Traditions or stereotypes?

How do they live, how do they earn a living and what do the Ajem Kurds in Azerbaijan complain about?

The Yevlakh region of Azerbaijan, a central transport hub of railways and roads, is located 280 kilometers from Baku, above the Kura River.

Walking along the streets that stretch from the old bridge over the Kura to the Yevlakh railway station, you can meet people who stand out among the locals with their different dialects, appearance, and way of life.

Although most call them “Gypsies”, they call themselves “Ajem Kurds” and say that their ancestors moved here from Iran in the 1940s and 1950s. In the Yevlakh region, they settled on several streets, which the locals dubbed the “Gypsy Quarter”.

A little later we will return to the question of their identity. In the meantime, let’s just say that we managed to learn almost nothing about their history since they do not seem to like talking to strangers very much.

“We collect scrap metal, that’s how we can buy food”

We move forward, walking along muddy streets between haphazardly built houses. Throughout the journey, we are accompanied by a flock of noisy laughing children. And the oncoming women lower their heads and pretend not to notice us.

A little ahead, from behind the fence, comes the girl’s laughter. When they see us, they run out to meet us, holding a fish in one hand, and a knife in the other.

– What are you doing? – we are interested.

– We clean the fish, – a smiling teenage blonde girl in a hijab answers.

– How old are you?

– 15

– Do you go to school?

– No, I don’t.

– Why?

– I don’t know. I don’t want.

“Don’t you want to be a doctor or a teacher in the future?”

“No,” the girl shrugs.

– Are your mom and dad at home?

“Our dads are in prison,” another girl replies.

Illustation Meydan TV

At that moment, a woman appears on the balcony. She says something to the girls in her language, and they go into the house. In parting, the blonde girl smiles furtively at us again.

We continued our way. Local youth say that we will not be able to talk to those who live here and are advised to go to the other side.

Each of the residents complains about something. There is no running water, no asphalt, and no sewerage.

You might think you can do something about it. Everyone comes, and shoots, but there is no result. All of you come, talk to us, take pictures, and then cut out the places where we complain. You are simply mocking us,” a woman in a pink dress expresses her dissatisfaction. Having categorically refused to talk to us, she returns to the house.

We cross “to the other side”, to Rakhid Mammadov Street, which is called here “behind the market”.

At the very beginning of the street, there is an overflowing garbage container. In front of our eyes, a little curly girl dragged a bathtub here on a rope, threw out the rubbish piled in it, and left.

At first glance, this street seems extinct, but as you move forward, cheerful children frolicking in the mud, trains rushing past from time to time, and colorful carpets hanging on fences testify that there is still life here.

Resident Sveta Kerimova initially avoided contact with us. But it is worth asking her about social problems, as a woman begins to say:

Is it possible to live like this? There is no sewerage, dirt is everywhere, and at least someone would take an interest in our problems. As a large family, we receive benefits, but this money is not enough for electricity, gas, or water. I buy flour for them, and even that is already running out by the middle of the month.

Another woman joins the conversation, Elmira Abdullaeva. She says that some of the houses along this street have electricity and gas, and some do not. In their house, for example, there is no electricity or gas, and all complaints go unheeded:

Grandchildren are cold. By God, we’re just dying here. There is no gas, how many times I went to the office, everyone brushes it off, and they say that they can’t help? Okay, who’s supposed to take care of us then? There is no light either, in the evenings we light candles. Are we not citizens of Azerbaijan? Yes, and poverty. We collect scrap metal, so we feed ourselves. By God, I don’t even have flour, the children are dying of hunger.

Regarding the complaints of residents, we contacted the executive power of the Yevlakh region. Bahruz Mammadov, the chief adviser of the city economy department, said that no official appeal had been received from the residents of this street to the executive branch, and promised that now, after our information, they would inspect this street to find out the situation with the gas supply, electricity, and sewerage.

“There is no opportunity to send children to school”

Encouraged by how willing the women were to talk to us, we asked if their children went to school.

It turned out that none of Sveta’s nine children attended school.

And what should I use to buy them clothes and shoes to send them to school? Yes, you also need to put at least a manat in their pocket with you. And then, after all, children work with us, collecting metal and plastic for sale. We earn 5-10 manats a day. We earn bread for these same children.

Sveta’s little daughter sits on the sidelines, busy washing dishes. From time to time, she wrings out a yellow rag and listens to our conversation.

Neither children nor grandchildren of Elmira Abdullayeva also went to school. The woman has seven grandchildren, she says she would like to send them to study, but poverty does not allow it.

No, they don’t go to school. They look a little, do not cope, and quit. And there is no way to buy them notebooks, bags, or clothes. Does not work. And so, of course, I would like my children to study, get a profession, and then get married and get married. I didn’t study either, I can’t even write my name. ”

I catch my eye on a girl who has been watching us all this time, leaning against a rusty gate. She looked friendly and I walked toward her.

Illustation Meydan TV

The girl’s hair is tied high, and there is a red scarf on her head. She smiles. She says that she is 21 years old, she is not married, and she left school after the first grade.

If I had been smarter then, I would have continued to study. I’m so sorry now… I’m sitting at home doing nothing,” she laments.

We are again appealing to the executive branch, this time about the children’s avoidance of school. Our questions are answered by the responsible secretary of the commission for minors and the protection of their rights, Elnara Mammadova:

Schools provide us with student attendance data. And we, together with the police, inspect at least once every three months. Preventive conversations are held with parents who do not let their children go to school. We do everything we can. But, if parents don’t want to send their children to school, how long can you force them?

Meanwhile, lawyer Samad Rahimli recalls that regardless of traditions, customs, and financial situation, secondary general education in Azerbaijan is mandatory:

The executive branch can achieve this with the help of the police. First, it is necessary to carry out educational work. If the parents continue to resist, individual measures can be taken against them. There is administrative responsibility for obstructing a child’s education, and a fine of 100 manats is provided for individuals. And for coercion to begging, 15 days of arrest are required. If parents behave this way on an ongoing basis for a long time, then they may be limited in parental rights. In this regard, the executive branch should go to court. But this requires political will, which the executive authorities do not have.

“Uncomfortable” Neighborhood

The lawyer says that in Europe the rights to integration and education of the Roma living there are respected, and at the same time they can observe their traditions and customs. In addition, in Europe, the state provides financial assistance to families so that children can study, adds Rahimli.

But back to the quarter, where we are still trying to find answers to the remaining questions.

Many houses on this street have a “For Sale” sign. I talk to the locals who live next door to the “Gypsy Quarter”. They call their neighbors “Gypsies”. Aunt Nargiz says that “gypsies” are good people, and although they are aggressive towards strangers, they are quite nice.

Only very noisy. A few months ago, we put our house up for sale, but who would buy a house in such a place? – says Aunt Nargiz.

Her son, Rizvan, also grew up here. He has good friends among the “gypsies”, and he even knows how to speak their language.

Illustation Meydan TV

The question of national identity

And since we are again faced with the dilemma of “gypsies or Kurds”, we will touch on the topic of national identity.

The ethnographer Emil Kerimov says that the people living in Yevlakh may be, in fact, gypsies or Roma, as they are called in Europe. In the 14th century, representatives of this ethnic group moved from India and spread throughout Europe.

According to the ethnographer, the Roma are adapting to their place of residence and when they got to Iran, they adopted the Kurdish language. Also, according to the scientist, the way of life of the ethnic group living in Yevlakh is closer to the gypsy than to the Kurdish.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many Roma currently live in Azerbaijan. Not all of them have ID cards. But according to unofficial data for 2012-2014, the total number of Roma living in Azerbaijan was about 10 thousand people.

2,500 gypsies are living in Yevlakh. That’s right, they are called “gypsies” in official statistics.

The scientist-ethnographer says that it is common for nomadic peoples to take the name of the place where they move.

Chairman of the Association for the Preservation of Roma Culture Shukru Pyundik, after listening to the audio recordings made by our film crew in Yevlakh, said that it is Kurdish, but among the Roma, some speak Kurdish. And in general, Roma has Kurdish, Alevi, and Abazi branches. But asking for alms is characteristic of the Kurdish Roma.

According to residents, these people moved to Yevlakh in the 50- 60s of the last centuries. They claim to have come from Iran and are Muslims. Therefore, the ethnographer Emil Kerimov suggests that already at the time of their resettlement from Iran, they were presented not as gypsies / Roma, but as Kurds.

In general, Azerbaijan is considered a long-standing place of residence of the Kurds, including the Ajem ones, who took their name from their family.

Up until the Karabakh conflict, Kurds traditionally lived in Lachin, Kalbajar, Zangilan, and Gubadli, as well as in the territory of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. At present, there are at least 60,000 Ajem Kurds. Most of them profess Shiite Islam.

History of the Karabakh Kurds

The arrival of the Kurds in Azerbaijan, and in general, in the South Caucasus took place in different periods. The first mention of the appearance of the Kurds in Karabakh is associated with the Mongol invasion – in the XIII century.

The Kurds, who came here with the Ottoman army in 1589 during the Safavid-Ottoman war, settled in the territory of present-day Kalbajar, Lachin, Gubadli, and Zangilan.

As a result of the wars that took place in this region in 1918-1920, some groups of Muslim Kurds living in Azerbaijan moved to Armenia.

After the occupation of Karabakh, the Kurds were forced to move to other regions of Azerbaijan. Most of the Kurds from the Gubadli region settled in the city of Sumgayit. And the majority of the Kurdish population of Kelbajar and Lachin now live in the Agjabadi region.

According to the results of the 2009 census, 6,100 Kurds lived in Azerbaijan. According to Western experts, Kurds make up approximately 2.8% of the population of Azerbaijan. It is assumed that more than 200,000 Kurds currently live in Azerbaijan.

“Not all of us are begging”

As for the inhabitants of the “gypsy quarter” in Yevlakh, they consider themselves part of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani people. What’s more, they feel the need to prove it so strongly that they bring in identification cards pulled from under heavy mattresses and force them to reread their names repeatedly, which they cannot read.

They say that they live poorer than the local population, that they are less likely to find work, and that not a single state structure responds to their appeals.

Lawyer Samad Rahimli reports that the Council of Europe has placed an obligation in Azerbaijan to ensure the rights of ethnic minorities. Azerbaijan must ensure equality and pursue an anti-discrimination policy. The country also adopted the UN international covenants on civil and political, economic, social, and cultural rights and acceded to the 1965 convention on the abolition of all forms of racial discrimination.

Don’t film, why are you recording? All of Azerbaijan is watching and saying that gypsies live in Yevlakh. Everyone asks: are you from Yevlakh, right? They dishonored Yevlakh throughout the country, ”a woman shouts from afar when she sees our camera.

And we are slowly leaving the “gypsy” quarter. Yes, and it’s already evening, it’s time. One of the middle-aged men standing nearby asks us not to be offended by that woman:

“Here before you have already filmed 10-15 times. I go to TikTok – all our children are there. Some non-existent traditions are invented for us. But not all of us beg,  some work and honestly earn their living. Are there no beggars among you Azerbaijanis? And we have a bad reputation, and the locals, if suddenly there is a theft, they immediately blame us. So, I tell you all this, but will anyone believe me? No. “

Realizing that we were going to leave, the man seemed to catch himself and apologize for many times that they could not adequately meet us.

Evening comes, and we move away from the quarter. The same girl in a red scarf follows us with her eyes. The voices of the children fell silent – probably everyone went home. The only sound is the noise of passing trains.

With the support of “Mediaset”

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