Azerbaijani Ambassador About His Country’s Unshakable Bond With Jewish People
An Azerbaijani ambassador talks about his country’s unshakable bond with the Jewish people.
News.Az reprints from the AMI Magazine an article 'Arms Open To All // An Azerbaijani Ambassador Talks About His Country’s Unshakable Bond With The Jewish People'.
“There’s no way it can be done,” the man whispered cautiously to his visitor. “You’ll never get away with it, and everyone involved will be sent to the gulag, if not executed outright!” But the visitor, a rabbi from the city of Quba in Azerbaijan, would not relent. “Please!” he implored. “There must be some way for us to obtain matzah. For many of the Jews living here, this is all they have left. Take it away from them and they will have nothing. As a man of G-d, I beg you to work with us.” The man behind the desk, Major General Heydar Aliyev, First Secretary of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union’s highest–ranking Muslim, considered the request. Shortly afterwards, an ordinance was passed shutting down the country’s largest bread manufacturing plant for one day a year. Subsequently, shrouded in secrecy but with a nod and a wink from Aliyev, enough matzah was produced every year to satisfy the community’s needs. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Aliyev went on to become the democratically elected president of the country, a post he would occupy for a decade. Throughout his tenure he solidified relationships between the government and citizens of all ethnic backgrounds and religions. To this day his name is still spoken with the utmost reverence.
BETWEEN CHANUKAH AND RAMADAN
The Uber drops me off outside the Azerbaijani Embassy on a hot and muggy morning in Washington, DC. The building is completely covered in video cameras, perhaps as many as one for every three bricks. It would be impossible for a Muslim to eat anywhere near the building during Ramadan without being exposed. I am ushered into the conference room 15 minutes early. One of the ambassador’s assistants brings out some dates and tea. He himself fasts during Ramadan, but not everyone at the embassy does, and no one judges them for their laxity. The people of Azerbaijan are proudly Muslim, but they are also proud of their reputation for tolerance and their embrace of Western values. My first meeting with Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to the United States, had actually taken place the previous December, when he invited me to a Chanukah party hosted by the embassy at the Trump International Hotel. Today, as then, he had one goal: to show the world that a Shiite Muslim country on Iran’s northern border could serve as a beacon of acceptance in a troubled region. I’ve only been waiting two minutes when Ambassador Suleymanov enters the room, still 13 minutes early. He’s in his mid-50s, huskily built and with a disarming smile. We spend several minutes engaged in friendly conversation. “If you look on a map,” he tells me, “we are right in the middle of the former Soviet Union. So you have a confluence of cultures coming together—Ottoman, Turkish, Persian, Russian, Christian, Sunni and Shiite—all merging together. This creates almost a necessity for acceptance and tolerance, because otherwise it would be difficult to survive. “In 1918, when the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was founded, it was the first Muslim republic in the world. With its generous reserves of oil, Baku, its capital, quickly became one of the major international producers of petroleum. This brought about a cultural renaissance, as you had people from all different backgrounds coming together to develop this wealth. That’s why there were Rothschilds, Rockefellers and Nobels investing their money in Azerbaijan. You think Alfred Nobel made his money from dynamite? Well, he actually made his fortune from Azerbaijani oil!” “But then communism arrived,” I point out, “which tries to make everyone equal and is the exact opposite of the entrepreneurial spirit you’re describing.”
“That’s true,” the ambassador confirms. “Communism dealt a devastating blow to Azerbaijani culture. We often say that had it not been for Soviet rule we would have become one of the foremost cultures in the world. Being under the Soviet Union’s influence had very negative consequences for us, but there were some positive aspects too. One of the good things it brought about was an increase in gender equality, and they also contributed a lot to our education. There is no place on earth that develops in a vacuum, isolated from the rest of the world. Still, the fact that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime that didn’t allow much space for creativity also didn’t permit us to flourish in the same the way we did following independence.
“One of the reasons the Soviet Union was victorious over Nazi Germany in World War II was that Baku was one of the main oil producers. In a famous news clip, Adolf Hitler is presented with a birthday cake in the shape of a map of Eurasia. When they ask him what his favorite piece is he takes out a knife, cuts out Baku and says, ‘I want that!’
“All of the post-USSR newly independent countries started off the same way, not really knowing what to do and experiencing economic devastation. Very few countries had an actual elite to run them. Still, I believe that part of why Azerbaijan is so successful today is not just because of its history but thanks to President Aliyev [Ilham Aliyev, son of Heydar]. Our president is a friend of every Azerbaijani regardless of background and he is very open to the Jewish community, which only reinforces our preexisting tradition.”
THE JEWISH SHAHID
“You know the story of Albert Agarunov, right?” he suddenly asks me. He is taken aback when I shake my head no. “Albert is one of the three top national heroes of my country. The word shahid, martyr, often has negative connotations, but in Azerbaijan the term is used for someone who died for our independence. While it’s unusual, we have our own Jewish shahid! They even made a film about him, and there’s also a school that bears his name.” Albert Agarunov was a 23-year-old Jewish tank commander who served during the war with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which both sides claim as their own. (It is currently occupied by Armenia.) On a single day, December 8, 1991, Albert reportedly destroyed nine Armenian tanks and two armored personnel carriers. He was such an accomplished marksman that the Armenians placed a bounty of five million rubles on his head. According to Agababa Gasimov, a comrade and close friend of Albert, the Armenians “hated Albert more than other Azerbaijanis and often asked each other, ‘Why is this Jewish guy fighting so bravely? Is it his homeland that he is ready to die for it?’” During a lull in the fighting, a reporter asked why he took his duties as a fighter so seriously. “I was born here and I live here,” Albert replied. Already a national hero during his lifetime, Albert’s death was even more heroic.
On that fateful morning, Azerbaijani troops outside the city of Shusha received intelligence that the Armenians were preparing to attack the city. At the first sign of assault, Albert, ahead of the pack, entered the city. Maneuvering his tank through the streets of Shusha, he saw corpses in the streets. He had just gotten out of his tank to show the driver how to avoid desecrating the bodies of his countrymen when a sniper’s bullet ended his life.
“I once saw an uncut video of what happened,” the ambassador tells me. “There was one last Azerbaijani tank in Shusha with someone standing next to it. When a journalist asked the man if he knew how to shoot he replied, ‘No, I only know how to drive.’ ‘Then turn the tank around and get out of here!’ the journalist urged him. ‘You’re the last one left.’ ‘You don’t understand,’ the man declared. ‘This is Albert Agarunov’s tank. Albert would never turn around and run.’”
The ambassador then launches into another tale of a heroic Jew. “On January 20, 1990, when the Soviet troops attacked Baku, many innocent civilians died. One of the victims was a 16-year-old Jewish girl who was killed when a shot came through her window. Then, to compound the tragedy, the Jewish doctor who arrived on the ambulance to bring her to the hospital was also killed when he threw himself over her body. I’m just telling you this to illustrate the emotional connection Azerbaijanis have to the Jewish community
AZERBAIJAN, HAVEN FOR THE JEWS
I ask Ambassador Suleymanov if he was aware of the hardships faced by the Jewish people while he was growing up in the Soviet era. After relating the story of Heydar Aliyev and the rabbi’s request for matzah, he tells me that at one point there was so much matzah being produced in Azerbaijan that it was being smuggled into Georgia and southern Russia.
“Heydar Aliyev accommodated the Jewish community because he understood how important it was to them,” he explains. “As the rabbi himself later told me, ‘I will always be grateful to him for making it happen. Thanks to him, we were able to preserve our traditions and sense of community.’”
In fact, while the Holocaust raged in Europe, thousands of Jews found refuge in Baku. For three years the Soviets held off the Nazi invaders until the war front shifted away from Azerbaijan.
“Many Jews came to Azerbaijan from those areas of the Soviet Union that were under Nazi occupation,” he explains. “But even before that you had Jews like Dr. Lev Landau, the famous Nobel Prize-winning physicist, moving to Azerbaijan because they felt more comfortable and safer there. In the late 1800s and early 1900s it was very dangerous for Jews to live in the Christian parts of the Russian Empire. That continued up until the 1940s. Azerbaijan was much more accommodating, and even now the Jewish community lives safely and soundly in our country. Such an arrangement is beneficial to our society. There is nothing to be gained by exclusion. There’s no benefit in xenophobia.”
“Why haven’t other countries in the region figured that out?” I ask.
“Every nation has its own culture and history. Even our conflict with neighboring Armenia is a result of different visions. Armenia is very homogeneous place; 99.9% of its citizens are followers of the same religion. So perhaps it’s difficult to perceive a completely different world.
“We have very good relations with the rest of the Muslim world. A few years ago we hosted the European Games, and more recently, the Islamic Solidarity Games. The very fact that the Vice President of Azerbaijan, who presided over the event, is an accomplished female doctor and was responsible for making the event happen speaks volumes. This makes an impact on many people.”
THE JEWISH CONNECTION
What about Jews who used to live in Azerbaijan but left after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Does the government have any plans to convince them to return?
“Most Jewish people of Azerbaijani background have very strong ties to Baku,” the ambassador says. “Recently they brought two Torah scrolls back to Azerbaijan. One was from Los Angeles and the other was from Brooklyn. There was a big celebration and I attended it. As for people moving back, that’s a decision that every individual has to make for himself. But a lot of people go back and forth all the time. Many have permission to live in Azerbaijan as permanent residents and buy real estate. We’ve made it very simple to obtain visas and travel permits. There’s also a direct flight from New York to Baku, and a very convenient connection to Tel Aviv. The Jewish community in New York has become a bridge with Azerbaijan in the same way that the Jewish community in Azerbaijan is a bridge with the State of Israel.
“I definitely wouldn’t want the Jews to leave Azerbaijan. As much as I understand the desire to make aliyah and go to the Holy Land, this is their home. Even if they do leave because they feel they’ll be better off in Israel or the United States, they will always be connected to us.”
Several weeks before our meeting, the ambassador invited me to Azerbaijan’s Republic Day celebration in Washington. Mentioning the event now, he points out the large number of Jews who were in attendance.
“An American friend of mine said, ‘This looks like a rabbinical convention. I’ve never seen so many chareidim in one place outside Israel.’ ‘You should come to Azerbaijan,’ I told him. It made me very happy because we’ve always had a mix of cultures. It’s good to celebrate Azerbaijan this way.”
“I’ve heard that the government is very involved in helping to fund Jewish education and culture.”
“Azerbaijan is one of the very few predominantly Muslim nations that builds synagogues and churches for its citizens, not just mosques. We also try to ensure that every community receives not only a general education but is able to educate its members in its own culture.”
“I would imagine that when Azerbaijan became a republic in 1918, most governments didn’t fund religions.” Cheder boys performing in Baku, Azerbaijan
“At that time, it was very difficult to
“And all this started within the last 20 years?”
“Yes. Another interesting fact is that the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus [who lives in Baku] is also a great believer in supporting the various religions. Very often he will advocate not just for Islamic education but for Jewish education as well. It’s good for him too, because it creates a better dialogue. Not only that, he’s a Shiite—and one of his deputies is a Sunni! Azerbaijan is one of the few places you will ever see Sunnis and Shiites together. We don’t discriminate.”
ISRAEL’S CLOSEST MUSLIM ALLY
“How do you see the future of Azerbaijan and Israel?” I ask.
“I think we are in a very good place and I hope it will only get better,” he says. “Israel is a very good partner for us and Azerbaijan is a very good partner for them. But I’d like to make a very important distinction: we are not partners against anybody. We aren’t allies simply because it’s convenient at the moment. Our cultural openness is the reason we have this long-term connection. It’s also a mutually beneficial relationship. The Israelis supply us with IT and agricultural and medical assistance, while we provide energy to Israel, mostly oil but hopefully gas in the future.”
“In your opinion, is there anything Azerbaijan could do to bring Israel and some of its neighbors to a better understanding of each other?”
“Perhaps, but you have to put things in perspective. Azerbaijan is only a small country with ten million people. It’s also not technically in the Middle East, and doesn’t participate directly in the region’s politics. Still, we’ve had conversations with both the Palestinians and the Israelis, and we are actively creating platforms and opportunities for the Israelis and Islamic countries to talk to each other. One of these was our recent Republic Day reception here in Washington. Our Chanukah party, which you attended, was another. Baku is also a popular place for hosting events. A lot of Israelis visit all the time. We always tell people they have to understand the Israelis’ concerns, and we tell the Israelis that they have to understand the concerns of others, and try to bridge them. Azerbaijan is a very strategic place. Baku would be a perfect location for all kinds of negotiations. Why not? I think it would be very helpful.”
A STITCH IN TIME
On my way out, Ambassador Suleymanov directs my attention to a huge handmade tapestry hanging on the wall depicting the map of Azerbaijan. He shows me where many of the Jewish communities were traditionally located, including the city of Krasnaya Sloboda in the Quba district. With a population of close to 4,000, it is presumably the only all-Jewish city in the world outside of Israel. He traces the path of the Silk Road and proudly enumerates which of the world’s largest empires have fought over his homeland.
Suddenly he becomes very solemn as his finger arrives at the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region, a 4,400-square-mile territory between Azerbaijan and Armenia, where a state of war still exists between the two countries. He talks affectionately about the Azerbaijani towns claimed by his nation that are now under Armenian control. He tells me about the thousands who have been forced to flee their homes, and points to the cherished city of Shusha, where the Azerbaijani Jewish hero Albert Agarunov was killed.
“I don’t think we can afford to lose any more of our land,” the ambassador whispers.
“Otherwise, I’ll have to call in the designer who made this map and he’ll have to undo more of the stitching.”
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