"Taboos will not be easily overcome" declares the sub-title of "Artush and Zaur." And in this bestseller novel about the romance between two young men -- one Armenian, one Azerbaijani -- Azerbaijan is experiencing the truth of that line.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani combination alone might raise eyebrows, but in this tradition-bound society, the homosexual orientation of the novel's two lovers is stirring additional controversy. By contrast, a heterosexual Armenian-Azerbaijani romance published in late 2008 received a largely favorable reaction.
"I think that it is a very good slap in the face for our society," commented Nigar Kocharli, owner of the Ali and Nino bookstore chain that sells the book in Baku. "In other words, publishing such a book is very painful for a society in which homosexuality and relations with Armenians are taboos."
None of Azerbaijan's large publishing houses would print the novel. Some said the book was disgraceful; others that they were afraid, according to the author, Alekper Aliyev. A publishing house allegedly located in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, finally accepted the job.
Aliyev, the author, says that a desire "to fight against petrified stereotypes" motivated him to write the book. He recalls how allegations of homosexuality undercut the political fortunes of Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan leader Ali Kerimli in the run-up to last year's presidential election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav050608.shtml To reflect the problems faced by Azerbaijan's homosexual community, Aliyev consulted with a Dutch-financed, gay-rights non-governmental organization in Baku about the novel.
"There is no political dictatorship in Azerbaijan," he commented. "Society itself is the dictator."
Aliyev's work describes the newfound love between Artush, an Armenian in Baku, and his Azerbaijani friend, Zaur, in the opening days of the 1988-1994 Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Twenty years later, the pair again meets in Tbilisi, and discovers that their feelings remain unchanged. In the end, the two, despairing of their future together, take their own lives by jumping from Baku's Maiden Tower, a 12th century structure that is a legendary symbol of doomed love for Azerbaijanis.
The relationship symbolizes the ties that persist between Azerbaijanis and Armenians despite over 20 years of hostility, Aliyev said.
"Today, the Azerbaijani authorities offer the highest autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan's territory and [this autonomy] foresees for the first time that they [ethnic Armenians] are citizens with the same full rights as we have. But, at the same time, the image of an enemy is cultivated within [Azerbaijani] society and media," Aliyev said. "It is hypocrisy and it makes no sense to me."
A March 11 discussion with readers about "Artush and Zaur" will test Aliyev's theory. Ali and Nino bookstore owner Kocharli says that she plans to host the event despite threats. Some young Azerbaijanis, calling themselves "national socialists" have been visiting the store's branches, threatening clerks and demanding that the store remove the book from sale, according to Kocharli. In Internet forums, others have called for book burnings.
Some readers, though, say that the book opened up new ideas to them, despite initial repugnance at the content.
"[A]fter reading the whole book, my opinion changed [about homosexuals]. The author wanted to say much more to our society -- about our homeland, about emotions," said Pakiza Hamidi, a 35-year-old cleaning lady.
Hamidi, nevertheless, has mixed feelings about the couple's ethnic differences. "Their love is free, without bounds and distinction as to nationality. I understand it," she said. "But I would not want this love with an Armenian. It's humiliating."
Others object strongly. "My God, what have we come to?" fumed university student Ilgar Gozalov. "Not only that they are Armenian and Azerbaijani, but also they are gay. It's just a nightmare."
Such opposing views have meant brisk sales, although numbers may appear slim by international standards. Some 150 copies of the book have sold in the three weeks since "Artush and Zaur" first went on sale, one-third of the total print run, according to Aliyev.
Bookstore owner Kocharli can only hail the novel for sparking interest in Azeri-language literature. "As a bookstore owner, I think he is worthy of respect because he made people read books," she said in reference to Aliyev. "People who have not read a book for many years now visit their bookstores."
But Aliyev, who left a bank job to shield his employer from the novel's repercussions, takes a dim view about the chances for change in attitudes toward either Armenians or homosexuals. Those Azerbaijanis who attend next week's book discussion will most likely be mere curiosity-seekers, he predicted.
"I believe that nothing will change not only in Azerbaijan, but in the whole South Caucasus region in the next hundred years, unfortunately," Aliyev said.
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.