Before describing my first encounter with Azerbaijanis, I believe it is worth giving a brief outline of my upbringing and identity formation so as to give context to the emotions and changes in attitudes I experienced from that first encounter onwards.
In some ways, I had a typical diasporan Armenian experience in my childhood and adolescence. The Armenian community where I live is relatively small, but all the institutions that exist in most communities in the diaspora are part of life here too – churches, schools, youth clubs and the like. I was often surrounded by Armenians from disparate backgrounds – from Iran, Cyprus, Argentina, Lebanon, and, of course, Armenia (and even a family originally from Baku). I mingled with young Armenians and their families at gatherings, events and concerts that seemed to repeat themselves – the men would discuss politics, the women would talk about family affairs, the kids would run around and play with one another, some elderly members of the community would make speeches about the Genocide and preserving Armenian identity, there would be some kind of charity donation to send to Armenia, at the end of the event people would stand around for another age chattering away, we would go home and repeat this ritual every so often. These activities were of course part of community-building efforts and this in itself can be accepted as a benign endeavour. There was nevertheless an underlying message (sometimes not so underlying) that we were preserving our community here far away from the homeland because there was an enemy that pushed us away from where we are from – Turkey.
So that was the diasporan part of the story. But my immediate family is not diasporan. They came from Soviet Armenia. I was one of the first children to be born outside of the Soviet Union into a Soviet family. I felt a direct connection to Armenia – my family was there and we would speak to them on a regular basis, I grew up speaking Eastern Armenian in the Yerevan dialect (as opposed to the Western Armenian spoken by most diasporans), I would constantly hear Russian being spoken around me either by family friends or on television, I would spend lengthy periods of time in Armenia where I didn’t have to stay with a guest family but would stay with my own family. In this sense, my upbringing was also very different from the typical diasporan Armenian experience. In addition, Turkey as an ever-present enemy was never really brought up in such antagonistic terms – Turkey is simply not as big of a factor in Eastern Armenian identity (specifically the identity of those from the Republic) as it is for Western Armenians. I don’t even remember Azerbaijan being mentioned on a frequent basis – apart from certain stereotypes, I did not detect a strong sentiment of hate, although I did sense that Azerbaijan was a political adversary. In any case, I knew very, very little about Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis (but had heard a lot more about Turks) until I went to university.
In 2014, the youth wing of the Dashnaks (AYF) organised a panel discussion event on the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the centre of the city. I had little interest in listening to the very predictable discussion itself, but chose to attend the event simply to see some friends. Halfway through the discussion I felt that it was enough nationalist propaganda for one day and decided to take a breather outside. Another man came out a few minutes later and began chatting with me. He was an Azerbaijani and started to calmly discuss what was being said at the event. I told him to not take them seriously. However, his own nationalistic sentiments came to the fore. He went on to claim that the geographical term Artsakh is originally a Turkic name and thus proves the historical presence of Turks in the region dating back millennia. I then told myself to not take this guy seriously. Thankfully this was not my first real encounter with an Azerbaijani. A second Azerbaijani came out and also began discussing the event with us. He began to argue that Armenians in Karabakh should let go of their nationalist aspirations and live a prosperous life within an oil-rich Azerbaijani, from which they could themselves benefit materially. It later turned out that he was from the embassy. Once again, not my first real encounter.
Once the event had finished, droves of people came outside and I was stood in the same place now with my Armenian friend who I had come to see. I saw a group of boys my age, their appearance and mannerisms seemed very familiar to me, as if I was watching my friends and family in Armenia, but I could hear them speaking Azerbaijani. “Why did all these Azerbaijanis come to attend an event organised by the Dashnaks?” I thought to myself. In any case, I felt comfortable enough to tell my friend that we should go and speak to them to see why they came. We both felt a rush of excitement (yes, I am presuming that my friend felt the same as me) and we approached the group. I introduced myself and shook hands with the group. The conversation was friendly enough, but we did not touch upon any sensitive topics there and then. It seemed that human communication was indeed possible! They had to leave, but one of them asked to exchange contact details with me so we could meet again…
My first real encounter with an Azerbaijani came when I was sat in the library at my university and I opened my Facebook messages to see that the guy from the group of boys had sent me a message asking to meet. I was somewhat taken aback but saw this as my first chance to meet alone with an Azerbaijani for a tête-à-tête. Usually one takes special pains to mentally prepare for a job interview or to go on a romantic date, but it seems that Armenians and Azerbaijanis have to do the same when they arrange to meet for the first time. We arranged to meet at the university’s main square. I had no idea what to expect, so kept myself in defence mode, as I had been “brought up to do”. Nonetheless, when we met, he stretched out his hand and offered me a cigarette. This gesture helped to calm nerves. I sat down next to him on the bench and very soon we started to discuss the Karabakh conflict. Although we were inclined to raise arguments to defend one’s respective “side”, the discussion was calm and we were listening to one another, not simply for the sake of debate. This was a real interaction. He made me aware of Azerbaijani grievances that I was completely oblivious to and vice versa.
The conversation lasted a long time and seemed as if it would never end…indeed, such conversations have no end. What I realised is that so many perspectives are silenced so as to facilitate propaganda and the zombification of the masses. There are millions of people involved in this conflict all with their own experiences and backgrounds and hopes for the future. It is stupendous how these millions of perspectives get boiled down to “two sides”, as if it were a married couple with grievances living in a void of space and time. Our upbringing and construction of our identities play the dominant role in narrowing our range of perspectives that we allow ourselves to take in. I realised that there is something wrong, contradictory and counterproductive about the monolithic narratives we are brought up with. This first encounter and many more that I had thereafter have changed all that…