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A controversial romance novel about two gay men, one Armenian and the other Azeri, is flying off the shelves in Azerbaijan.

What's behind the popularity of Ali Akbar's novel "Artush and Zaur," which has sold out at many bookstores? According to Akbar, the book's political and erotic content was guaranteed to hit a nerve in Azeri society.

"I started a war against two stereotypes," Akbar says. "See what people [in Azerbaijan] do these days: either they look for someone's Armenian origins, or they say, 'I don't like you, so you must be gay.' "

He continues: "Having a nontraditional sexual orientation is nothing to be ashamed of. There's no shame in being gay, or in being Armenian. But it is shameful to be corrupt, to be dishonest, to be treacherous. This was a message about two major stereotypes."

Akbar's plot is straightforward: Artush, an Armenian, and Zaur, an Azeri, become attracted to one another as schoolboys in Baku, but are separated as violence breaks out between their countries over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Zaur is left wandering the streets of Baku, mourning the loss of Artush to Armenia.

Akbar printed only 500 copies of his book, saying he was unsure of its reception in conservative Azeri society.

One bookseller told the Caucasus Reporting Service the novel was "selling like hotcakes." But pressure from religious customers forced one of the two Baku-based bookstores to stop selling it last week.

Many of these customers, like 26-year-old Tural Abbasli, are offended by the book's content and see it as a cheap way for an author to attract notice.

"I don't know if we need to talk about friendship between Armenian and Azerbaijani young people," Abbasli says. "But here it's not even a friendship. It's something that is against our traditions, mentality, and religion. I don't think this is an effort of public diplomacy to forge Azerbaijani-Armenian friendship. I think it's another attack on our morality."

Two Difficult Subjects

Twenty-four-year-old sociologist Senuber Heydarova disagrees. She says the book addresses an extremely painful topic in Azerbaijan -- the years of violence with Armenia over the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh -- through a romance narrative.

No matter what people say, and no matter whether people accept it, people with nontraditional sexual orientation exist in this country. It is not something new; they have always been here.
"No matter what people say, and no matter whether people accept it, people with nontraditional sexual orientation exist in this country. It is not something new; they have always been here," she says.

Heydarova continues: "I'm glad that [Akbar] took the issue to the public in his novel. It should have been done before. These people have a normal life and love as others do. It's not shameful to speak about it."

Reports of authorities using charges of homosexuality against journalists and human rights activists in Azerbaijan have surfaced in recent months.

In April, 25-year-old journalist Aqil Xalil was stabbed after doing a series of investigative reports on large property transactions in Baku. Around the same time, officials threatened Xalil that they would broadcast a video purporting to show a man confessing to having been the young journalist's male lover.

In 2005, ahead of parliamentary elections, a number of state-run media outlets carried stories insinuating that a well-liked opposition candidate, Popular Front Party head Ali Kerimli, was gay.

Though the country decriminalized homosexuality in 2000, the U.S. State Department's 2007 report on human rights practices in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan found ongoing societal prejudice against homosexuals.

What Akbar describes as his "war on stereotypes" has attracted more notice than Azerbaijani dissident writers did during the Soviet period.

Azeri poet Vagif Samadoghlu, the son of famed Azerbaijani poet Vurghun, wrote that only Moscow and Leningrad were able to "produce" dissident writers because they could contact foreign embassies and international media.

In some ways, "Artush and Zaur" is part of an Azeri tradition of using literature to challenge political reality. Observers say the books title echoes the 1937 novel "Ali and Nino," in which an Azerbaijani man falls in love with a Georgian princess. Some consider "Ali and Nino" one of the great works of Azeri romance literature.

Akbar himself is politically active, and tells RFE/RL he believes the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- a territorial disagreement going back to 1988 -- is related to a lack of democracy in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Akbar says both governments do each other a "favor" by resisting reform because they fear that if one improves quality of life, the other will experience a mass exodus.

"Artush and Zaur" is Akbar's sixth book, and the 31-year-old author and journalist says he has already started a seventh, "Bible," about the reincarnation of Jesus Christ in Azerbaijan.

Akbar says he is in the midst of negotiations with Russian publishers for a translation of "Artush and Zaur," which he expects to be published in Russia soon.

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