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‘We Are Our Mountains’: Revisiting Artsakh

I. Base

New York. September 27, 2020

 

War breaks out. A war to wipe a country off the map. A country that is not on the map to begin with.

 

Artsakh.

 

A name that feels a bit ours, among my Armenian friends, because we know where this unmapped place is and, although I am an odar (a ‘non-Armenian’), also a bit mine, because I have been there and it has since been in me. 

 

Two summers ago, I arrived in Armenia with a couple of fellow writers to teach at the Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan known as TUMO (after the national poet, Hovhannes Tumanyan). We were supposed to fly home shortly after the last session of our three week-long workshop. The nonfiction and poetry instructors left as planned, but I, the fiction teacher, wasn’t ready to go back to New York, where I lived. I postponed my ticket for another week. And then for another. And another. 

 

The Caucasus enfolded me. With diaspora Armenians flocking into Yerevan for the summer, my circle of friends quickly expanded, as did my understanding of Armenia and its fraught borders. I learned about the existence of an adjacent state to the east: a self-proclaimed republic nestled in the mountains. At every mention of its deep green forests, its waterfalls, and monasteries, the fictional country found its way into my imagination. The name itself seemed to have wonder inbuilt into its utterance: two ‘ah’s culminating in an exhalation. So, one morning, I went to the bus station by myself and jumped on a van headed to Artsakh. 

 

 

II. Ascent

Nagorno Karabakh. July 30, 2018

 

‘how are you????’

 

A text from a friend arrives when I am in the marshrutka, a routed passenger van, four hours and many miles away from Yerevan, as we reach what Google Maps signals as the edge of Artsakh. 

 

‘how are you????’ carrying the implicit question: ‘where the hell are you?’ 

 

Another text arrives with an answer: ‘Welcome to Azerbaijan. Calls cost $1.79/min, text $0.5 to send and $0.05 to receive. Enjoy your trip.’

 

My phone vibrates again, and again, and again, and again. 

 

‘Welcome to Armenia. Calls cost $1.79/min… Enjoy your trip.’

 

‘Welcome to Azerbaijan. Calls cost $1.79/min… Enjoy your trip.’

 

‘Welcome to Armenia…’

 

‘Welcome to Azerbaijan…’

 

The van threads the path like a blunt needle, loosely stitching together the virtual frontiers. 

 

I remind myself that I am about to enter a country that doesn’t exist, although it is this very idea that is driving me into Nagorno (‘Mountainous’) Karabakh, the Russian name of the region. Or, as Armenians call it, Artsakh. Or into Azerbaijan, if one is to ignore the existence of Artsakh, as the rest of the world does.

 

Our van skirts the increasingly voluptuous terrain of the Republic of Artsakh, as it has been named by its inhabitants. 

 

As my phone continues to report the roaming service battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan, my friend’s text chimes in repeatedly – ‘how are you????’ ‘how are you????’ – as if I were as moody as the road. Far from my group of friends in Yerevan, I’m already in a breakaway state.

 

As the curves grow more pronounced, the centre of gravity inside the van shifts with each turn. Passengers and objects sway from one side to the other. A little boy sitting in front of me grows carsick. His mother dampens his forehead with a cloth. I offer a commiserative smile.

 

The head of a young soldier sleeping next to me drops on my shoulder. The weight of his body rests against mine. I am touched by this accidental proximity, and somewhat startled to feel the tough army fabric against my arm. The arid camouflage, a standard palette of the Armenian uniform, resembles the plains we are currently passing; I find myself wondering if the uniform has been tailored to match the terrain, the colours of the landscape. The dull tones in fact contrast with the luxuriant greenery I’ve been told about, which is apparently unique to Nagorno Karabakh. ‘how are you?’ – my own question to this region.

 

Sticking my head out the window, I take in the view, doubled in a reflection on the shiny surface of the vehicle, which makes the side of the van disappear into the mirrored mountains. Now and then, the driver’s hand makes an appearance, with two mutilated fingers, perhaps snatched by a passing car, or by a missile in the 1991-94 war fought between Armenians and Azerbaijanis (or ‘Azeris’) over the still-contested region we are approaching.

 

The hand strokes the warm wind, like a bald bird flying over an endless road.

 

All the faces suddenly turn to me, the obvious foreigner, when the van stops at the checkpoint. Only I descend to have my passport inspected. The transit into the first recognisable indication of Artsakh is seamless for Armenian nationals, who move freely through the mountain pass linking the two countries, the Lachin Corridor. The Artsakhi official does not stamp my passport. I am trusted to find the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital, Stepanakert, and to request a tourist visa.

 

The noon sun brings Stepanakert to a standstill. The only movement in the street comes from the clothes hanging from the drying lines. Blue jeans and army pants run in the air above the empty street. The military uniforms are washed-out, faded, as if the camouflage were easing into civilian fabric. I wonder if the town is as quiet as the frontline with Azerbaijan, a few miles east, where the soldiers are hanging fire. 

 

I pass by the town’s main square, called Lenin Square during Soviet times, when Nagorno Karabakh was a majority Armenian autonomous oblast (‘province’ or ‘state’), located within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. In the heat of noon, the square is completely empty. In 1988, it was teeming with thousands of Armenians who congregated here to demand Moscow’s incorporation of Nagorno Karabakh into Soviet Armenia. To this end, the Karabakh leaders – among whose early members was Armenian national poet Silva Kaputikian – formed ‘Crane’, a committee named after the bird that had come to symbolise a longing for the Armenian motherland. Yet, the Kremlin ruled to maintain Nagorno Karabakh within Soviet Azerbaijan as a self-governing region. Two years later, the USSR fell and both Armenia and Azerbaijan attained their post-Soviet republic status. In December 1991, fearing subjection to Baku, Karabakh Armenians held a referendum and declared Artsakh’s independence.

 

The main square, now known as Renaissance Square, remains the urban and political centre of the Republic of Artsakh. The space is dominated by the National Assembly building, which is topped with a naked dome; shaped like the conical roofs of Armenian churches, it consists only of a structural skeleton, as if unfinished. A construction crane sticks out of a building nearby, like another monument to ongoing state-building, surrounded by the Presidential Palace, the Artsakh Freedom Fighters Union and the Embassy of Armenia. In order to maintain the precarious peace, the Republic of Armenia has supported, but never officially recognised, Artsakh as a country. 

 

A friend had recommended a lodge in the nearby town of Shushi, which is merely an inch apart from Stepanakert on the map. Altitude-wise, however, it is a considerable stretch away, as the dramatic ascent up a sinuous road on a taxi soon reveals. Once a strategic fortress and, to this day, a key stronghold in the area, Shushi dominates the Karabakh valley from the heights of its plateau.

 

Below, Stepanakert appears and disappears behind the curves, growing smaller with each turn of the road. We pass a war tank perched on the roadside – a monument. In 1992, this Armenian tank drove up this road, part of a mission to capture Shushi, and met its Azeri counterpart. Both tanks were T-72 models, which had once fought side by side in the service of the USSR in the 1980s, and were later acquired by the newly-formed Armenian and Azeri armies in the lead up to the boundary dispute in the 1990s. The tank displayed on the way to Shushi appears as both memorial and portent.

 

A man in a Stepanakert cafe had listed must-see sights in my pocket notebook, adding angular shapes next to some of the names. ‘Pine trees?’ I asked. He shook his head and replied, laughingly but assertively, ‘stars of danger’. By ‘Shushi’ he had drawn a circle: zero stars of danger. 

 

The Shushi Grand Hotel is a two-storey facility built by Arthur’s father in 2011 and now run by Arthur and his mother, French-Armenians who moved from Lebanon to Artsakh. Arthur makes Hitchcock and Kubrick jokes as he checks me into one of the many empty rooms through a shiny – The Shining-like – corridor. He says I should see the place in the winter, so dead that they don’t even bother to heat it up. I imagine the Shushi Grand Hotel glazed over, temporarily embalmed in frost.

 

In the evening, Arthur and his mother, Silva, invite me to join them at the staff table. I had been sightseeing all day with a driver, Suren, who showed me around, describing things in Russian and Armenian, neither of which I speak. I tell them about the picnic Suren prepared for the two of us on a table tucked among trees by the road. He cut tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, bread and ham he had purchased in the morning. As I sat, grateful but very still, eyeing wasps that bit into the ham and lifted chunks from it, Suren searched the trees around us. At last, he drew something from one of the trunks – a small bag of salt. Now Silva explains that it is common for Armenians to leave salt behind for those coming next. ‘We also use salt to bless houses.’

 

The receptionist arrives with a tray of tea and a martini glass filled with bite-sized candy. Arthur brings my attention to one of the chocolates. ‘Beauty. Not to be confused with capitalist Bounty,’ he laughs. A Soviet delight disguised in a Bounty-like wrapper.

 

After the picnic, Suren and I drove north to a village called Vank, which had a long wall wrapped in old Soviet license plates with the Azerbaijan registration code in Cyrillic letters. Piled up like bricks, dismantled and obsolete, the wall signalled both the expiration of the USSR and the exile of Azeris from the region. The cars parked against the mural carry Armenian license plates, like Suren’s and every other vehicle in the Republic of Artsakh, which has no international code of its own. 

 

Arthur grins when I report my shock at the other sights of the tourism-hungry village of Vank, which included a cave made to look like a lion’s roaring maw and a hotel built to resemble the bow of the Titanic. The front entrance of the lodge featured a fountain ornamented with sea creatures. I hadn’t expected to come across ships and peeing mermen in the mountains of landlocked Karabakh. 

 

That day, Suren and I had also visited the archeological site of the ancient Armenian city of Tigranakert. We had passed another war tank monument near Khojali, a village where Azeri civilians were killed by the Armenian army in 1992. The tank was facing eastwards, towards our destination. Suren pointed the same way and said, ‘Azerbaijan’. Further along the road, we glimpsed the Azeri ghost town of Agdam, embedded in the scorched land that acts as a buffer zone between the Armenian and Azeri frontlines.

 

A low, melodic hum suddenly rises in the distance, a croon coming from somewhere in Shushi. ‘It’s the soldiers,’ Arthur says, ‘singing themselves to sleep.’ I give him a skeptical look, but Silva and the receptionist nod. We listen until the voices fade. 

 

‘I sometimes forget that she was in the army,’ Arthur says, looking at the receptionist. ‘She was a sniper,’ he whispers, audibly. The receptionist shakes her head. She served in the army for three years, she tells me, reporting on the location of military aircrafts.

 

I ask her about a control tower that I had glimpsed from the road, which seemed to be part of an airstrip. She shakes her head again, but this time she remains silent. ‘The airport is shut down. Frozen,’ Arthur explains, ‘Flying is too dangerous.’ He says that Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot down even commercial flights. 

 

I’m told that the airport had been Artsakh’s only lifeline when hostilities escalated in the region in the 1990s, and the Azeri blocked the roads to Armenia. The Armenian population of Artsakh found itself marooned on an island in Azerbaijan. ‘In ‘88, we began to speak up about wanting to join Armenia,’ Silva says. She pauses, pensive. ‘And then?’ I press. ‘And then, there was war.’

 

A car with new guests arrives and Arthur leaves the table to check them in. All in all, Silva regards the ongoing conflict, with its yearly border clashes, as a political war. The receptionist somewhat agrees, implying that there was the occasional interaction between soldiers from both sides of the line. ‘They’re humans too,’ Silva says. The receptionist adds that there are other subterranean motives at play. Azerbaijan doesn’t want to take the land itself. ‘They want to take our gold,’ she declares. And oil. ‘But if we find oil, then: “Bye-bye, Azerbaijan!”’

 

Like a reflex, I exclaim ‘I’m from Venezuela’ – an implicit warning against exhuming a substance that can result in economic, political and humanitarian crises, spur on the breakdown of the nation-state and turn the country and its institutions into fictions.  

 

But when the receptionist concludes that oil would place Artsakh ‘on equal terms’ with Azerbaijan,  the reality of conflict’s asymmetrical conditions also surfaces more clearly. Artsakh is standing its ground, its mountains, against a mighty petro-state. 

 

Bob Marley serenades us through the speakers in the terrace. Arthur returns, complaining about eight people who requested to check into a single room. He steps into the garden, holding his phone up to the sky to identify a star. Silva reminisces with the receptionist about the time when the front garden was full of sheep. In 2016, when Azerbaijan launched a four-day attack on Artsakh, the Shushi Grand Hotel, like other hotels in Artsakh, had been used as a shelter for refugee villagers – who had brought their cattle along – and, later on, as barracks for the army. The Vank hotel, the one  resembling the Titanic, had also closed for tourists to receive locals fleeing the attacks. ‘Any moment, war can start,’ Silva says. The phrase mingles with the reggae lyrics, abstracted. I nod politely, rhythmically. The evening is warm and pleasant.

 

‘It’s Mars, the star,’ Arthur announces. I can’t see it from where I’m sitting. Mars is blocked by a tree. 

 

Silva has pink hair. It looks naturally pink. She offers more chocolates and shows me pictures of ice crystals hanging from trees. Shushi in the winter. She wants to wrap up the night, not with war talk, but beauty. She pulls up a photo of a meadow full of flowers. Shushi in the spring. ‘So beautiful,’ I say. 

 

Behind the tree, Mars comes into view. I point out to Silva that we, here in Shushi – along with the planets – have been moving all this while. She tells me she is glad our paths have crossed. She believes in chance meetings that serve a higher purpose, ‘cosmic encounters’. ‘So do I,’ I whisper back. We say good night and retire. 

 

My room faces a hill pelted with white flowers, where cicadas or crickets hide, scratching the evening quiet. 

 

I recall my anticipation of the landscape on the way to Artsakh in the soldier’s camouflage. No, the uniform doesn’t quite capture the cotton-like flowers specked with thistles that I had seen earlier at the edge of the Shushi plateau, on the cliff of Jdrduz – I had been delighted and flummoxed by the four consecutive consonants – overlooking the Hunot canyon and the umbrella-like waterfalls of Zontikner, lined with phosphorescent moss. I imagine sartorial attempts at capturing these colours and textures in the pattern of the military uniform, to really, mimetically, embody the Karabakh motto: ‘We Are Our Mountains.’ The Armenian soldiers climbed the crags of Shushi to seize the strategic plateau in 1992, a decisive turning point in the war.

 

I wake up in the dead of night in a panic. I stand by the window, sweating and panting as I scrutinise the meadow and imagine bodies wrapped in beautiful flowery camouflage, crawling toward the control tower overlooking the Karabakh valley that is the Shushi Grand Hotel. My half-asleep mind pieces together bits of the recent conversation. I am standing in the fragile plateau of a war. Shushi. Beauty. Bounty. Stars of danger, flaring. I hum the soldiers’ lullaby. 

 

Morning does finally come. Mars yields to the light.

 

 

III. Peak

NY. October, 2020

 

Two years later, white phosphorus is raining over Artsakh.

 

The exchange of artillery fire from both sides of the border intensifies. Amid the global pandemic, civilians flee Artsakh en masse as residential areas in Stepanakert are shelled by Azerbaijan with cluster missiles. Rockets strike two schools. Water collects in the craters. Ponds form in the ruins. 

 

I message Arthur asking him – crassly, it feels – how are you. I had only spent two nights at his hotel, but we have followed each other on Instagram since then. He replies that he has handed over the building to the government, for troops to lodge in the Shushi Grand Hotel. 

 

I think about the soldiers spending their nights in the room where I stayed. I imagine them listening intently into the night, scanning the hill for non-imaginary enemies. 

 

Another Armenian friend tells me that female university students and diasporans are volunteering to enrol in the army. She is wondering if her turn will have to come. She has been looking up nearby shooting ranges, to practice. 

 

It hits me during a socially-distanced dance class in Bryant Park: the beats of the drum and the moving bodies mingle with the thought of my friends killing and being killed in the mountains of Karabakh. 

 

A text message, asking if I remember our teaching assistant. A rhetorical question, a preparation for the news I am already dreading. Because, of course I remember Alen. I’d first met him online in workshops run by Columbia School of the Arts in collaboration with TUMO. Alen had helped to set up and supervise the classroom in Yerevan. During these virtual sessions, he remained mostly off-screen but, through the lit-up faces of our students, I could sense a kind presence and clever humour of this invisible assistant, sitting behind the camera, from where he loved to see the world. A distinguished TUMO student for years, he had thrived in filmmaking courses. His teachers and colleagues praised his talent and his tact. When I met him in person in Yerevan, I was struck by his radiant personality. Alen: killed in action. He was 19. 

 

*

 

Three days later, the flag of Artsakh is waved by demonstrators among the flags of the UN member countries that fly permanently at Rockefeller Center, the starting point of the Armenian march against the Second Nagorno Karabakh War.

 

The flag of Artsakh is nearly identical to the Armenian one, except for a stepped white line that cuts through the red, blue and orange stripes. This added line evokes the borderline between Armenia and Artsakh, and effectively transforms the Artsakhi flag into a map. Shaped like an arrowhead pointing to the ‘west’ side of the flag, the line suggests a motion toward unification with Armenia. Artsakh’s national flag depicts its geopolitical conundrum, symbolising independence but signalling integration. In the symmetrical stepped pattern of the flag’s frontier, I see a perpetual escalation and de-escalation. 

 

Many of the people marching here have never been to Artsakh, but consider it part of their ancestral homeland. Most are descendants of survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman army. Many carry signs denouncing the Turkish government’s direct involvement in the current war. 

 

On a protest sign over the multitude, I spot the strangely familiar shapes of the national monument of Artsakh, named Tatik Papik, or ‘Grandmother Grandfather’: two humanoid heads made of volcanic tuff that straddle ancient aliens and Deco style. The grandparents of Artsakh surf on the tricolour stream across Sixth Avenue. 

 

And then, a sobering sight hits me – a train of three toddlers dressed as soldiers, each riding a red, blue and orange carts of a toy wagon. They are dressed in military uniforms sometimes worn by both Armenian and Azeri soldiers, a worn pattern of war.

 

The protest reaches ABC News, where speakers decry the negligible coverage of a war initiated by Azerbaijan, which launched the first attack. From a platform on Columbus Avenue, the march leaders accuse the Turkish government of orchestrating the war and providing Azeri troops with military intelligence, Syrian mercenary fighters, and drone technology. The Artsakhi army’s Soviet-era radars and T-72 tanks prove useless against the drones that are killing young soldiers from the sky. 

 

Suddenly, amid the crowd, I see his face on a black and white placard. It pains me to meet him here, in New York, in this form, instead of in the flesh, visiting the city as he might have dreamed of, marvelling at nearby Lincoln Center, maybe even taking a film festival by storm. One of his friends told me that he planned to become an educator. When he volunteered to serve in the army, he had gained admission to Boston University to study Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. His aspiration to become, as I later learned, Minister of Education seemed not only plausible but perfectly congruent with who he was, and who he wanted to be. 

 

From the platform, the speaker names Alen Margaryan.

 

 

IV. Nadir

NK. July 31, 2018

 

‘We Are Our Mountains’ reads the inscription on Tatik Papik. Suren stops by the monument and signals me to stand at the feet – or the chins – of pyramidal Tatik and menhir-like Papik for a picture before we continue our drive across the mountains. 

 

Since the nation was founded around 180 BC, stones and forms have been transferred from the mountains onto Armenian structures. The conical domes of Armenian churches are said to represent Mount Ararat, which lay at the heart of the Kingdom of Armenia in its heyday, and where Noah’s Ark allegedly landed. An imposing sight from Yerevan, but located in former Western Armenia and present-day Turkey, Mount Ararat is the pinnacle of territorial nostalgia and irredentist dreams. ‘Artsakh’ was one of the ancient provinces of the Armenian Empire. 

 

On the way to Shushi, I spot on a hill the giant cross that is lit every night, glowing neon white across mountains encrusted with medieval khachkars or ‘cross-stones’ and churches. In Gandzasar monastery, Suren had placed a blade of grass in a tiny orifice on its façade, revealing a secret sundial that has marked the hour since the thirteenth century. 

 

Shushi’s central building is a lofty cathedral built in white limestone, surrounded by paths that shoot out across the lawn like luminous vectors. When I stand before it, Ghazanchetsots Cathedral strikes me as a snow-capped peak amid the craggy buildings of Shushi. Once a buoyant commercial centre of the Caucasus, Shushi had a mixed Armenian and Azeri population exceeding 20,000 in the nineteenth century, as well as several mosques and churches. Ghazanchetsots, one of the largest Armenian cathedrals in the world, was finished in 1887.

 

Armenian churches have a way of turning light into mystifying sights. In one of the monasteries I visited, a thick sun ray shot into the nave through the roof lantern. When a boy stepped into it, his face was blotted out by the flash while another face, printed on his t-shirt, came into view: that of Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of the Armenian Velvet Revolution of 2018. These peaceful street protests, which took place across the country between April and May, received tremendous support from the nation’s youth – including our TUMO writing students, who recounted in class how they had toppled the government and restored democracy that spring. 

 

In Ghazanchetsots, the floating beams of sunlight feel almost structural. Voices of an invisible choir fill the cathedral. Long orange candles lit on wide trays bow into penitent shapes.  Across the twentieth century, this space has been filled with grain and silence, gunpowder and blasts. 

 

Ghazanchetots witnessed the violent clashes between Armenians and Azeris in 1905. The cathedral was badly damaged in 1920, when the Azeri army exterminated the Armenian population of Shushi. Over three days, buildings were burnt down, people set on fire. The bishop’s head was cut off and paraded on a pike.

 

Russian-Armenian writer Marietta Shahinian recorded her impressions of the town after the pogrom: 

 

I saw the skeleton of Shoushy… just stones, stones, and stones, like cleaned, picked and dried bones of a skeleton. […] Everything has the deathly white color of slaked lime. A church of magnificent architecture appears like a ghost, with cornices about to fall. […] In some ditches, you can still see bundles of female hair with black dry blood on it… you expect the silence to fall apart on your head and [suck the air from] your lungs…1

 

To this day, stones stick out throughout a town that never returned to its former life. Shushi, population: 4,000.

 

In 1927, Shahinian augured: ‘Years will pass, maybe decades, and Shoushy will be visited by tourists not for the sake of its beauty… but for the sake of a lesson of history that was taught to the entire Transcaucasus…’2

 

Years and decades have passed. I am one of these tourists. But I came to Artsakh precisely for the sake of its beauty and landscapes, and had found a history that is petrified, and petrifying. 

 

Shushi, among whose possible etymological origins is ‘glass’, has been shattered time and again in inter-ethnic clashes. There is not much glass in Shushi.

 

Reconstructed in 1998 with the support of the diaspora worldwide, Ghazanchetsots stands as a symbol of restoration for the town – and the Armenian people as a whole – amid the radiating paths of its lawn. Arthur had told me that, in 2008, around 500 local brides and grooms lined up on these aisles in a mass wedding. The event was sponsored by Levon Harapetyan, a Russian-based businessman born in the village of Vank (whose tourist attractions he funded), committed to multiplying Artsakh’s population by offering the newlyweds financial incentives for each newborn. In the field around Ghazanchetsots, a thousand vows and rings were exchanged that day.  

 

In 1991, an inverse campaign known as ‘Operation Ring’ had been carried out to reduce the Armenian population in Nagorno Karabakh. Entire villages were encircled by Azeri and Soviet troops. Armenians were rounded up, disarmed, and deported. The blockade pushed Artsakh to consolidate its perimeter and seek independence. 

 

Arthur had instructed me to listen to my own voice in the underbelly of the cathedral. On my visit, I look around the nave, seeking the lower chamber. Through a dark passage, I descend into a vaulted room with small windows that cut through the solid foundations. The light pierces into the soft roundness of the walls. Suren and I hum together. Our tune reverberates in Shushi’s epicenter, and our own.

 

Shushi, or ‘Shusha’, as the Azeri call it, is the birthplace of many literary and musical artists. Azeri poet Yousif Vazir Chemenzeminli (1887–1943) wrote: ‘Imagine a town in the mountains, shrouded in green in spring and summer; and in mist and snow in autumn and winter. This is my town.’3

 

Possessive pronouns abound in the poetry of Karabakh, on both sides (‘We Are Our Mountains’). The deictic centre of the speaker is ethnocentric, even if the poem is uttered from the same geographic spot: Shushi, Shusha.

 

Azerbaijan’s national poet, Khurshidbanu Natavan (1832–1897), sponsored the arts and developed the urban infrastructure in Shusha. An aqueduct of white stones, known as ‘Natavan Springs’, and a bronze bust of her head, along with the town’s extant mosques, were dismantled by the Armenian army in 1992, when the remaining Azeri residents were forced to leave their homes. The Armenians burnt down Shusha into a newly ruined Shushi. 

 

Time and again, the stones from one part of town have been dislodged to rebuild the other. I imagine the stones like reversible pieces, with one side that fits Shushi and another side, Shusha.

 

A poem attributed to Natavan foreshadows the violence that would raze her hometown again and again and again: 

 

Be cut the arms producing bombs,Be cursed those who threaten the peace,

Life is given only once,

Let not there be anything destroying life4

 

Natavan’s poem cuts across the centuries and across the ethnic divide, cursing any missile flying onto either Shusha or Shushi. 

 

V. Plateau

NY. October 8, 2020

 

Ghazanchetsots Cathedral is shelled twice by the Azeri army. Shushi locals who were praying and lighting candles in the nave seek refuge in the lower chamber of the cathedral. The shell-shocked enclosure is filled with noise – white, like the shattered limestone. 

 

Amid the rubble in the cathedral, Belgian-Armenian cellist Sevak Avanesyan performs ‘Crane’ by Komitas. The melody hovers amid the broken acoustics, then soars and escapes through the round hole in the roof left by the projectile – a metre wide circle.

 

Shushi-born Azeri writer Kasim bey Zakir (1784-1857) wrote from exile a nostalgic poem about his homeland also titled ‘Cranes’, which begins with: 

 

Raise your wings to the air for a moment, O twin cranes moving in unison!

Which homeland are you coming from?5

 

In the poem, the twin cranes are coming from Shusha. 

 

Among the remnants of the cathedral shelling, Human Rights Watch identifies wings –  wings made of titanium alloy used to stabilise the flight of missiles and steer them toward a specific target.

 

A missile is not a poem, even if both are winged.

 

 

NY. November 8, 2020

 

The fall of Shushi. A shush, a hush, a secret.

 

The war has taken a final turn with the capture of Shushi by the Azeri army. Two days later, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia sign a peace agreement to end hostilities. Outraged Yerevanites, many of whom hailed Nikol Pashinyan’s name during the Velvet Revolution, take over the same streets to demand his resignation. 

 

The armistice is drafted along the lines of the Azeri administrative divisions. In addition to the southern areas seized by the Azeri army during the war, three districts are scheduled to be ceded to Azerbaijan after the ceasefire: Agdam (formerly part of Artsakh’s Martakert region) on the east, where the archeological site of Tigranakert is located; and Lachin (or Kashtagh Province) and Kalbajar (or Shahumyan Province) on the west, which connects Artsakh and Armenia. After the 1991-1994 war, Artsakh had expanded its borders to these surrounding territories. Now, Artsakh is to become a smaller island in Azerbaijan, only linked to Armenia by the Lachin corridor, which is set to be patrolled by Russian peacekeepers for the foreseeable future. Following what has been regarded as a ‘divide and rule’ strategy, it was Stalin who decided to maintain the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within Azerbaijan in the 1920’s. Moscow remains the power broker in the Caucasus today.

 

In gaining Kalbajar district, Azerbaijan has also taken control over half of the Sotk/Zod mine, which is cut through by the frontier. The other half of the mine lies in Armenia. This re-established section of the Armenian-Azeri border is now a rift filled with gold. 

 

The Armenian residents of the districts relinquished to Azerbaijan are setting their houses on fire, cutting the trees in their backyards, and unburying their dead before they are forced out of their homeland. 

 

I imagine the trees salting the soil when cut down, and the homes blessed with salt, burning. 

 

The Azeri also take over water reservoirs in the north and south of Artsakh. Yet, the most significant asset seized by Azerbaijan – apart from natural resources and political capital – is culture. Shusha is named ‘Azerbaijan’s cultural capital’ in 2021. The government of Artsakh had planned to relocate the National Assembly to Shushi in 2022, to mark the 30th anniversary of the liberation of the city. The future parliament building is left behind, with a construction crane sticking out of its half-built structure. Instead, the bust of the poet Natavan is returned to Shusha. The Azeri dismantle Ghazanchetsots cathedral, stripping down its conical roofs. Without its mountainous domes, where peace had briefly recollected, the cathedral of Shushi looks as if it had been beheaded. 

 

A friend shows me a photo of the Shushi Grand Hotel from the same spot where I had taken a farewell picture of its owner, Silva. Instead of a woman with pink hair smiling at the entrance of the hotel, a soldier holds an automatic rifle and stands on the Artsakh flag, which cascades down the steps.

 

‘I don’t like this moment very much,’ Silva had muttered when we said goodbye from the top of those front steps. We felt a lingering closeness from our conversation on the terrace the night before, as the hotel had filled up with new guests and Silva had invited in the memories of past ones – sheep munching on the front garden, villagers finding refuge, soldiers seeking rest when stars of danger flashed. As we chatted, Mars had moved across the sky of Artsakh, over the mountains, framing our encounter in the Shushi Grand Hotel, through which much has passed: spring, winter, sheep, villagers, soldiers, guests like me, Arthur and Silva, Artsakh itself.  

 

On the van ride back to Yerevan, I had discovered, forgotten in my pocket, the key to my hotel room in Shushi.

 

1. Marietta Shahinian, ‘Nagorno Karabakh,’ 1927, in Shoushy. The City of Tragic Fate, eds. Shahen Mkrtchian and Shchors Davtian (Yerevan: Gasprint, 2008), p. 123.

A warm thanks to Dr. Khatchig Mouradian for his illuminating course on “Nagorno Karabakh: History, Culture, and Conflict” and for his support and advice on sources and readings for this piece. 

2. Ibid.

3. F. Shushinsky, ‘Shusha’ (1998). Online at: https://karabakh.org/karabakh-culture/famous-people/famous-poets-and-writers/

4.  Najafova Marziyya Allahyar Gizi, ‘El tema de “Karabaj” en la poesía azerbaiyana,’ Revista Dilemas Contemporáneos: Educación, Política y Valores VI, 15 (July 2019) p. 10.

5. Afina Barmanbay, ‘The Study Of “Turnalar” Poems of Vidadi, Vagif and Zakir,’ 13, 31 (2020), pp. 1141-1155. 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer currently working on a hybrid collection of fiction and nonfiction about Venezuelan exile and ‘insile’. She finds inspiration in the politics and poetics of liminal spaces, and the occasional cosmic encounter. 

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