On the Talysh Minority
As I’ve mentioned before, I live among a Talysh population here in Lənkəran. Spending time with people around here, I find my Talysh brethren to be some of the warmest people I’ve met in Azerbaijan. Maybe it’s a Lənkəran thing. Or maybe it’s just how the Talysh are. In any case, I looked some stuff up. It turns out that the official statistics put the Talysh population at about 80,000, or about 1% of the population of Azerbaijan. According to the Wikipedia article, Talysh nationalists claim that there are up to 400,000 Talysh folks. And some report up to 500,000. Similar things happen to the numbers for other minorities, like the Lezgi. Apparently a drop of nationalism swells population figures. In Lənkəran, the Talysh population is reportedly around 60%, but my experience tells me that it’s probably closer to 75 or 80%. In Lerik, it’s tough to find someone who’s not Talysh. Same for Astara, south of Lənkəran. There is also a sizable Talysh population in Iran.
The Talysh have their own language, an unwritten language (though people will tell you they can write it, everyone disagrees how it should be written–with the Cyrillic or Latin alphabet, or with different sounds). Supposedly, it’s related to Farsi. I like the words I’ve learned in Talysh, but there are so many ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ sounds that I get confused fairly quickly. When I went to the yas for my host father in February, as I walked into the big tent, everyone was speaking Talysh and they switched over to Azeri for my sake. And my host mom often picks up the phone and rolls right into Talysh.
What has surprised me, however, is the nationalist, separatist movement that has existed in this region during the 20th century. My experience here has not had any run-ins with this separatist undercurrent. And the Talysh seem so content to be a part of Azerbaijan that it’s hard to believe any of them want to break away. Things apparently got real interesting in 1993, though, when a group of folks decided to declare the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic. Colonel Alikram Hummatov attempted to seize power in the south, but was quickly ousted and the ‘republic’ failed less than three months after it started. Further back, during the beginning of the Soviet era, apparently the Talysh had their own language books, a Talysh newspaper, and several Talysh-language schools. Prior to that, even, there was the Talysh Khanate, which existed before the Russians swooped in on the Persian Empire in this area.
All of the is information culminates in an interesting situation for me here. Most foreigners in Azerbaijan are already suspected of being spies (my first day at AccessBank was decorated with an accusation of work for the FBI; come on guys, everyone knows that the FBI is domestic, CIA is international one). Being placed in a region of a supposedly restless minority, those fears are a little more heightened. In fact, when I met with the credit union association director most recently, he mentioned that credit unions in the area have to also be aware of the political situation they are in, that excessive fraudulent loans will increase pressure and scrutiny from the government on the area (who knows, maybe they could be funding another separatist movement). For an example, you can read up on Novruzov Mammadov here and here.