Barriers are made to be broken
My first encounter with an Azerbaijani person happened in Tbilisi during the workshop on the South Caucasus' conflicts. During the coffee break, I found myself at a round table with Georgian and Azerbaijani attendees discussing something enthusiastically among themselves. The Azerbaijani participant [Rauf - pseudonym] turned out to be a young activist doing his Master's in Political Science, sensitive to gender issues, and access to education in rural areas. It took us several minutes to understand how many common interests and hopes for the future of the region we share, including the most critical hope to see the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and visit each other's countries as ordinary tourists. There is a type of person who mirrors the openness of mind and heart and builds trust and confidence from the first meeting. Rauf, to my luck, belonged to that type. His other valuable trait is the firm belief that the bitter complicated reality can only be apprehended through critical reflective analysis, complemented with a sharp sense of humor from time to time. He used to make fun of many things: Azerbaijani, Armenian and Georgian nationalisms, petty quarrels over the identity of dishes, one's blind acceptance of state's policy, and subordination of personal happiness to the abstract idea of national happiness, and many other things.
More than eleven years have passed since our first encounter, and we still keep in touch with the same respect for each other we had eleven years ago. The military escalations and now the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh could not even slightly shake the bond that we share for a straightforward reason. From the very beginning, we were honest with each other and genuinely committed to the idea of peace and open dialogue for solving our misunderstandings. We did not intentionally choose the words prepared for the occasion of "talking to the opponent" vocabulary in order to seem more tolerant in our conversations simply because the words we used in our dialogues were embedded in our thinking. We believed in what we were saying without trying to look smart and progressive.
Eleven years is an extended period, and our friendship during that time was supplemented with new friends from both sides joining the web. Some of Rauf's friends became my friends and vice versa. One of the most memorable moments was visiting together with Rauf the house of their Georgian friend, the Poet. We went for a coffee to the Poet's apartment, which seemed to be an infinite space for artistic recreation, loaded with so many distracting details in the room. The old Soviet wallpapers in the living room were covered with abstract pencil drawings made by the Poet's kids. The Poet's calmness, modesty, and resistance against any form of commercialization of art immediately won our hearts. Under the low light, he started citing the excerpts from his recent work, yet to be published, delving into the writing process's details.
The TV was on, and after a while, the TV channel started broadcasting a football match. The Poet looked up from the book and started looking at the screen where football players with the referee running under the rain. After a few seconds of silence, the Poet spoke with his soft and caressing voice: "Everyone always focuses on the football players; they are the ones under the scrutinized attention and the main objects of love. But what about the referee? I am sure many even do not know this referee's name. And how difficult is his task - to judge, to make a fair decision. To put aside his emotions, empathy, and antipathy and to give the fair decision. But what if he had a difficult day? Maybe before coming to this match, he had a dispute with his wife, and he is sad? However, he runs under the rain, hardly noticed by others." We may have spent no more than an hour with the Poet, but the impressions and the thoughts he left to us were enough to remain fascinated by him up until today.
We talk a lot about this war with Rauf. About being trapped within the dehumanizing nationalistic discourse, reminding us of a swamp trying to pull us inside. And with each day of an ongoing war, we see the swamp extending to new territories, not leaving a space for us to stand firmly on our feet — a difficult situation. Even being silent now requires strong willpower. More willpower is required to stand against the warmongers and call for the need to start a dialogue, no matter how difficult it might seem, to save the last remnants of humanity scrambled by the destructive power of violence.