By Diana Cohen Altman/JNS.org
Azerbaijan. So in following the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, you have been asked to pay attention to that little country on the Caspian Sea. An ancient and comfortable Jewish community, a vital partner of Israel, a key strategic ally of the United States—these are all good reasons to pay attention. But the shining gem that awaits you in your odyssey is Karabakh itself, the cultural treasure trove at the heart of Azerbaijan.
No discussion of ethnic friction, historic machinations, or political imperatives adequately conveys why Azerbaijanis carry banners for Karabakh. Their passion emerges, rather, in discussions of culture-based and not conflict-based diplomacy.
Town names such as Shusha and Aghdam evoke for many Azerbaijanis personal memories of deep family roots tied to a land boasting profound, uniquely Azerbaijani cultural accomplishments.
Do you know what mugham is? (UNESCO does—it lists mugham, a classical music form, as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.) Have you heard of the 19th-century female poet Khurshidbanu Natavan? A beloved lyrical poet, she was also a prominent social activist who solved a serious water problem for the townspeople of Shusha.
Who was Uzeyir Hajibeyov, and how is the spirit of Karabakh embedded in his music for today’s Azerbaijani national anthem? Born in Shusha, Hajibeyov kept Azerbaijani music alive in the 20th century by blending Azerbaijani and Western classical music in keeping with the political climate producing sheet music, and preparing a next generation of Azerbaijani musicians and musical teachers.
Actual Karabakh culture has been defaced, destroyed, repurposed, and/or spirited away as victims of war. Damage and neglect of Azerbaijani cultural and religious sites are particular sources of anger for Azerbaijanis. Social scientists speculate not only on the destruction of property, but on the uprooting of tradition.
Walk down the street in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku and you find handmade symbols of Karabakh culture, such as statues of minstrel-like artists called ashiqs selling at small shops. In carpet stores you see how the much prized Karabakh carpet tradition has been preserved as elements in the overall prized Azerbaijani carpet portfolio. Internally Displaced Persons (hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis are displaced from Karabakh) share their memories—oral artifacts—in public parks.
Azerbaijan does amazing things to preserve its culture. The national music museum in Baku boasts a public-access band that plays traditional instruments. The national history museum exhibits cultural artifacts and stories in richly layered historic contexts.
The city of Baku is alive not only with dramatic new buildings (so often referenced by the Western media as a trope), but with performances of national heritage from puppetry to dance to opera. The modern carpet museum, in the shape of an unfolding carpet, welcomes visitors into a dazzling world wrought by Azerbaijani hands.
How does culture matter in the move toward finally solving the Nagorno-Karabakh situation? Well, cultural diplomacy facilitates the work of conflict-based diplomacy. That is, spotlighting culture redirects attention to what is truly at the heart of any conflict—the people.
Armenian culture has been celebrated in the U.S. for a long time, in part due to a committed, active Armenian diaspora here. Those representations have helped Armenians convey their thoughts on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Azerbaijanis, newer to America, have made less of a mark in sharing their cultural heritage.
Even the most avid and astute U.S. museum-goer would have trouble piecing together the rich culture of Karabakh/Azerbaijani culture. “Possibly Caucasus” is perhaps the most pointed attribution available in museums and showrooms. The naming problem, being addressed by a few experts, is a byproduct of tumultuous history and provenance, and of language barriers.
English-speaking cultural enthusiasts can rejoice that Azerbaijani culture is reaching our shores. “Music of Azerbaijan: From Mugham to Opera,” a 2016 book by Azerbaijani-born professor Dr. Aida Huseynova at Indiana University’s famed Jacobs School of Music, is one sign of change. The book makes the complexities and joys of Azerbaijani music accessible to Westerners. Similarly, Feride Buyuran’s 2015 book “Pomegranates and Saffron: A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan” has enjoyed wild success and demand for more on the topic. The Karabakh Foundation’s evolving website (www.AzerbaijaniArtifacts.com) offers the first-ever online comprehensive overview of this magnificent culture.
In exploring Azerbaijani/Karabakh culture, we understand why Karabakh is more than a piece of land smack in the middle of Azerbaijan. But we expand our appreciation of world culture, on which it has had a surprising impact.
So look beyond the shallow, context-free discussions of Karabakh in much of the media. Explore—and reach out for conversations with Azerbaijanis that welcome you to Karabakh. You will be glad you did.
Diana Cohen Altman is executive director of the Karabakh Foundation, which since 2010 has focused on introducing the world to Azerbaijani culture. A former museum director, she writes extensively about cultural topics.
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