There’s a joke among opposition members in Azerbaijan; a kind of curse. It comes into action once you are imprisoned, along with all the other restrictions on your freedom. Here it is: you can only watch AzTV and other local TV channels (it doesn’t really matter which). In the month I spent in an interrogation centre, I was condemned to watch these local TV channels. I came to the conclusion that AzTV is not the worst of them, although it is less luridly colourful. The other stations are colourful but tacky.
It is an open secret that people in Azerbaijan don’t spend much time watching local TV. They mostly prefer the foreign channels which they get on satellite or cable. I used to be no exception. The TV we had at the Musavat party’s Lenkoran office was only watched for the news, otherwise we turned down the volume and left it on so that it wasn’t completely disused.
I did observe that the local station, Janub, was actually relatively watchable. Not because of timeliness, efficiency or creativity, but simply because it aired more films and did not bother making programmes. Janub TV had the right idea. While in prison, I have become convinced that programme-making is a pointless waste of money. I suspect that if a television channel consisting entirely of films and music videos started up here, it would undoubtedly become the most popular in the country.
But let’s return to jail. The cells of interrogation centres were fitted with TVs in spring 2013, shortly before I was detained. I don’t want to portray everything negatively, so I do recognise this is progress toward more civilised standards. Watching news, sports and films helps prisoners pass the monotonous days. I don’t always agree with the viewing choices of other inmates, since most of them – my own cellmates included – have unrefined tastes. I ended up being forced to watch programmes, since you can’t escape the TV in your cell. It’s like George Orwell’s 1984.
Over the course of one month, I was held in three different cells. That is excluding the Lenkoran temporary detention centre where I was held during my initial hearing, and the one in Shirvan where my appeal was heard, neither of which had televisions. At the Kurdekhani detention centre, I was held in a six-person cell until the verdict was announced and thereafter in a two-person cell. In the Shuvelan detention centre, I was in a ten-bed cell – I don’t mean a ten-man cell since it was never that, and at various points it held 12 or 16 people.
Looking at it in terms of “TV torture”, the easiest time I had of it was the 100 days I spent in a two-man cell. Best of all was the last month there, when my cellmate was a Salafi Muslim. The Salafis see television as the work of the devil, so I had complete control of the TV and I could watch it whenever I wanted to. In the six-person cell, I had to go along with the majority, like a true democrat.
Things were different at the Shuvelan detention centre. Unlike in Kurdekhani, inmates were not given a television remote control and had to watch whichever channel was selected by the warders. This shows there is no uniform set of rules, so each governor makes decides for himself whether to give the inmates remote controls. The warders’ preferences were never to my taste, although they were probably just obeying orders. Then again, the choice of channels didn’t make much of a difference to daytime viewing during the week. All the channels carried programmes of a similar standard. On Saturdays, they showed Indian films.
It’s hard for me to describe the feelings generated by 13 months of TV torture. Without overplaying it, my public position prevents me. I can imagine Holden Caulfield, the hero of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, who dislikes the novel A Farewell to Arms and Hollywood films, and loathes even the slightest insincerity, being forced to watch the television channels here and listen to all the self-conceit and self-promotion that goes on there. His reaction would probably could only be suitable for an adult audience, whereas I – as a teacher and Musavat party official, and aware of sensitivities here – am forced to employ milder language.
The most unbearable news programmes are on AzTV. I won’t go through it all, in part because I never had the patience to watch them through to the end. Here is one example, though. Three or four months ago, Azerbaijan celebrated Water Industry and Melioration Day. The news on AzTV covered the celebrations from almost every part of the country. I was intrigued as to why they attached such an importance to it, as if it were a massive political event. I did not change channel until I found out why (I must be a bit of a masochist). I finally found the answer in a news report that said Water Industry and Melioration Day had been created by decree of President Ilham Aliyev. No comment. Rest in peace, Holden Caulfield.
Another amusing feature of AzTV is that scenes involving kissing are cut out of films. Even scenes with no erotic or pornographic content are censored. It is enough for a man and a woman to stand any closer than a decent distance from each other. It’s like a TV channel in a theocratic state. The lack of independent companies dubbing films into Azerbaijani means there are few foreign films available. Each station does its own dubbing, resulting in a limited and oft-repeated selection. When a film begins, one often hears convicts saying, “Same again” and “How many times can you watch the same film?” It is even worse when the same film is shown on multiple channels – Braveheart is a good example of that. Then you get thoroughly sick of it. To be fair, though, the quality of dubbing has improved in recent years.
As for talk shows, the subject-matter is irritating, with minor private and domestic matters put up for nationwide debate. Two brothers are unable to divide up property they have inherited; a mother-in-law doesn’t get on with her daughter-in-law; a husband is looking for his runaway wife. You might have thought these were private matters, but they aren’t – invited guests hand out expert advice on them. Sometimes these experts include musicians and traditional “meikhana” singers, as if they were repositories of wisdom, instead of psychologist, sociologists, scientists or writers. A bit like Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Council of Wise Men.
Sometimes these programmes have no point to them at all. You keep watching but you can’t understand it at all – they are just chatting among themselves. In these shows, the hosts adopt a very lax attitude to speaking Azerbaijani. There was a time when TV hosts would correct guests who used Russian words, offering an Azerbaijani alternative. Not any more – the AzTV hosts are always saying as “prosto” (simply), “konechno” (of course), “uzhe” (already) and “dazhe” (even) and other such Russian words. No one cares about our own godforsaken official language.
On the subject of our “wise” traditional singers, there are a lot of TV programmes about them. Officials are often shown lamenting the situation to the background of songs like “Our grief is the size of Karabagh and Khojaly, one million refugees, 20 per cent of our lands occupied”. I am neither puritan nor patriot; I am not keen on excessive mourning, and I do love music. The problem is the scale and standard – I object to making “meikhana” singers and others into idols and sages, into modern-day heroes. It is easy to understand why this is being done, though.
Entertainment programmes are a separate topic. They are completely plagiarised from Turkish shows and constitute their own form of torture. Unlike the Turkish TV hosts, the Azerbaijani ones try to compensate for their lack of creativity, humour and showmanship by shouting and seeking out the mediocre and trivial. No wants to copy the intellectually challenging programmes that are also shown on Turkish TV. Intellect is generally in short supply on all Azerbaijani channels.
I have called this 13 months of torture by TV. I should have said 12 months, as I have fond memories of the World Cup matches. We were able to take a break from the trivial nonsense and really enjoy having a TV. Twenty days after the World Cup, I was transferred from the detention centre to prison. I am not in thrall to television here, and I stay well away from it.
P.S. There is another form of psychological torture in cells, the ever-present songs of the criminal underworld. I might write about that some time.