The Land of the Holy Fire

Azerbaijan is truly the land of the holy fire.

The blows that Azerbaijan received only strengthened it. With the fall of the Communist bloc, the Armenians conquered parts – 20% – of the country and the Armenians’ violent refusal to leave the region they illegally conquered causes a serious ongoing conflict. In Baku, we met people hoping for a peaceful end, but if necessary they would fight.

A story by David Peretz, from Azerbaijan, translated into English by Nurit Greenger.

Link to Hebrew article HERE

Editor’s Note: Nurit Greenger, the translator, visited Azerbaijan 4 times and is preparing for a fifth visit. Much of what is written in this article, she covered in several articles, while in Azerbaijan and after concluding one of her visits.

I am proud to state that I find Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijanis to be exceptional – country and people. ~ Nurit Greenger

A fascinating/exciting journey between East and West

“In my role as a banker, I traveled a lot in the world, and Switzerland always reminds me of Azerbaijan – a small and enchantingly beautiful country that preserves itself in the tangle of its neighboring powers.” The local Farid, shares his thoughts with us, while in the background we hear John Coltrane’s golden saxophone’s tones caressing hundreds of bottles of wine standing on designed shelves before they fade. Outside, the first electric lights flickered on the promenade. Beyond the concrete edge, the Caspian Sea gathered in the silence of its secrets like a deep turquoise curtain. One other bright evening descended from the Caucasus’s peaks and settled on Baku.

The Wine Technology Bar, a strange place to begin a press tour and get acquainted with the “conflict.” We meet Farid, the former banker, dark-skinned, silvery-haired, with the look of a bespectacled professor, and taste the ‘Shabian,’ one of his winery’s wine. With each taste, I’m impressed how much Farid’s wine is an accurate reflection of the place. A combination of tenderness and intensity, inner strength and gentleness echoing like memories. In the bridge between the West and the East, the Southern to the Northern, the sour-sweetness of the wine is a balance of unique flavors, combining worlds that do not interlock. Jacqueline Kahanoff dreamed of Levantinism – a space that was neither east nor west, rather the encounter between them – and I’m sure she would feel at home with Farid, for sure in Baku, the city of golden combinations.

A tour of the city’s streets will force you to disconnect from the permanent image of the Caucasus as the lower courtyard of the West. Fences spread along the roads ahead of the Formula 1 race, to take place in the city next week; huge palaces illuminated by wide avenues, restaurants from all sides, bars and cafes, their prices will love Azerbaijan through the belly and stomach of the Israeli tourist. Only looking beyond the streets’ façades makes it possible to see the cracks in reality. It’s not just the clock that is permanently stuck on midnight in the palace’s tower. We have come here to see and sense, at close quarters, the conflict that ignites Azerbaijan from within for the past thirty years. We got a glimpse at a complex state its visible is greater than the hidden, but the hidden in its heart is as black as oil. And this is what moves it between the flames of excitement from all sides into the future. A land whose name means “the land of the fire that guards.”

Azerbaijan and its neighbors
Azerbaijan and its neighbors

Baku: From harmony – to the heart of the conflict

In the Haydar Aliyev mosque, the four minarets rise to a height of 95 meters and protrude far away. When the sun illuminates this architectural wonder, it is hard not to feel the full religious power of structures larger than life. The mosque is named after the father of the nation, the mythological president of Azerbaijan. It is spread over three floors, 3,500 people can pray there at the same time, also women. But, the most amazing thing we discover in the mosque is not the huge 900 square meter carpet, but the place’s rare and unique religious harmony.

At the entrance to the mosque, we are greeted by two imams – Hafiz Abasov (Shi’ite) and Akhud Roft Graeib (Sunni) and other dignitaries, including the president of the Jewish community and the head of the Albanian Catholic Church. The Azaris pride themselves on being the first secular-Muslim state, and the absolute separation between religion and state. The thought that such harmony can exist between people of all religions (955 religions are registered in the country) is at the same time strange and completely logical. “The reason it works and that there is tolerance here is because Azerbaijan has always been a place for multiculturalism,” explains Dr. Ravan Hasanov, who is in charge of multi-culturalism in the country.

“This is our tradition. Because of Azerbaijan’s location at the crossroads and cultures’ crossroads, the multiculturalism culture has been raised here to the level of official policy. The president of the country relates to all religions in the same manner. We are accepting any religious matter as long as it promotes unity, peace, and tranquility among people.”

We leave the comfort of Baku and its lit nights, and drive down long, straight roads toward the border of Nagorno-Karabakh, the bleeding heart of the country, which physically rips it into two. The landscape is uniform, black and plentiful land, few agricultural communities and road stop stations, sheep and cows on the sides of the roads, and above it all, somewhere on the horizon, the distant mountains rise as a threat from above. In the chaos that was created by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, ethnic conflicts erupted between the Armenian and Azeri populations in the region.

When the region’s Armenian population declared themselves an independent republic, they exiled from their newly formed country’s 250,000 Azerbaijanis. In February 1992, the Armenians massacred 613 residents of the village Khojaly, which resulted in the mass escape of the Nagorno-Karabakh region residents and the six districts surrounding the region.

The Azeris talk about 750,000 displaced persons from their homes, and together with the quarter of a million Azaris expelled from Armenia, it created Azerbaijan’s one million refugees and displaced persons’ problem.

Tarter County: Human sadness on a border

Four kilometers from the border, we are greeted with luscious friendliness by Moustaki Memmedov, the head of Tarter district. He is not willing to talk before he feeds us. Along with the pajoya and vodka, as befits the surrounding green area, Memmedov puts on our plates of bundle of weeds, from green onion and parsley to unique variety of Tarragon, with a “worthwhile” look that comes from the slits of his eyes, which does not require translation to clarify that this is an offer that cannot be refused. A taste of the local herbal weeds medicine makes it clear that it was worth it.

When Memmedov casually tells us that rockets have landed here from all sides, I feel completely at home, wondering where the safety room is. Short and loud discussion tells us that there is no such term ‘safety room’ in Azerbaijani. Simply lie down and wait for one’s fate. Memmedov will take us to see a monument that the Armenians built, celebrating their 150 years of existence in the region. When they retreated in the war, the Armenians destroyed the monument in order not to leave proof that they had not been residents of the place from time immemorial. As part of the natives’ war, it was the Azeris who restored the monument.

The sense of historical justice is the source of power to which the Azaris cling in the story of their conflict. Again and again, they will be proud of the legends and stories going back to the time of Alexander the Great. The problem is that so are the Armenians, who present ancient churches as a justification for their historical right to the region. As part of the hostilities, the Armenians, who controlled the high mountains, dammed the water sources of the fertile plain.

Agriculture had dwindled, and to prevent a crisis, the government intervened and economically encouraged agriculture in the area. Instead of the mountains’ water, the Azeris irrigate their fields with the Cartesian water they raise from the ground, at a huge price of millions of dollars per district. This is the economic price of the conflict, which produces very cheap agricultural produce at a huge investment coming from the oil and gas profits of the country.

That is how I understand Elmar Mammadyarov, the Azeri foreign minister, … . When I point out that the young people are leaving the agricultural periphery and are moving to the big city, Mammadyarov looks rather puzzled. As far as he is concerned, though Baku is the center of the country, he adds: “Everything you see in Baku, we have here and even more.”

Later, we will walk along the border in the Sangye village. I meet the bereaved parents of 16-year-old Turana Hasanova, who was killed by the Armenians. Her brother, Azzat, stumbles across the village on crutches, his leg amputated from a landmine. The sight of the ruins is heartbreaking, but the feeling is that we are in a well-filmed play, and this is the greatest melancholy that this region has on you – a feeling of exposed human unhappiness and sadness that serves as another line in the historical narrative wars’ tangle, a conflict in which the two sides are just, therefore lose.

Lalatapa: Between two mountains

“On the night of April 16, the Armenians made their usual provocations, but this time we responded with intent and with great force, we wanted them to get it all the way,” said Major Tair Kulmov, who, unlike the tense silence of the many soldiers we met, under his woolen military cap looked like a smiling hipster. But the look is deceiving. The man has already led the Azeri forces in a battle on the ‘Lalatapa’ Mount summit, which, for the Azaris, is the equivalent to conquering Mount Hermon, a battle that is a myth, a source of pride.

We sit in the military outpost for a traditional ritual of sipping bitter tea and sugary-sweet berries. It is a ceremony that no Azeri host can begin and deliver (many) words without. I steal a glimpse at the valley below and realize that the Tapa’s top dominates a vast area. The twisting topography, over natural earth obstacles and sharp man-made curves, makes it even difficult for a new Japanese jeep to pass the narrow uphill path. In 1993, the Armenians conquered the top of the mountain and built on a fortified position, almost completely impenetrable, almost invincible.

On one side, the mountains, controlled by the Armenians, on the other side of the valley – the Iranians, and at the plane below in a strategic disadvantage, the Azeri forces are deployed. The soldiers pride themselves on conquering the fortified compound within a few minutes. A topographic view around the outpost indicates that these were apparently super-fighters.

As a graduate of the Israel Defense Forces battles’ legacy, I am full of admiration for the wonderful courage of the soldiers. But when I try to understand how the battle was conducted, I get confused answers that would not have passed high school student’s investigation, let alone a fortified Armenian outpost.

Much later, I discover that this is not about a memory loss, and that according to foreign sources, what decided the win of the battle, at peak speed, was an Israeli technology that no one wants to talk about. When you remember that this is about a battle that takes place only four kilometers from the Iranian border, I feel a little safer when I think of my family and my loved ones in Israel.

Jojug Marjanli: Like a set from a movie

Omud Mizryev takes us to his former village. The older man is moved to tears: “Here was my school, here was my home,” and in front of a beautiful green hill he adds: “Here I kept my father’s will and buried him in his village when he died.” The gravestones are broken because the Armenian snipers also shoot the photos of the dead on the tombstones. The soldiers who accompany us instruct Omud to bend over, but the excited Omud refuses to surrender, stands in front of the grave and declares his loyalty to his land and his history as an Azeri.

“I’m not a hero, I’m staying here because it’s my land,” says the Ogaktai Hazeype, who, despite his much modesty is certainly a local hero. Between 1994 and 2016, the Armenians made the lives of all the villagers, living under the high plane, miserable, by constantly shooting every day at odd hours. It was clear to the inhabitants that this was psychological warfare with live ammunition, and at most it was successful. The Armenians turned the village, with the name of a disco-star – Jojug Marjanli – into a live target range for the soldiers of the Lalatapa post.

Slowly, 1,000 villagers left their lives or land, and moved to safer or more peaceful places. The last person who remained and even refused to be evacuated was an Ogaktai. For 22 years he continued to work his land and raise children and sheep in the shadow of constant danger to their life. The children attended school in a faraway village, and when I wondered if their friends had come to play in the abandoned village, Ogaktai smiled ironically: “They preferred not to come here.”

After the defeat of the Armenians in the Battle of Lalatapa, the Azeris restored the village. The result, a beautiful and delusional village that seems to have been taken from the film “The Truman Show.” Roads that seem to be too wide for the few old cars, public parks covered with plastic, square houses, built on the centimeter, joined together with the sense of a perfect American town that looks like a Hollywood set where someone dusts the grass every day. And the bonus – a bright red diner trailer selling sausages and Coca-Cola with a local twist.

The entire village serves as a great presentation to illustrate the past. The local school’s walls are decorated with pictures of the suffering, the national heroes who were killed during the battles, and pictures of the nation’s leaders, the father, and son of the Aliyev family. Here I understand why it was so important for the people of Azerbaijan to bring us, the journalists, to see the story from close quarters, and in details, for they have nothing more important than the narrative that is framing their story as the phoenix rising from Soviet ashes and is rebuilding its future.

It is difficult not to feel the hypocrisy of the world when you compare the story of the displaced and the refugees, present all over Greater Azerbaijan, the one beyond Baku, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Palestinians do not let go of their great-grandparents’ rusted homes’ keys. While the world is buzzing around them in headlines, the Azeris are begging for some global attention, a little reference to the million displaced persons and refugees of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

More importantly, the Azeris do not perpetuate the refugee situation. They want someone to take note not only of the disaster, but of the renewed construction that the state is undergoing, the glorious rehabilitation project, and especially of the way they are trying to solve and rehabilitate a national conflict without increasing hatred among the nations.

Time and time again, our hosts were proud that despite the ethnic cleansing and destruction of all the mosques in Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Azeris not only did not expel the 30,000 Armenians living in Azerbaijan, but also strengthened and renovated the Black Cathedral in Baku’s Old City. As Zamin Hazayev, the principal of the school in Jojug Marjanli summarized: “The fact that I hate the Armenian soldier sitting on my land does not change the fact that I have nothing against the Armenian people as a whole.”

So where does all this go? During our tour, another political summit between the parties took place. It seems that the Azeris do not want to conduct the conflict forever. Aryeh Gut, an expert on Israel-Azerbaijan relations, clarifies the Azeri position that the diplomats hide in between the words: “In the end, more than 20 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan is under Armenian occupation. This is an illegal occupation. Even the UN does not recognize the Armenian control of these lands.”

“Despite clear calls by international organizations for the Armenian forces to withdraw from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Armenian forces continue to fire and violate any attempt to a cease-fire. The government in Baku has long been trying to resolve the issue peacefully. But Baku also claims that if they do not reach peace, they are willing to solve the problem militarily.”

This feeling is echoed by the words of a young high school student from the border region of Tarter, whom I met on his way to the matriculation exam. When I ask how the conflict ends, he replies: “This is our land, and we will never give it up. We have no choice, and no lobby will help the Armenians lobby. In the end, they will give up or pay with blood.”

Parting from Baku: On the Way to Democracy

All the way out of the battle zone, I look at the fence next to the road and cannot free myself from the thought that the darkness lurking on the other side of the fence is Iran, a country that uses terror as a war tool. Officially, the Azeris refer to them as good neighbors, but in off-the-record conversations, Iran is seen as interested in preserving the chaos in the region. As the symbolic picture, I saw in the lobby of the Defense Ministry makes it clear: Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, stands between a smiling Hassan Rowhani, to his right, and Putin, who fakes a smile to his left and looks more horrifying than ever.

The Azeris also read the big map. Everywhere we heard again their tremendous appreciation for Israel. Dr. Ali Hasanov, the president’s assistant, is well-informed of the election’s results in Israel. “The Azerbaijanis are also pleased that Netanyahu took a lot of seats. We respect the will of the Israeli electorate. And if they chose Netanyahu after ten years in power, apparently he is a good leader for his people.”

The Azari administration’s appreciation of Netanyahu is clear. Hasanov explains. “Netanyahu was the first Israeli official to arrive in Azerbaijan in 1997, and he met with the president’s father. The development of the special relations between the two countries took place following Netanyahu’s visit, and we respect him as he respected us and therefore we strengthen the courageous relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, in all fields.”

And if you wonder what Israel receives in these relations, the answer is in the gas stations close to your homes. More than 60 percent of the [car] trips in Israel are made, using Azerbaijani fuel.

Our last meeting in the Baku capital is with Hikmet Hajiyev, the president’s adviser on international relations. Fluent and perfect English, Hikmet explains to us the unique status of Azerbaijan at the beginning of the twenty-first century and the importance of relations between the two countries.

“We have had special relations with you since the establishment of the state in 1992, and Israel was one of the first to recognize us as a free country. We have cultural, economic, military and commercial relations. Direct and full flights, which proves that there are excellent stable relationships. And we certainly encourage local organizations to trade and bring technology from their counterparts in Israel.”

When we challenge him with a question about the essence of democracy, or more accurate, the Azeri quasi-cratic, he answers fairly: “We are on the way to being a democratic state; not every country is adapted to the same democratic model. Democracy is not a permanent status, rather a process toward. Compare Israel’s democracy today to its democracy when the country was 25 years-old. Democracy is a state of consciousness, and if you look at all the aspects of civil rights, religious rights, political rights, you will find that Azerbaijan suffers from an unfair image, and therefore we appreciate those, like you, who come to see the truth from very close quarters.”

Hikmet’s enthusiasm for the soon to open a kosher restaurant in Baku shows how important Israeli tourism is, no less than the technologies that Israel sells to Azerbaijan – from agriculture, medicine, and advanced weapons. The relations between Israel and Azerbaijan are like those secret lovers. Inside everything is burning, but outwardly nothing is shown. The reason is obvious.

The Azeris dance a melancholic tango, on their tip-toes, between the swords the Russian, the USA, Turkey, and Iran are waving around them, as part of the big game on the world map. Perhaps, like Switzerland, this is the only way for this small republic, trapped in the superpowers’ interests’ pliers, to survive.

And as Hikmet summarizes so beautifully: “Azerbaijan is here, in its own place and its uniqueness. I always joke that if you see Azerbaijan on the map, it looks like a bird, flying from east to west. If you take one wing off it, it will not fly. Therefore, we, as a nation never say ‘or -or,’ but always ‘both and both.'”

During the 2006 second Lebanon War, Nurit Greenger, referenced then as the “Accidental Reporter” felt compelled to become an activist. Being an ‘out-of-the-box thinker, Nurit is a passionately committed advocate for Jews, Israel, the United States, and the Free World in general. From Southern California, Nurit serves as a “one-woman Hasbarah army” for Israel who believes that if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything.

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