BAKU -- Political protests have become a frequent phenomenon in Azerbaijan. Literary protests, not so much.
But a new novel by a respected Azerbaijani writer prompted angry demonstrations this week, with angry crowds gathering outside a Baku apartment block shouting "Shame!" and setting photos of the author, Akram Aylisli, alight.
The protesters' complaints were hardly aesthetic. Few, in fact, appeared to have read the book, "Stone Dreams," which has not been published in Azerbaijan and only recently appeared, in translated form, in the Russian literary journal "Druzhba narodov" (Friendship of the Peoples).
Instead, it's the subject matter of the novel that's raising tempers.
Aylisli's novel, which looks at the South Caucasus's bitterly fractious history, casts a sympathetic light not on his native Azerbaijan but its traditional rival, Armenia.
In particular, "Stone Dreams" looks at the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian-majority separatist region, located within Azerbaijani territory, was the source of a brutal six-year war in the 1980s and '90s and remains the subject of simmering tension between Baku and Yerevan.
'A Kind Of Message'
Azerbaijan and Armenia see the conflict in vastly different terms, with each side blaming the other for the bulk of the atrocities.
"Stone Dreams" turns that equation on its head, with Aylisli portraying brutal campaigns by his fellow Azerbaijanis against Armenians -- including the notorious January 1990 pogrom in Baku in which Armenians were beaten, murdered by the dozens, and expelled from the city.
I knew that those people would react angrily to my novel. Because they see this novel as something that speaks against them. They would never say that they were wrong in inflaming this war and causing the suffering of these people.
At the same time, Aylisli avoids portraying Armenians as aggressors and Azerbaijanis the victims -- skipping the February 1992 Khojaly massacre, which is considered by some to be one of the worst atrocities of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. (A second anti-Aylisli protest on February 1 was held at Baku's Khojaly monument.)
Aylisli, speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on January 31, defended "Stone Dreams," saying he felt it was his responsibility, as an Azerbaijani, to acknowledge his country's role in the conflict.
"This novel is a kind of message to Armenians living in Karabakh; in other words, to the Armenian citizens of Azerbaijan," Aylisli said. "The message is this: Don't think that we've forgotten all the bad things we've done to you. We accept that. You have also done bad things to us. It's the job of Armenian writers to write about those bad things, about the Khojaly massacre.
"Maybe they've written about it already, maybe they will write about it in the future. I don't know. Because it's not possible for any people to commit such cruelties and not write about it. Don't politicize these things. If Armenians continue to live in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, we have to live side by side. This novel is a message to them. Don't be afraid. It's not the end. We can live together."
While Aylisli has voiced such sentiments informally in the past, "Stone Dreams" marks the first time the author has expressed his political views in his fiction writing.
A protest in front of author Akram Aylisli's home in Baku on January 31
A former lawmaker, Aylisli has also been a staunch critic of the ruling regime. "Stone Dreams" makes thinly veiled, and deeply negative, references to Heydar Aliyev, the former president and father of the current leader, Ilham Aliyev.
Not surprisingly, "Stone Dreams" and the conciliatory tone of its author toward Armenia have met with stiff opposition among Azerbaijani authorities.
Ali Akhmedov, the executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, said Aylisli had dealt a "moral blow" to the country and even accused the writer of secretly being Armenian.
Azerbaijani lawmakers meeting on February 1 in parliament went so far as to call for a DNA test to determine Aylisli's ethnic heritage. Others called for him to be stripped of his status as a state writer and even his citizenship.
Other critics have compared Aylisli to the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, the internationally celebrated author who has come under fire at home for comments related to the Ottoman-era massacre of ethnic Armenians, a taboo subject in Turkey.
Mubariz Gurbanli, a ruling party lawmaker, this week queried Aylisli's motivations in writing "Stone Dreams."
"Perhaps he wants to win a Nobel Prize as Orhan Pamuk?" he said. "He wants to please somebody by distorting the history of his people?"
Aylisli told RFE/RL he dismissed such criticism and accused Azerbaijani officials of exploiting the Azerbaijani-Armenian impasse for their own political gain.
"There are people who have made a fortune out of the sufferings of two people -- Azerbaijanis and Armenians," he said. "They've built careers, gotten rich, gotten good jobs [in the government]. I knew that those people would react angrily to my novel. Because they see this novel as something that speaks against them. They would never say that they were wrong in inflaming this war and causing the suffering of these people. They don't want this conflict to be solved. They want to continue their luxurious lives, live in their villas, and let common people continue to suffer."
Aylisli, 75, graduated from the prestigious Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow. He won appreciation for his focus on rural and provincial life, basing his pen name -- Aylisli -- on the name of his native village in Azerbaijan's Ordubad region.
His most famous works include the 1963 "When the Mist Rolls Over the Mountains," and "What the Cherry Blossom Said," published in 1983.
He has won numerous awards during both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, including the Lenin Komsomol Award in 1968 and the Independence Award in 2002, the highest order in post-Soviet Azerbaijan.
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting in Prague and Baku by Darab Gajar, Rovshan Gambarov, Shahnaz Beylergizi, and Turkhan Kerimov