Winter 2004 (12.4)
Tribute: In Defense of My Mother Tongue
Left: Ismikhan Rahimov with his wife Zarida
and grandson in Baku, 1997. Photo: Betty Blair
Ismikhan Rahimov (May 23, 1925 to December 16, 2004) is one of
the professional giants associated with the early efforts of
teaching English in Azerbaijan. He also is greatly respected
as one of the few political prisoners who lived to tell the story
of his experiences in Stalin's labor camps in Siberia in the
Ismikhan was the Founding Dean of the Translation Department
at what is now called the University of Languages in Baku. According
to Gilinjkhan Bayramov, present Dean and close friend: "Ismikhan
was known as a very honest man - a man of principles, sincerity,
nobility and knowledge. He deplored corruption. He made us love
our students and our profession. He had very strong leadership
qualities because he was such a powerful orator. Within ten minutes,
he could attract the attention of a whole crowd."
Ismikhan always tried to make his English classes fun. Even after
he retired from the classroom, he continued teaching small groups
in his home. His method: total immersion. There were no props
- no textbooks, no paper, no pencil, no blackboard, no overhead
projector, no cassette player, no CD or video players - just
Ismikhan, his British accent, his vivid imagination and great
sense of responsibility to his students. That's the way he had
taught hundreds of students over his lifetime, including some
of those who hold the highest levels of responsibility today
in the country, including Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev
and his sister Sevil, Rafael Huseinov (Parliamentary Representative
to the Council of Europe), Aghamusa Akhundov (distinguished linguistics
professor), and Farhad Badalbeyli (Rector of Baku Music Academy).
But it was this same love of language - his own mother tongue
- that landed him in prison with a 25-year term in the late 1940s.
Already by that time, the Russian language was overshadowing
the use of Azeri and had become the prestigious language in the
country. Ismikhan believed that Azerbaijanis should have the
right to speak their own mother tongue. How could it be that
every official request to the government had to be made in Russian?
In 1944, Ismikhan and some of his friends organized a group to
advocate for their rights. There were seven of them - Gulhusein
Huseinoghlu, Musa Abdullayev, Azer Alasgarov, Haji Zeynalov,
Aydin Vahidov, Kamal Aliyev and Ismikhan. [Now that Ismikhan
has passed away, only Gulhusein Huseinoghlu and Aydin Vahidov
They called their organization "Ildirim" (Lightning).
They wanted the Azerbaijani language to be recognized as a state
language and wanted Azerbaijanis to be able to reap the benefits
of their own natural resources - especially oil and cotton.
But it was a very dangerous period. It wasn't long before KGB
agents began stalking him. "I felt their eyes on me everywhere
I went," he recalled. "At that time, there were so
many spies. I got so tired of being watched. When they finally
arrested me, it came as sort of a relief. How can anyone live
like that - constantly being watched?"
On that fateful day - September 25, 1948 - officers knocked at
his door at one o'clock in the morning while he was sleeping.
He was living with his family at the time. At his "trial",
they sentenced him to 25 years of hard labor. Soon they put him
on a train to Siberia, a journey that took 14 days.
"Everyone has a moment in life that he considers to be most
dramatic and meaningful," Ismikhan confided. "Mine
came after the trial while they were transporting us back to
the prison. The streets were full of people who had heard of
our trial. We were riding in the back of a truck - each one of
us handcuffed to the next guy.
But my right hand was free. When the people inquired what we
had done, I stood up, raised my fist and shouted, 'Long live
Azerbaijan, let my nation live! We'll come back soon.' I think
that was the most important moment in my life."
There in the camps, Ismikhan was forbidden to speak Azeri. It
was his knowledge of English that helped him survive those difficult
years, especially on two separate occasions: (1) in providing
emotional friendship; (2) in getting him an assignment as a medical
assistant, instead of hard physical labor.
Ismikhan remembers the day when they heard of Stalin's death
(March 5, 1953). At first, they were told that he had a fever
and rapid pulse. Finally, his death was announced.
"All around me," Ismikhan describes, "were political
prisoners - victims of Stalin's regime. We were all standing
together. I looked deep into the eyes of my fellow prisoners
and could detect their sense of relief. But no one dared to express
their joy. Even in prison camps, there were spies. You could
be put to death for such a display of emotion. But their eyes
reflected smiles deep in their souls."
Three years later, Ismikhan was released. It took another year
before his reputation was rehabilitated and he could get a job.
But he was so disappointed by the reaction of people when he
arrived back home. "I realized that people were afraid to
associate or speak with me. It was a severe blow, making me wish
I had never left Siberia. I felt so isolated and lonely. At least
in Siberia, we knew that we were fighting for our country and
for truth," he said.
Eventually, Ismikhan succeeded in getting a job, returned for
his Ph.D., and wrote his dissertation, "Eastern Words in
the Eastern Poems of George Gordon Byron." He loved Byron
and English literature.
During the last decades of his life, Ismikhan was no longer considered
an "Enemy of the People"; people treated him as a hero.
"That's worth worlds to me," he admitted. "You
see, back then, everyone was against the Soviet system, but they
were afraid to protest about it - only our little group at the
university dared to do anything."
Ismikhan had a tough life. Up until the end, he used to get worked
up whenever he thought about this bitter chapter of his life.
Once, when he learned that Solzhenitsyn's memoirs, "The
Gulag Archipelago", was to be read on BBC, he didn't want
to listen. He didn't want to remember those difficult days. "I
just want to live," he would say. "Life is too short.
I'd rather concentrate on the good things in life."
When his students asked him if he were happy, he used to tell
them: "Of course, I'm happy: I love my nation. I love my
language. I love my wife and my children. My wife is my dearest,
dearest friend. I love my profession, teaching English - really,
I love my profession. My nation appreciates me now. What more
can there be in life? Even if I had the chance to live my life
all over again, I'd do it again. It's been a very meaningful
Ismikhan died at the age of 80 in December 2004. He is survived
by his wife Zarifa and three sons - Azerchin, Eltakin, and Yuksel,
along with seven grandchildren.
To read more
about Ismikhan's life, see "To Siberia and Back: Life as
Political Prisoner SH-971" by Ismikhan Rahimov in AI 7.3
(Autumn 1999). Search at AZER.com. Betty Blair interviewed
Ismikhan in October 1997 and June 1999. Jala Garibova and Gilinjkhan
Bayramov also contributed to this article.
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