I am a writer…
And as far as I know, no one is offering a bounty for one of my ears. Not so for Akram Aylisli, a highly regarded writer, poet and scriptwriter from Azerbaijan who once received that country’s most prestigious literary prize. However, the leader of the Modern Musavat party has announced that he would pay a bounty equivalent to $12,700 to anyone who cuts off Aylisli’s ear.
The impetus for this threat is Aylisli’s novel, Stone Dreams, which provides a sympathetic view of Armenians in Azerbaijan’s ongoing ethnic disputes. Aylisli is accused of describing only Azeri abuses against Armenians, and not addressing attacks by Armenians on Azeris. Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s president stripped Aylisli of the title of “People’s Writer.” And although the Minister of the Interior has announced that calls for violence are unacceptable, the threat to Aylisli remains. At 75, Aylisli is contemplating seeking asylum abroad with his family.
A writer, he says, has the right to express thoughts without being a considered a traitor.
Yet, government officials in Azerbaijan have labeled Aylisli’s book as treasonous.
Is this because the events depicted in Stone Dreams are not considered accurate by some? Aylisli says the story is based on real life, but it is a novel after all. And anyone who thinks novels should stick to the facts might want to try biographies or historical fiction. (No, wait…don’t believe everything you read in, say, The Other Boleyn Girl.)
The situation, as I see it, is suppression of a perspective that does not support the nationalist stance on the Azerbaijani/Armenian conflict. And that is called censorship, even though, in Azerbaijan as in the U.S., authors ostensibly have a constitutional right to write what they want without pressure or government interference.
Book bans and book burnings notwithstanding, our constitutional rights here in the U.S. are faring better than those in Azerbaijan.
Do we in the United States have nationalist viewpoints? Yes, we do, and it’s taken much of our 200+-year history to give voice to differing perspectives about events surrounding Native Americans, slavery, immigration, child labor, internment camps, McCarthyism, Kent State, Iran Contras, waterboarding, WikiLeaks, extraordinary rendition, and others.
I write about many of these same topics.
I write in support of our troops and our nation, a nation for which both my mother and father served in World War II. And I also write about, and for, peace, and about our Constitution that guarantees our First Amendment rights to free speech and a free press.
So in our country, no matter what I write, how I write it, or who I please or offend with my writing, I’m assured of keeping both my ears. And if that should ever change, we all have a much larger problem.
I do have advice for any entity of our government that tries to censor my words.
As Edward Bulwer-Lytton famously wrote in 1839—and as systematic oppression against writers has proved since antiquity—“the pen is mightier than the sword.” Plus, if I may paraphrase Russian-based bestselling author Boris Akunin’s comments from his recent blog post about Akram Aylisli, “Don’t you know that the state cannot win in a war with a writer?”
I couldn’t agree more.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Arvada Press and its affiliated newspapers and is reprinted with permission here.
My recent discussions in the Arvada Press (and its affiliates) on courtesy and civility was supposed to end quietly there. Then Rodney King died. He was only 47, yet each day of the last 20 years of his life has made an impact on civil rights in America.
In a conversation not long ago, I mixed up Rodney King with Reginald Denny. I thought Rodney King was the trucker nearly killed 20 years ago during the violent aftermath of a jury verdict acquitting Los Angeles Police Department officers of brutally beating a motorist they stopped after a high-speed chase.
I was wrong, of course. Reginald Denny is the trucker dragged from his vehicle and viciously attacked by a riotous mob in random retribution for the jury verdict…because he is white. Rodney King was a black man, victim of the brutal beating by the LAPD officers in 1991 that was captured in 81 seconds of videotape by George Holliday from his apartment balcony.
So, when I heard that he had died, I looked up Rodney King. I watched the 81 seconds of video—dark figures and glaring lights and no mistake about what was happening to the man on the ground.
I read about the April 1992 trial of the four officers involved, the trial where a jury with no black jurors acquitted three officers, and a mistrial was declared for the fourth officer. The verdicts touched off a week of riots in South Los Angeles that left more than 50 people dead and an estimated $1 billion in damage.
Then I watched the poignant interview in which a tearful and clearly shaken Rodney King begged for calm and asked—in a phrase that has become a cultural symbol for race relations—“Can we all just get along?”
A new appreciation…
I appreciate Rodney King all over again now.
The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times have reported that Rodney King knew he was a ne’er-do-well with an alcohol problem, and that much of his life after the attack was like a tabloid drama. He said he just wanted to work construction, and, in his words, “to survive.”
He didn’t want to be a symbol of racial tensions and police brutality. He didn’t want riots over the outcome of the trial. And he especially did not want anyone to die because of what happened to him.
That’s why my recent discussions of civility in everyday life cast a very different shadow when held up to the light of what emotionally intense people will do in extreme frustration or anger. (Just Google “road rage.”)
Could it happen here?
What if such a thing were to happen in our communities?
I know it’s not easy to solve some of our societal problems and I know there are no immediate answers to the some of the issues we face.
But I also know that we have to stay the course for civil rights. One step at a time, maybe, but we have to keep stepping.
Civility. Civil rights. Human rights.
We can’t separate them, so we must carry them all with us on this course. It’s not such a heavy burden when everyone gets along.
I believe Rodney King would agree.
A little more about the author:
Andrea Doray is a writer from Denver who serves on the board of “Writing for Peace”—an organization dedicated to developing a more peaceful world through understanding and empathy—and who believes in the power of the pen.