Autumn 1999 (7.3)
In Search of My Childhood Paradise
by Aynur Hajiyeva
Not all events that have impacted this century are dramatic and earth-shattering. Sometimes the greatest tragedies of all are silent realizations that leave a dull, heavy ache inside. Here university student Aynur Hajiyeva (1980- )describes the deep sense of loss that she feels about a place she can no longer visit-her grandmother's home in Karabakh, which has been occupied by Armenians since 1992.
They say war is horror. They say war is tragedy. But I'd say simply that war is loss-total loss of everything, including cherished memories. War made me lose the most precious thing in my life - my Granny's village.
Whenever I think about my childhood, my mind wanders back to my Granny's little village of Sarajig. I spent much of my childhood there and have so many tender, innocent memories of it. But today those recollections just bring me feelings of loneliness and pain. It seems that I've not only lost my native Karabakh,1 but I've lost the setting for all those precious memories.
Granny played a unique role in my life because my mother died when I was just a year old. It was Granny who raised me until I was old enough to go to school and my dad moved to Baku. But Granny continued to have an enormous influence in my life. I used to spend all my vacations with her in her village, where she continued to live until the Karabakh war broke out.
Aynur Hajiyeva with her grandmother who couldn't believe that her village in Karabakh was in danger because she had good friends who were Armenians.
You can't imagine how hard it was to get her to leave the village where she'd spent 60 years of her life. She was one of the first teachers in the village and everyone there respected her. When there were guests in the village, it was Granny who always welcomed them. She was the one who organized the cultural events. And, of course, she had countless friends.
So many Azerbaijanis had to flee for their lives, often with just the clothes on their backs. But the situation was somewhat different for my Granny. Despite all the uncertainty and confusion at the time-"Should she stay?" "Should she leave?"-we finally realized that she would be in serious danger if she stayed any longer. It was Granny who couldn't sense the danger she was in.
Back in the summer of 1992, my dad begged Granny to gather her belongings and move to our house in Baku. And her response? "Listen," she told him, "why on earth do I have to leave my house just because some soldiers happen to be off shooting in the mountains? This is not a war, this is just some sporadic shooting going on. I'll come with you if you insist, but I won't take any stuff from my house. I'll be coming back here next week."
And so we managed to whisk her away in time. But stubborn as she is, none of us could persuade her to bring any belongings. That's how my Granny ended up losing everything she had-the accumulation of a lifetime.
I have to admit that I loved Granny's house even more than our own in Baku. It was a beautiful, old, two-story building with four rooms downstairs and five, upstairs. As a kid, it seemed so huge to me. I remember getting lost inside so many times. I would go out to get a drink at the well and then lose my way back, unable to find the room where I had left my dolls.
I loved Granny's garden, which was really more like what you would call an orchard. It stretched all the way to the edge of the Caucasus mountains-mountains which rise to such heights that even in mid-summer snow always covered their peaks. She had a well in her garden with water so icy that you had to wait for it to warm up before you could take a sip. A river cut through her land. They called it Gozlu Chay-"River with Walnuts," taking its name from the walnuts that would come rushing down during the spring floods when the heavy snows melted.
Granny's orchard had so many different kinds of fruit trees. I can still remember the fragrance of apple, apricot and peach blossoms. She nurtured each tree with such tender care, as if it were her own child. The orchard was also full of roses, violets and daffodils.
There were rabbits and squirrels-they must have thought it was their place as well. They never ran away from me. One white rabbit, in particular, was so tame that I could go up and start talking to it, and it wouldn't even stir. It was as if it understood me. It would just sit there and look into my eyes as if it wanted to say something. But the instant I would reach out my hand to stroke its soft fur, it would dart away.
Granny had a sheepdog that watched over us. Its name was Garabash. He would never bother us kids, but whenever he sensed an intruder, he would go off into a fit of barking. Whenever he saw me, he would wag his tail and sit waiting for me to come up to him. I would take him food and water, sing him songs and ask him if he liked his food. So we were very good friends.
Sometimes when I wasn't allowed to go somewhere with the other children in the village, I would ask Garabash to threaten Granny and my dad so that they would give in to me. But he would just shake his head as if he understood how I was manipulating him.
These days, I'm finishing my studies at the Azerbaijan State Institute of Languages. Next year, I'll graduate in linguistics, a field that I probably would never have chosen had it not been for Karabakh. It was there that I first acquired my passion for books. Thanks to my Granny's garden, I became a bookworm.
The garden was like a paradise. When I entered, I used to forget everything except that "Life was beautiful." It was Granny's garden that enticed me into the magical world of books. It was there that I fell in love with fiction and fairy tales, legends and poetry. It was there that I made my first acquaintance with Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe", Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland", Milne's "Winnie the Pooh", Kipling's "Jungle Book" and many, many other books by Russian and Azerbaijani writers. Whenever I got a new book in Baku, I would set it aside until summer and take it to read in Granny's garden.
I'll have to admit that I don't have many memories of Granddad. I was seven when he died. He used to bring me books and pictures, dresses, dolls and sweets. And every night he used to tell me bedtime stories until I fell asleep. Sometimes, I remember that he was so tired that he would end up telling me a story that he had told before and I would complain, "Granddad, you told me that story yesterday. Tell me a new one." And poor Granddad would start all over again, inventing a new tale.
Books and Photos
Granny left the village in 1992. I was 12 years old at the time and had just begun learning English. My dad had bought me an English-Russian-Azeri pocket dictionary, which I had taken to Granny's village. English had become the rage since our country had gained independence and our tendency was becoming more open to the West than the North (Russia).
Compared to the other books that I'd taken with me that year, I loved that dictionary most of all. But it's gone now-along with my clothes and all my childhood photos. Remember, Granny had not allowed us to take anything from her home when she left. So it wasn't just Granny's things that got left behind. Mine did, too.
Earlier, I had gathered all my photos from Baku to take to the village to show Granny. She had wanted to see what my schoolmates and teachers looked like. So I had taken all of my school photos-pictures of us with our smiling faces, so proud of our red Pioneer ties! What pleasure we had had looking at them.
I have such deep regrets that the photographic records of my early years don't exist any more even though I'm not even 20 years old yet. That's what I mean when I say that war is the loss of every sweet memory. Photos often preserve a record of the happiest moments of your life. But my experience is not unique-tens of thousands of refugees uprooted by the war weren't able to bring their photos out with them either. When you're fleeing for your life and can't even locate all the members of your family, who thinks about photos?
Granny left books there, too. I remember I had been about seven years old when rummaging around in Granny's cellar, I discovered some chests full of old books. We were writing everything in Cyrillic script at school at the time, both our own Azeri language as well as Russian which had become the prestigious language of all Soviet countries. Granny's old chests had Azeri books written in the Latin script of the late 1920s, and there were even some printed in the Arabic alphabet which preceded it.
Granny couldn't read the Arabic but she had carefully guarded those books simply because they had belonged to her husband. By the time Granny had entered first grade in the 1930s, the Arabic alphabet had been replaced with Latin. Soon after, it was replaced with Cyrillic-the third alphabet in the span of about a decade in the early part of this century.
Of course, Granny's loss in Karabakh is much more than I can ever imagine. She doesn't talk about it much. Obviously, she lost her house and everything inside. My grandparents had both been teachers, so they had some extra conveniences that most people in the village didn't have. They were the first to get a telephone and the first to buy a television. Granny even had a washing machine-something quite unheard of in the village.
But it seems Granny's saddest loss is that she can no longer visit the graves of her loved ones. The cemetery was at the top of her village near Hadrut, a frontier town between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
There lie the graves of her husband, her son, her grandson, her brother, her dad and her grandparents. Her daughter-in-law (my mom) is buried in a village in the Fuzuli region. I have never had the chance to see my mother's grave, as I was an infant when she died and family members tried to shield me from the phenomenon of her death. Now that I'm older and can better understand these things, I've never had a chance to go there as the region is still occupied by Armenian soldiers.
Azerbaijanis have many customs associated with death. In my Granny's village, every year on May 9 they used to visit the graves, just as they do on the eve of other important holidays such as Novruz-the first day of Spring (March 21). But such days are quiet and lonely for Granny nowadays. She can only wonder if she'll ever return to visit the graves so that she can feel closer to the people who have been dearest to her throughout her lifetime.
My Granny didn't believe that the Armenians would really attack her village because she had had good relations with them herself, an experience identical to that of so many other Azerbaijanis. She used to tell us that her house had been built by an Armenian mason. In fact, many of the houses had been.
Even language usage provides evidence of the close relationships that used to exist between these two peoples who lived side by side for several centuries. Everybody in Karabakh knows that Azerbaijanis used to address Armenians as "Godfather" (kirva), a title they used for a person who stood up in support when the Azerbaijanis circumcised their sons.
Granny was convinced that she was coming to Baku for only a short stay-a week or so. That was seven years ago. Today, she doesn't even know if her house stands. Many houses have been burned down. Others have been ransacked and destroyed, the building materials confiscated and taken to other locations. Armenians have moved in and occupied some of the vacant houses. Who knows if any of her furniture is still there? Chances are, everything has been stolen. Who knows what happened to my dictionary and my grammar school photos?
Even today when I ask Granny something about her place, she'll console me by saying: "I'll tell you more when we go back to our village." Who knows if that will ever happen in her lifetime or not, but it's the hope alone that somehow manages to sustain her.
1 Karabakh - The Azeri word "Garabagh" identifies the place that is more widely known in international media as "Karabakh" via transliteration from Russian. "Nagorno" or "upper, mountainous" Karabakh, has been under military occupation by the Armenians since 1992; fighting began in 1988. Since capturing the region, Armenians have created a buffer zone which extends beyond to seven other regions, nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory.
2 May 9 - The date that Soviets celebrated their victory in World War II. It became a day when people traditionally visited the graves of their loved ones. An estimated 400,000 Azerbaijanis lost their lives in this war, even though not a single battle took place on Azerbaijan territory. The graves of Azerbaijanis are scattered all over Europe, from the Volga River to Berlin.
Aynur Hajiyeva is in her final year of studies in linguistics at the Azerbaijan State Institute of Languages. She is a member of the Editorial staff of Azerbaijan International magazine.
From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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