Azerbaijan’s Only Talysh Gazette
Khanali Talysh knows well the value of reading news in one’s own language, and is willing to travel and cover long distances to please it. Once a month, the 77-year-old pensioner treks his way from his village of Qizilavar to the town of Masalli, in southern Azerbaijan, to get the latest issue of Tolishon sədo, the country’s only printed newspaper available in Talysh, Khanali’s language.
Tolishon Sədo - meaning The Voice of the Talysh People - is the only remaining independent publication for the Iranian language spoken group living in the southern regions of Azerbaijan bordering Iran. The latest census of 2009 sets their number at about 112,000, hence accounting to less than 1 percent of the country’s population of 9.6 million. Activists however claim that Talysh number up to 500,000 people, with an additional 600,000 in neighbouring Iran.
Once a month the eight-page newspaper leaves Baku for the country’s south and is delivered to the community’s representatives to be disseminated in the villages. Khanali Talysh is one of them and the poetry lover, retired teacher, takes the responsibility, which is close to his heart.
“During Soviet times, there was not such a possibility as to publish a newspaper in Talysh but the collapse changed that. To keep our language alive, writing and reading in Talysh is essential,” he maintains.
Kizil Talysh, or Golden Talysh in the national language, was the first ever newspaper printed in Talysh in 1931, but the Soviet regime banned it seven years later. Printed Talysh fell into oblivion until the late 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness in Russian) opened up a window of opportunity for minority languages.
The first newspapers in Talysh language in independent Azerbaijan, called Tolyshi Sədo (The Talysh Voice), went to print in 1992. In 2007 its editor, and Talysh scholar Novruzali Mamedov was accused of spying for Iran and was sentenced to 10 years in jail - he died two years later, in 2009. Activist Hilal Mammadov took over at the helm of the publication but also his adventure was short-lived; in 2012 he was detained and sentenced to five years in prison, of treason and incitement of hatred with abuse in an official position. He was convicted of "illegal selling of drugs", "high treason" and "incitement to national, racial, social and religious hatred and hostility" Mammadov was then pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev in 2016.
Tolyshi Sədo stopped its publications. Since 2011 Tolishon Sədo is the key source for printed Talysh, alongside the literary magazine Alem. In 2015 the then-weekly newspaper had to switch to publish once a month due to financial constraints.
Not everyone has been pleased by the switch.
“By the time the monthly〔issue〕 reaches us it is already old news,” complaints Khanali Talysh while sipping his tea in a chai-khana in Masalli, 240 km south of the capital.
“Until 2015 we could buy the newspaper in the kiosk or receive it by subscription. When it started to be distributed by individuals like me it became more difficult to get, and sometimes we have received it late. It is more complicated now,” sighs the journalist who co-chaired the Committee to Protect Hilal Mammedov’s Rights during the activist’s detention.
In Baku, the founding editorRafiq Djalilov explains that Tolishon Sədo relies on freelance contributors - the 48-year-old editor himself does not have an office.
“I work from home. I commission, edit, and take care of the dissemination.”
The one-man operation is far from easy as it is getting the publication to the communities in rural areas, adds Djalilov who also heads the Baku-based Talysh Cultural Centre.The gazette has no adverts and it relies mainly on the financial support from part of the community, as well as his personal contribution.
“Life would be easier if we could get some government support. Two years ago [in 2015] I sent the letter to the President’s office, but I did not receive an answer.”
The central government resists the Talysh community’s calls for increased rights, including official education in their national language beyond the fourth grade, and it keeps activists under pressure - Djalilov himself was also summoned by the investigation department of serious crimes of the Prosecutor General’s Office.
For people like Khanali Talysh holding a paper printed in his language means the world, regardless of the effort of receiving, sorting, and distributing.
“The post office in the village does not work, it would be good to get it at least from the central news kiosk. We need to wait a long time for our newspaper. But we need it.’’
More about Talysh:
A wedding in Talysh: The struggle to keep the language alive: https://chai-khana.org/en/a-wedding-in-talysh-the-struggle-to-keep-the-language-alive
Well-known Talysh Grandmother : https://chai-khana.org/en/well-known-talysh-grandmothers