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 during the Persian Empire and settled in the north of what is today Azerbaijan, in an area called Guba.
Over the centuries, 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.
After breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan found quick recognition by Turkey and then by Israel. The Azerbaijan-Israel strategic partnership today plays a vital role in the security of both countries.
A venerated and beloved figure in Azerbaijan is a young 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.
In Azerbaijan, the close, even seamless relationships among residents are a powerful balm against any perceived societal ills. Friendships, weddings, businesses, all show signs of Jewish-Muslim closeness and solidarity.
When pressed about Azerbaijan’s unique cultural oasis, many Azerbaijanis cite “Ali and Nino,” the romantic novel based in Baku from 1918 to 1920. The book, virtually embedded in Azerbaijani consciousness, 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 of old, 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?
Diana Cohen Altman is executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. cultural charity focused on Azerbaijan.