The furor that erupted over his unconventional take on Azerbaijan in the early 1990s is taking a toll on writer Akram Aylisli.
Aylisli’s latest work, titled “Stone Dreams,” shuns a nationalist viewpoint on events, in particular the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, offering instead a generally sympathetic portrayal of Armenians. Its publication last December has touched off a full-throttle hate campaign against Aylisli, a campaign somewhat reminiscent of that unleashed against Salman Rushdie following the 1988 release Satanic Verses. Aylisli, along with family members, have been subjected to official retribution. And, in the most notorious instance of hate-mongering, Hafiz Haciyev, head of the pro-government Muasir Musavat Party, offered a 10,000 manat (roughly $12,000) bounty to anyone who cut off the author’s ear.
In a February 13 interview with EurasiaNet.org, Aylisli, appearing exhausted and jittery, said that the harassment, which he described as the most difficult experience in his life, is forcing him to consider leaving Azerbaijan. The police, he added, have taken no measures to protect his family or him from possible physical attacks.
“I do not want to leave Azerbaijan. I am 75,” he explained. “I didn’t decide yet, but it looks like I will have to ask for political asylum abroad. It is sad.”
Aylisli’s case has raised the question of whether a country like Azerbaijan is capable of reconciling sensitive episodes in its history with a constitutional guarantee for freedom of speech. For many in Azerbaijan, the answer appears to be no. But some aren’t willing to sacrifice free speech at the altar of national pride.
While few agree with Aylisli's negative group portrayal, in which ethnic Azeris harshly treat ethnic Armenians in Baku during the Karabakh conflict, local human-rights activists, representatives of opposition parties and ordinary social-network users are speaking out strongly against the anti-Aylisli campaign.
Staging fake funerals for Aylisli’s books, burning his works, banning his plays and urging people to cut off his ear “is not less harmful for the country” than the novel’s “deceitful lampoon” of Azerbaijan’s past, argued popular detective writer Chingiz Abdullayev, president of the Azerbaijani PEN-Club. “People should not behave this way,” he added.
A small group of young Azerbaijani writers rallied in support of Aylisli on February 3 to reaffirm his constitutional right to write what he wants, no matter what it may be. “No one can impose a ban on a writer, pressure him,” commented 27-year-old writer Gunel Movlud. “It is censorship otherwise.”
The 2012 extradition to Azerbaijan and subsequent official pardon of Lt. Ramil Safarov for the murder of an Armenian army officer in Hungary was the event that pushed Aylisli to publish his novel, which, he said, contains stories “based on real life.”
“When I saw the crazy reaction and the artificial fueling of hatred between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, which went beyond any borders, I decided to publish my novel,” he said.
A writer, he insisted, has the right to express his thoughts in his novels without their being considered a traitor.
But President Ilham Aliyev has treated him as just that. Adding fuel to the hate-campaign, the president stripped Aylisli of the title of “people’s writer,” and of his pension. Meanwhile, Aylisli’s son, Najaf Naibov, was fired from a senior position in the State Customs Committee, and his wife, Galina, was dismissed as the head of a children’s public library.
Various members of parliament have lambasted Aylisli’s work as treasonous and have called for him to be stripped of his citizenship -- even though the Azerbaijani constitution bars such a measure. Others go still further. “Some MPs accuse me of being an ‘Armenian,’” Aylisli recounted. “Is it a crime to be Armenian? It is racism.”
On February 13, Sheikh-ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazade, head of the Caucasus Muslims Office, a government ally, tossed another dart by denouncing Aylisli as an “infidel.”
The fact that the campaign against Aylisli gained steam only in recent weeks -- over a month after Stone Dreams appeared in the December 2012 issue of the Russian-language literary journal Druzhba Narodov – leads some Baku observers to believe that it is intended to distract popular attention from recent, violent protests in Baku and the regional town of Ismayilli.
A few suggest official displeasure is rooted in Aylisli’s less than flattering depiction of Heydar Aliyev, the incumbent leader’s deceased father. Officially, Heydar Aliyev is venerated as the chief architect of independent Azerbaijan. “Stone Dreams” features the late president, who headed Azerbaijan’s Communist Party for nearly 20 years during the late Soviet era, but refers to him only as “the master.”
Regardless of whether Aylisli remains in Azerbaijan or leaves, more controversy could be in the works. Stone Dreams is part of an envisioned trilogy, the first installment, titled Yemen, was published in 1990. The last installment, tentatively titled Big Traffic Jam, hasn’t been officially published. But Aylisli, seeking feedback, has distributed a limited number of drafts in Baku among friends and colleagues. He declined to discuss the novel’s focus, but reiterated his intent to publish it. A person who has seen a draft told EurasiaNet.org that the story examines “crimes” allegedly committed during the 1993-2003 presidency of Heydar Aliyev.
Publication of a clear-cut denunciation of the elder Aliyev could pose an even more severe free-speech test for Azerbaijan than that generated by Stone Dreams. One literary son of the Caucasus, the bestselling Russia-based author Boris Akunin, had some words of advice. “[M]y dear Azerbaijanis,” he wrote in his blog, “Don’t you know that the state … cannot win in a war with a writer?”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.