When Is A Centre Not A Centre?

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In April 2009, PEN Members Eva Hoffman and Alev Adil travelled to Baku to meet writers and learn about about free expression in Azerbaijan.  On her return, Eva wrote this report for the English PEN magazine.

The ambiguities begin to arise well before we touch ground in Baku, or even leave London. For example: Is there, or is there not, a PEN centre in Azerbaijan? Or is it possible for a PEN centre — on the analogy of Schroedinger’s cat, which is famously both dead and alive in its box until somebody opens it and declares the creature to be one or the other – both to exist, and to not exist?

I’ve never really understood about the cat. But a condition of perplexing doubleness certainly seems to characterize the PEN centre in Azerbaijan. Whether this organization exists or not depends very much on the observer. From various e-mails we receive before leaving London, we begin to understand that there is an official PEN centre in Baku, and that it even has a website. But according to messages sent by several writers, the centre has been inactive since its founding, and nobody they know belongs to it – or would wish to. The website features two names of authors who are supposedly the centre’s directors; but all attempts to contact them prove fruitless.

Alev Adil and I are embarking on our trip to Azerbaijan as representatives of WiPC, to investigate, as much as possible, and to offer moral support – as much as possible – to prisoners of conscience, or their families. But once we arrive in Baku, it turns out that “the PEN question” is uppermost in many people’s minds. Each and every writer we meet brings it up, with a most fervent concern, and an equally fervent hope that we can, and will, do something about it. As the explanations begin to emerge, it appears that Azeri PEN was initially sanctioned by the Writers’ Union, the official writers’ body, dating from the Soviet times; and that since its inception, the centre has conducted no events or activities, has not acquired any members aside from the troika (there is apparently a third person involved) which constitutes its “board,” and has proved impenetrable to outside scrutiny. According to one of our interlocutors, a journalist tried to visit the organization’s offices some ten years ago, and was roundly insulted before being turned away. And all of the writers, however, reserve their greatest indignation for PEN’s response to the murder of an oppositional journalist, Elmar Huseynov in 2005. Although there are rumours of the government’s hand in the murder, the Parliament (in another display of ambiguity), held a minute’s silence in the slain journalist’s honour. It seems that during this ceremony, Maksud Ibrahimbekov, the putative president of PEN, remained ostentatiously seated as everyone stood up, in effect sabotaging Huseynov’s memory, and giving his stamp of approval to his silencers. “And this is the representative of PEN, which is supposed to defend free expression!” one of the writers points out bitterly. No denunciation of the murder was issued by PEN, even though, according to one of our interlocutors, such a statement was requested by several writers.

It must be said, however, that even amidst these unhappy reports, it was heartening to see how important the rights of free expression, and indeed everything that PEN stands for, are to all the writers we talk to. They attribute to PEN a great significance, as literature’s main champion, and defender of writers’ fundamental freedoms.

Such freedoms, however, are regularly violated in Azerbaijan. During our few days in Baku, we hear detailed and distressing stories of writers and journalists who have been imprisoned, or who have been persecuted in flagrantly unjust ways. We meet Mirza Zakhidov, a journalist who was sentenced to three years, for alleged drug possession, and who has just been amnestied two months before the end of his sentence, in what is widely seen as an easy sop to public, or perhaps international, opinion. We’ve been invited to his modest house, on the peripheries of Baku, where he tells us his story spiritedly, while his wife adds a few observations, and plies us with tea and   delicious local goodies. We also talk to the wife of his brother, Ganimat Zakhidov, the renowned editor-in-chief of the oppositional newspaper Azadliq, who is still in prison, serving  his harsh four-year sentence, in this case for alleged “hooliganism” and “causing light injuries.” They all describe unacceptable prison conditions, periods of solitary confinement, and an array of dirty tricks, which seem to be characteristic of the authorities’ modus operandi. Writers are repeatedly imprisoned on false grounds, and these tend to be of a humiliating kind: Drugs, brawling, tax evasion, supposed solicitation of a teenage girl; supposed attempts at terrorism. The evidence for such “crimes” is conveniently planted at the right time, and in the right place. In prison, the tricks continue. For example, the warden in Ganimat Zakhidov’s prison told the journalist he would like to read the manuscript of a book the journalist had written in prison. Zakhidov loaned to him; a few days later, he learned that the manuscript – the only one in existence – had  burned, in an unfortunate “accident.”

I must say that my writerly self felt a twinge of anxiety constricting my chest as I heard this story. To lose the fruit of so much work, which must have relieved the ghastliness of unjust incarceration — even while that incarceration continues! And yet, the spirits of our interlocutors seemed undampened. Mirza Zakhidov means tto pick up right where he left off in writing his critical pieces; and when I couldn’t refrain from saying that this seemed to me very courageous, he responded, flashing a few old-fashioned gold teeth, “The courage is in the pen.” Could one think of a better motto for PEN altogether? Ganimat’s wife, in the meantime, joked that “the good side” of her husband’s imprisonment is that he is learning English — and that he might want to stay on, for “the advanced course.”

*

Undoubtedly, the most moving occasion of our stay in Baku was our visit to the household of Eynulla Fatullayev, a journalist and writer who is currently serving a combined 12-year prison sentence for libel and “insult to the Azerbaijani people,” and who was made honorary member of English PEN in 2009.  The Ministry of Justice has, not too unexpectedly, refused our request to visit Fatullayev – or anyone else — in prison; so our meeting takes place in the home of his parents, a modest, low dwelling on the city’s peripheries. We are met by his parents, and several of his colleagues who have come to express their solidarity with Fatullayev. They are a vigorous and warm group; and as we sit around a big table, Fatullayev’s story unfolds. Mostly, the spokesmen are Fatullayev’s father, a robust and forthright man, and Shahveled Chobanoglu, a philosopher and well-known journalist in his own right. But all of Fatullayev’s friends speak of him as an exceptional personality: very creative, a great orator who also speaks fluent English, someone with great charisma.  In their view, the two newspapers he founded, “Gundelik Azerbaijan” and the Russian-language “Realni Azerbaijan,” “soon overshadowed” all others. The best writers contributed to them, the atmosphere within them was very democratic. “There was even,” somebody throws in wryly, “a possibility of criticizing ourselves.” His colleagues also believe that Fatullayev found Elmar Huseynov’s killers, and that revelations of who was involved would be very inconvenient to the government. All of this “scared the authorities,” someone opines, leading to his unusually harsh sentence. Initially, Fatullayev was charged with libel and “insulting Azerbaijanis,” on the basis of an article which he said he did not write. In a later trial, charges of “terrorism” and “inciting ethnic hatred” were added. The court ordered all equipment in his two newspaper offices confiscated, and a fine of exorbitant proportions (various sums are mentioned, but they all run to more than £100,000) imposed. His parents have both been sacked from their jobs – this seems to be one of the authorities’ favourite tactics – which makes their financial situation very difficult. Fatullayev’s mother, who has been sitting outside the group during most of our conversation, and who suffers from diabetes, turns to us before we leave, with a simple plea for help. 

Fatullayev has lodged an appeal in his case with the European Court of Human Rights – an institution which seems to function as an almost automatic legal resort for prisoners of conscience, as long as the Ministry of Justice in Azerbaijan remains, as one ex-prisoner put it, “deaf and dumb” to their appeals and arguments. While respect for the European Court is clearly high, everyone mentions that it works very slowly. Fatullayev’s case, however, is being fast-tracked in the court; and there is hope that a  ruling will be made on it soon.

In the meantime, Fatullayev, who is 33 years old, is now serving the third year of his sentence, and during this interval, he has protested against poor conditions, and has conducted a 12-day hunger strike, in which he was joined by supporters outside. On several occasions, he has been punished with solitary confinement. But his spirit, according to those who visit him, remains high; and it seems that the international attention brought to his case, and especially the support of PEN, have been instrumental in bolstering his hopefulness, and his morale.

Indeed, it is heart-warming to see how much such support matters to everyone gathered in the room. Fatullayev’s father, who speaks with an oratorical expansiveness and great candour, tells us  proudly that his son has received 12,000 letters since his incarceration.  (He also several times mentions his deep disappointment at the entire absence of letters from Muslim countries).  The letter from Lisa Appignanesi, informing Eynulla that he has been appointed honorary member, has been, touchingly, framed and hung on the wall. “The honorary membership in PEN is a very important symbol,” somebody asserts. “It is a form of protest against the government.”

In contrast, someone resentfully informs us, the Azeri PEN centre put out statements claiming that Eunulla was not a member of PEN, never mind an honorary member. 

There it is, again; a real bitterness directed against the local PEN, for undermining those very people whom it should defend and support. But as for the honorary membership itself, it was, Eynulla’s father assures us, a great encouragement to his son; it “made him very happy.” 

I must say I feel encouraged by this too. It seems that our work at WiPC, the letters we write, the attention we bring to injustices committed against writers, is truly meaningful to its recipients. And, although I wasn’t sure what our mission would accomplish before we set out, it looks as though our visit has had some reverberations. We have been interviewed by several newspapers, asked for our opinions, and most of all, surrounded by real appreciation and warmth.  Fatullayev’s colleagues and parents thank us profusely and graciously before we leave; clearly, Eynulla will get a full report of our visit, and we hope it will help make him feel that he is not entirely alone as he fights for his case, and his cause. 

*

After our meeting, we are taken back to central Baku by Fuad tk and Vugar Gojayev,  who have acted as our translators, guides and reliable native informants throughout our visit, and without whom it we could not have accomplished a fraction of what we have managed to do.  Our lengthy drive is slowed down by traffic competitive with Manhattan at rush hour; and the conversation turns, as it regularly does, to the larger political situation in Azerbaijan. This, I must say, seems to me rife with ambiguities as well. Since president Ilham Aliyev was pronounced “president for life” by a “referendum” earlier this year, Azerbaijan is in effect ruled by a dictatorship. But the kind and level of repression which the government exercises seems bafflingly arbitrary. It is not the complete repression I remember from the old Soviet bloc. People in today’s Azerbaijan have career options; they can travel abroad, and foreigners can visit. Baku is full of representatives of various NGO’s, and media watch organizations. At the same time, citizens’ basic rights, including the freedom to express a variety of opinions, are violated with capricious impunity: Recently, foreign radio stations, including BBC World and Radio Liberty, have been banned from broadcasting into Azerbaijan; and the murder of Elmar Huseynov signalled to many an escalation in the government’s punitive tactics. Other tactics seem positively surreal: For example, the government apparently creates imitations of oppositional parties and newspapers, with identical names, in order to confuse the public, and divert funds and support from the authentic organizations.

While dissident journalists are the main target of government repressions, literary writers are hardly immune from persecution. This is brought home to us during our conversation with Rafig Tagi, an essayist and fiction writer who had recently served one and a half years out of his three year prison sentence. Tagi has the rare distinction of not only having merited the ire of the authorities, but of incurring an Iranian fatwa on his head, for an article which asserted that terrorist groups use Islam for their own purposes. (Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country, with a moderate and partly secular tradition. Recently, however, there have been terrorist episodes attributed to Islamic fundamentalists; and several people we talked to expressed fears of Iran’s covert influence, and of increasing Islamicist radicalization). “The government said they were imprisoning me for my own protection,” Tagi jokes merrily; but Vugar adds, sotto voce, that his life was really in danger. Tagi is a doctor, as well as a writer; he lived in the Soviet Union for a portion of his life, but censorship made the publication of his writings there impossible. Since Azerbaijan’s independence, he has experienced a different kind of repression. Still, he thinks of himself as a socially engaged writer, and wants his essays and stories to function as “a public outcry.” He believes they have served this purpose, and means to continue.

A subversive kind of irony was also evident in our conversation with Alakbar Aliyev, the author of a highly controversial novel, “Artush and Zaur.” The novel recounts a romance between two men — an Azeri and an Armenian . In an Azerbaijani context, one could not imagine a more provocative premise. Both homosexuality and Azeri-Armenian romance (especially since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict) are taboo subjects and, as Aliyev puts it, “entirely unwelcome.” Aliyev readily admits that he was, to some extent, “looking for controversy,” as well as “struggling against dogmas” of Azeri society. If so, he has certainly found it. The small chain of bookstores (four in all) called “Ali and Nino,” which provided the only distribution for his novel, had its shops closed by the police, and copies of “Artush and Zaur” confiscated. However, the happier side of  controversy is that the novel has been translated into English, and might be published in several countries.

Alongside and perhaps despite all of this, however, there seems to be a space for the practice and life of literature, for its own, autonomous sake. On the last days of our visit, we meet writers from the Free Writers’ Union – an informal body of writers established in counterpoint to the official Writers’ Union. Its founder, Rasim Karaca, a gentle, courteous man who writes poetry and translates English literature into Azeri (often via Russian), stresses that there are some good writers in the official Union; but he says that “Soviet social realism” does not reflect the realities on the ground in Azerbaijan. One of the purposes of the Free Union, he tells us, is to “get away from Soviet aesthetics,” and to “introduce modernist aesthetics” to Azerbaijan. This means “digging below the surface, and infiltrating the deep reality.” The “white face of the earth has been written,” he rather poetically muses. “We are writing the black face.

In the evening, we meet about a dozen writers from this sympathetic organization over dinner, for informal and free-flowing conversation. What flows most freely is wine and vodka – and also, sheer enthusiasm and what I can only call literary hunger.  Amidst our little Tower of Babel – we communicate in my incomplete Russian and their incomplete English, and in Alev’s case, in Azeri and Turkish – I miss a lot of what is said. But I understand enough to learn that these writers are interested in bringing more English literature to Azerbaijan; and that a major project to bring out a new edition of world classics is under way.  What is unmistakable, is these writers’ love of poetry, fiction, imagination, writing; the thing itself. After a while, we begin to throw into the air names of writers – Kafka, Somerset Maugham, Faulkner, Philip Roth, and also Foucault, Kristeva, Derrida  —  as if they were talismanic signposts in a vast geography of what is apparently a shared world.

As for the question of Azeri PEN, this is brought up several times even amidst the festive mood, and always with a sense of seriousness, or even urgency. Clearly, the time has come to prize open the hermetic box in which this branch of International PEN centre has enclosed itself, and to ascertain its status and state unambiguously, and once and for all.   

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Azerbaijan’s Terrible Record on Free Speech #Eurovison | Robert Sharp

[…] The state of free expression in Azerbaijan has be a major focus for English PEN in recent years. In 2009, we sent two of our members, Eva Hoffman and Alev Adil, to Baku to meet the writers there and to ask what the literary community in the UK can do to help. On their return, Eva filed a report for our OPEN magazine: […]

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