One of Azerbaijan’s most numerous national minorities is demanding cultural autonomy, which the government is afraid to give them
The Talysh are an ancient people native to Southern Azerbaijan and Northern Iran. In Azerbaijan, they are largely concentrated in Lankaran, Astara, Masally, Lerik, and Bilasuvar Districts.
The Talysh language is part of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. In Azerbaijan the majority of Talysh are bilingual, speaking both in their native tongue and in Azerbaijani. The culture, customs, and lifeways of the Talysh are very similar to those of Azerbaijanis, but have their own unique accents. The rich Talysh cuisine abounds in dishes made from fish and rice. The primary occupations for the local population are animal husbandry, fishing, agriculture and minor trade.
Despite the fact that the Talysh are one of Azerbaijan’s numerous ethnic groups, they cannot receive education in their native tongue, and they do not have television or radio in the Talysh language.
Zahra Hapilova is 117 years old. She lives in Lankaran, in the south of Azerbaijan. Zahra has worked all her life. Until recently she personally cooked, cleaned, and worked in the garden, milked the cattle, and prepared cheese and butter. When working in the Soviet Period, Zahra made sure that all her children received an education.
She sees the reason for her long life in physical labor, in the good air that is so abundant in the region where she lives and in the fact that she has never eaten bread. Only rice. Zahra’s age is almost typical for this region, where there is a good climate and hard work is known to all.
“I was born in this village. The house I’m living in is younger than I am”
Seventy-year-old Garib Habibov says that since birth he has been living in the village of Veravul in Lankaran District. He told us about local life for the Talysh people.
“I was born and grew up in this village. The house in which I’m living is younger than me. Only Talysh live in our village. In our daily life we rarely speak Azerbaijani. Everyone here speaks Talysh. As a rule we use the Azerbaijani, or more precisely the Turkic, language when we go to Baku or other cities or districts of the country. We have many songs, poems, and fairy-tales in our native language.”
Garib Habibov also eagerly tells about the unique aspects of the Talysh lifestyle, to which his people are very attached.
“We have our own, traditional everyday implements, which we use to this day. This pitcher, for example, is called a nehrya. We make butter from milk inside it. And sitting alongside it is a seheng. Women bring water from the well in it. And this rug is made from bulrush. It is called a prayer rug, or in Talysh a tomo. It is woven only in the Talysh area. And this is a dizya, a pot for preparing rice. The Talysh cultivate rice and use it lots in their food.”
A modeler and restoration professional, during the Soviet period Vagif worked for many years in the republic’s administration of scientific restoration works. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he ceased working in the administration. For several years he wandered about Russia in search of employment. He finally returned to his home village seven months ago and was met with unemployment.
“Despite all my efforts, I couldn’t find myself any sort of work. Previously, in Lankaran, the main city of the Talysh region, there were fisheries, canning factories and steel mills, auto-mechanics and so on. Today they aren’t functioning. Each person gets by however they can. The young people are leaving to make money in Russia, some are searching for work in Baku. And the government isn’t helping. Utilities have gotten more expensive. Although lighting is provided without gaps in service, it’s expensive. And in order not to pay for gas I cut down almost all the trees in my garden for firewood.”
But unemployment and expensive utilities aren’t the only problems for the Talysh.
Since the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, the Talysh have been demanding education in their native language and cultural autonomy, making appeals to the international rights of ethnic minorities. Vagif complains that the country’s government is ignoring these demands. And sometimes the government insults not only the deep Shiite faith of the Talysh, but even the word ‘Talysh’ itself.
“We can’t learn in our own language. It’s reached the point that they come around and force us to change the names of restaurants or markets that include the word ‘Talysh’ or ‘Lankaran’. We are Shiite Muslims and we greatly revere our saints. But we are not allowed to perform certain ceremonies that involve paying respect to our saints on particular days. It’s very strange. Why can my child study English, French, German, and Russian at school, but they don’t let him study his native language”, says Vagif.
According to the 2009 population census, around 112,000 Talysh live in the country, though many Talysh do not agree with the numbers and assert that there are many more of them. The Talysh have always actively participated in all branches of life in Azerbaijan. Despite the many years of assimilation of other peoples of Azerbaijan, the Talysh have nevertheless retained their language and lifeways, and unceasingly fight for cultural autonomy and the right to education in their native language.
Those who are not satisfied with complaints and actively fight for cultural autonomy, the right to education, and the right to print in their native tongue, are punished with arrests and pressure from the government.
Hilal Mamadov, a representative of the Talysh community in Azerbaijan, was editor of a Talysh-language newspaper, Talysho syado (which translates as Talysh Voice), which was closed down by the government. Mamadov also researches Talysh culture. He uses social networks to distribute information about the history, language, and culture of the Talysh people.
On July 4, new accusations were brought against him for treason and stirring up ethnic conflict. International organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in particular, have called Mamadov’s arrest politically motivated. Christoph Straesser, PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) special rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, included Mamadov in the list of those assumed to be political prisoners. In 2013 a court found Mamadov guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison. On March 17, 2016, he was pardoned by a decree of the president of Azerbaijan.
Mamadov says that all the problems of Azerbaijani society affect the Talysh as well.
“On the whole, it needs to be said that in Azerbaijan, unfortunately, there are many issues with human rights. Naturally, these problems include those connected with the rights of ethnic minorities”.
Mamadov reminds us that when, in 2000, Azerbaijan joined PACE, it accepted a responsibility to adopt a law on ethnic minorities within two years. Such a law has still not been adopted.
Mamadov also does not agree with official statistics regarding the Talysh population.
“According to official statistics around 100,000 Talysh are living in Azerbaian, whereas the real number is around ten times higher”.
Gilal Mamadov says that the Talysh don’t have any problems with the other ethnicities that make up the Azerbaijani population, but that there are many problems at that governmental level.
“For example, we don’t have a single television or radio station on which they broadcast in Talysh for even a few hours a day. There was one newspaper, it was shut down. True, we are all the same publishing one newspaper at the moment, which costs us enormous effort. There is a national Talysh cultural center, but this is a strictly formal organization which in practice is non-operational.”
According to the Ministry of Education’s program, lessons should be in Talysh for first through fourth grades in those districts where the majority of the population is Talysh. But Gilal Mamadov says that in practice this is also purely formal, either lessons are given for show or they are simply replaced with other, extracurricular activities like ‘labour’.
“School textbooks for studying Talysh were issued only once, in 2005. In Lankaran, the state university doesn’t have departments for training Talysh language teachers. That being said, I can’t say that in hiring there is some sort of discrimination towards Talysh.”
Mamadov believes that in order to resolve problems it is necessary, above all else, that the government fulfill the obligations it’s taken on and to adopt a law on ethnic minorities.
“Such proposals have been introduced in parliament several times, but so far a law has not been adopted. Such a law would regulate the rights and responsibilities of ethnic minorities and would facilitate the resolution of many problems”, says Mamadov.
Despite the numerous problems associated with cultural autonomy, no particular discrimination is notable in acceptance to institutions of higher education and work. But Talysh cultural figures, especially musicians and singers, who are loyal to the government and ignore the problems of the Talysh ethnic group, are beloved on TV, among the press, and also by the government.
In the beginning of June 1993, Colonel Surat Huseynov stirred up a revolt against the government of the National Front headed by Abulfaz Elchibey.
Fahraddin Aboszoda (chairman of the self-declared Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic (TMAR)) wrote in his memoirs that the Talysh, led by Colonel of the National Army Alikram Hummatov, were first to rise in support of Huseynov. And already on June 21 the commanders of the Talysh battalion, based out of Lankaran with Hummatov at their head, declared the Talysh-Mughan Republic. The ‘republic’ included seven districts of the southern region of the Azerbaijan Republic. The assembly of the TMAR elected Hummatov president.
The republic existed only two months. On August 23 the TMAR ceased to exist. Alikram Hummatov, leader of the ‘republic’, was arrested in 1993 and was pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, stripped of his Azerbaijani citizenship, and sent to the Netherlands, where Hummatov’s relatives live.
This sort of attitude from the government towards an ethnic minority can be explained by the fear of separatism: on several occasions in their long history the Talysh have attempted to create their own state. The political observer Hikmet Hajisade says this is the government’s ‘nightmare’ and doesn’t believe that their concerns are baseless.
“There is already influence in the region from Shiite Iran, so the government’s fear is understandable. In a convenient convergence of circumstances, the Talysh can use Russia, Iran, and Armenia for their own political goals.
Another political observer, Zadrusht Alizade, believes that so long as there is a strong government in the country, separatism is not a danger.
“It can and should be kept within a restricted framework of ideological and political discourse. In no case should discussion be suppressed. This will simply raise the appeal of the ‘forbidden fruit’”.
Alizade also believes that the threat of separatism is alive so long as there is not a democratic mechanism for resolving socio-economic problems among the population.
“High unemployment, unjust courts, the absence of social mobility, senseless restrictions on ethnic groups’ cultures: these are the true sources of separatism. When these negative factors are present, there is always a danger that some outside power will want to arouse and take advantage of the destructive energy of separatism”.