Voice of Talysh

Голос Талыша

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Voice of Talysh

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The Sociolinguistic Situation of Talyshs in Azerbaijan

Part of the report «Minorities in Azerbaijan
The Sociolinguistic Situation of Lezgis, Udis, Georgians (Ingiloys) and Talyshs in Azerbaijan - with a Particular Focus on Education»

1.1.4 Talysh

The Talysh are an Iranian people who are settled in the south-eastern part of Azerbaijan, mainly in the Lenkeran, Yardimly, Masalli, Lerik and Astara districts. The 1999 census registered 76’800 Talyshs in Azerbaijan. Primarily, they are rural residents (97 per cent). The latest census however indicates their presence also in the cities of Sumgayit and Baku. The 1999 census data undoubtedly under-represents the actual number of the Talysh population. A more realistic number seems to be between 200’000 and 250’000 Talysh living in Azerbaijan.

Some of the Soviet censuses ignored the existence of Talyshs in Azerbaijan: the 1926 census counted 77’039 Talyshs living in Soviet Azerbaijan (3.3 per cent). In the 1959, 1970 and 1979 censuses they simply disappeared from the list of Soviet ethnicities. Only in the 1989 census the Talysh had again the possibility to indicate their ethnicity. However, only 21’200 people registered as Talysh, which corresponds to 0.3 per cent of the population of Soviet Azerbaijan.

Their language of communication is Talysh, relating to the Iranian group of the Indo-European linguistic family. Talysh has three major dialects — Northern (in Azerbaijan and Iran), Central (in Iran), and Southern (in Iran), regarded by some linguists as separate languages. These dialects also have a number of sub-dialects. Most Talysh are bi-lingual, speaking Talysh and Azerbaijani. Talysh adhere to Shi’a Islam. Historically, the Talysh came under Turkish influence during the Middle-Ages, but established their own khanate in the 17th century, with the capital first in Astara and later in Lenkeran. At the 1828 peace treaty of Turkmenchay, the Talysh lands were divided between Russia and Iran.18 According to data from 1983, nearly 100’000 Talysh live in Iran.

1.3.3 Talysh Activism since Independence

In June 1993, at the time of general turmoil in Azerbaijan which ended the short rule of the Azeri Popular Front, ethnic Talysh Alikram Humbatov, a former commander of a military unit in southern Azerbaijan, proclaimed himself leader of the ”Talysh-Mugan Republic”. He ordered a group of officers to establish a break-away republic of seven districts of south-east Azerbaijan, which lasted two month. The local population, however, did not support him. Humbatov’s plan to take advantage of the general political turmoil was miscalculated, and his upraise was easily crushed by the regime of Heidar Aliev. Azeris widely consider this ‘coup’ as being planned and supported by the Russian KGB, Russia seeking to keep the Caucasus under its influence. Humbatov now lives in the Netherlands, after being pardoned in 2004 from a life prison sentence.

Nowadays, the issue of a realistic assessment of the size of the Talysh community is still to be resolved. The suppression of Talysh identity and their inability to promulgate their culture and language during the Soviet period has left its traces. In addition, the brief period of separatism in 1993 has caused a deep-rooted fear of being accused of colluding with Armenia or Russia.  These two factors have caused a deep reluctance of voicing any kind of national expressions. Official statistics, as stated above, indicate the number of Talysh living in Azerbaijan at 76’800 people. Talysh activists however claim that up to a million Talysh live on the territory of Azerbaijan.

Arif Yunus stated in this regard that "significant changes have occurred in Talysh selfidentification over the last 10 years”38. "Nowadays, Azerbaijan’s Talysh community cannot be easily characterized. The group”, Yunus said, "is roughly divided between those who seek to obtain independence from Azerbaijan, those who want cultural autonomy within Azerbaijan, and those who want to promote Talysh language and culture, but also to establish warmer ties with ethnic Azeris”.

Hema Kotecha, a development researcher and anthropologist who wrote a discussion paper on Islamic and Ethnic Identities in Azerbaijan in 2006, stated that "Talysh identity” was fairly nebulous and that during her research it was virtually impossible to tell the level of support for any form of the Talysh movement. Kotecha notes that the main difficulty to assess the nature of Talysh identity and the extent of its potential politicization or possibility of bringing it to the public sphere is the intense public-private divide. She argues that the lack of interest by many in their ethnicity and the dislike of the ethnic question can be explained to a large extend by the historical suppression. Further, according to Kotecha the lack of interest is also due to pragmatism – that it is not professionally useful to be Talysh – and to a certain dislike of nonconformism in society in general. Last, she notes that parts of the Talysh movement are terrified of the police.

The experiences we made during out research in the southern regions of Azerbaijan go in line with the above statements. The people we interviewed could be classified into two groups: on the one hand Talysh activists who usually went very far in their statements and claims; on the other hand people who were completely disinterested in Talysh issues and usually answered inconsistently to the question whether they are Talysh or Azeri and whether their mother tongue is Talysh or Azerbaijani. Zahir Amanov, editor-in-chief of the independent regional newspaper "South News”, thinks that there is a serious problem in the present day selfperception of the Talysh people. "People here don’t know who they are, Talysh or Azeri. When they meet some Talysh nationalists, those nationalists make them say "I’m Talysh”, but in many other occasions they say "I’m Azeri””.41 Ella Alibekova, a historian from the Academy of Sciences in Baku, mentioned that "for a large number of Talysh, their being Talysh is restricted to the family sphere and the Talysh-speaking community. Towards the outside world, they deny their ethnic belonging.”42 The editor-in-chief of the "South News” independent newspaper further mentioned that "in a poll conducted among the people in the south of Azerbaijan, in which everybody could indicate which are his or her biggest concerns, the issue of promoting Talysh language did not even occupy the 10th place. Economic hardship, especially the large number of unemployed people in the southern regions, and concerns of every-day life are much
more pressing to the people.”

Talysh activists, in turn, are highly concerned with the fate of the Talysh culture, history and language. Their major claims are to open a faculty for Talysh language in the Lenkeran State University, to broadcast Talysh-language TV programs on state TV for several hours a week, and to get some state funding for organizing Talysh cultural activities like for example folkloric dance. Talysh activists stated further that they would like Talysh to be an official state language, among Azeri and other minority languages as for example Lezgi language. Some of the Talysh activists we met went as far as saying that Azerbaijani language developed out of the Talysh language. Arif Yunus explains this by what he calls "the psychology of minorities”, "which makes them exaggerate facts and overestimate the role that their community played. For instance, the population figures they give concerning the Talysh population in Azerbaijan are out of any relations.”

During our research trip in Lenkeran, our interviewees indicated very different numbers when asked about the percentages of the Talysh population living in the Lenkoran district. The Chairman of the Department of Public Relations of the local authorities indicated that 82 per cent of the population were Azeri, and 12 per cent were Talysh. Later on, he said that in fact 90 per cent of the population have Talysh roots, but they consider themselves Azeri. About himself he told us: "My roots are Talysh, my ethnic belonging is Talysh, but I consider myself Azeri.” Further he explained: "I was Talysh, but today we are members of Azerbaijan, that’s why today I am Azeri.” When asked about his mother tongue, he said Azeri. He prolonged: "Talyshs are a small nation. When I go to Europe, and people ask me who I am, and I answer Talysh, they will not know who I am. But when I say Azeri, they will immediately know where I am coming from”.

Talysh people hold a lot of official posts in Lenkeran. However, they very often deny their ethnic background, pretending that they are Azeri. Arif Yunus describes them as being "more Azeri than a real Azeri”. (Arif Yunus explains: "Who was putting forward the russification in Soviet Azerbaijan? Not the Russians, but the Azeris themselves!”) Indeed, one Talysh activist complained that with the change of the rector of the university three years ago from an Azeri to a Talysh, he buried all his hopes that there will ever be a faculty for Talysh language studies opened.

At the time we were in Lenkeran, the situation was especially tense due to the recent arrest of a prominent member of the Talysh minority. In February 2007, Novruzali Mammadov, head of the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan’s Institute of Philology, editor-in-chief of the Talyshlanguage newspaper Tolyshi Sado (Voice of the Talysh) and head of the Talysh Cultural Center, was arrested in Baku and charged with high treason.46 Some Azeri analysts believe that growing tensions between the United States and Iran have prompted his arrest. Arif Yunus characterizes the arrests as part of a campaign to give the "appearance of fighting against terrorism, a demonstration which the Azeri authorities, from time to time, make to the United States and the West”

Increasingly, minorities in Azerbaijan are associated with the growing religious activism in the country. Currently, it is claimed that Iranian influence is growing in the Lenkeran area, which affirms more and more a Muslim identity with new mosques and madrassas being built with financial backing from Iran. The proximity of the Talysh people in southern Azerbaijan to the Iranian border is believed to reinforce Iran’s religious influence.48 The Turan news agency distributed a report claiming that Iranian intelligence services usually look among the Talysh minority when recruiting Azerbaijan-based agents.

We perceived the atmosphere in Lenkeran to be very tense. We did not get permission by the local authorities to go to schools or to any other official institution. When we approached people in official positions, for example at the District Education Department, they were very reluctant to give us any information, saying that they were not allowed to answer any question without the permission of the head of the department. Some Talysh activists were afraid to meet with us or told us not to mention to anybody about our meeting. In a discussion with one Talysh activist and several Azeri human rights activists, we asked the Talysh activist about the activities of his Talysh cultural centre. He underlined that he does not conduct any political activities. The person next to him laughed and said: "You are Talysh, that’s already enough political.” All the Human Rights activists we met in Lenkeran sharply criticized the authoritarian rule of the Head of the local authorities (executive power) in Lenkeran. We had a chance to meet him, and to assure ourselves of his tyrannical rule.

3.2.4 The Role of Talysh, Azerbaijani and Russian in Talysh-populated areas

The Talysh interviewees in Lenkeran gave very different and sometimes controversial answers when questioned about their mother tongue. They often switched between Azerbaijani and Talysh being their mother tongue. All of our interviewees in Lenkeran had a very good command of Azerbaijani.

Talysh language is used in the family as well as in informal situations, when only local people are present. In the mountain communities, where the Talyshs live in mono-ethnic villages, Talysh is still widely used. In lowland communities, a relatively high level of intermarriage and the fact that lowland communities that were once homogenous are becoming increasingly ethnically mixed results in Azerbaijani becoming more and more the language of wider communication in all spheres. Even in the home, parents increasingly use Azerbaijani with their children in order to prepare them for school. Azerbaijani is generally perceived to be the key to future success in education, business, politics and communication. In ethnically mixed villages, the use of Talysh is reported to be generally low, except among elderly people. In particular children’s proficiency in Talysh is decreasing rapidly, except in remote Talysh villages.

Russian plays a far less important role than Azerbaijani as a language of wider communication in the Talysh region. Much of this is due to the fact that the Talysh region is physically isolated from Russia. In the census of 1989, less than five per cent of the Talysh population reported that Russian was their first or second language. This trend seems to be continuing in spite of the fact that as many as 25 per cent of men under the age of 35 from the Talysh region are currently working in Russia.

Development of literacy in Talysh occurred in two periods in the last century. The first was in the 1930s when the Soviets developed a large number of languages as literary languages. The second was in the 1990s after Azerbaijan became an independent country. A small body of literature in Talysh language has been prepared during these two periods. The most significant development of the 1990s was the publication of two Talysh newspapers and a set of Talysh literacy books for grades one to four.78 However, Talysh people have been significantly influenced by Azerbaijani language in the fields of education and media. For at least the last century, education for the Talysh has been in Azerbaijani. TV, radio and printed media have also been primarily in Azerbaijani.

4.5 The Situation of Talysh Language Education in Talyshpopulated Areas

For our research, we further traveled to Lenkeran in the south of the country. The district of Lenkeran is the second largest of the Talysh districts in terms of population. According to the 1999 census, 33 per cent of the Talysh reside in Lenkeran, whereas 48 per cent live in Masally district, bordering Lenkeran district in the north.88 With regard to the percentage that the Talysh population makes up in Lenkeran district, there is outstanding controversy (see Chapter 1.3.3 on Talysh Activism Since Independence). Researchers of the SIL-Study on the Sociolinguistic Situation of the Talysh in Azerbaijan state in their report that 90 per cent of the total population of Lenkeran district is ethnically and linguistically Talysh.

We faced considerable restriction in our work in Lenkeran. We were not given permission by the local authorities to go to schools or to any other official institution. When we approached people in official positions, for example at the District Education Department, they were very reluctant to give us any information, saying that they were not allowed to answer any question without the permission of the head of the department. Some Talysh activists were afraid to meet with us or told us not to mention to anybody about our meeting.

4.5.1 The Situation of Talysh Language Education in the Soviet Times

In the early Soviet period, the Talysh experienced a revival of their culture. Schools taught the entire curriculum in Talysh language, a newspaper in Talysh language was established and more than 500 books were published in Talysh language.90 In the 1930s however, repression against the Talysh population grew stronger and in the end of the decade the Talysh language schools were closed. Since the 1930s, the medium of instruction has been Azerbaijani.

4.5.2 The Current Possibilities Offered by the State to Study Talysh Language at School

Since 1992, Talysh classes have been offered in homogenous Talysh communities. A Talysh language program has been developed for the grades one to four (two hours a week). However, there are no Talysh language classes offered in ethnically mixed communities. The teaching of Talysh language is therefore restricted to villages, which are mostly settled in the mountainous regions. According to the director of the pedagogical college in Lenkeran, between 20 and 25 schools out of a total of 88 schools in Lenkeran district offer Talysh language classes.

4.5.3 The Actual Situation of Schools as regards Qualified Teachers and Teaching Materials

According to a methodologist working at the District Education Department (DED) in
Lenkeran, two textbooks - for the second and the third grade - have been published in 2006. The textbooks for the first and the fourth grade have been published in 1997. Talysh activists expressed their dissatisfaction with the quality of the books. They explained the bad quality by the fact that the authors did not yet have any practice in preparing Talysh language textbooks. According to the methodologist working at the DED, a teacher’s guide book for instructing Talysh language has been published in 1991. According to Talysh activists, there is a general lack of textbooks for the Talysh language classes.

The director of the pedagogical college in Lenkeran informed us that from 1992 to 1996, his institution prepared teachers for Talysh language instruction. In 1996 they stopped "because there was no more need for the preparation of Talysh language teachers”. However, according to Talysh activists, the teachers of Talysh language are not qualified, and the level of teaching is very low. Often, Talysh classes are used for teaching other subjects.

There is no possibility to study Talysh language at the Lenkeran State University. The introduction of Talysh language as a subject in the Lenkeran branch of the State University is one of the most pressing claims of the Talysh activists.

To the dissatisfaction of our Talysh interviewees, the deputy director of the District Education Department, who is a specialist of Talysh language, was dismissed in March 2007. They expressed fear that from now on, there will be even less attention paid to the instruction of Talysh language.

4.5.4 Talysh Children’s Language Proficiency before and after School and Access to Higher Education

In Talysh villages, children do not know Azerbaijani language before going to school. In the first grades, the teachers generally use Talysh language to explain the pupils the Azerbaijani words which they don’t understand. Talysh children from lowland communities have greater contact with Azerbaijani-speakers and therefore usually know Azerbaijani well before they start school. More and more, parents in ethnically mixed communities speak in Azerbaijani with their children in order to prepare them for school. According to our Talysh interviewees, children who grow up in cities cannot speak Talysh language properly.

By the time of finishing school, Talysh children who live in ethnically mixed communities are reported to speak Azerbaijani as fluently as their Azeri classmates. They are generally more proficient in Azerbaijani than in Talysh. Even children who live in remote mountain villages are reported to have a high level of Azerbaijani by the end of the eleventh grade.

Concerning literacy, it was reported that all individuals who speak Talysh could read and write Talysh, but most rarely do either.

With regard to access to higher education, Talysh children were reported to have the same chances as Azeri children as they have equal proficiency in Azerbaijani.

4.5.5 Attitudes towards Instruction in Azerbaijani, Russian and Talyshs Language

It was very difficult for us to get a grip of the attitudes towards the Azerbaijani-medium instruction. The Chairman of the Department of Public Relations of the local government, who is ethnically Talysh but considers himself Azeri, stated: "All my knowledge entered my brain through the Azerbaijani language, as all the education I got was in Azerbaijani language. The Azerbaijani language was for me the gate to the world.” However, he wants his children to know Talysh language, but he does not consider it the duty of the school to teach it to them. At home, he speaks in Azerbaijani with his children. He showed himself upset about the claims of some Talysh people with regard to the insufficiency of Talysh language classes at school. ”The Talysh are very patriotic. They say that what is done for them (he means the two hours a week of Talysh language instruction during primary school) is very little. I do not know what they want more.” He further finds it very nearsighted to increase the hours of Talysh teaching, because there is no literature available in Talysh language.

The director of the pedagogical college stated: "Now we focus on English language. We need English to integrate into the world. What can we do with Talysh language?” According to Azeri interviewees, Talysh people choose more and more Azerbaijani language in order to have access to all possibilities available in Azerbaijan. They gave the example of some Azeris in Baku who speak Russian as their first language in order to have access to Russian information or education.

Talysh activists however see the situation differently: they claim that the state practices a policy of forced assimilation by sabotaging the teaching of the Talysh language and by not supporting the publication of Talysh-language books.

Arzu Abdullayeva, Chairwoman of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in Baku, stated the following. "In the early 90s, some Talysh representatives came to my office and claimed that they want their schools to be entirely in Talysh language. I took note of their claim and promised to lobby for it. Sometime later, another group of Talysh came to me and voiced their deep dissatisfaction with the idea of having the whole curriculum in Talysh language. They argued that this would result in the whole Talysh nation being stuck at a low level of education, because there are no universities where they could continue higher education in Talysh. I understood the argumentation of the later, and stopped lobbying for a curriculum entirely in the minority language.”

Most of the Talysh activists nowadays do not want the whole curriculum to be in Talysh language. Their claims focus on increasing the quality of the classes, first of all by preparing qualified Talysh language teachers. Other Talysh activists claimed to increase the number of Talysh lessons to around five hours a week, from the first grade to the eleventh grade. They argue that speaking Talysh is not enough, and learning the literary language requires much more time and efforts.

The director of the Cultural Centre in Lenkeran confirms that at home, more and more parents speak in Azerbaijani with their children, because they are afraid that their children otherwise will not be able to succeed at school. But in his view, only low-educated parents neglect to pass on the mother tongue to their children.

Lea Gerber
Spring, 2007

Quadrupole version of the report here
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