not one of them had read a single phrase of Stone Dreams. If they had read it, it would have made absolutely no difference. You see, the most active participants in that mob were people of approximately my own age. They certainly knew everything I’d written in Stone Dreams.

All of them knew that there had once been a number of churches in Aylis, thanks to which the town was known not only in Nakhchivan and Yerevan but in many countries of both the Christian and Muslim world; there was a time when Aylis was called Little Istanbul.

How could those people so quickly forget the massive destruction of churches and cemeteries that had begun in Nakhchivan all of 10 to 15 years previously? And is it really possible that people born into and living in the Ordubad district hadn’t heard at least once about the Armenian pogrom that took place at one time in Aylis? Consequently, they’d come there to “execute” me for the fact that in my novel I proclaimed a certain truth that was well known to them all. “Akram is an Armenian! Akram is a traitor to his motherland! Death to Akram!” — on that day they were courageous in their curses addressed to me, as if the demon of aggression had awakened in them.

I knew the faces of practically all of those who’d gathered on the market square in Aylis. I’d seen them many times at meetings I held in 2005 at the time of my election campaign when I ran for deputy.

One pot-bellied hulk, a person I’d often met on the main street of Ordubad, conducted himself particularly aggressively. He was shouting in full voice, shaking his fists, demonstrating his unprecedented bureaucratic zeal to the higher-ups. Earlier that person had been a police inspector, and now he’d become the director of the local history museum. And every time I’d met him, I heard the exact same phrase from him, pronounced in a typical Ordubad accent: “And when are we going to get together and drink a shot of vodka?” Apparently, the thirst for that shot he’d once promised me now compelled him to howl so savagely …

Well, among those who came to the rally from the district center were many men and women who clearly enjoyed participating in such an important event: petty officials fed with crumbs from the state budget. It was simplest of all for me to understand them because I knew very well what the main responsibility of a state official consisted of in the prevailing moral-psychological atmosphere of Nakhchivan, where the authorities did anything they wanted and compelled everyone to dance to their tune. If you dance, you’re with them. If not, good luck finding yourself a place under the sky. And under what sky can a person find a place if even the sky belongs to them, the powers-that-be? And if behind them stands all the might of the governmental machine ably constructed in its time by that leading builder of an authoritarian regime [former Azerbaijani president] Heydar Aliyev?

State officials, and not only they, now had to behave themselves much more obediently than in even the worst times of the all-encompassing Soviet ideological yoke. It was as if history were moving backward to the times of moral-ethical genocide. No other path was left to a person than to constantly demonstrate his own devotion to the leadership. And many rally participants were proud and happy precisely because on that “important” day for the whole country the authorities hadn’t forgotten about them, hadn’t overlooked them. Instructions came from the very top, from [current Azerbaijani president] Ilham Aliyev himself.

I wanted to shriek, to tell them, “I’m not any sort of Armenian, and every one of you knows it! I don’t extol Armenians but simply write the truth. And writing the truth is my responsibility because I’m a writer. And I love you and don’t want you to be deceived and cheated by the authorities above, for whom a lie is the only correct truth. Wake up, understand who I am: I’m not any kind of traitor but simply a victim of the same shameless regime that’s made you so pitiful and weak-willed…”

I can’t remember how I slept that night or what I dreamed. But waking up the next morning, I felt such calmness and ease in myself that those feelings will always stay in my soul and memory. That was a condition of spirit greater than happiness itself. And I understood that something had taken place in my life that was more important than anything in all the preceding time of my existence under God’s heaven.

For the first time in my life I understood clearly that my fate stands behind me. It’s mine, only mine, and no power of any kind over it has been given to anyone besides me.

For the first time in my life I was convinced that if a person retains the ability to be greater than his own suffering, it’s impossible to deny him all joy. And thanks to that same Aylis that long ago gave me my first bitter lessons in life, I’ve turned out to be quite patient and hardy.

How old was Aylis that morning? I was 75. And all my life, wherever I was, Aylis was always with me: in my student years in Baku and Moscow and in numerous creative business trips to the various corners of the Big Country.

In Germany, England, Norway, Turkey, Mongolia, Poland, Hungary, the United States, Yemen, everywhere, in all the countries where I’ve had the good fortune to be, I looked for a little piece of Aylis, and I always found it. I’ve lived a long creative life, and in all my stories and novels Aylis is unfailingly present: its rocky mountains laughing under the sun, the stony earth groaning from the intense summer heat and thirsting for moisture, and the people worn out from the heat. The inexhaustible spiritual energy of Aylis coursed without stopping through my veins, helping me defend myself in the face of violence and injustice.

And now, look: Aylis was no longer mine. And would never be mine again. Lord, why was I rejoicing, then?!

Suddenly, the blessed weight of the Aylis mountains that I’d always felt in my chest disappeared, evaporated. It seemed to me as if Aylis had never existed at all. As if no one else besides me had ever seen the Aylis that I carried in my soul all my life like an ache, like hope, like warmth and light.

Perhaps I experienced such relief because the Aylis taken away from me that day by the potent hand of the authorities hadn’t been my Aylis for a long time already. It was their Aylis: without God and without Memory, without History, and without a Biography.

That morning I was inspired with the hope that even if their Aylis lasts a hundred years, my Aylis, which God created especially for me, entrusting its joy and sorrow only to me, will also exist in the world. For the Almighty decided, evidently, to also entrust to me alone the sacred mission to tell people about that Aylis. I’ve spent almost all the years of my life telling people about my Aylis, and it seems that I’ve been able to do that colorfully and attractively enough in my writing in the bright searchlight of my dreamy, supersensitive childhood. How wonderful that my labors haven’t fallen by the wayside! My books have found a place on bookshelves in hundreds of thousands of libraries in many countries far and near.

Let some in my motherland think I’m not a writer: so be it. I don’t need honor or glory in a country where they burn books and a killer with an ax is elevated to the rank of hero.

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Translated by Katherine E. Young

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Akram Aylisli is an Azerbaijani writer, playwright, novelist, and editor, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in connection with his novella Stone Dreams. He currently lives under de facto house arrest in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards and former poet laureate of Arlington, Virginia. She is the recipient of a 2017 Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for the translation of Farewell, Aylis.


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