People are celebrating St Valentine's Day, or the day of people in love, all around the world today, 14 February. The day has been marked in Azerbaijan since the 1990s. It quickly took root in the country, as it did all across the post-Soviet area. Shop windows, young people with flowers and gifts on the streets of the city, couples in love in cafes and restaurants (more than on any other day of the year) – all this enables us to say that the 14 February holiday has caught hold of Azerbaijan.
However, as early as the beginning of the 2000s, members of the public started saying that St Valentine's Day was an "alien" holiday, and that there was a good alternative to it in Azerbaijan's history – 30 June. After all, that is the wedding day of Ilham and Fariza Allahverdiyev, who became a symbol of love and fidelity in this country
St. Valentine's Day is believed to have existed for over 16 centuries. The life story of the "culprit" of this holiday – a Christian priest named Valentine, has been the source of many legends about secret weddings of couples in love. One of them says that back in 269, when Emperor Claudius II ruled the Roman Empire, the warring Roman army was experiencing an acute shortage of soldiers for military campaigns. According to the warlord, marriage was to blame, because a married legionary thought more about how to feed his family than about the glory of the empire. So, the emperor issued a decree forbidding legionaries from marrying.
Valentine, from the Roman city of Terni, who, without fearing the emperor's anger, started to secretly marry legionnaires and their beloved women. The legend says that Valentine also liked making peace between people who quarreled, helping people write love letters and giving flowers at the request of legionnaires to women they loved.
When the emperor learnt about it, Valentine was sentenced to death. Subsequently, as a Christian martyr who suffered for his faith, Valentine was canonized by the Catholic Church. In 496, Pope Gelasius I declared 14 February St Valentine's Day.
The legend also says that Valentine himself was in love with his jailor's daughter. The day before his execution, the priest wrote a farewell letter to the girl, in which he told her he loved her, and signed it "Your Valentine". The girl read the letter after he was executed. It is believed that it was the start of the tradition of giving each other "valentines".
Although the day came to Azerbaijan seven centuries after it began to be marked in, for example, Western Europe, local young people liked it.
"There is a positive atmosphere to it. Why not? On this day you can buy flowers for the girl you love and tell her how you feel about her," sociologist Sanubar Heydarova says.
“We decided to start a serious fight”
Azerbaijani journalist Avaz Zeynalli was the first person to say that St Valentine's Day was not Azerbaijani’s holiday and that the day of people in love should be marked in Azerbaijan not on 14 February, but 30 June. As the editor of the local newspaper Khural, he was very serious about it.
"On 16 February 2003, we decided to start a serious fight, and we waged it for 90 weeks," Avaz Zeynalli says. The fight consisted of articles published in the newspaper about why the day of people in love should be marked in Azerbaijan not on 14 February, but 30 June. It also spoke about the tragic fate of the couple Ilham and Fariza Allahverdiyev, whose wedding day was to become an alternative to 14 February.
“I can’t live without Ilham, farewell…”
Ilham and Fariza married on 30 June 1989. Ilham was 27, Fariza was 19. They died six months later.
On the night of 19 to 20 January 1990, tragic events took place in Baku. The Soviet army deployed troops to the streets of the capital. On the evening of 19 January, Ilham, like many other Azerbaijanis, took to the same streets.
Eyewitnesses of that night said how tanks were moving around the city already at midnight and running into unarmed people. A total of 147 people, including Ilham, were killed that night.
Upon hearing about Ilham's death, his young wife Fariza tried to commit suicide twice: First, she decided to douse herself with oil and set fire to herself, but her family stopped her from doing it. They began watching her, as they understood that Fariza was determined to die. However, on the day of Ilham's funeral, when everyone fell asleep at night, she laid out their joint photos on the floor as evidence of their happy life. Then, she drank vinegar and began writing a suicide note: "I can't live without Ilham, farewell, let no-one cry. My life is pointless without him. Especially as he…". She never finished the note.
They were buried side by side in the Upper Park. Today stands present-day Martyrs Alley there, where the victims of Black January were laid to rest.
“For a nation to be a nation, it must have its own days to mark”
"How can an alien holiday be imposed on us while the country as the example of Ilham and Fariza? Yes, it was imposed," Avaz Zeynalli wonders.
For him, like for all supporters of 30 June, this is primarily a matter of national consciousness. This is not just a day of love and fidelity, but also a day of the courage and patriotism that Ilham demonstrated.
"14 February is not our day, it just isn’t. We have our own 30 June. We have a different culture," Zeynalli adds. "For a nation to be a nation, it must have its own days to mark."
None of those days has become official in this country. And everyone is free to mark the day of people in love whenever they want to.
"After all, you do not need a dedicated day to give someone you love a gift or to declare your love," sociologist Sanubar Heydarova says. "Each day of the year can be turned into that kind of a day. In the same way as couple in love annually celebrates the day they first met. And that is their day of love."
Nevertheless, the topic has become an "apple of discord" in Azerbaijani society. Supporters of 30 June are categorically against celebrating 14 February, as they consider it "alien", Christian, and running counter to their culture.
Sociologist Sanubar Heydarova considers it to be a dispute between nationalists and the progressive part of society.
"A conservative person is always skeptical and suspicious about everything," the sociologist says. "What is it? What is the purpose behind it being imposed on us? People tell legends that allege that those are the tricks of the West aiming to weaken us and bring us to heel. Let's put it this way: a conservative is always against new things. Young people, however, look out for something new, for a reason to fall in love. It is for this reason that this day has become popular with young people."
“30 June will completely replace 14 February”
Avaz Zeynalli is speaking about how at one time he criticized local singers for holding concerts on 14 February and congratulating people on the day from the stage. He also criticized artists who promoted that day on television.
"After that, they phoned me to say they would stop doing it and that they did not want to be a target of criticism because of that. It would be better if they did so to promote 30 June," Avaz Zeynalli laments. "In which case, 30 June would completely replace 14 February."
At the same time, the journalist is against bans that are practiced in some Muslim countries.
"In Iran, for example, celebrating 14 February is banned, while there is a ban in Saudi Arabia on selling flowers on that day. How can you ban sales of flowers?" Avaz Zeynalli says. "By doing so, you might simply cause a rise in the prices of flowers and generate greater interest on part of young people. Under these kinds of bans, a guy who was going to give the girl he loves one rose will buy eleven roses. And you can win only if you have a better idea against a date or an idea."
Time will tell which day will eventually "win", both Sanubar Heydarova and Avaz Zeynalli believe.
"Apparently, a lot of time has yet to pass, several generations have to replace each other, and the love story of Ilham and Fariza has to grow before their wedding day becomes as popular in our country as the priest Valentine's execution day," Zeynalli says.
/Produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange