On The Front Line Of The Forgotten War Of Nagorno-Karabakh

The breakaway country’s fight for independence has lasted 25 years in the rubble of the Soviet empire. There is, inevitably perhaps, a growing religious rhetoric to the battle.

In a car near the border with Azerbaijan, 30km from the capital Stepanakert
Roberto Travan

STEPANAKERTâ€" Marut is wearing faded camouflage, with a bayonet clamped to his belt and a degree in his pocket. He tells us how his grandfather fought the Germans in 1945, how an uncle of his took on the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1980s and how his father fought against Azerbaijan in the 1992 war for independence.

Two years ago, Marut joined the fight himself, serving on the frontline against Azerbaijan just like his father once did.

Marut’s story is hardly unique in these parts. “Here, everyone has fought to defend our land and our mountains,” he explains, holding a Kalashnikov so battered it seems to have taken part in all the wars he just described. Theirs is a fight clearly against the odds, as the international community considers the would-be breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh to be part of Azerbaijan.

Marut and his men â€" young conscripts barely pushing 20 with gaunt faces, shaved heads and sunburned skin â€" stay in the shade of the sandbags, hiding both from the snipers and the suffocating heat. They battle various enemies: the insects, the homesickness, the time passing so slowly, any way they can. Some close their eyes and pray in an improvised chapel by the nettings, covered in dust, creased holy pictures and spent tealights.

Armenian forces in Karabakh in 1994 â€" Photo: Armdesant

But the main enemy, the Azeri military, is just meters away from the barbed wire, beyond the minefields at the end of the no-man’s land. “A couple of weeks ago they killed one of our men,” says Marut, pointing to the centimeters-wide opening in the wire through which the fatal shot passed.

For every season

The front, several hundreds of kilometers long, follows the entire frontier with Azerbaijan, from Iran up to Armenia. It is furrowed with trenches that are sweltering in the summer, humid quagmires in autumn and frigid, windswept shelters from enemy mortars in the winter. It is a quiet war of attrition, a conflict forgotten for 25 years â€" and perhaps many more to come. Up here in the mountains, peace seems such a distant prospect it doesn't really get talked about.

Azerbaijan wants its province back while Nagorno-Karabakh wants its freedom, and this fragile standoff (at times no shots are fired for months, then raging combat suddenly resumes) continues to cost millions of dollars in armaments and a toll in human lives, including at least ten killed this summer.

Seventy years before its collapse at the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union transferred this Christian Armenian-majority province to the the Muslim region of Azerbaijan. In 1991, an independence referendum sparked two years of warfare that left 30,000 people dead, thousands injured, almost a million refugees and countless internally displaced. Dozens of villages were razed, with crumbling bridges, mosques and churches reduced to rubble.

The Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi â€" Photo: Serouj

Many on both sides of the conflict say that the war was fought above all along ethnic lines. But others point to the increasingly religious nature of the conflict. “We are the last stronghold to defend Christian Europe from the assault of Islam,” says an official, holding a rosary in his hands. “Russia understands this, you in the West don’t …”

While Russia maintains a military garrison in Armenia, this doesn’t stop Moscow from selling weapons to Azerbaijan at dizzying prices. Caught in the middle is this tiny land’s obstinate struggle for independence that has so far gone unrecognized by every state in the world â€" not even by “mother” Armenia.

“We are our mountains,” reads a monument at the doors of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. These mountains are rough, beautiful and forgotten, where young men like Marut continue to face down the enemy and die for the sake of an elusive independence.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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