Sergei Parajanov statue, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian on Nokia N82 phone

It was perhaps only appropriate that the route for a return visit to an Azeri tea house run by ethnic Armenians in the old part of Tbilisi took us past a statue of the renowned ethnic Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. Like other Armenian cultural icons such as Sayat Nova, an 18th century troubadour who wrote songs in Armenian, Georgian, Persian and especially Azerbaijani, Parajanov belonged more to the Caucasus than any one nation and it was perhaps for this reason that he remained in his native Tbilisi for most of his life. He moved to Yerevan just two years before his death in 1990.

Indeed, his last completed film was Ashik Kerib, an Azeri folk tale made even as troubles between Armenia and Azerbaijan descended into violence over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Effigies of the cult Armenian cultural icon, revered by international filmmakers such as Fellini, were even reportedly burnt during the Karabakh movement’s demonstrations in Yerevan according to peace activists such as Georgy Vanyan. Today, of course, few Armenians remember the controversy over Parajanov’s work in Azerbaijan or even know of the films he made in Georgian, Azeri and Ukrainian.

Even fewer people in Azerbaijan know about him or Sayat Nova at all, especially in an environment where the portrayal of Armenians is arguably more negative than that of Azerbaijan by the Armenian media. For most outsiders, however, the media in both countries tend to equally concentrate on the negative rather than the positive or even neutral.

Nevertheless, and like Sayat Nova who was also linked more to the cultural mixing pot that the region has always been rather than single parts, Parajanov represented the rich cultural heritage of the South Caucasus which undoubtedly influenced his work. Today, while few Armenians and Azeris in their own respective countries communicate let alone meet and even with its own ethnic problems, that history of mutual respect and friendship between minority groups in Georgia continues albeit to some extent. This even extends to ethnic Armenians and Azeris living in the capital, Tbilisi.

Small though it may be, an Azeri tea house run by an ethnic Armenian family represents the reality that away from negative stereotypes, ethno-nationalist forces, and a biased media in Armenia and Azerbaijan which has arguably become as much part of the conflict as local political forces, Armenians and Azeris can co-exist side by side. In fact, they actually do, with many of Alexei and Margarita Petrosyan customers fluent in Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, Russian, and Farsi simply because of the diverse ethnic mix assembled there.

Today, two Azeri journalism students and one Georgian blogger, who also tweeted, visited the tea house.

Participants of this project supported by Transitions Online and the British Embassy in Yerevan will return to the tea house again on Sunday and fuller reports will be available on this blog. Over the coming days and weeks this blog will highlight such examples using new media and social networking tools and stories, photos, and video as a continuation of a brief cross-border exercise undertaken in September.

Incidentally, please follow us on Twitter @caucasusproject, and not least for tomorrow’s visit to Tsopi, a co-inhabited village in an ethnic Azeri region of Georgia just a few kilometers from the border with Armenia.

This post is also available with in Russian and Azerbaijani.