Sixty-year-old Angela Rustamova still cannot forget that day in 1975. She was a teenager, thinking of her beau, Vagif, an ethnic Azerbaijani from Georgia, and counting the days until he would visit her in her hometown of Alaverdi, Armenia.
When he finally came, Vagif Rustamov, then a 32-year-old barber, proposed. He promised 18-year-old Angela “a real life” together.
Despite pressure from their families and others, they had one. Their love story continued for 42 years.
Remembering her youth, Rustamova says she never would have imagined that she could fall in love with an Azerbaijani. She had learned too much about the two nations’ past differences she says. “In the shops, street and other public places, I was always arguing with Azerbaijanis visiting Armenia because I was too young,” she continues.
But all that changed when she came across Vagif Rustamov in the Alaverdi bazaar, a place where ethnic Azerbaijanis from Georgiawould often come to shop.
In her husband’s village of Sadakhlo, a predominantly ethnic Azerbaijani settlement in Georgia not far from the present-day Armenian border, the couple learned each other's language and came to accept each other’s religion. They celebrated both Novruz, the Azerbaijani holiday which marks the start of spring, and Nakhatsenendyan Toner, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Christmas Eve.
Rather than “Angela,” Rustamova’s Azerbaijani friends today call her “Ayna,” a traditional Azerbaijani name that means“mirror.”
“I know Azerbaijani traditions better than ours,” Rustamova shares. “After I married, I saw that we are very similar in how closely knit families are.”
Her husband and she even agreed on dolma.
“Both nations claim that lavash and the stuffed leaves known as dolma belong to them. Our culture and traditions are very close to each other,” says Rustamova, who calls the culinary debate “ridiculous.”
“What does it matter to whom these dishes belong? After all, it's just a meal.”
But as war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh broke out in the late 1980s, the couple’s life became more difficult.
Some Sadakhlo villagers began to pressure Vagif Rustamov to divorce his wife. Many relatives and some neighbors allegedly advised him to send her back to Armenia.
“Even the village representative of the executive branch [of government] knocked on our door and wanted us to divorce,” Rustamova recollects. The couple chose not to complain about the official’s behavior, she says.
With time, locals’ doubts about the Rustamovs subsided.
“People who were thinking we would not be good for each other changed their minds. I don't resent them. They just didn't believe that we would be so happy together. But I'm glad that our love has overcome everything."
Until his death three months ago at the age of 74, Rustamova nursed her diabetic husband through two leg amputations, heart surgery and cirrhosis of the liver.
After his death, Rustamova could have returned to Armenia, but she sees as her true home the two-storey house the couple shared in Opreti, a village not far from Sadakhlo. Rustamov’s photos hang everywhere there.
“I can go back to Armenia, but I don't want to go back,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of memories with Vagif here. I don't want to leave them. I want to die here.”
Childless, she now lives by herself. Each day, she tends to her vegetable crops, does housework and then heads to the store in her basement where she sells fruits, vegetables, cigarettes and chacha, the potent Georgian alcoholic brew.
She has incurred debts from her husband’s illnesses, but bears no resentment.
“Although it was so hard for me, he was worth it,” Rustamova says.
She pities those mixed Azerbaijani-Armenian families who have not been able to stay together.
“I know Armenian brides living in Azerbaijan who are still there,” she says. “They have given uptheir relatives and stayed in Azerbaijan. They cannot see their parents, brother, sisters and other relatives. They have a very hard life.”
Rustamova, who watches both Armenian and Azerbaijani TV, believes that “false stories” spread by both countries only worsen the divide between them.
“We have to look to the future and peace should be restored, so that no one will die and families will not be split up.”
Thoughts of her own happy marriage still haunt her. She has not cooked since her husband’s death and thinks of him each night before she falls asleep.
“I don't want to go to our bedroom where we were sleeping together. I have locked its door . . . ”
With a few tears falling, she closes her eyes as if to secure her memories.
Text: Nurana Mammad
Photo: Ian McNaught Davis
Editor: Elizabeth Owen