Azerbaijan International

Winter 2004 (12.4)
Pages 16-17

Folklore: Ties That Bind
by Betty Blair

Betty BlairThey're all gone - the old women who used to tell those stories. Nobody knows those stories any more." That's what we kept hearing this past summer while researching Baku's "Old City" (Ichari Shahar). Our staff spent many afternoons wandering along those narrow alleyways, in search of someone who could tell us the old tales. But everyone told us the same thing: "Nobody knows them anymore."

Loss of memory within a community is a dilemma that folklorists face all over the world. It's a natural phenomenon. The elderly, many of whom have accumulated and perpetrated folklore for decades, pass away and, with them, a large repertoire of folklore often disappears. Young people move on, absorbed with their own affairs and own interests.

But the circumstances of history have also accelerated this process of erosion of memory in Azerbaijan. Take the issue of mother tongue. When families consider it more advantageous for their children to learn the prestigious language of the country - whether it be Russian, Persian, English or any other language-supplanting, instead of simply supplementing, their own mother tongue; much of the repertoire of folklore is lost on that generation, leaving a spiritual vacuum. Language is more than a medium of communication. It is the embodiment of wisdom that has been accumulated through the ages by community members who share the same values.

Dada GorgudAs well during the 20th century, Azerbaijan officially changed its alphabet four times - from Arabic, to Latin, Cyrillic and now, since independence, back again to Latin. So the written documentation of folklore becomes confounded. This means that because of the expenses involved in publishing, the huge body of work carried out during the Soviet period in the Cyrillic alphabet has not been reprinted in Latin script. Continuity is interrupted.

Another problem occurs when political systems reverse themselves. Yesterday's virtues become today's violations. For example, after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1920, most of the Oil Barons fled for their lives rather than risk arrest, exile or execution. In fact, merely being related to such a person could provide sufficient grounds for arrest.

Intellectuals, often guilty of nothing, were also targeted. It didn't matter. As the Azerbaijani expression goes: "Kill the cat to scare the bride."

Under such duress, it doesn't take long for the erosion of communal memory to take place - evidence seems to suggest that it can even occur within the short span of one generation.

Parents constantly found themselves on guard to be "politically correct" for fear their children might expose the family unknowingly or inadvertently at school.

Anar, one of Azerbaijan's most well-known writers illustrates the fear that gripped the country in 1937 at the height of Stalin's Repression. In his short story - The Morning of that Night - members of eight households hear one of those dreaded black Volgas pull up outside their apartment complex at 2 am in the morning. Lying in bed, one couple is paralyzed by the thought that maybe agents will arrest them because their six-year-old daughter had been singing a tune composed by a neighbor who had been arrested a few weeks earlier.

The Soviet government was particularly sensitive about issues related to nationalism, Turkism and Islamism. Such topics were forbidden. When several Azerbaijani folklorists - Vali Khuloflu, Hanafi Zeynalli and Salman Mumtaz - started to delve into such issues, they were arrested and later shot to death. Needless to say, researchers imposed upon themselves self censorship and soon avoided such issues.

Even the big push to collect folklore during the Soviet period had its drawbacks. Of course, officials were always looking for tales illustrating how the masses rose up to defeat landowners and kings. But since researchers were paid by quantity, some of them were known to have embellished the tales to garner more pay or sometimes when particular themes couldn't be found, folklorists felt the pressure to concoct such tales themselves.

But before we condemn the Soviets for the folklore legacy they have left with all its distortions, gaps, and contrived political agenda, we should take a closer look at what is happening these days - 13 years after Azerbaijan gained its independence. Today, folklore studies are desperately under-funded. The Academy of Sciences can barely pay the pittance of salaries to their professionals. Field research is virtually at a standstill. There have been no expeditions to the field for years.

These days, folklorists often have to provide their own funding to get their works published. And it's not always the most deserving scholarship that makes its way into print. Even foreign civic community organizations, perhaps unknowingly, are interfering with the process of folklore documentation. Some groups generously offer training in Web design and space on their Web servers to launch Web sites. But they insist on one caveat: no mention can be made about the Karabakh War.

This is extremely problematic for such genres as ashug music, where singers create or improvise poetry and accompany themselves on the traditional instrument of saz. Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis lost their lives in the Karabakh war with Armenia. Nearly one million of them were displaced from their homeland, forced to flee for their lives.

Such anguished expression exists in these ashug songs. It's impossible to extinguish or censure it. In fact, such expression can provide psychological catharsis and release when people feel that they've been treated so unjustly and wrongly. Since such pain and grief are representative of the nation, trying to prevent it from being represented on the Web does everyone a disservice - the performers feel cheated again and viewers, including foreigners, are denied the opportunity to understand the depth of such issues in the life of the nation.

And this is exactly the point. Azerbaijani folklorists have identified more than 40 genres. These myriad expressions comprise the core of belief of society. You might call it the DNA of values in a culture. As such, folklore provides the key to understanding the moral structure of a nation. As such, it should be allowed to flourish and should be documented scientifically without distortion or ulterior or political motive.

In this "Post 9/11 world" when we have all grown much more suspicious of each other, we would do well to remind ourselves that deep down in the core of our being, there is so much humanity that we share with each other. In countless ways - our wishes, our yearnings, our sense of fairness and justice, our quest for happiness - are so much alike. Through folklore, we find one more conclusive proof of this reality.

From Azerbaijan International (12.4) Winter 2004.
© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.

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