Walking past Tbilisi’s Meidani Square towards Heydar Aliyev Park, it’s difficult not to notice dozens of tourists posing in front of a floral fixture that has become a main attraction for visitors to the city.
“Tbilisi Loves You,” it reads.
Friends from Baku say that taking selfies in front of the installation is especially popular among those from Azerbaijan. Unbeknown to them, perhaps, is that just a metre or so away stands a monument dedicated to Sayat Nova, the 18th Century ashiq considered one of Armenia’s most important cultural icons.
Comprising a pomegranate tree and saz chiseled out of stone, it also marks the start of that part of Tbilisi’s Old Town that accommodates not only the historic Sulphur Baths and Azerbaijan’s brand new Embassy, but also the St. Gevorg Armenian Church where the bard, born Harutyun Sayatyan, is buried.
A few minutes away is the Tbilisi Juma (Friday) Mosque where ethnic Azeris pray alongside other Muslims regardless of denomination. Georgian churches perched high on the surrounding hills encapsulate the scene.
True, the call to prayer never emanates from the mosque, but the cultural tapestry is nonetheless completed by two synagogues further up the road. A nearby statue, based on Yuri Mechitov’s iconic photo, depicts another Armenian cultural icon, Tbilisi-born avant-garde filmmaker Sergei Parajanov.
Few tourists know much about Parajanov or Sayat Nova, but for those that do, both represent the ethnic and cultural mix that has always defined Tbilisi, and in both good and bad times.
As the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, Parajanov was in Baku to film his last movie, Ashik Kerib (Aşıq Qərib).
Based on Mikhail Lermontov’s short story, the film is rich in Azeri folklore and customs. But as the exodus of ethnic Azeris from Armenia and an anti-Armenian pogrom in Sumgait pitted neighbor against neighbor, Parajanov found himself under pressure from some Armenians to shoot the film in Farsi.
He didn’t. He shot it as intended in the Azerbaijani language.
“[…] he really was the child of the great Caucasian culture where Christian and Muslim, worldly and spiritual, are tightly intertwined and mixed,” Parajanov’s cameraman Albert Yavuryan said in a 2004 interview. “He adored this culture. And he went to Baku in January 1989 (as the conflict intensified) to record the soundtrack.”
Few Armenians and Azerbaijanis know of the film, and even if they might wax lyrically about Parajanov’s 1969 opus, The Colour of Pomegranates. Also distributed under the title, Sayat Nova, the film depicts the ashiq’s life. Most are also probably unaware that while Sayat Nova wrote poems and songs in Armenian, Georgian, and Persian, most of his work was actually in a Turkic language that is now called Azerbaijani.
And Old Tbilisi isn’t just known for its Armenian presence. 41-year-old Fizuli Isfahanli is an ethnic Azeri resident of the area. His grandfather was Ibrahim Isfahanli, an actor recognised as a People’s Artist of the Soviet Republic of Georgia who worked at the State Drama Theatre named after Mirza Fatali Akhundov. Like Parajanov, and although born in Sheki, Azerbaijan, Akhundov was also inspired by the multi-culture nature of Tbilisi through friendships with writers such as the Armenian Khachatur Abovian. Akhundov is buried in Tbilisi.
“Tbilisi started from here,” says Isfahanli, standing outside his house opposite the Juma mosque.
“Armenian, Jewish, Russian, and Kurdish people live here. There are synagogues and churches. We don’t have any problem with each other. I can speak these different languages, including Armenian. We never say you are Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, or Jewish. We help each other. Tbilisi is a wonderful city and I cannot live without it.”
The same is articulated by Tahmaz Hasanov, director of the mosque.
“People with different nationalities live on this street. Most of them are Azerbaijanis, but Armenians, Kurds, Georgians, Assyrians, and Jews live on this street as well. We are neighbors and very kind to each other. We are friends. During Muslim holidays they come to congratulate us and we do the same with them. We also go to Armenian churches and they come to us.”
There even used to be a tea house run by an ethnic Armenian couple from Ganja close to the beginning of the road that accommodates the mosque. Unfortunately, it has been closed for a year since one of the owners, Margarita, fell ill. She died at the beginning of 2017, but for almost a decade it had had become affectionately known as the “Azeri tea house” and served as the meeting place for the area’s residents, regardless of ethnicity. Armenian and Azerbaijani could be heard spoken between its four walls, and usually interchangeably by the same people.
But a year after since the April 2016 clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan that left around 200 dead, old habits die hard in the South Caucasus and not least when it comes to notions of ethnic identity.
Perhaps the most dominant narrative of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict was exemplified by former Armenian president Robert Kocharian’s comments on a 2003 visit to Moscow where he spoke about ‘ethnic incompatibility’ between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Then-Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer accused Kocharian of warmongering while the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Peter Schieder, condemned them.
“Since its creation, the Council of Europe has never heard the phrase ‘ethnic incompatibility,” he countered.
Unfortunately, however, this notion of ‘incompatibility’ defines how most Armenians and Azerbaijanis view the other.
In a household survey conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centre (CRRC) in 2013, for example, 90 percent of Azerbaijanis said they considered Armenia to be their country’s greatest enemy. In Armenia, 66 percent of respondents said it was Azerbaijan, while 28 percent of Armenians named Turkey.
Of more concern, perhaps, is that in another CRRC household survey held in 2009, 70 percent of Armenian respondents said they disapproved of being friends with Azerbaijanis. In Azerbaijan, 97 percent said they wouldn’t be friends with Armenians.
For many in Armenia and Azerbaijan, such feelings are considered normal given that there has been no resolution of the conflict since the 1994 ceasefire officially put fighting on hold in a ‘frozen conflict’ that is anything but. However, responses in neighboring Georgia prove the opposite. According to the same household survey, only 16 and 17 percent of Georgians said they disapproved of friendship with Abkhazians and Ossetians, and even if the dominant narrative is that Georgia is locked into conflict with Russia, only 18 percent of Georgians said they were against having Russian friends.
“Move outside the conflict zone and these hidden signs of compatibility come out into the open,” wrote Thomas de Waal, author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, about my work since documenting positive examples of coexistence and cohabitation in Georgia.
“Armenian and Azeri villagers live side by side. There is trade and even inter-marriage. Armenians and Azerbaijanis often prefer to do business with each other than with Georgians,” he wrote.
“We hear far too little of what I call this “third narrative” of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, a narrative of peace,” de Waal continued. “It spins the idea that the two peoples are capable of getting along fine, have lived together in the past and, if politicians are able to overcome differences on the Karabakh conflict, can live together in the future. International mediators are too timid to speak this narrative or feel that it is not their business. The media in both countries suppresses it.”
Such a reality is not just evident in Tbilisi, but especially obvious in ethnic Armenian-Azeri co-inhabited villages such as Tsopi and Khojorni close to the border with Armenia. Both villages fall under the Marneuli municipality where approximately 83 percent of the population is ethnic Azeri, 8 percent ethnic Georgian, and 7.9 percent ethnic Armenian. According to the 2014 census in Georgia, that equates to 98,245 and 9,329 ethnic Azeris and Armenians respectively.
To further demonstrate this Georgian reality, most of the traffic from Yerevan to Tbilisi passes through not only Marneuli, but also the surrounding Kvemo Kartli region, home to around 180,000 ethnic Azeris. Ethnic Armenians number a little over 21,000 and, coincidentally, one of the main roads in Marneuli proper, a mainly ethnic Azeri inhabited city, is named after Sayat Nova.
An hour or so outside of Tbilisi, and far past Marneuli close to the Armenian border, the road has seen better days as we turn off the main highway to make our way to Tsopi and Khojorni. The villages are just over 5 kilometers away, but they might as well be 20. A large mosque to the left of the road is, admittedly, a strange sight to see in Georgia let alone close to almost entirely Christian Armenia.
It shouldn’t be, of course. Before the tit-for-tat expulsions that defined the start of the Karabakh conflict, Muslim Azeris were Armenia’s largest ethnic minority just as Christian Armenians were in Azerbaijan. Of course, the conflict never took on a religious dimension despite the international media’s fixation with nearly always describing it as being fought between Christian Armenia and Moslem Azerbaijan.
In fact, it has always been surprising to see CRRC’s household surveys shatter another stereotype in the region. While Azerbaijanis are the least religious in the South Caucasus, Georgians are the most pious, or at least when it comes to attending religious services and fasting. Armenians are somewhere in-between.
None of which matters to the residents of Khojorni. Consisting of around 850 people, ethnic Armenians are the majority while Azeris form the minority. Fruit trees are blossoming in the village, but the streets are otherwise empty save for on the approach where a small group of ethnic Azeris are gathered to play cards. It’s almost as if they haven’t moved since the last time I visited five years ago. They remember me from back then and say that, in actual fact, they haven’t budged an inch. With unemployment high in the region, this is their life.
Khojorni is literally right on the border with Armenia and its location has constrained the villagers in terms of irrigating their land. Warned by the Georgian authorities not to venture into the border area just outside the village, each has an identity document warning them not to do so and advising on what to do if encountered by border guards. Paradoxically, the document is in English and Georgian only.
“There are 40 Azerbaijani families and 110-120 Armenian families living here,” says Efendi Shafirov, an ethnic Azeri. “Because of unemployment, people went to other villages, cities, and countries. The situation in this village needs to be improved and workplaces created. People should be able to work to take care of their families. We suffer from (lack of) water, (lack of) wood, we are suffering a lot. You saw how terrible the road is. It’s in a very bad condition.”
Nine-year-old Munavvar and her younger sibling, Elif, venture out to play on the pock-marked street. It seems chickens outnumber people in the village. She speaks a little Georgian, but is most fluent in her native tongue, Azerbaijani. In fact, in co-inhabited villages it is usual that most residents speak both Armenian and Azerbaijani while the children will only learn Georgian when they start school. Even then, because of the language issue, most education is conducted in Armenian or Azerbaijani depending on the ethnic background of the child.
Because the ethnic Azeri community in Khojorni is so small, Munavvar shares her class with just one other 9-year-old. Ethnic Armenians have their own classes, but the two groups live and play side by side together outside school hours. In the neighbouring village of Tsopi, ethnic Azeris are the majority and Armenians are in the minority. Tsopi is three kilometres away.
Although I first visited Khojorni in 2011, I’ve been visiting Tsopi since 2009. The previous year I had been employed as a fixer for the Armenia leg of an extended Al Jazeera English report on the Karabakh conflict. It was then that, despite Armenians and Azerbaijanis being divided by a deep chasm of recent history, I learned that these villages existed. Speaking personally, it was a game changer. Despite all the negative news surrounding Armenian-Azerbaijan relations, here was something positive and a role model for the future.
There used to be ethnic Greeks and Georgians in the village too, but only a few individuals remain from the former, and usually of mixed background. One of the few I did meet, an elderly woman of ethnic Armenian and Greek descent, died a few years ago and most of the others are long since gone. For all intents and purposes, these are mixed Armenian-Azeri villages.
That’s visible at Tsopi’s school where classes are again divided up by ethnic group. Ethnic Armenian teachers such as Metaksya Ovsepyan, however, teach both. Fluent in Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Russian, she also teaches 1st graders Georgian. On my last visit to Tsopi in 2012, she took me to the birthday of one of her new students, 6-year-old Kanan. At the party were his Armenian and Azeri friends as well as their mothers.
On the table were regional dishes common to both cultures, but rather than prove a bone of contention between the ethnic Armenians and Azeris present, it instead reminded me of something a friend from Azerbaijan once posted as their Facebook status update. “Dolma yeyənindi, Sarı Gəlin oxuyanındı,” he wrote, quoting a writer, Ağarəhim.
Whenever Karabakh does come up, it is quickly dealt with in such a way as to prevent hostilities emerging. That might sound a daunting task given that the both school has textbooks supplied by the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments.
“Azerbaijan writes its own history and Armenia writes its own too,” she told me on this recent visit, “but it is not a problem for the children. They are not going to beat or argue with each other after history class. I remember when another teacher taught them about the Khojaly genocide and that Armenians were the enemy. One of the (Azeri) kids, who was also my neighbour, stood up and said that this should not be taught as I was teaching in the other room. The teacher agreed.”
“I couldn’t live without Azerbaijanis,” says Ovsepyan, “and they couldn’t live without us (Armenians).
But it’s not all plain sailing. During last year’s clashes on the Karabakh Line of Contact (LoC), there were some signs that the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict could affect Georgia’s ethnic minorities. “Since the beginning of this conflict, both sides have presented each other in their own media as enemies,” Zaur Khalilov, the ethnic Azeri Executive Director of Georgia’s Civic Education Foundation, told me. “This directly affects the communities here because they are watching Armenian and Azerbaijan television or listening to the radio from these countries.”
Indeed, Azer Suleymanov, a MP from Georgia’s United National Movement (UNM) founded by former president Mikheil Saakashvilli, said he would reassemble his battalion of 150 men formed during the August 2008 war with Russia to fight on the side of Azerbaijan. Nationalists in the mainly ethnic Armenian-populated region of Samtskhe-Javakheti also voiced the same intention to gather volunteers, but to fight on the side of Armenia. Most Georgian media, however, chose not to report on this threat of mobilisation.
Two Georgian Dream MPs, one ethnic Armenian and one ethnic Azeri, did however issue a joint statement urging their constituents to “abstain from actions and propagation which can damage the centuries-old tradition of peaceful coexistence of these two ethnic groups on Georgian territory.” They succeeded. Here in Tsopi and Khojorni, and among most of the ethnic Armenians and Azeris I’ve spoken to in Georgia, agree. The is a political conflict, not an ethnic one.
Back in Khojorni, an elderly ethnic Azeri woman, Nazkhanim, summed it up best. “You cannot separate a nail from your finger without bleeding and causing yourself pain. We cannot do without the other. This is how we were and how we will always be. Why should we be enemies at the whim of some politician?”
Editor’s note: Onnik James Krikorian is a freelance journalist, photographer, and media consultant from the UK based in the South Caucasus since 1998. He has covered the Nagorno Karabakh conflict since first visiting for The Independent newspaper in 1994.