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Talking Turkey

February 25, 1990

I was very surprised by a passage in your article on Azerbaijan, in which you deal with the close similarities among all Turkish languages (Endpapers: "Azerbaijan and 'A Peace to End All Peace' " by Jack Miles; Book Review, Feb. 4).

I have been told by Jews from Tabriz--in northern Iran, and therefore speaking the local Turkish language--that as they came through Ankara on their way to Israel, it was nearly impossible for them to understand the language of the Turks proper, except for cardinal numbers and so on.

If they are right, then there is no closer relation between the Turkish spoken in Anatolia and in Tabriz, than there is between such Semitic tongues as Hebrew and Arabic. Again, the numbers are alike (and so is the word for peace). But otherwise, you cannot understand Arabic just by knowing Hebrew--or, for that matter, Amharic, another Semitic language.

True, you can understand any Spanish dialect if you are Hispanic. But, then, this is one language, unlike so many different Turkish tongues.

My question is, then, how did you reach such a conclusion? Are you yourself an expert in those languages? Or were you told so by an interested party on the Turkish side?

If the Soviet Union is to disintegrate, then this can be a really crucial question. Otherwise, having read all the current literature on Azerbaijan, I have never read one word about the Azeris feeling themselves to be Turks, or even close to them.

I hope you can answer those questions.



The claim made in Endpapers, Feb. 4, was not that all the Turkic languages are mutually comprehensible but that those of historic Turkestan (Soviet Central Asia) are. One source for this is Robin Milner-Gulland with Nikolai Dejevsky, "Cultural Atlas of Russia and the Soviet Union" (Facts on File publishers): "In four of the republics (of Soviet Central Asia) the languages are Turkic and similar enough to be largely intercomprehensible; in Tadzhikistan (the fifth), an Iranian (hence Indo-European) tongue is spoken" (Page 217). As among Turkestan, Azerbaijan and Turkey, the continuity claimed was cultural and religious, with the suggestion that in Islamic regions this kind of continuity may count for more than nationalism.

Is there, in addition, a degree of national continuity among ethnic Turks? David Fromkin's book, "A Peace to End All Peace" (Henry Holt), shows that there was some in the early 1920s. Enver Pasha of Ottoman Turkey campaigned in Azerbaijan and was stopped by the Russians only in Bukhara, in what is now the Uzbek Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.

As Robert Conquest wrote in 1957 (reprinted in Book Review, Feb. 11), "(the Russians) have split up the nationalities of Turkestan politically and attempted to exaggerate the diversity and to deny the common features of their languages and cultures; and they have provided them with false histories." To some extent the Russian effort has succeeded. Writing in The Times (Jan. 28), reporter Doyle McManus quoted Tadeusz Swietochowski of Monmouth College: "Before the advent of Russian rule, the term Azerbaijan was rarely used; people defined themselves as Turks or Tatars or Persians. It was only under Russian and Soviet rule that they acquired a distinct Azerbaijani nationality. The Soviets tried to split the Muslim community along national lines. They said, 'You're not a Muslim; you're a Kazakh or a Tadzhik or a Tatar.' It was the old principle of divide and rule. But now their chickens are coming home to roost."

The question is: Just which chickens are they? As Don Shojai points out in the following letter, Islam spread to Turkestan from Persia (Iran) and brought much of Persian culture with it. Despite the linguistic barrier, the Islamic link between these regions may yet count for more than the particularist ethnic identities encouraged by Soviet rule. The most violent demonstrations to date have been in Dushanbe, Tadzhikistan.

No country has been more outspoken than Iran in condemning the Soviet actions in Baku, Azerbaijan. And according to a report in the Washington Post (Jan. 20), protesters have carried Islamic flags and posters of the late Ayatollah Khomeini during some so-called nationalist demonstrations in Baku; in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; and in other Soviet Muslim cities.\f7

--Jack Miles

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