Azerbaijan International

Winter 2004 (12.4)
Page 25

Ismikhan Rahimov

Tribute: In Defense of My Mother Tongue
by Betty Blair

Ismikhan RahimovLeft: 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 1950s.

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 are left].

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 life."

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 Betty Blair interviewed Ismikhan in October 1997 and June 1999. Jala Garibova and Gilinjkhan Bayramov also contributed to this article.

Back to Index AI 12.4 (Winter 2004)
AI Home
| Search | Magazine Choice | Topics | AI Store | Contact us

Other Web sites created by Azerbaijan International
| |