e-flux Notes is publishing a collection of 4 travelogues by Furqat Palvan-Zade, the primary from Tashkent to Termez, the second Baku to Shusha, the third Tbilisi to Amsterdam, and the fourth (to observe later) Tashkent to Kassel. They can even seem in e book type as a part of Starting within the Center: Conversations on the Submit-Soviet, edited by Elsbeth Dekker and Robbie Schweiger, revealed by Jap Sam Books.
Writer word: These travelogues have been written whereas scouting and filming The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the E book of Ecstasy (2022), a movie which reveals my fascination with the eponymous Persian manuscript saved within the Nationwide Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg. As an artefact, the manuscript caught my curiosity for 2 essential causes: first, I feel that polo—which is taken into account to be a type of leisure for wealthy white folks—can function a metaphor, or a synecdoche, for the colonial historical past of the previous couple of centuries. My evaluation of the manuscript and polo not solely goals to decolonize the sport, but in addition to inform the tales of the violent geopolitical video games of Western superpowers in Central Eurasia. Secondly, the multilayered nature of The E book of Ecstasy manuscript corresponds to what I contemplate to be a big notion of actuality. The kaleidoscope of tales and truths which can be preserved in it function good materials to problem the thought of historical past and actuality as one thing static or settled. My journey experiences, orbiting across the manuscript, are illustrated by pictures taken on my journey by way of Central Eurasia.
Baku to Shusha, November 2021
Every time the horse was in sweat drenched
it started to rain and lightning … it flashed!
—from The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the E book of Ecstasy by Arifi
To get to Azerbaijan through the pandemic, Uzbekistan residents wanted to acquire particular permission from Azerbaijan’s Operational Headquarters below the Cupboard of Ministers. My acquaintances in Baku informed me it could not be such a straightforward factor to amass. I began engaged on the duty in August, and by October I nonetheless had not succeeded in getting the paperwork. Surprisingly sufficient, the truth that I used to be completely dwelling within the Netherlands turned a bonus. Residents of some EU nations have been allowed to journey to Azerbaijan with out this extra allow. In contrast to me, they nonetheless wanted a visa. Three months of wasted effort—I ought to have simply gone there with none official permits.
This journey to Baku was rather more nice than earlier journeys I’d taken there and I don’t totally perceive why—maybe, someway paradoxically, it needed to do with town and the entire nation experiencing a form of nationwide enthusiasm. There have been flags and nationwide Karabakh-related symbols hanging throughout to rejoice the area’s “liberation” (as Azerbaijani patriots described it) lower than a 12 months earlier than.
For a while I had been planning to return to Azerbaijan and keep longer than just some days. The Oguz all the time appeared to me essentially the most musical and very important Turkic folks. This musicality is felt even of their very particular Azeri accent—when a Baku citizen speaks Russian or English, their speech sounds very melodious. “The Oguz” is the identify of/for the peoples who’ve traditionally inhabited the territory south of the Caspian Sea and across the Aral Sea. Additionally they stay within the far west of Uzbekistan, in Khwarazm. The official philological faculty of Uzbekistan defines their language as a dialect of Uzbek, however personally I don’t perceive why, because it differs a lot from my (virtually) native Uzbek. Khwarazm music can be identified for being significantly melodious.
This time I had a very professional cause to spend just a little extra time in Azerbaijan. I arrived there with a movie crew to shoot footage of chovgan, a Turkic model of polo. Traditionally, this sport was performed on the courts of native princes and later unfold to Europe by way of India. By no means had I heard about this historic lineage till I got here throughout a Persian miniature depicting the sport. The distinction between the wealthy historic roots of polo and its up to date notion as a type of leisure for wealthy folks led me to make a movie about it. I envisioned utilizing this sport as window into a number of centuries of colonial geopolitics in Central Eurasia.
In 2013, UNESCO—after being aggressively lobbied by Azerbaijani diplomats—acknowledged chovgan because the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Azerbaijan. One particular characteristic of the sport, in response to an outline on the UNESCO web site, is the usage of Karabakh horses. On the time of this determination, Karabakh was occupied by pro-Armenian forces, and the entire tradition of breeding and taking good care of Karabakh horses had lengthy been deserted. Thus the game itself, as an object of cultural heritage, was—and nonetheless is—below menace.
The Conference for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage permits particular person states to appoint objects and practices in want of safety and help, even when stated objects and practices are the topic of disputes between states. States are imagined to observe a particular process in drawing up a joint request, however that is unfeasible if one of many states refuses to cooperate and asserts its declare to unique possession of the heritage in query. There isn’t a prohibition, nonetheless, towards a state making use of to incorporate its personal model of the identical heritage. One state can not unilaterally block an utility submitted by one other. The present scenario in UNESCO permits a number of states to say the identical object of cultural heritage with out recognizing any present connection between them.
Interstate conflicts associated to intangible heritage will be seen as a manifestation of competing claims to nationalism and id politics. The Conference for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was created as a approach to handle globalization and promote cultural range. The permission to use for one’s personal nationwide variant of an already listed observe is meant to counteract cultural expropriation. Being placed on the record primarily has a symbolic worth—nations don’t obtain any direct funding to help their cultural heritage. Submitting an utility unilaterally permits states to make use of the heritage object in cultural diplomacy and nationwide politics, remodeling heritage into gentle energy, which ends up in UNESCO’s stamp of approval serving the goals of political legitimation.
In lots of instances, disputes over functions to acknowledge varied objects because the intangible cultural heritage of specific nations clearly replicate present nationwide and political conflicts (for instance, there’s a long-standing debate between Azerbaijan and Armenia concerning the recognition of the culinary custom of creating dolma). One other instance is Turkey’s utility concerning the vacation of Nowruz—a continuation of the state’s inner nationwide coverage, as all of the Kurdish components have been systematically excluded from this custom to reconstruct it anew.
The sport of chovgan was acknowledged as intangible cultural heritage in 2013 following a UNESCO convention in Azerbaijan. Regardless of the objections of Iran, whose representatives asserted that the sport was really of Persian origin with a thousand-year custom and thus couldn’t be completely Azerbaijani heritage, the mono-national utility of Azerbaijan was permitted. Tehran representatives, making an attempt to problem Azerbaijan’s utility, labored onerous to determine relationships with gamers associations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Earlier than the ultimate determination, the Iranian press spoke concerning the unscrupulous makes an attempt of Azerbaijan to affect the UNESCO committee. After the choice was made in favor of Azerbaijan, Iran’s semi-official information company Fars Information reported that Azerbaijani politicians had falsely introduced South Azerbaijan (two Iranian provinces with a predominantly Azerbaijani inhabitants—the areas of South and East Azerbaijan) as a part of their territory, emphasizing their affect. Iran additionally referred to the truth that it was not the primary time that its neighboring states had claimed Iranian cultural heritage as theirs: for instance, the heritage of the poets Molan (Rumi) and Nizami had been beforehand claimed by Azerbaijan. Finally, in 2017 Iran submitted an utility requesting recognition of the sport of chogan as its personal Intangible Cultural Heritage. It ought to be talked about that chovgan and chogan are really the identical sport, simply spelled otherwise.
Within the case of Azerbaijan, the underlying motivation for its declare to the unique possession of сhovgan seems to be the Nagorno-Karabakh battle. The geographic middle of chovgan is the Karabakh area, and the symbolic weight of this cultural heritage serves as a grounds for the legitimation of the state’s stance on the disputed territory. For Iran, turning to the gentle energy of the Persian empire’s cultural heritage has turn out to be extra related than ever, as a result of its tough place in worldwide politics. Thus, polo (or its extra historic predecessor, chovgan) serves as a metaphor not just for the historical past of colonialism, but in addition for its penalties, particularly nationalism, below the situations of which we’ve to operate within the fashionable world.
The border between Iran and Azerbaijan runs alongside the Aras River. This border was outlined within the nineteenth century after a number of wars and diplomatic agreements. Afterwards, sure areas (vilayat) of Iran—together with quite a few Muslim ones—turned a part of the Russian Empire, which over the earlier two to a few centuries had been increasing very a lot in the direction of the south in addition to the east. First, Privolzhye and Siberia have been colonized, with the border reaching so far as the Caucasian ridge within the south and the Pacific Ocean within the east. However the contours of the nation didn’t stay strong; the brand new border of the Russian Empire grew to move alongside the Aras River, and at the moment the historic affect of these borders nonetheless separates Iran from the republics of the South Caucasus, akin to Armenia and Azerbaijan.
South Azerbaijan (the identify utilized by Azerbaijanis themselves) is positioned to the south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border. Iran continues to be residence to a Turkic inhabitants of many tens of millions. It’s attention-grabbing to look at the nationwide creativeness working throughout state borders. Throughout final 12 months’s battle over the disputed territory of Karabakh, tons of if not 1000’s of Azerbaijanis dwelling in Iran started protesting towards the usage of the nation’s territory for the transportation of weapons to Armenia.
In at the moment’s Azerbaijan and Iran, some nationalists fairly categorically differentiate one from the opposite. One can simply think about complaints heard in a Tehran taxi—say, there are too many Azerbaijanis within the nation (my friends from Azerbaijan who’ve travelled to Iran informed me about simply such experiences). Among the many Azerbaijani intelligentsia, one can typically come throughout a resentment associated to the “good outdated days” when the Turks used to dominate throughout your entire Persian empire. This nostalgia was evident once I interviewed an artwork historian in Baku. She talked at size concerning the e book tradition of the Safavids. Although this dynasty dominated over all of Persia, ethnically they referred to themselves as Turks.
Moreover, she expressed excessive dissatisfaction with Western orientalists and collectors. In response to her, in Iran itself and across the complete area there have been virtually no precious manuscripts left; all the things had been taken to England, France, Germany, Russia, and the US, usually on account of deception or trivial thefts. I used to be particularly struck by a narrative about The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, a manuscript created in the identical atelier and by the identical masters as The E book of Ecstasy.
Within the twentieth century, The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, thought of one of many masterpieces of Persian artwork, was owned by the Rothschild household. Later, it was acquired by the American oligarch and bibliophile Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. Apparently, as a result of monetary difficulties and one other divorce, Houghton dedicated an act of vandalism: within the late Sixties, he determined to tear the e book aside and begin promoting particular person miniatures. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, his inheritor, in a bid to get extra money, concluded a deal of alternate with Iran’s new authorities. The Tehran Museum of Up to date Artwork agreed to present him a portrait of a nude girl by de Kooning (Iran’s new radical state was decided to do away with this vulgar murals) in alternate for the binding and the remaining manuscript folios.
The artwork historian jogged my memory of the e book Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer within the Caucasus by Georgi Derluguian, which I had learn 5 years earlier than. Within the e book, Derluguian, a disciple of Immanuel Wallerstein, applies world-systems evaluation to the biography of a single particular person, Musa Shanibov. Derluguian makes use of the story of Shanibov to current the historical past of the late USSR and reveal quite a few contradictions concerning the nation. A typical Soviet mental, Shanibov went from being a slightly innocuous scholar activist within the Sixties to one of many leaders of the rebels within the battle in Abkhazia within the late Nineteen Eighties. Within the introduction to the Russian-language version of the e book, Derluguian describes how he began his analysis into Shanibov:
Benedict Anderson’s parting phrases addressed to me earlier than one other Caucasus journey of mine have been concerning the absolute necessity to jot down down private observations. The creator of Imagined Communities, a wonderful Irishman who was born in Shanghai and who, by the way in which, as soon as took Russian classes from the emigrant Prince Lieven, impressed in me the reassurance that international tendencies and buildings had no actuality with out understanding the actions, concepts, and hopes of people that occurred to be dwelling amongst these buildings and tendencies. Ben Anderson all the time appreciated a narrative illustrative of its period. He loves listening and is an effective storyteller himself.
It was fairly by probability that Pierre Bourdieu got here throughout the letter, together with a photograph of the Kabardian politician Musa (Yuri Mukhamedovich) Shanibov. Immanuel Wallerstein, the top of my dissertation committee on the State College of New York, most popular spending spring semesters in Paris. As a closing paragraph of my report, I cheerfully added that ought to he occur to run into Bourdieu someplace on Boulevard Saint-Germain, he might puzzle his French colleague with a photograph of his “secret admirer” in a papakha. It was solely after sending the letter that I spotted I had most likely finished one thing slightly silly. Nowhere in his in depth bibliographies did Wallerstein point out Bourdieu, and neither did Bourdieu ever discuss with Wallerstein. It might hardly be an accident. The 2 well-known sociologists did very various things and at fully totally different ranges. As well as, Bourdieu was identified for his onerous and cocky character, whereas Wallerstein, quite the opposite, was a principled polemic opponent. However round three weeks later, my doubts have been relieved. Within the mailbox I discovered an envelope with a easy label that stated “Collège de France, Pierre Bourdieu.” In his fast handwriting, completely in French, very cordially and energetically, Bourdieu wrote that he was actually curious to know what respectable Caucasian in a papakha was holding a Russian translation of his work.
However how might I, in a nutshell, clarify to Pierre Bourdieu how a former prosecutor and Komsomol member, a lecturer on scientific communism from Kabardino-Balkarian State College, in perestroika instances headed the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus and led detachments of volunteers fighters in Abkhazia—amongst whom have been Shamil Basayev and Ruslan Gelayev—after which, withdrawing from energetic politics as a result of an unintentional harm, confirmed a deep curiosity in Bourdieu’s political sociology when within the hospital? … Lots right here would form of painfully ring the bell for somebody with a Soviet background—a “Sobchak of the Caucasus” kind, as one in every of my Saint Petersburg associates instantly outlined it. However exactly for that cause, any Western reader would discover this story completely incomprehensible (as, by the way in which, our personal youngsters would additionally). Certainly, Shanibov is a typical consultant of the era of intellectuals of the Sixties who, in response to glasnost and perestroika, took the microphone and immediately changed into opinion leaders. What number of of such folks turned well-known publicists and folks’s deputies—and what finally occurred to them? Within the late Nineties, the identical Shanibov returned to quiet instructing and obscurity.
To get to Karabakh, we nonetheless needed to receive particular permits. I used to be informed that we might be assigned our personal fixer—a veteran of the Karabakh battle. He was imagined to accompany our crew and stick with us throughout the entire journey. I imagined him as somebody much like the person described in Georgi Derluguian’s e book—an aged consultant of the Soviet intelligentsia who was once an novice and even skilled researcher of Azerbaijani poetry or conventional artwork. However once I lastly met him, three or 4 days earlier than our journey, I used to be shocked: the “veteran” turned out to be a twenty-year-old volunteer who had taken half within the liberation of Shusha. I used to be actually curious to get to know this younger man higher and ask him some questions throughout our journey, however this plan, similar to many different plans in Azerbaijan, was by no means meant to be realized. We began off with a daily driver who had not been to Karabakh because the early Nineties.
As of the tip of October 2021, these areas have been nonetheless thought of battle zones. Two months earlier, some journalists had died in one of many space’s many minefields. By this time, a lot of the Karabakh area had already been below Azerbaijan management for a 12 months, however some Armenian residents of Stepanakert (the Azerbaijanis have a special identify for it), the capital of the previous unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, refused to go away their hometown. In response to the agreements reached in January 2021, with the intention to guarantee the protection of the civilian inhabitants and to forestall attainable provocations from each side of the battle, it was determined that the world could be watched over by Russian peacekeeping forces.
We have been forbidden to take footage of the navy. Initially I believed it had one thing to do with censorship, however then I spotted it was largely for his or her safety.
The strongest impression from this journey was left by the brand new street to Karabakh itself, most of which works alongside the Aras River. It was in-built lower than a 12 months. I used to be struck by the velocity with which the Azerbaijani authorities have been planning to convey again the refugees who had left these lands. In response to worldwide regulation, it’s extra right to name them “displaced folks,” since they remained throughout the territory of their very own nation. Our native information stated that the federal government’s plan assumed the return of all of the residents in simply eighteen months, which might imply the resettlement of tens of 1000’s of individuals.
For all Azerbaijanis, Shusha is the primary metropolis in Karabakh. It was right here that the capital of the Karabakh Khanate was positioned, and it’s also right here that one can discover the Jidir Plain, which previously was a spot for horse competitions. After we arrived in Shusha, a few of the buildings have been in ruins, whereas others have been intact. I nonetheless don’t perceive how the Armenians determined which buildings to go away untouched and which to destroy—or, let’s assume, which buildings to let destroy themselves, as a result of if one desires a constructing to stop to exist over time, one can merely demolish its roof and it’ll fall to ruins by itself. That is what our information in Shusha informed us.
Probably the most well-known historic character from prerevolutionary Karabakh is princess Khurshidbanu Natavan. She was even talked about by Alexander Dumas within the well-known journey information he wrote throughout his journey to the Caucasus. She additionally established and supported native horse breeding.
Shusha’s main architectural sights are two native mosques, additionally constructed by the order of the princess. Not having youngsters of her personal, she stated that one of many mosques was her daughter and the opposite her son. The mosque within the central sq. of Shusha was fairly well-preserved. Our information rationalized that it was the Armenians’ method of displaying off their tolerance in the direction of Muslims. Nevertheless, the opposite mosque had been deserted and was in poor situation.
As we reached the Jidir Plain, we noticed a beautiful view of the entire space opening up, together with the previous Stepanakert, the place Armenians nonetheless stay—the Armenian flag could possibly be noticed within the distance. Our information stated it was a provocation and that the one that had hung the flag, from the angle of the regulation, was a separatist. He additionally added that sooner or later, when all the things settled down and peace was restored, such folks could be punished.
Our information really made fairly a wierd impression on me. His speech each in Russian and English sounded someway too eloquent and persuasive. He additionally talked about that the Armenians who acknowledged the suitable of Azerbaijan over these territories would be capable of keep there and stay in peace, which, in response to him, could be good for Azerbaijan from the standpoint of worldwide communication. Apparently, solely winners can afford generosity. This thought haunted me all the way in which again to Baku.