My Karabakh - Part VI: Baku and the hands of Heydar Aliyev
This is the sixth installment in a series of essays written exclusively for JAMnews by Armenian journalist and writer Mark Grigoryan.
The first five installments are as follows:
Heydar Aliyev’s hands
“I can’t come in for the next procedure,” I told the dentist, “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Where to?” he asked.
“Baku,” I said smiling.
“How come?!” she asked with more than a hint of surprise on her face. “Isn’t it dangerous?”
We were assured our safety by the presidential administration. It was the end of June 1999, and this was the first post-war trip made by a group of Armenian journalists to Azerbaijan.
We flew to Baku on a small UN plane. Having left our stuff in the hotel, we set out for the presidential administration office where we were met by Vafa Guluzade, an advisor to then-president Heydar Aliyev. Rather agitated, Guluzade said that Armenia was nothing but a vassal of Russia, and that Russia does all it can to help Armenians.
And to support his assertion, he shook an edition of the Moscow Nezavisimaya Gazeta from the day before, on which a portrait of my friend Aleksandr Iskandaryan was clearly seen.
Heydar Aliyev met us a day after in a brightly-lit hall. We sat at a long table, a pear-shaped glass of tea placed neatly in front of us all. Aliyev himself sat at the head of the table.
I was surprised at how thin he looked. It looked as if he had put on a suit that was tailored for a larger man – on him it looked as if it was hanging off a coat rack. Apparently he had lost a lot of weight after his heart operation which he had recently undergone in Cleveland.
His face, too, was surprising, immobile, with frozen muscles similar to that of a waxy mask. And the impression wasn’t different when he laughed either.
The conversation was, of course, about the conflict and Aliyev spent most of the time speaking about himself.
“There is no such thing as an eternal conflict, as there is no such thing as an eternal enemy,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Sooner or later, the Karabakh conflict will be resolved.”
The TV cameras that were placed far away at the end of the hall studied him carefully. When Aliyev was brought a cup of tea, he leaned forward and glanced at his hands that he had folded on the table. I watched his gaze. The hands of the president were trembling.
Aliyev looked at his hands and I saw hatred in his gaze. It appeared as if he was trying through sheer will, through the energy of his gaze, to stop these tremors, but his hands did not obey him. There was something surreal about this: Heydar Aliyev was obeyed by all in Azerbaijan, except for his own hands, which continued to shake. His physiology and nature were above his own will. And that drove him crazy.
He looked at the cup of tea in front of him. One could see that Aliyev indeed wanted tea, but that he wouldn’t at any cost take the cup of tea in his hands and show any kind of weakness by spilling a drop or two or more.
He didn’t take a single sip.
The day before the meeting with Aliyev, I met with Eldar Zeynalov – a well known Azerbaijani human rights advocate. I asked him about Armenians that were still living in Baku, and he immediately reacted: “One of them is in my office at the moment.”
And that’s how I met a young woman by the name of Angela. One could call her a modern Juliette who fell in love with an Azerbaijani Romeo. But their problem was that they couldn’t get married because of her full name: Angela Misakovna Ohanova. That was a distinctly Armenian name, which for many in post-war Baku sounded like the name of an enemy, the kind which workers at the marriage registration office would look at, throw her passport back in her face and say: “Go back to your Armenia and get married there. You’ve nothing to do here!”
I really wanted to help Angela and her beau – a quiet and pleasant guy. But how? I decided to speak to Heydar Aliyev. Understandably, this had to be done with as much tact as possible. And so, during the tea-drinking session, I asked: “How do Armenians get along in Azerbaijan?”
This was a move that allowed Aliyev to show himself in all his glory. He spoke at length about how Armenians, like other ethnic minorities, had the same rights as the majority population. And then I told him about Angela.
“Who is she?” he asked. “Why don’t I know about her?”
The thing was, as everybody said, Aliyev had a phenomenal memory. He could see and meet a person once and remember them 10 years later – their name and their profession and so on.
“Allow me,” Vafa Guluzade chimed in with zeal. “I’ll deal with it.”
Aliyev gave his permission. Two weeks later, I received an e-mail with some wedding photographs from the couple. And on that day, I called Guluzade from my office in Yerevan and thanked him.
When I was preparing this part of the article for publication, I was told that Angela had died. She had had a weak heart, and she had passed away several years ago.
Matryoshki – nested dolls
In 2001, the French embassy in Azerbaijan invited me to a conference dedicated to the relations of the countries of the South Caucasus and Europe. I agreed. But when I arrived in Baku, something it seemed had gone wrong and I was left without a guard.
The thing was that after the war, when Armenians came to Azerbaijan or vice-versa, state security guards always accompanied them. They carefully watched and made sure that guests were not harmed. They also made sure that guests didn’t feel too free either – that is, so that they didn’t see anything that they shouldn’t.
And so I was deserted by the state security guards. Some administrative failure, and I ended up in Baku alone. Of course, I tried not to go outside on my own, but on the second day of the conference I decided to get some newspapers.
The kiosk was about 100 meters away. I got my newspapers, paid for them, and all of a sudden the vendor came out of the kiosk, closed the door behind him and asked: “Excuse me, when will this conflict finally end? We lived better with the Armenians than with Georgians.” I understood that he had seen a report about the conference on TV.
Avoiding to walk on the streets of Baku on my own, I nevertheless went out of the hotel with my friends and acquaintances.
Things weren’t entirely smooth. When we met with political analyst Arif Yunusov, we were walking around Armenikend – a formerly Armenian-populated part of the city – when someone approached us.
“This here,” Arif said, “is Mark Grigorian. An Armenian.”
The man put out his hand, shook mine, and then sharply pulled away.
“We’ll meet on the battlefield!” he cried.
It turned out that he was one of the deputy chairs of a very anti-Armenian political group headed by Arif Naqi. But, despite this little incident, I had a great time walking around the old city – I went up into Maidan Tower and had coffee on fountain square.
Journalist Shahin Rzayev took me to a souvenir shop. The vendor, a Russian woman about my age, asked me:
“Where are you from?”
“From Yerevan,” I answered.
She was a bit confused. She didn’t quite believe that it was possible to see an Armenian in downtown Baku.
“If you’ve come to us with good intentions, then welcome. But if you’ve come with other ideas… .”
She was still confused. She was even a bit afraid. I understood: after so many articles, TV reports and other stories about how Armenians – ALL Armenians – are terrorists and killers, it’s difficult to see such a terrorist at your front door. It’s impossible to know what to think.
But, as it turned out, I had not come with bad intentions. I bought some matroyshki – nested dolls – which instead of traditional female faces depicted owls.
Soon after this trip, Armenian journalists were prohibited from going to Azerbaijan. Now, only politicians and athletes could go.