Muslim Kurds and Christian Udis
The Karabakh war has displaced them from their homeland
[November 13, 2006]
Seda Kumsieva has spent 36 of her 56 years in school. Before September 1988 she worked as a Russian language and literature teacher in the Azerbaijani village of Vardashen.
When the Karabakh liberation movement and Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict began, Seda and her five children were forced to leave the homeland along with hundreds of other Vardashentsis and emigrate to Armenia, despite the fact that the Russian language and literature teacher is not Armenian by nationality.
“Some of my relatives remained in Vardashen and some stayed in Tbilisi. I am pure Udi, but since my husband is Armenian, we had to leave Azerbaijan, like other ethnically mixed Armenian-Udi families,” Seda said. Two of her three sons work in Russia, and the third lives with the parents in Debedavan. “I want my sons to marry Udi girls, but our nation is dwindling; there are no Udi girls in the village,” she said.
There are eleven Udis in the village of Debedavan in Armenia's Tavush Marz. There are two dozen more in neighboring Bagratashen, Ptghavan, and Haghtanak. Several hundred other Udis can be found in other places in Armenia; they too left Vardashen and several other Azerbaijani villages.
The Karabakh war scattered Udis around the world, despite the fact that they have no relation to Turkish speaking Azerbaijanis or to Indo-European Armenians. In the 5 th century Udis converted to the Armenian Apostolic Church, and during that time learned and used the Armenian language alongside Udi, accepted Armenian traditions, and changed their family names to end in “yan”. The most common family names among Udis are Dallakyan, Kuranyan, Falchyan, Gukasyan, and Muradyan. Modern Udi has two dialects – Vardasheni and Nizhi.
History confirms that the Udis are descendants of residents of Caucasian Albania (a state along the Kura-Araks basin). This state vanished in early Middle Ages, and was heavily influenced by Armenian politics, economics, and especially religion. Azerbaijani historians claim that Azerbaijanis are the descendants of the Albanians, but this claim is not considered serious. Caucasian Albanians and their descendants, the Udis, do not have any ethnic links to Indo-European Armenians or to Turkic Azerbaijanis. Some Armenian scholars claim that Utik, one of the regions in Great Armenia, was named for the Udi.
Anthropologist Hranush Khachatryan, who is the author of several publications on Udis, says that there are about 200 Udis in Armenia. “Some of them have been here for a long time. The rest came in 1988. There is no need to call a 200-person community a national minority. Today there is no law that can address this issue. But minorities are considered those groups that try systematically to retain their ethnic identity. Right now, there is a NGO in Alaverdi, lead by Oleg Durgaryan, that has set themselves that goal, “ Kharatyan said.
The head of the Debedavan village administration, Georgi Babayan, treats Udis just as he treated them in Vardashen. “We see no difference between Armenians and Udis. In 1988, when we left Vardashen, several Udi families came to Debedavan along with the Armenians. Afterwards, some of them emigrated to Russia. We are equal. We celebrate with Udis, and share the hard times with them, “ Babayan said.
Hranush Kharatyan claims that Udis were deported from Azerbaijan not only in the cases of mixed marriages, but also for being Udi. “In the village of Nizh there were 7,000 of them, and now there are only 3,000. Those who were forced out of Nizh moved to Georgia's Oktomberi village. Before the last deportation, there were five Udi villages in Azerbaijan. Three of them were little known, since Udis in those villages spoke Turkish, despite being Christian. These are the villages of Jorurlu, Mirzabeylu and Sultan Nukhi, from where some also came to Armenia,“ the anthropologist said.
Seda Kumsieva's cousins, whose family name is Kumsiashvili, live in Tbilisi, which is 80 kilometers away from Debedavan. Seda relies on them for news of her relatives who stayed in Vardashen. Even though she has lived Debedavan for 18 years now, her heart and soul are still in Vardashen.
“Our lifestyle and traditions are Armenian, but Udis have our own unique ways. I remember when we were kids, in May all the children were given multi-colored wristbands, which afterwards they took off and tied to a tree. Each would make a wish, so that later on it could come true. The holiday was called Dimbaz, “ Seda said.
Seventy-year-old Arshaluys Movsisyan lives with her children in Bagratashen. She left the families of her sister's and brother's children' (eleven altogether) in the village of Nizh in Azerbaijan's Ghabala (former Kutkashen) region. “My heart is broken; I want to see their faces,“ she said, fighting back tears. Arshaluys is ethnically Udi, but in 1988 she was forced to leave, since her husband is Armenian. He died three years after they came to Debedavan.
“We are Christians like Armenians; we had our own churches. We didn't marry our daughters to Azerbaijanis, and didn't take their daughters, because we are Christian. Just like Armenians, we bring the brides with open faces and white dresses, we dance Armenian dances, and bury our dead in the Armenian tradition. Except for our language we are no different from Armenians, “ said Arshaluys Movsisyan.
Arzu Darkisyan, who is Udi on his mother's side, remembers that in Azerbaijan they also worshipped sacred trees. “In our garden we would choose a tree to worship, make sacrifices to it, and burn candles. We were not allowed to climb the sacred tree, or gather its fruit. When the fruit fell, then we could eat it," said Arzu.
Zhanna Lalayan is 45 years old. She emigrated from Nizh and moved to Bagratashen. Her husband is Armenian. “ I have pure Udi ancestry. My brother Oleg and the rest of my relatives live in Nizh. My other brother and his family live in Ukraine. His children do not even know Udi. The new generation of Udis that moved to Russia and other countries do not know their mother tongue. Our nation is slowly disappearing,” she said.
The Udis that moved to Armenia are not in close contact with each other. Of course, when there is a marriage or burial ceremony, Noyemberyan's Udis immediately get together, Zhanna said, “ to not miss an opportunity to speak Udi.”
Aleksey Khazarov, who is also Udi, moved to Bagratashen with his Armenian wife Roza Khazarova and two of their sons. “Udis were forced to leave; they told us we were Armenians too. We fled and left everything behind. If one person in a family was Armenian, they were all forced to flee Azerbaijan, “ Roza said.
Every day Aleksey forgets more and more of his mother tongue. “We left Vardashen in November of 1988. It was very tough. First we moved to Oktomberi, and then after staying five days there with our relatives, we moved to a guesthouse in the village of Saramegh in the Spitak region. From there we came here and settled in Bagratashen, “ Aleksey remembered.
He says that in the last eighteen years he has rarely spoken Udi. “My sons do not know Udi at all. Our nation is slowly vanishing. In the whole world there are eight or ten thousand Udis.”
As the Christian Udis who lived in Azerbaijan suffered from the Karabakh war, so did the Muslim Kurds who lived in Armenia. Before 1988 they numbered 25,000. Just as the Christian Udis were perceived as Armenians in Azerbaijan, the Muslim Kurds in Armenia were perceived as Azerbaijani. Today, there are only several dozen Muslim Kurds living in Armenia. We will write about them another time.
See also: Triumph of Tolerance or Vandalism?