Armenia-Azerbaijan: In Search of Common Ground
Despite the problems associated with events such as the recent ill-fated attempt to stage a festival of non-political Azerbaijani films in Armenia, culture could be one possible way to bridge divides between nations in conflict. At the same time, however, it can also create even more conflict, especially when there are many overlaps between culture in countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan. From music and dance to cuisine, the similarities can, ironically enough, be so striking as to prompt nationalists in both countries to accuse the other of “theft.” In the Armenian and Azerbaijani context, this has sometimes been referred to as the “Dolma Wars,” and petty bickering can even extend to international music competitions such as Eurovision.
One Azerbaijan journalist recently commented on the situation in a documentary on the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh for Al Jazeera English that I was involved with as a fixer.
Nowhere in the world can you find two groups of people closer to each other. That is why we often have these stupid disputes between Armenians and Azeris. ‘This house is Armenian’ or ‘This house is Azeri.’ Or ‘this music is Armenian or Azeri.’ This is exactly because the two have so much in common. […] I normally say, and people don’t like this, that Armenians are just Christian Azeris and Azeris are just Muslim Armenians. That is how much they are alike.”
Despite the cancellation of the Azerbaijani film festival, however, there have been some events held. At the end of 2007, for example, the same organizer held a “Days of Azerbaijan” at a Yerevan school. Although momentarily disrupted by less than half a dozen protesters, the event went ahead and arguably set an important precedent, albeit one that has not been followed since. Yet, if presented properly, such events could be used to bridge divides and counter a media in Armenia and Azerbaijan that nearly always portrays the other in a militaristic light. As mentioned in my previous post, however, that might also be one reason why nationalists react so strongly against them.
Online, perhaps because of limited reach, the situation is a calmer and usually a lot less volatile, however. Although still plagued by a relentless information war of attrition, as well as nationalist and offensive comments left on many videos posted on YouTube, it does mean that it’s possible to engage at least some people in this area. For example, my own project has often taken such an approach, from photographing an ethnic Azeri wedding in Georgia to highlighting some of the overlaps in terms of culture in a recent article for Ararat Magazine.
This is also something I’ve tried to do with coverage of citizen media on Global Voices since March 2009 and a post on Novruz, an annual celebration firmly rooted in Zoroastrianism. The comments section was full of some encouraging remarks from Armenians who noted the similarities with their own Trndez. Once also a pagan festival with Zoroastrian roots, it’s possible that the origins of both are the same, and not least as both Armenia and Azerbaijan border Iran, another country in the region which observes Novruz. A post the following year also included a positive exchange on the origins of the holiday.
Of course, there are some very obvious differences, which can enrich culture in the region as well as allow each side to maintain a distinct identity despite the overlaps, but even so, as many arguments against peaceful coexistence rely on emphasizing the differences, perhaps recognizing the similarities is vital. And that means not only in national terms, but also as regional neighbors and global citizens. Unfortunately, though, this is rarely the case. A new film being shot in Russia, for example, intends to show Armenians and Azerbaijanis as ‘ethnically incompatible’ despite the fact that this is very far from the truth indeed.
Regardless, what little conversation is occurring in this area is online, and not in the traditional media, which is also why there’s the need not only to strategize the use of social media, but also to diversify the mediums through which alternative coverage is disseminated. A recent series of films by Internews and Conciliation Resources, for example, included one on the Kamantcha, a traditional musial instrument common to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, such films are not shown on television in either country and, aside from small public screenings unlikely to be attended by many due to their low visibility, are otherwise only available online.
That’s a pity as there’s a great quote from an Armenian musician in the Kamantcha film.
You know, their music and ours comes from the same place: we play it and they do. So we play “Gezalim Sansan” and they play it too. And how are we supposed to know who wrote it? We sing it in Armenian and they sing it in Azeri. And whose music is it? It belongs to us all. What’s the war got to do with it?
Nevertheless, the potenial to encourage cross-border discussion on such issues is there, and certainly has more of a chance to to bring the two sides together that directly tackle the immediate problem at hand. That is, the status of Nagorno Karabakh itself. For example, a post again for Global Voices also highlighted how concerns about the environment are similarly shared by teenagers in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, however, the same cross-border project unfortunately also demonstrated that everything runs the risk of collapse simply because of disagreement over the origins of a song.
For now, though, even if such matters are politicized more often than not, there have been some breakthroughs in this area even if they’re usually only happening online. The problem is that, for now at least, that also means they’re not reaching or involving a wider society. Yet, while directly confronting the root causes of the conflict is necessary, and particularly for politicians, journalists, and regional analysts, such a discourse could be more approachable for a general public which is unlikely to want to get entangled in an argument and debate over a mutually disputed history and the chronology of events which led to war.
Certainly, if anyone knows of any successful examples of how similarities in terms of culture, or areas of mutual concern such as the environment, democracy, human rights and gender have been used to initiate discussion on the need for peace and coexistence in war-torn societies, I’d be very interested indeed. Unlike neighboring Georgia, where conflict with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia is generally seen in a political context, Armenian and Azerbaijani societies continue to take it more personally by dehumanizing the other. Obviously, this has to change before there can be any informed or constructive discussion in either on the conflict itself.
- 01.06.11 / 12am by Onnik