The true story of Jewish Azerbaijan past and present has Hollywood written all over it. Two ancient cultures meet on the same land.
One is Muslim and one is Jewish. But here is the twist: The land is overflowing with natural riches, from fruits to “black gold” (oil), and the cultures work and live harmoniously. Not only that, but they forge new, vital forms of culture, government and commerce.
And, pay attention, Hollywood: Almost no one outside of Azerbaijan has heard this story. Those who have are amazed and want to know more.
What is today the Republic of Azerbaijan, bordered by Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Armenia, has been home to Jews since late antiquity. Many of these early Jewish settlers came from the Persian Empire and settled in the north of what is today Azerbaijan, in an area called Guba.
Over centuries, this community of “Mountain Jews,” as this community fondly and colorfully became known, experienced, with varying comfort, the khanates – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and even Jewish (the famously converted Khazar empire) – that ruled the area. Jewish practices, beliefs and traditions held the Jews together even during low points.
Shared family lives and business relationships, particularly in agriculture and trade, kept the neighboring Jewish and Muslim towns functioning as close neighbors. Jews also participated as traders of textiles and other goods on the famed Silk Road.
European Jewish immigrants worked as engineers, musicians, business owners, lawyers and more alongside their Muslim neighbors during the 19th- and 20th-century oil booms. Jews even played an important part along with Muslims and Christians in forming and running the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918-20) – the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim world.
During the communist period, including the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic years, the outlawing of personal property ownership and of religious observance brought hardship and tragedy to many. Whereas Azerbaijani Jews escaped the Nazi death machine, many, including at least five rabbis, fell to communist purges.
Some Muslim Azerbaijanis relate family stories about saving lives of Jewish fellow prisoners by teaching them Muslim prayers so as to pass as Muslim. After breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan found quick – even before the West – recognition by Turkey and then by Israel.
The Azerbaijan-Israel strategic partnership today plays a vital role in the security of Azerbaijan and of Israel.
A venerated and beloved figure in Azerbaijan is a young Mountain Jew named Albert Agarunov. Agarunov fought valiantly in the battle for Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that continues to plague the country today.
Agarunov died at the hands of Armenian forces during the 1992 occupation of the town of Shusha, a center of Azerbaijani culture. Azerbaijani authorities buried Agarunov in Martyrs’ Lane in Baku and posthumously awarded him the title of National Hero of Azerbaijan, the country’s highest honor. Surely Hollywood would accord Agarunov top consideration for a Jewish Azerbaijani lead.
But other Jewish Azerbaijanis too have a place on the big screen: a movie about colorful Baku-born Nobel-Prize-winning (1962) physicist Lev Landau is already in the making.
When pressed about Azerbaijan’s unique culture, many Azerbaijanis cite Ali and Nino, the romantic novel based in Baku from 1918 to 1920.
The book is believed to have been authored by 20th-century writer/historian Lev Nussinbaum, a man of mixed Jewish-Russian background from Baku who adopted a Muslim pen-name, Kurban Said, and assumed Azerbaijani identity.
In this Baku, East and West; Muslim, Christian and Jew; and ancient and modern appear in a seemingly impossible yet complementary weave of elements.
To many contemporary visitors and residents, that is Baku. Hollywood, are you listening?
The writer is executive director of the Washington-D.C.-based Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. cultural charity 501 (c) 3 foundation focused on Azerbaijan.