“This”, says the guide, a man in his twenties with a face which I learned was characteristic of the Azeris–round, with a hint of a mustache and beard and very short hair- “this below us is the city of Quba”.
We are standing at the top of a cliff, overlooking an urban development that at first sight looks like any other in this country– bright tin roofs, low-slung buildings, a few cars covered in dust because of the wind, no commercial signs or logos—and, surprisingly, few mosques in a Muslim Shiite country.
Then I see the river that runs through Quba, and in the distance I notice a perimeter of distinctive houses. They are more attractive, much larger, and decidedly different compared to others in surrounding areas. None of these houses is like any other.
“This is where the Jewses (sic) of Quba live”, says the guide, pointing at the group of houses I was looking at. “They are very successful.”
Behind us is a cemetery. While the rest of the group stares at the river and the city, I walk alone toward those iron gates and immediately recognize a Mogen David. The gate is not unlike one at the cemetery outside Buenos Aires where my father is buried, or one in Rishon Letzion, Israel, that contains my ex father-in-law’s remains, or even the cemetery where my sister rests in nearby Eden Memorial Park – Mission Hills. I walk slowly reading the Russian and Hebrew inscriptions and stare at the photographs of the deceased etched in stone.
“They have the best cars”, continues the guide. “Ferraris, Mercedes. They have them all. Jewses in Quba live very well.” His face portrays satisfaction, and pride, and the other members of my group – mainly journalists from Europe, several from the US– listen and nod.
By their own account, members of the Jewish community of Azerbaijan enjoy an excellent relationship with the government, who consider them as Azeris in every respect. Locals congratulate themselves on the good neighborhood. Moreover, Jews are an important component of the national ethos necessary to establish an identity of this state which emerged in August 1991 from the Soviet Union, and still struggles to develop into an independent, democratic entity.
Azerbaijan’s Jewry is part of the fabric of the state, not unlike the Jews of Sefarad (Spain) during the First Caliphate. And despite their minuscule numbers –maybe 12,000 in a population of 8 million– their presence is known and acknowledged, especially that of the Jews of Quba. These Mountain Jews, as they are called, have been living in this area for a very long time. How long? Perhaps 2,500 years; they consider themselves the descendants of those Jews exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BC. These leaders, the nobility and clergy of Judea, are the descendants of the crowd that didn’t return to the Holy Land with Ezra and Nehemiah to build the Second Temple, but, instead, remained in what is modern day Iran. In the 8th century, when the Muslims from the Arab Peninsula conquered the area, they brought the Jewish tribe, an ally, to this area to serve as a barrier against the Kazakhs to the north. These Jews settled in and around Baku. In 1730, they were officially allowed to put down roots and own property in the Quba province, and subsequently assimilated among the non-Jews of the area.
I have read this and other accounts about the Mountain Jews and now I am ready to meet them. As we approach the city I see kids running toward the buses, and they look like other youth from the villages we passed in our three hour trip from the hotel in Baku, all well dressed and seemingly well fed. They talk to us in broken English as we park by the community center and approach a small group of congregational leaders.
I am the only Jew in the group; the others seem to sense my emotion as they begin taking pictures as we approach. As the only Jew in La Opinion, the daily Spanish newspaper in Los Angeles where I work, I am accustomed to this type of behavior. As I reach the group of Azeri Jews, I look at them looking at us and realize all of a sudden, that those people and I have more in common than anybody else here, and so I step up and the guide introduces me to the head of the community, and then I say “Sholem Aleichem”, and I also say in Hebrew, “Ani Yehoudi”, and point to myself. We stare at each other, each noting our similarities, and we hug in the middle of a street in Quba, Azerbaijan.
Now I feel part of them. We enter the building, and my ‘cousin’ speaks to me in Azeri which is translated into English. He is a mathematician, he says. He points to signs on the wall with lists of names, those of Jews that died in the long fight against the Armenians: a few dozen. Like everybody else in our trip, he speaks of the allegiance to the President Ilham Aliyev, with special attention to the memory of his father, the late President Heydar Aliyev.
While 93% of the population is Muslim, according to the US Department of State, the Constitution mandates no state religion, a legacy from the former Soviet Union. The residents wear western clothes and in the official meals we were offered throughout the trip, vodka, wine and beer where served. Ethnically I cannot differentiate between Azeris and Mountain Jews. But Yevda Abramov, the Jewish Member of the National Assembly representing rural Quba, whom I met in his office in the Parliament building in Baku, enumerates those differences.
“The Jewish community”, says Abramov, “differs from the rest of the population in education and lifestyle. We are very educated and operate businesses. We kept the
Persian language,” Abramov told me, referring to the Jewish version of the dialect Tat, “but 25% of the words we use are in Hebrew.”.
Like almost everything else in Baku, the Parliament building is undergoing massive additions and renovations, but will no doubt maintain its unmistakable Soviet era character—bulky, impersonal, with massive amounts of concrete, small doors and an oversized walkway. Abramov’s office is a small room devoid of decorations on the building’s fifth floor.
“I ran against seventeen other candidates of my own party” (the ruling New Azeri Party,) Abramov stated. “I won over all of them”, he emphasizes, “and a selection committee representing the OSCE (the major world body???? Azerbaijan is a member of, “was watching the election. This is a democracy.”
In Quba he was a teacher, a principal and a rural organizer. “Today Quba is not unlike any other Jewish community,” he tells my translator, who then talks to me in Spanish. “Our rabbi, butcher, mohel, chazzan,– all educated in Israel.” One of his sons lives in Israel.
Since the Helsinki Accords of 1972, the Jews of Azerbaijan, also called the Kuzaris, have been exiting the country in large numbers: to Israel, where they number more than 50,000 to Austria and to the US. Since most of the emigrants were Ashkenazis from Baku, the Mountain Jews remained as the majority of the community in the country.
Abramov, a bulky man with a prominent moustache, enumerates the successes of Jews in Azerbaijan, mostly in government positions. There are some well known Azeri artists that are Jewish. According to him, his country is a model for religious liberty in the world, “especially compared to Armenia,” he emphasizes, where “there are not even ten Jewish families today.”
While the country keeps a remarkable pace of development –an annual 11.4% in xxxx- and focuses on very rapid urban construction, exploitation of its huge oil reserves and the expansion of the apparatus of the state, its main concern is the conflict with Armenia. My hosts took me to a “recently discovered mass grave” – a horrific pile of bones at the end of a soccer field in a small town. These are, they claimed, the remains of hundreds of Azeris slaughtered by Armenians in 1918. At the same time Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire. The skeletons were not buried, told me my guides, because “the world needs to see this”.
Abramov supports this official line. “If there is a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan”, said Abramov, “many Jews will die. Please, clarify that to the world. In the war for Karabakh the first fallen hero was Jewish. Send the message.”
Between 1992 and 1994, the war between the two new countries left 30,000 dead and 800,000 refugees, almost all of the Azeris. Armenia, a country of less than 2 million compared to 8 million of Azerbaijan, conquered the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, about 16% of the territory of Azerbaijan.
One of the refugees was Emin Alesgerov, my translator, who is 22 years old. “I lived there with my grandparents; I was seven years old, and they told us to leave. My grandparents still want to go back.”
Idahav Orijov, Minister of Religious Affairs, becomes emotional describing the war. He stands by a map on the wall in his office and looks for a spot that shows his hometown in the area controlled by Armenia. Then he describes a series of settlements destroyed by the conquerors.
Nazim Ibrahimov, Minister of the Diaspora, a population he put at 50 million (35 in Lower Azerbaijan, in Iran) in 36 countries, talks about the need to organize that diaspora “like the Jews, the Italians, the Irish of the United States did” to counter the influence of the Armenian diaspora.
Recovering the lost territory is considered the supreme goal of the state. To gain support for their cause they resort to every imaginable resource, including a strategic alliance with Turkey, a main ally, and Israel, with which they established diplomatic relations in xxx. An Israeli embassy opened in Baku, although no embassy exists in Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv. When I went to meet the head of the Embassy I found an old friend.
Arthur Lenk, a native of New Jersey, served as the Los Angeles Israeli Consul for Communications and Public Affairs in Los Angeles (dates: I erased them by mistake.) . We had met on several occasions back then, as the Consulate implemented a distinctive process of recognizing the increasing importance of the Latino community in the United States. Among other accomplishments, Arthur organized the visit of today’s President Shimon Peres to La Opinion. Then he returned to other assignments in Israel, and in September 2005 he submitted his credentials to go to Azerbijan.
Now we are looking at each other, smiling and speaking Hebrew, surrounded by other Israelis and Azeris –and a sizable contingent of security agents. He invited me to the celebration of Yom Haaztmaut, the 59th anniversary of Israel’s independence, which took place in my hotel, the Hyatt Regency, with more than 300 guests. Lenk told me that “the most interesting thing I found here is the human link, the fact that there is a sizable Jewish community that lives as brothers and partners, as part of a muslim country. This is not always understood in the world and is vital for Israel.”
“While there are those who speak in terms of a clash of civilizations, in Azerbaijan they talk about the other Islam, the moderate. Their relationship with Israel, in business, energy and regional interests, is a compelling example of tolerance and co-existence”, states Lenk. “They are an important partner of Israel; here, we buy 1/6 of our oil”. All together, it’s more than a billion dollars every year.
While the diplomat emphasizes bilateral collaboration, he cannot ignore the fact that there is still no Azeri embassy in Israel. Furthermore, in an editorial, the Jerusalem Post recently advocated to move Israel’s interests from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan.
“It is true… but this is not our decision and they must consider it in the perspective of their own interest. I try to convince my Azeri friends that the presence of Israel serves their own goals…”
Jewish youth sing the anthem of Azerbaijan and the Hatikvah. I stood close to Arthur Lenk, who made this trip years before me. I returned home to Los Angeles. Since then Azerbaijan never disappeared entirely from the news; first we had stories about imprisoned journalists that sent an image of an authoritarian regime. Then, on November 6th, Azerbaijan announced that it foiled an attack by Wahabi extremists aided by Al Qaeda on the American embassy “and other targets”. Four days earlier, Russian President Putin was in Teheran, to attend a summit that included heads of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Baku tries to dispel an insistent rumor about military cooperation with the US and Israel, that would allegedly include providing an air base for an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. In August, President Aliyev made an urgent trip to Teheran, to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, six days after the mysterious visit to Baku by Israel’s transportation minister Avidgor Lieberman. The area is in turmoil and under tremendous pressure for change and development. And the Jews of Azerbaijan, Quba dwellers, the mountain Jews who claim to have arrived 2500 years ago to the area, are patient witnesses and protagonists.
((visit in April, covering for La Opinión an international conference on the role of the media in the development of tolerance, organized by the Islamic Conference Organization.