Summer 2005 (13.2)
Tribute - Arif Abbasov
Putting Ethnography on the Map in Azerbaijan
Dr. Tamara Dragadze
Left: The late Arif Abbasov (1937-2005),
who championed the study of Ethnography in Azerbaijan.
Arif Akim oghlu
Abbasov, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography
of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, passed away on April 21,
2005. He was 67 years old, born December 22,1937 in Nakhchivan.
A gentle giant (for he was of large physical stature), Abbasov
was a brave, reliable scholar and professor who tenaciously defended
his younger colleagues against adversity. A man with a wry sense
of humor and keen, observant wit, he was both warm and hospitable.
Some people leave their mark on their nation's history and culture
and shape their own fields and disciplines through their modesty,
wisdom and discretion. Professor Abbasov was one such scholar
Few people realize the extent to which he was involved in Azerbaijan's
independence movement that took place during the late 1980s and
early 1990s - Azerbaijan's darkest days.
While many of those on the highest levels of academia pressured
their staff who dared to defy Soviet authorities, Abbasov turned
a blind eye when they went absent from assignments because they
were demonstrating at Lenin Square [now Azadlig or Freedom Square].
He went even further by using his vast network of friends and
contacts to quietly negotiate for the release of scholars who
had been detained.
Above all, Abbasov was a free spirit and fostered this quality
in others. It follows that Azerbaijan's recent course of history
- and its early espousal of culture, civility and liberty as
important ideals - would have been very different without the
involvement of the many scholars and intellectuals in the quest
Abbasov, however, was also a man of peace. It was for this reason
that he was so deeply pained by the war in Karabagh and the resulting
"ethnic cleansing" that took place upon the break-up
of the Soviet Union within all three republics of the Caucasus
(Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia).
At international conferences, Abbasov's humanity always shone
through. For example, during a visit to Yerevan [Armenia] since
independence , I met up with a scholar who was grieving
that he had had to leave Baku, convinced that nobody in the whole
world would ever be as fair and supportive as Professor Abbasov
In addition, there are many Western scholars like myself, who
owe their study of Azerbaijan to his tireless efforts even when
times were so difficult. I first went to the region in 1969 as
one of the first foreign anthropologists. In 1987 I began intensive
field studies in Azerbaijan with the support of Abbasov whom
I had met through connections from academic colleagues in Moscow
During Soviet martial law, when tanks were everywhere and borders
closed, Professor Abbasov personally walked to the military headquarters
in Baku (his father was a general) and acquired a special pass
for me - pleading that mine was an exceptional case since I was
a British scholar. He believed passionately that it was essential
for scholars to witness historic events first hand.
Thus, my Baku colleague, Atiga Ismayilova and I found ourselves
scuttling through the grass and bushes and surrounded by soldiers
in order to reach the Parliament building and go inside. We were
responding to his goading that, as serious historians, we should
witness these sessions of the transfer of power away from the
Popular Front in 1993.
Abbasov saw that we lacked for nothing when we were ensconced
in a village in Shamakhi region so that we could complete our
ethnographic fieldwork, despite shortages and a depleted academic
A man of his time, Abbasov secured crucial funding from BP to
maintain the Museum of Archaeology in Baku's Old City, as part
of the arrangement for BP to house their first office above it.
Wherever I look, I see his mark, tender but unwavering, discreet
but decent, and I feel so privileged to have earned his confidence.
I am not alone in mourning his passing.
Abbasov grew up in Baku and majored in History at the university.
He later wrote two dissertations - Candidate Doctorate and Professorial
Doctorate - the field of Ethnography was established in Azerbaijan,
and that it became so well recognized, given that such a discipline
was so sensitive in a politically fraught environment.
Dr. Abbasov published four monographs and co-authored another
in that field. Then he was appointed as Professor and Corresponding
Member of the Academy of Sciences. He led the efforts to research
actual problems related to ethnic groups, inter-ethnic relations,
and the influence of the ethnic peculiarities to economic, social,
Through his active lobbying, in 1993 the Institute of Archaeology
and Ethnography was able to obtain its separate identity from
the Institute of History. A journal was established in 2003.
Today the Institute boasts 300 employees, including three full
Academicians and three Corresponding Members, 21 Professorial
Doctorates and 80 Candidate Doctorates.
There are at least 11 departments in his Institute in the Academy
of Sciences campus. Abbasov worked tirelessly and imaginatively
to maintain funding and standards throughout the most financially
challenging period that the Academy of Sciences ever experienced.
Even more to his credit, however, is the fact that he never succumbed
to the great difficulty he felt at times, maintaining his principle
of academic freedom, supporting the right of scholars to express
views even when he personally did not agree with them. Such a
spirit of openness will be difficult to replace.
Abbasov is survived by a daughter and two grandchildren. His
wife had died 10 years earlier.
Dr. Tamara Dragadze,
B.A. (Kent) and Doctor of Philology (Oxon), is a third generation
British scholar and writer with more than 50 publications, mostly
in Caucasian Studies. She lives in London. Contact: DRAGADZEUK@aol.com.
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