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The best books on Azerbaijan

recommended by Nigar Hasan-Zadeh

Rated by the British Library as among the top ten foreign poets based in London, Nigar Hasan-Zadeh discusses a range of books—from love stories, to poetry, to oil field reporting—to boost our insight into Azerbaijan.

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Nigar Hasan-Zadeh

Rated by the British Library as among the top ten foreign poets currently based in London, Hasan-Zadeh is one of the most exciting voices in contemporary poetry. Her collection On Wings Over the Horizon, translated into English in 2002 by Richard McKane, drew comparisons with Anna Akhmatova and Maria Tsvetayeva.

Nigar Hasan-Zadeh at the Buta Art Festival
Forgive me that I opened your door silently - Translated by Richard McKane

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Ali and Nino by Kurban Said (Yusif Vasir Chamanzaminli).

I only came across this book last year. It was a bestseller in Europe in the 1970s and was first published in German. I read it in Russian translated from the German and was highly moved by this masterpiece. It’s set in Baku, with a few chapters in different regions of the Caucasus and Iran, and shows the world’s relationship with Azerbaijan – Azerbaijan’s relationship with Russia, Europe and the Caucasus, from the British invasion in 1918 to the Russians. It’s a novel, and really it’s a love story between a young Muslim Azeri man and a Christian Georgian woman and it’s full of historical, cultural, political facts. The book is full of humour and very easy to read. It’s a real adventure, full of heroism and love. I learnt more about my own history from this book than from many others. The history of this book is more mystical and intriguing than the text itself. It’s written by the famous Azerbaijani writer Yusif Vasir Chamanzaminli, but, despite the proved evidence, the popularity of this book and lost original handwritten text created an opportunity for many attempts at claiming authorship of it. The main character is from the nobility, a khan family, and he goes to school at the Russian gymnasium. He describes so much of the Muslim tradition, simple things.

What happens to the lovers?

They get married. At that time Azerbaijan was an interesting place to be with rich traditions; people were well-educated in high society and had liberal views. The book opened up my eyes to that period in the region and made me realise how developed it was then already. There is also a lot of detail about the Red Army and its brutality. From the history books we had at school we were taught that people, apart from the bourgeoisie, were happy to surrender to the Red Army,  but it wasn’t true. The whole population was fighting to the last drop.

Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter’s Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic by Thomas Goltz

Goltz was one of the rare reporters in the 1980s and 90s who was actually in Baku. It was one of the most complicated periods in Soviet history because Azerbaijan was one of the few republics openly asking for independence. Unfortunately, the story of this movement isn’t known about in Europe. I was living at home in Baku and there were 10,000 people out on the streets in 1990. The Soviets were concerned because it was a clear threat to the whole system and they were scared. At that time the Armenian-Azeri war had unofficially being going on since the 1980s and it became very dangerous with the armies gathered on both sides – very brutal. Thomas Goltz was extremely brave and crossed the borders, got past the KGB and all their attempts to stop him and he went straight to Karabakh and followed the soldiers from region to region, recording what he saw with his own eyes.

Does what he writes reflect your own experience of what it was like at the time?

Yes, he does it very, very well. I was young and didn’t know exactly what was going on from a political point of view. I met him later and expressed my gratitude to him for doing what he did because I know it could have cost him his life.

On January 20 1990 the Soviet Army brutally demolished the independence demonstrations in one night. Officially there were 300 dead but really there were thousands. People had gathered in the main square (probably some Soviet propaganda had got them there) and the Soviet army came from planes and ships and tanks and the tanks just drove through the square killing everybody. We had been taught, we believed, that the Soviet Union was the most peaceful country in the world. When the tanks came they didn’t stop. The next day there was no electricity, no television or radio. There were so many dead in the streets and the army loaded the bodies on to ships and dropped them in the Caspian sea.

Is this in Goltz’s book?

It mainly touches on the war in the Karabakh region. What is in the book is the massacre that happened in Khojali in Karabakh. The whole population was killed by the Armenians in one day. Babies, pregnant women, children, everyone. February 26, 1992. The evidence from the few people who escaped was that it was horrific – the people were not even shot. They were cutting noses and ears off and it was brutal. Goltz was there and I spoke to him about it when I met him. I believe that event has affected his whole life and his work.

Mirror of the Invisible World: Tales from the Khamseh of Nizami.

Nizami (1141-1209) is the greatest poet of Azerbaijan and one of the most significant poets in the whole of Asia. He was born and grew up in Ganja, spending all his life in that region. He is the apostle of Eastern poetry and his Khamseh, his five epic poems, are his most famous work. He wrote in Farsi and today I think interest in his poetry is growing again. He invented the idea of Utopia and his poem ‘Leyla and Majnun’ has the roots of the Romeo and Juliet story in it. Apart from encapsulating 1,000 years of poetic tradition, he uses the most progressive thoughts, metaphors and symbols from the 12th century and you really feel connected to the time when you read him. The Russian translation is better than the English.

Leyla and Majnun by Fuzuli (Muhammad bin Suleyman). This is the same poem again?

Yes. It’s the same story but it was rewritten many times by different Eastern poets in different shapes and forms – because nobody could imitate or wanted to imitate the original style. But Fuzuli’s version, from the beginning of the 16th century, is the best. The main difference in this version is that he is talking about the love story not so much between a man and a woman but between man and God. It is much more symbolic, and it lays foundations, I think, for writing around the world. Things spread as people travelled, pilgrims and tradesman. He is a great Azeri poet and should be better known!

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. This is my favourite book!

Then you know that Bulgakov is a genius. Bulgakov is the genius of the 20th century. The Master and Margarita is the most mystical and mysterious way of describing the primitive and base sort of simplification of society under the Soviets. Literature and art and society lost its centre because it all became politicised, and the way Bulgakov describes that ugliness is incredible, and hilarious. It is about two characters: the Master is a writer who is writing his piece but never succeeds in getting it published and I think he represents the real artists of the period, and even maybe of all time. Margarita is a symbol of hope and of love, cherishing him and trying to give life to his work. She is a confused but strong character, with more spirit and quality than the Soviet woman should probably have; she is a woman in search for pure love, who finds it in the Master. The book is also about the connection between religion and the regime. Satan, a foreign journalist, comes to Moscow and is symbolic of the Soviets’ fear of the west. He goes around meeting people and his view on the whole Soviet society at that time makes him a rather attractive character. You also see the story of Christ from Satan’s point of view, which is amazing. We know the story of Jesus, but here we see the story from a different perspective, not so much from a Christian perspective. We also see the human story inside Yeshua – his meeting with Pontius Pilate. I think the Jesus story, which seems to run so naturally along with the Moscow story, is Bulgakov bringing lost spirituality back into the Soviet regime, providing the missing ingredient in the lives of the Soviet readers in a human way.

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Nigar Hasan-Zadeh

Rated by the British Library as among the top ten foreign poets currently based in London, Hasan-Zadeh is one of the most exciting voices in contemporary poetry. Her collection On Wings Over the Horizon, translated into English in 2002 by Richard McKane, drew comparisons with Anna Akhmatova and Maria Tsvetayeva.

Nigar Hasan-Zadeh at the Buta Art Festival
Forgive me that I opened your door silently - Translated by Richard McKane