"Why are you lying?" said the Azeri custom officer, from his window at the Lagodekhi land border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. "Why hide that you’ve been to Armenia? Are you a spy?"
Brandishing our passports as incriminating evidence, the official ordered the whole family into the small frontier post and started to search our luggage.
May 2011. I was with my wife Juliana, a petite (but not easily scared) Malay woman and our two young kids, Sarah, four years old, already reading Peter and Jane level 5, and Daniel, trying to punch above his two years old. We were on a two week sightseeing trip to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, the three former Soviet Republics in the Caucasus region, wedged between Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
At the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia, in the middle of a forested mountain reserve, a pedestrian bridge spanned over the river, connecting the two countries at a gentle altitude of 500 metres. In this idyllic setting, so beautifully green, with birds chirping all around us, the confrontation sounded like a bad dream. But the incensed official in front of me, bent on examining every single item in our bags, was all but real.
Although no longer a war zone, Armenia and Azerbaijan were (and still are) officially at war, with an uneasy, oft-violated ceasefire along the border between the two countries. You can’t cross from Armenia to Azerbaijan but you can travel through Georgia. At the border post where the Georgian taxi had dropped us, when the Azeri official asked if we had visited Armenia, I made one of the most idiotic decisions in all my trips around the world. I said no, hoping that it would make our crossing smoother. I could not have been more wrong. When the official found the Armenian stamps in our passports, all hell broke loose.
What do you do when you’ve made a blunder? You apologize. With all the sincerity you can muster. I don’t remember what the official looked like. Youngish, probably. With a moustache, maybe. All I could see was genuine anger about to melt his green eyes. I knew too well that he was not after a bribe. He barked again when he uncovered further proof of our visit to Azerbaijan’s arch enemy: an Armenian-labeled rag doll which I had bought in Yerevan, a woman clutching against her chest six children’s heads – an allegorical representation of the tragic Armenian genocide.
Independence did not come easy for the former Soviet Republics. In his usual “divide and conquer” style, Stalin shifted people and borders, making sure there were Armenian enclaves in Azerbaijan and vice-versa. In 1991, simmering tensions between the two new nations quickly escalated into full-scale warfare when Armenia provided military support to Nagorno-Karabakh. A majority-Armenian area within Azerbaijan territory, Nagorno-Karabakh had seceded from Azerbaijan. Azeris argue that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of their country while Armenia claims that they’re just defending an independent nation (only recognized by Armenia, that is). It did not help a bit that Azeris are Shia Muslims while Armenians are devout Orthodox Christians.
Only two guards occupied the tiny, smoke-infested room which reminded me of an old Soviet outpost, with rusty tables standing on a cracked wooden floor, a small electric fan in the corner, and the usual stamps and stacks of forms.
Behind me, I could hear Sarah and Daniel running around, oblivious to the unfolding drama. Having finished with our bags, the officer set his hands on my camera. He paused when he found photos of the Armenian Holocaust memorial in Yerevan:
"Why did you go there? Do you believe in this genocide?"
Blame it on realpolitik. Following the old adage that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, the Azeris side with Turkey over their denial of the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915.
I looked at the official, baffled. Paralyzed. If I said yes, he might take it as an affront and lock us up until we could get consular assistance. Best case, we would be denied entry into Azerbaijan. If I said “no, this is pure fabrication,” I would be refuting a historical truth, one for which Armenians have been fighting for years, just to get my family out of trouble.
I don’t know what I would have replied, had my wife not come to my rescue – as she usually does in such critical situations (one day, I will tell you the time when she saved me from jail in Gambia). She started scolding our jittery son, using, oddly enough, the Arabic word “Astaghfirullah. ” Heart pounding, I turned around, about to ask everyone to keep quiet.
Suddenly, the second officer, who had remained silent all along, asked Juliana: "You Muslim?"
"Assalamualaikum," said the officer in front of me.
"WalaikumAssalam," I replied.
No more questions. The incident was over. With the help of the official, I put everything back into our suitcases. Everything but the doll, of course. After erasing the memorial photos, the officer also returned my camera.
"Do you like that thing?" he asked, smiling, gesturing towards the lonely doll on the table.
When I didn’t reply, Juliana scowled at me, as if saying: “Tell him he can throw it!”
Then the officer grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the “Made in Armenia” tag.
"Like this, it’s more beautiful," he said, while shoving the doll into my hands and showing us to the door.