The newly rejuvenated PEN Georgian Center is launching a series of discussions on hate speech and the role of The Writer in working against discrimination of vulnerable groups and minorities. The project aims at bringing writers from the Eastern Partnership countries (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova) together and raise awareness of hate speech campaigns in all 6 countries to discuss how they are similar or different, and what to do about them.
WE WERE DESCENDING from the mediaeval Saint George’s chapel overlooking Mukhrani valley toward the majority ethnic Azerbaijani village of Tsikhisdziri. We were thirsty as eucalyptus and I was longing for a cigarette. In the first store at the outskirts of the village, an Armenian shopkeeper gave us the water but not cigarettes. After the recent price hike many village stores just stopped selling them.
In search of cigarettes we bumped into a company of locals at another village store. Here was the true Caucasus in its essence: my host and guide, a Georgian Azerbaijani talking in Georgian to an Assyrian woman; the Assyrian woman talking to me in Azerbaijani; me, an Azerbaijani from Azerbaijan, talking to a Russian grandmother in Russian, and the Georgian shopkeeper who apparently understood all languages spoken but managed to utter not a word even when he sold me a pack of cigarettes.
We in the Caucasus may not speak one common language literally, but we all can understand each other, can talk and trade and live together. This is what my newly-found heaven on the Earth, the village of Tsikhisdziri demonstrates yet again. But let us not forget that this idyll is as fragile as a fine glass. Believe me, I am from Baku, I have seen with my own eyes how a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional community, which took two centuries to build, collapsed in the span of just a few months.
ISMAIL GOES TO SLEEP with a phone in his hand, scrolling down his Facebook timeline endlessly and looking for political news and discussions until his brain turns off. It may seem like some sort of social media addiction but in this way Ismail is constantly battling a time zone difference. Maybe it is bedtime in Virginia where Ismail now lives, but life is bustling in Baku and political content on Facebook is at its peak.
A popular radio host in the 1990s, Ismail has recently re-invented himself as an online media activist as we call them in Baku where an increasingly authoritarian government got hold of almost all TV, print and online media long ago. A handful of individuals like Ismail play a vital role of the free media in Azerbaijan, reporting the unreported and giving a voice to the unheard.
These online media activists use YouTube and Facebook to broadcast political commentary and interviews, and do live videos where they discuss national politics long banished from TV channels. Not all of this online programming is OK in terms of fairness but Ismail tries to be different. His background in journalism comes handy here. He checks facts beforehand, censors his emotions, pays attention to language and stays vigilant to fake news.
Being a YouTube star is laborious especially if you are a journalist, talk about Azerbaijani politics and live in the US. But for Ismail, battling time zones and the government in Baku is the least of his challenges.
Ismail is also openly gay and this is still an issue in the conservative Azerbaijani society.
When Ismail decided to become an activist, didn’t he know that he was making himself a target of the most vicious homophobic hate speech?
“I knew it from the very first moment, I expected it from the beginning,” says Ismail with the impeccable voice of a newscaster, – “but it was an act of riot. It was my rebellion.”