While Azerbaijan’s government has a reputation as being a petro-autocracy, behind the scenes a surprising number of officials in Baku have a softer, poetic side.
Consider these verses:
“Once upon a time,”
The world was a sad tale.
Its essence was a lie; its word was a lie
The world was a sad tale.
Its agony hadn’t tired me,
Its fire hadn’t burnt me,
I wouldn’t have believed
The world is such a sad tale.
(From The World Was a Sad Tale, 2010)
The author of this melancholic verse, Javid Gurbanov, comes from a long line of writers: his grandfather was the well-known folk poet Ashug Shamshir, and his father, Ganbar Gurbanov, was a poet with more than ten books to his name.
But the younger Gurbanov only pursues poetry as a hobby: in his day job he is the chairman of Azerbaijan Railways, a state-controlled transportation company.
And he is far from alone in pursuing this dual role. The former head of the Baku Metro, Tagi Ahmadov, is well known for his brusque manner with journalists. In his poetry, though, he indulges his romantic side with works like “Love Is Hopeless,” “Cannot Bear Your Tears,” and “My Heart Says One Thing, My Mouth Another.” In his case, his creative side is not totally separated from his work: he has also composed a song dedicated to the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, “YAP Party” (referring to the Azerbaijani acronym of the party’s name).
Another top official, Minister of Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov, writes pop songs under the stage name Kamal. His oeuvre consists mostly of love songs, from the folk-pop “Worried About You,” performed by the Azeri-Uzbek singer Nasiba Abdullayeva, to the ballad “Heydar Will Call His Nation,” an ode to former president Heydar Aliyev sung by Agadadas Agayev.
Anvar Seyidov, a senior judge at the Baku Court on Grave Crimes, is a notorious as a hardline jurist. In one recent prominent case, he sentenced a young activist who had defaced a statue of former president Heydar Aliyev to 10 years in prison, when even the prosecutor had only recommended nine years.
But in a recent interview in local media, Seyidov recalled that his dream was to be an artist and that he only studied law because his family made him. He recalled writing prose and poems and being published in Pioneer, a literary journal for young people in Soviet-era Azerbaijan. But when he studied acting at the Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Arts and got a part on a TV series, his uncle saw the show, got angry, and got the school to kick him out. Eventually his family forced him to go to law school. “This was how I ended up in law,” he said. “I didn’t have any particular desire.”
After establishing his career, though, he came back to the arts. He has written several novels and plays and his first book, “Storm,” won the 2008 Book of the Year award from the Association of New Writers and Artists (under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Youth and Sports) as well as the Golden Pen award from the Azerbaijan Journalists Union.
Power and poetry have long mixed in Azerbaijan. Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, was a poet who wrote under the pen name Khata’i. Molla Panah Vagif, an 18th-century writer known as Azerbaijan’s first realist poet, also served as vizier in the Karabakh khanate.
Among powerful people, “there is a strange and terrible desire for immortality and eternity,” said Elnur Astanbayli, an Azerbaijani poet and newspaper columnist. “And for those people the easiest way to eternity, immortality is via literature.”
“No one can imagine, for example, that carrying out your duties properly, without taking bribes, without stealing from people, that you would be able live in the hearts and minds of future generations,” Astanbayli added. “So these officials try to cleanse themselves with literature.”
The links between the state and art rankle some of Azerbaijan’s creative elite.
“When a government official is the same person who creates the culture and art, the culture loses its liveliness, freedom, critical function, beauty and greatness,” wrote Narmin Kamal, one of contemporary Azerbaijan’s leading writers, in a recent blog post.
The official-artists, naturally, disagree. “If you have talent, it doesn’t matter whether you are an official, a teacher, or a doctor… it’s a spiritual need. A talented person will write everywhere,” said Musa Quliyev, a member of parliament for the New Azerbaijan Party, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org. Quliyev’s books of poetry include “Noah, Take Us to Your Ship” and “God Lit a Candle,” but he said he has had to cut back on writing after becoming an MP.
“Parliamentary activity is also a kind of creative activity, and it’s good that creative and talented people are in the parliament,” Quliyev said. But he said he still considers poetry a higher calling: “Political activity is temporary, but poetry is forever.”
Durna Safarova is a freelance journalist who covers Azerbaijan.