Tuesday, 10 February 2009

“Artush and Zaur” – gay love story between Armenian and Azerbaijani published in Baku

Alekper Aliyev, editor-in-chief of kultura.az, has published, as he put it, his “most scandalous” novel “Artush and Zaur” in Baku. It’s a gay love story between an Azeri and Armenian, a sort of partial deconstruction of Ali and Nino (a heterosexual love story of Azeri Ali and Georgian Nino) having instead Azeri and Armenian male lovers against the backdrop of the emerging Karabakh conflict.

The main characters, Artush and Zaur were born and raised in Baku, went to the same school, shared desks in the classroom. At some point boys became sexually attracted to each other… These were the early years of the Karabakh conflict.

The war separates them. Artush moved to Armenia, Zaur remained in Baku. Already adults they meet again - in Tbilisi. They indulge in memories, fall in love and even get married with the help of a Dutch pastor, a confidant of the wife of Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili ...

In his interview, the author argues that Azeris and Armenians share similar kitchen, music and mentality. “Armenians are closer to us than, say, Georgians” due to the influence of the Persian culture.

Alekperov says that one of the reasons of writing this novel was to expose the absurdity of all wars in the South Caucasus a la Kusturica. He believes he has the full right to do so as he lost his older brother during the Karabakh war in 1994.

“We are now engaged in information wars with Armenians over the dolma and balaban, even though all our efforts should be aimed at addressing global challenges. Our people must find the wisdom, courage and determination to put an end once and for all of the frozen conflict. We need joint efforts to create all necessary conditions for peaceful coexistence between the two neighbours on this small plot of land, in this God-cursed region called “The South Caucasus”. Frankly, it’s a bit hard to believe that this would happen”.

“During the World War II in Moscow there were concerts of German classical music; works of German composers were heard on the radio; even studies on German philosophers were carried out... Can you imagine for Kara Karaev to be performed in Armenia, or Khachatryan – in Azerbaijan? This is completely impossible! And this has a simple explanation – the more primitive the man, the more aggressive he is.”

Predictably, this book caused a stir and shock in Azeri forums and blogs, with plenty of hateful and homophobic comments. Some accused the author in treason and betrayal of national interests. Others claimed (with irony) that Azerbaijan now has its very own Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk.

“Who f**ked who?” – this is one of the first and apparently principal questions being discussed in forums and blogs (both Azeri and Armenian), each side wishing for ‘his guy’ to f**k ‘the enemy’. I got an impression that this question worried them more than even the fact of the main characters being gay. They are kind of ready to ‘forgive’ and ‘forget’ gay part of the story, as long as ‘their guy’ is ‘the man’ meaning he is ‘doing the enemy’. For them, it’s only black or white. What if they are “versatile” (which allegedly the case in the novel)? This would crush the ‘hopes’ from both sides :) Anyways...

There is only one bookstore in Baku which sells this book. Guess, what the name of that bookstore?.. “Ali and Nino”. Some in Azeri forums even suggested buying all the copies of the book and burning it in front of the bookstore. There were even rare voices advocating for the application of the “Shariat law” towards the author.

The topic itself proved to be so controversial that quite a few discussion forums and reports about the book got removed or self-censored from some Azeri forums and web sites, including day.az and kultura.az.

If you discount the nationalities and sexuality of the main characters, the plot may seem pretty routine and unremarkable. However, against the backdrop of nationalism and intolerance in the region, the very fact of the novel that tells about the love story between an Armenian and Azeri, a gay love story between an Armenian and Azeri, makes it a double taboo breaking.

Look forward to reading the book in Russian when it gets published there (as far as I understand, it's being negotiated with the Russian publishers). Only then I would be able to properly review it. Till then... Hopefully, these displays of hate and intolerance won’t evolve into something more dangerous and physical towards the author. Only the bravest among us are ready to break taboos. Alekper Aliyev is one of them.

*Thanks to the readers of my blog for passing the info about the novel.

Below are selected relevant links of blogs and forums which were used to prepare this post.

Azeri forums:
1; 2; 3; 4; 5.

Azeri blogs:
1; 2.

Armenian blog:

Other blogs/sites:
admarginem; GV.

Interview with the author:


Onnik Krikorian said...

Brave man indeed. Even a book detailing a love story between an Armenian and Azeri couple would have been problematic enough, methinks.

Onnik Krikorian said...

heterosexual couple, I mean.

artmika said...

French translation of my post is available here:

Artush et Zaur – une love story gay

artmika said...

Gay Novel Shocks Azeris

Book about love affair between Azeri and Armenian sells well, despite uproar over its publication.

By Nigar Musayeva in Baku (CRS No. 481, 20-Feb-09)

Artush and Zaur were two schoolchildren growing up in the great multi-ethnic city of Baku, but fate was not kind to them. Just when they were discovering their love for each other, they were torn apart by war.

Artush, an Armenian, ended up in Armenia, while the Azeri Zaur was left to mourn the memories of his lost love as he walked the streets of Azerbaijan’s capital.

As a plot for a novel, it is not the most original in the world. But the twist has shocked Azerbaijan and made author Alekper Aliev infamous in his homeland. For both Zaur and Artush are men.

Setting a love affair between two men in the midst of the conflict over the region of Karabakh, which is ruled by Armenians but claimed by Azerbaijan, has proved controversial.

“I think that only a sick or completely cynical person could write such gibberish, someone who spits on his own country and on the millions of people harmed by the Karabakh war. It is just filth, that’s what it is,” said Sultan Gafarov, a student in Baku.

Such attitudes are widespread in the country. Homosexuality has been legal in Azerbaijan since September 2000, and it is illegal to discriminate against homosexuals, but openly gay Azeris meet abuse in many areas of life.

“There is xenophobia against homosexuals in society, which is stirred up by publications about AIDS. It is not universal. For example, homosexuals who achieve a high place in society are not criticised. In society, a rich homosexual appears more of a man than a poor heterosexual,” said Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan.

In such a complex atmosphere, Aliev knew that publishing his book would not prove easy.

“In Azerbaijan not one publishing house would agree to issue a homoerotic book, which in their opinion dirtied the good name of the Azeri people,” he told IWPR.

“The main theme of the book is the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the theme of homosexuality is not essential, just a way of attracting attention. Everyone knows the negative opinion of homosexuality in the South Caucasus. Against this background, I tried to show the mosaic of conflicts in the three neighbouring republics.”

He finally had to publish it through a private publishing house last month, but it has proved successful. One shopkeeper said the controversial novel had been “selling like hot cakes”.

“I am very glad that a novel finally emerged to shock conservative opinion in Azerbaijan. This is long overdue, to break stereotypes, to have a joke with public opinion,” said Khanlar Agayev, a businessman in Baku.

“I hope now the author manages to survive the many attacks that will come from readers and critics.”

Such attacks have come from all sides, including from the religious hierarchy in the mainly Muslim country. Haji Fuad Nurulla, deacon of the Baku Islamic University, is among the strongest opponents of homosexuality, which he thinks has come in from abroad and is weakening national culture.

“In the Koran this is strongly condemned. It is a sin, abnormal. It is completely unacceptable for a man to wear women’s clothes, to behave like a woman,” he said.

“Such people must be isolated from healthy members of society, so they do not infect them.”

Only one charity is helping Azerbaijan’s homosexuals with the difficulties of life in such an environment, the Union of Gender Development and Flourishment, which started work in 2006. Its funding primarily comes from The Netherlands. According to its chairman, Kamran Rzayev, homosexuals in the country have most trouble within their own families.

“There have been cases when parents, finding out about the non-traditional orientation of their children, have beaten them and thrown them out of the house,” he said.

“In such cases, we provide psychological support to these boys and girls and try to speak to their parents. Some parents, particularly those who are younger, come to our office themselves, and we explain that their children are not drug addicts, are not criminals, they are normal people who work, earn money, study, have their own interests.”

Natavan, a lesbian, is among the young people who gathered in the organisation’s kitchens to smoke and talk about their lives. She said her parents knew about it, but they did not talk about it in the family.

“Any conversation turns into an argument. They think it is a perversion, and probably think I am an ill-fated child,” she said.

“I want to have a normal family, I would like to live together with a loved one. But men just don’t interest me, and if I lived with a woman then everyone would spurn me.”

Rzayev said that a handful of single-sex couples do live in Baku, and that some of them had even been together for a decade or more. Some had even gone abroad to have their union recognised in one of the countries were gay marriage is legal.

As it turned out, that is exactly what happened to Artush and Zaur. After long years separated by the tense relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have still not signed a peace deal, they find each other in Tbiliisi – a city where Azeris and Armenians can go and be friends again – and were married by a friend of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s Dutch wife.

*Nigar Musayeva is a journalist from the Trend news agency and a participant in the IWPR Neighbours programme.

artmika said...

Quote of The Day (re "Artush and Zaur")

artmika said...

A Girl's War: An Armenian-Azeri Love Story (theatre play)

artmika said...

Newly published interview (in Russian) with the author Alekper Aliyev. Highly recommend it. Challenging, thought-provoking. Must read!


Apparently, Russian version of Artush and Zaur is now ready and soon will get published. There are now talks on publishing this book in English too. Great news. Can't wait to read it.

Anonymous said...

where from can we find this book to download???

artmika said...

As far as I am aware, this book is not available online to download...

Anonymous said...


artmika said...

Interview with the author by BBC's Mark Grigoryan (in Russian)

(via Mark Grigoryan’s blog)

В Баку вышла книга о любви армянина и азербайджанца

Книга Алекпера Алиева "Артуш и Заур" об однополой любви азербайджанца и армянина стала предметом бурного обсуждения в Азербайджане. Автора обвинили в отсутствии патриотизма, цинизме и разврате.

Сюжет романа прост: армянин Артуш и азербайджанец Заур вместе жили в Баку, вместе ходили в школу, но в то самое время, когда между ними разгорелось чувство, начался карабахский конфликт. И Артуш был вынужден бежать в Армению, Заур же оплакивает свою потерянную любовь, тоскливо бродя по улицам Баку. С автором романа Алекпером Алиевым побеседовал корреспондент Русской службы Би-би-си Марк Григорян .

Би-би-си: Вписывается ли такой роман в традиции азербайджанской литературы?

Алекпер Алиев: Не только в традиции азербайджанской литературы, культуры, но не вписывается вообще, скажем так, в мусульманскую восточную традицию. Хотя явление гомосексуализма не имеет никакого временного или пространственного ограничения. Они были всегда, и будут. Они были и на мусульманском Востоке, были и в Азербайджане, были и в Армении...

Би-би-си: А я ведь говорил не про гомосексуализм. Я говорил о самокритике, обнаженности, о сломе табу, о внутренней беспощадности текста...

А.А.: Самокритика и обнаженностьї В литературе я с 1999 года. Я перевел уже около тридцати и написал несколько книг. Я всегда этим занимался. Но никто не обращал внимания. А вот [роман] "Артуш и Заур" сразу привлек внимание всего нашего населения. Эта книга обсуждается сегодня. И это хорошо, потому что впервые в Азербайджане обсуждается книга. Она никогда не была предметом для дискуссий.

Би-би-си: Каким тиражом издана ваша книга?

А.А.: Пятьсот [экземпляров]. Это смешно, но это хороший тираж для нечитающего Азербайджана. И до сих пор продалось сто пятьдесят экземпляров. Это очень хорошая цифра. Такого в Азербайджане не было уже двадцать лет.

Би-би-си: Директор книжного магазина говорила, что книга раскупается, как горячие пирожки?

А.А.: Ну да. Горячие пирожки, сто пятьдесят книг в месяц, это большой успех. В это трудно поверить...

Би-би-си: Но я вам верю. И всего сто пятьдесят человек прочли эту книгу. Ну, вместе с соседями наберется пятьсот. Но вас все за нее критикуют, ругают, обзывают...

А.А.: Меня знают как человека скандального, как писателя скандального, поэтому мне не привыкать. Но такого шквала, конечно, еще не было. Это впервые. Но это и понятно... Армянин и азербайджанец... тем более, геи... Ну ладно, хотя бы гетеросексуальная любовь. А тут прямо взял и про геев написал. Это невозможно! У нас геев нет. Если даже и есть, то никогда и ни за что с армянином ( смеется ) он не ляжет в постель.

Би-би-си: То есть это уже вопрос национального достоинства, да?

А.А.: Да! Но это же смешно! Какое национальное достоинство, тем более, если в Москве есть одна такая пара, о которой знаю я. Быть может, их несколько. Но азербайджанец и армянин - два гея, которые уже почти три года вместе живут - это факт.

Би-би-си: Если им хорошо, то не наше дело...

А.А.: Ну да, конечно. И вот мне из [ереванского агентства новостей] Panarmenian коллеги написали: "Это невозможно, в Армении геев нет".

Би-би-си: "В Советском Союзе секса нет", и не о чем говорить. Скажите, пожалуйста, на фоне всей этой критики, ведь никто не говорит о собственно литературных, художественных достоинствах романа. Или я неправильно понимаю?

А.А.: Художественные достоинства тут ни при чем. Они и не обсуждаются. Ведь купило книгу всего сто пятьдесят человек. Допустим, прочитало пятьсот - вместе с соседями. Но ругают-то, как правило, не читавшие. Просто ругают. Сам факт их возмущает, что, вот, написал про геев. У нас земли под оккупацией, а он вот такие грязные вещи пишет!

artmika said...

“There are no gays in Armenia” (from Armenian news agency to Azeri author)

artmika said...

Today EurasiaNet reports on the novel too.

Mina Muradova 3/04/09

"Taboos will not be easily overcome" declares the sub-title of "Artush and Zaur." And in this bestseller novel about the romance between two young men -- one Armenian, one Azerbaijani -- Azerbaijan is experiencing the truth of that line.

The Armenian-Azerbaijani combination alone might raise eyebrows, but in this tradition-bound society, the homosexual orientation of the novel’s two lovers is stirring additional controversy. By contrast, a heterosexual Armenian-Azerbaijani romance published in late 2008 received a largely favorable reaction.

"I think that it is a very good slap in the face for our society," commented Nigar Kocharli, owner of the Ali and Nino bookstore chain that sells the book in Baku. "In other words, publishing such a book is very painful for a society in which homosexuality and relations with Armenians are taboos."

None of Azerbaijan’s large publishing houses would print the novel. Some said the book was disgraceful; others that they were afraid, according to the author, Alekper Aliyev. A publishing house allegedly located in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, finally accepted the job.

Aliyev, the author, says that a desire "to fight against petrified stereotypes" motivated him to write the book. He recalls how allegations of homosexuality undercut the political fortunes of Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan leader Ali Kerimli in the run-up to last year’s presidential election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav050608.shtml To reflect the problems faced by Azerbaijan’s homosexual community, Aliyev consulted with a Dutch-financed, gay-rights non-governmental organization in Baku about the novel.

"There is no political dictatorship in Azerbaijan," he commented. "Society itself is the dictator."

Aliyev’s work describes the newfound love between Artush, an Armenian in Baku, and his Azerbaijani friend, Zaur, in the opening days of the 1988-1994 Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Twenty years later, the pair again meets in Tbilisi, and discovers that their feelings remain unchanged. In the end, the two, despairing of their future together, take their own lives by jumping from Baku’s Maiden Tower, a 12th century structure that is a legendary symbol of doomed love for Azerbaijanis.

The relationship symbolizes the ties that persist between Azerbaijanis and Armenians despite over 20 years of hostility, Aliyev said.

"Today, the Azerbaijani authorities offer the highest autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan’s territory and [this autonomy] foresees for the first time that they [ethnic Armenians] are citizens with the same full rights as we have. But, at the same time, the image of an enemy is cultivated within [Azerbaijani] society and media," Aliyev said. "It is hypocrisy and it makes no sense to me."

A March 11 discussion with readers about "Artush and Zaur" will test Aliyev’s theory. Ali and Nino bookstore owner Kocharli says that she plans to host the event despite threats. Some young Azerbaijanis, calling themselves "national socialists" have been visiting the store’s branches, threatening clerks and demanding that the store remove the book from sale, according to Kocharli. In Internet forums, others have called for book burnings.

Some readers, though, say that the book opened up new ideas to them, despite initial repugnance at the content.

"[A]fter reading the whole book, my opinion changed [about homosexuals]. The author wanted to say much more to our society -- about our homeland, about emotions," said Pakiza Hamidi, a 35-year-old cleaning lady.

Hamidi, nevertheless, has mixed feelings about the couple’s ethnic differences. "Their love is free, without bounds and distinction as to nationality. I understand it," she said. "But I would not want this love with an Armenian. It’s humiliating."

Others object strongly. "My God, what have we come to?" fumed university student Ilgar Gozalov. "Not only that they are Armenian and Azerbaijani, but also they are gay. It’s just a nightmare."

Such opposing views have meant brisk sales, although numbers may appear slim by international standards. Some 150 copies of the book have sold in the three weeks since "Artush and Zaur" first went on sale, one-third of the total print run, according to Aliyev.

Bookstore owner Kocharli can only hail the novel for sparking interest in Azeri-language literature. "As a bookstore owner, I think he is worthy of respect because he made people read books," she said in reference to Aliyev. "People who have not read a book for many years now visit their bookstores."

But Aliyev, who left a bank job to shield his employer from the novel’s repercussions, takes a dim view about the chances for change in attitudes toward either Armenians or homosexuals. Those Azerbaijanis who attend next week’s book discussion will most likely be mere curiosity-seekers, he predicted.

"I believe that nothing will change not only in Azerbaijan, but in the whole South Caucasus region in the next hundred years, unfortunately," Aliyev said.

*Editor's Note: Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.

artmika said...

Artush and Zaur book discussion to be held in Baku on 11 March

artmika said...

Blogian: Interview with with writer Alekper Aliyev

Azerbaijani journalist and writer Alekper Aliyev’s latest novel, “Artush and Zaur,” has attracted much interest due to its plot. The novel tells the story of an Armenian and an Azeri lover, who get separated because of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The catch is: the lovers are gay men. With homophobia being so big in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Aliyev’s novel will be discussed for a while. To get answers to questions that interest me, I e-mailed Alekper Aliyev. Below are my questions and his answers (translated from Russian):

1. What feedback have you received in Azerbaijan about your new novel?

I still receive much positive and negative feedback. And that is understandable –the book cannot be accepted universally, not only in Azerbaijan but also in the whole world. Of course, there are more unsatisfied [people] in Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, these people are shocked by the fact that books with gay theme would be written and published. And these people haven’t even seen the book with their own eyes.

2. Are there any plans to translate the novel into Armenian and English?

I am going to translate the book into English. Most likely some in the US are already working on it. The Russian translation of the book is already ready. We will soon start publishing the book in Russia. In Armenian… You know, unfortunately, I don’t know Armenian and I don’t have Armenian-speaking acquaintances in Baku. But I have many friends in Armenia, including writers, translators, and publishers. We will wait for the release of the Russian version and then we will be able to talk about translating the book into Armenian and even into Georgian.

3. What, if any, feedback have you received from Armenia/Armenians?

The feedback from Armenia has mainly been negative. The Armenian society is a homophobic society. In that sense we [Azeris and Armenians] are very much alike. I didn’t except that Armenians would applaud me [in the first place]. Tough they haven’t read [the book] either and are shocked just from the title itself and from the suspected content of the novel.

4. Is there something you would like to add?

I wish our region [Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia] peace and happiness. We have the obligation to live like humans. We don’t have another choice.

artmika said...

Artush and Zaur author Alekper Aliyev started blogging

artmika said...

RFE/RL on Artush and Zaur

RFE/RL: Controversial Azeri Novel Takes On Double Taboos

March 09, 2009
By Kristin Deasy, Khadija Ismayilova
A controversial romance novel about two gay men, one Armenian and the other Azeri, is flying off the shelves in Azerbaijan.

What's behind the popularity of Alekper Aliyev's novel "Artush and Zaur," which has sold out at many bookstores? According to Aliyev, the book's political and erotic content was guaranteed to hit a nerve in Azeri society.

"I started a war against two stereotypes," Aliyev said. "See what people [in Azerbaijan] do these days: either they look for someone's Armenian origins, or they say, 'I don't like you, so you must be gay.'"

He continued: "Having a nontraditional sexual orientation is nothing to be ashamed of. There's no shame in being gay, or in being Armenian. But it is shameful to be corrupt, to be dishonest, to be treacherous. This was a message about two major stereotypes."

Aliyev's plot is straightforward: Artush, an Armenian, and Zaur, an Azeri, become attracted to one another as schoolboys in Baku, but are separated as violence breaks out between their countries over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Zaur is left wandering the streets of Baku, mourning the loss of Artush to Armenia.

Aliyev printed only 500 copies of his book, saying he was unsure of its reception in conservative Azeri society.

One bookseller told the Caucasus Reporting Service the novel was "selling like hotcakes." But pressure from religious customers forced one of the two Baku-based bookstores to stop selling it last week.

Many of these customers, like 26-year-old Tural Abbasli, are offended by the book's content and see it as a cheap way for an author to attract notice.

"I don't know if we need to talk about friendship between Armenian and Azerbaijani young people," Abbasli said. "But here it's not even a friendship. It's something that is against our traditions, mentality, and religion. I don't think this is an effort of public diplomacy to forge Azerbaijani-Armenian friendship. I think it's another attack on our morality."

Two Difficult Subjects

Twenty-four-year-old sociologist Senuber Heydarova disagrees. She says the book addresses an extremely painful topic in Azerbaijan -- the years of violence with Armenia over the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh -- through a romance narrative.

"No matter what people say, and no matter whether people accept it, people with nontraditional sexual orientation exist in this country. It is not something new; they have always been here," she said.

Heydarova continued: "I'm glad that [Aliyev] took the issue to the public in his novel. It should have been done before. These people have a normal life and love as others do. It's not shameful to speak about it."

Reports of authorities using charges of homosexuality against journalists and human rights activists in Azerbaijan have surfaced in recent months.

In April, 25-year-old journalist Aqil Xalil was stabbed after doing a series of investigative reports on large property transactions in Baku. Around the same time, officials threatened Xalil that they would broadcast a video purporting to show a man confessing to having been the young journalist's male lover.

In 2005, ahead of parliamentary elections, a number of state-run media outlets carried stories insinuating that a well-liked opposition candidate, Popular Front party head Ali Kerimli, was gay.

Though the country decriminalized homosexuality in 2000, the U.S. State Department’s 2007 report on human rights practices in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan found ongoing societal prejudice against homosexuals.

What Aliyev describes as his "war on stereotypes" has attracted more notice than Azerbaijani dissident writers did during the Soviet period.

Azeri poet Vagif Samadoghlu, the son of famed Azerbaijani poet Vurghun, wrote that only Moscow and Leningrad were able to "produce" dissident writers because they could contact foreign embassies and international media.

In some ways, "Artush and Zaur" is part of an Azeri tradition of using literature to challenge political reality. Observers say the books title echoes the 1937 novel "Ali and Nino," in which an Azerbaijani man falls in love with a Georgian princess. Some consider "Ali and Nino" one of the great works of Azeri romance literature.

Aliyev himself is politically active, and tells RFE/RL he believes the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- a territorial disagreement going back to 1988 -- is related to a lack of democracy in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Aliyev says both governments do each other a "favor" by resisting reform because they fear that if one improves quality of life, the other will experience a mass exodus.

"Artush and Zaur" is Aliyev's sixth book, and the 31-year-old author and journalist says he has already started a seventh, "Bible," about the reincarnation of Jesus Christ in Azerbaijan.

Aliyev says he is in the midst of negotiations with Russian publishers for a translation of "Artush and Zaur," which he expects to be published in Russia soon.

artmika said...

Azeri-Armenian gay love novel Artush and Zaur banned in Baku, bookstore shut down, meeting with readers cancelled

artmika said...

Reuters - FEATURE: Azeri-Armenian gay love story strains at taboos

12 Mar 2009 15:15:03 GMT
Source: Reuters
By Matt Robinson and Margarita Antidze

BAKU, March 12 (Reuters) - Alekper Aliyev's mobile phone buzzed on the iron table. "What's going on is a nightmare," said the text message from one of his readers. "I worry about you. Take care. Don't give up."

The 31-year-old Azeri novelist says he knew his latest book would cause a storm, but he never imagined the police would get involved.

'Artush and Zaur' -- the story of a gay love affair between an Azeri and an Armenian amid war between their countrymen as the Soviet Union collapsed -- is cultural dynamite for mainly Muslim Azerbaijan.

By Aliyev's own count, 150 copies have been sold since the book was published in January, a tiny number by international standards but not bad for a homegrown novelist in the country of 8.7 million people.

That was until this week, when Baku's popular Ali and Nino bookstore chain -- the only one willing to sell Artush and Zaur -- said police ordered the book be removed from shelves.

A book discussion between the author and readers was cancelled amid reports of threats and intimidation.

"The police told them -- if you don't do it, we'll do it ourselves," Aliyev told Reuters. "And they withdrew all the books from sale."

He said the owner of Ali and Nino had just called to say police had closed two of their stores. They reopened a day later.

An Interior Ministry spokesman denied any knowledge of the case, saying: "The police do not interfere in trade and the selling of books."


But some Azeri Internet forums have seized on the dispute as further proof of Azerbaijan's disdain for human rights and freedom of expression under President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his late father, former Communist Party boss Heydar Aliyev, in 2003.

The country votes in a referendum on March 18 on whether to scrap the two-term presidential limit, clearing the way for Aliyev to continue his rule indefinitely beyond 2013 if he can keep winning re-election.

Critics accuse the authorities of curbing freedoms under cover of an economic boom fuelled by reserves of oil and gas piped from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe. Dissent is discouraged, and sometimes stamped out.

"I thought democracy meant freedom of expression, freedom of faith and freedom of the press," read a posting on one blog discussing the saga.

Azerbaijan's authorities say they are committed to international standards of democracy, but that they have an obligation to protect the country from forces they say are trying to sow instability.


The novel, the writer's sixth, strikes at the hatred that persists between many Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris since ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region broke away from Azerbaijan's rule in the early 1990s.

The conflict still defies resolution or reconciliation. Soldiers continue to die on the frontline in sporadic clashes, and Baku has not ruled out taking back the region by force.

Crucially though, the relationship in the book is played out between two homosexual men, still a taboo subject in traditionally conservative Azerbaijan.

"My book is a fight against stereotypes," said Aliyev. "In Azerbaijan there are two main stereotypes, the gay man and the Armenian. The worst thing you can be is gay or Armenian, or to have any relation to Armenia."

"I want to deprive them of this instrument, and to explain to people they should not be afraid." He said police had claimed the book was "against our values."

"How could such bullshit be written?," an anonymous blogger wrote on one Azeri forum. "And to make an Armenian one of the main characters! It was disgusting to read. Some things should be respected -- your own country, for example."

The owner of Ali and Nino declined to be interviewed. The book cover does not name the real publisher. Currently only in Azeri, Aliyev said it would be translated into Russian, and friends in Yerevan planned to publish an Armenian version.

The novel seeks deliberate comparison with 'Ali and Nino', the popular love story of a Muslim man and Georgian Christian woman in Baku, first published in 1937.

In the end, Nino flees for Georgia and Ali dies defending Azerbaijan from the invading Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. For Aliyev, Artush and Zaur's love is equally doomed. The two men throw themselves from Baku's 12th century Maiden Tower, long a symbol of forbidden love.

"Homosexual love is just the background to this novel," he said. "This book is about our pointless conflict, our pointless war, and about how oligarchs rule societies in both countries."

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

James Bailey said...

Hope the book is translated in English. Would love to read it.
I wonder how widely it will be distributed.
Definitely no online version of this?

artmika said...

Alekper Aliyev: "I defend homosexual romanticism over war romanticism"

and original article in Hurriyet:

Novel on gay love sparks discussion

ISTANBUL - Azerbaijani Aliekper Aliyev, the author of a controversial gay-themed love story between two schoolboys, one Armenian and the other Azerbaijani, asks why romanticizing homosexuality is better than romanticizing war

A gay-themed novel about the love between two boys, one from Armenia and the other from Azerbaijan, has sparked controversy in both countries and made its author a target of threats.

"Some people say I wrote a book like this because I wanted to make my name heard in the world [but] I have no intention of leaving my country. I will continue my struggle," Azerbaijani author Aliekper Aliyev told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. "Such a topic does not surprise anyone in developed countries, but Azerbaijan and Armenia are countries home to latent homosexuals. They are traditional, closed and conservative."

Aliyev’s controversial novel, "Artus and Zaur," after the names of its two main characters, is set to be translated into English, Georgian and French.

Between men, violence more acceptable than love

Though Aliyev’s story is about love, he has much to say about war and politics as well. Discussing the problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan, he said: "In terms of democracy and thought, both countries have similarities with banana republics in Africa. They are anti-democratic countries where human rights are violated in every fields of life, and there is no safety for life, property or honor."

Despite the threats he’s received, Aliyev said he never felt fear, adding, "The southern Caucasus republics are the leader in unsolved murders. Our only rivals are Africa and dictatorial regimes in South America."

The long-standing conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region serves the governments of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Aliyev believes. "Both countries scare their citizens by inciting the war again," he said. "Both suffer from corruption and bribery, [their] societies are enslaved. Both are feudal governments. I defend homosexual romanticism over war romanticism. It is acceptable when two men kill each other, but is it a sin when they sleep together?"

Oil and gas, serum for a sick geography

Aliyev is pessimistic about the future of the Caucasus region, saying, "There is no light in the end of the tunnel." He calls the area a "sick geography," adding: "Crude oil and gas are the serum for this patient. When the serum comes to an end, it will show its true colors. The poverty behind the luxurious cars and buildings will be seen then. I want my own county’s natural resources to be exhausted at once. Otherwise, we will continue to become like the Arabs and more authoritarian. Our only escape is the closure of crude oil and gas pipelines for good."

War is the backdrop for Aliyev’s novel, which tells the story of two schoolboys. The author says he chose main characters of that age "because such sexual drives appear at puberty." He said the novel had become a hot issue in Armenia more than in Azerbaijani, especially in the Armenian parliament. Referring to an article published in an Armenian paper, Aliyev said: "The writer said there was no homosexuality in Armenia and that such perversions could be seen only in Azerbaijan. I think such statements make no sense in the 21st century."

About the novel

Schoolboys Artush, an Armenian, and Zaur, an Azerbaijani, fall in love while they are both living in Baku. When war breaks out between their countries, Artush leaves Zaur and migrates to Armenia with his family. Zaur spends his time walking the streets and visiting the places that remind him of Artush. After many years, the pair reunites in Tbilisi and their love begins anew.

artmika said...

Alekper Aliyev: interview with Georgian LGBT magazine Me - click here

artmika said...

Russian translation of “Artush and Zaur” - Azeri-Armenian gay love story - available online for free download

artmika said...

Exclusive: Armenian/Azeri gay love story Artush and Zaur to turn into the film