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In the Hot Seat

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How entrenched are the stereotypes of the “enemy” in Azerbaijani and Armenian societies? Exactly how deep is the mistrust between the two peoples? Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists Kristina Vardanyan and Farman Nabiyev recently embarked upon a very interesting project to explore these questions. In a short film project titled “Passenger,” funded by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and British Embassies in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the producers filmed responses and reactions of unsuspecting taxi passengers both in Baku and Yerevan.

In the film, the project members doubling as “taxi drivers” in their respective cities initiate an uncomfortable conversation about the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict by playing the music of the “enemy.” The initial reaction of most passengers is confusion, surprise, and true discomfort. Even before the conversation begins, one can observe the tension and unease in their body language: rolling of the eyes, rising of the eyebrows, looking around anxiously, and laughing/smiling nervously.

Confusion ensues from hearing music and language that both Armenian and Azerbaijani ears are currently not accustomed to hearing. Once they become aware of its origins, the passengers’ faces display surprise, if not shock as they seem to ask themselves, “How does this taxi driver dare to play the ‘enemy’s’ music in broad daylight with his windows rolled down?” Then discomfort takes over. It is the discomfort of being in the presence of something associated with the “enemy,” something you’re supposed to hate, not to enjoy on your cab ride somewhere. Yet, it’s only music and it’s harmless, and you might even like it if you allow yourself to.

The experiment continues with the “taxi drivers” asking the passengers several questions on the subject matter ranging from, “Do you think we can ever live in peace with Armenians [Azerbaijanis]?” to “What would you do if you saw an Armenian [Azerbaijani] on the street?” Answers, although varying in their moderation and depth of comprehension of the complexities of the conflict, nevertheless reflect the sad reality on the ground. Misperceptions and stereotypes of the other side, taught in school and reinforced by media and lack of communication with the other side, exhibit themselves in full force.

The passengers from both sides portray themselves as the victims, transferring the blame and responsibility on the other side. Peace is possible, but “If only Azerbaijanis are willing…” or “If only Azerbaijanis are more compromising….” and conversely, “If Armenians return our lands…” or “If Armenians don’t cause us problems.” With the exception of a couple of passengers from each side, most passengers fail to reflect upon their own prejudices and readily offers an analysis of prejudices of the other side (with whom they have virtually no contact): “Since childhood, they are taught to hate Armenians” or similarly “They brainwash their children to hate Azerbaijanis and Turks…”

Despite exhibiting the most common stereotypes and misconceptions among Azerbaijanis and Armenians about each other, this short movie, nevertheless, leaves one with more hope for the future than desperation. This hope stems from the fact that with communication and contact, these stereotypes can be shattered, which in return can open some room for understanding and compromise.

Whether this 8-minute video is representative of the views of Armenians and Azerbaijani societies at large (which surprisingly were not as radical or hateful) or whether the moviemakers’ selective editing skills disguised or eliminated the most rigid and uncompromising responses is open for debate. However, the fact that none of the passengers in the movie excluded the possibility of peace (while recognizing the difficulty of getting there) in itself can be a cause for celebration.



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