A Memorial For a Jew in a Muslim Land: A True Story
The Martyrs’ Lane in Baku, Azerbaijan, begins as an ascending walkway of white stone. Visitors and mourners pass rows of shiny, polished walls, ensconced with slate grey markers — these are graves or memorializations of the victims of wars, massacres, and other hardships felt by a young growing democracy.
Walking through the memorial, I stopped to pray at the grave of a particular soldier. Albert Agarunov, an Azerbaijani National Hero and renowned tank commander, was one of the last standing soldiers during the invasion of the Azerbaijani town of Shusha by Armenian troops. On May 7, 1992, at the age of 23, Albert left the safety of his tank to maneuver the vehicle around the bodies of victims, literally laying in the street, in order to protect and respect their memories. He was on the ground,directing his tank to drive around the bodies of fallen men, women and children when a bullet took his life.
Albert was an Azerbaijani Jew, and he is one of the nation’s most celebrated war heroes. Raised in a large family of Mountainous Jews in Baku, Albert was known for being a good son, brother, and friend, and a hard, cheerful worker. When Azerbaijan was attacked by invaders in the early 1990s, all Jewish residents had the option to move to Israel, Europe, or US to avoid both the incoming violence and serving in the armed forces. As with so many other Jews, Albert decided to stay when his ancestral country was experiencing some of the most difficult times of its history.
Albert volunteered to join the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, and became one of the most effective operatives in the fight to protect the country from brutal invasion, ethnic cleansing, and occupation. Albert was so adept as a sharpshooter that the invading militias put the largest bounty on his head, above the price of any other soldier they were hunting.
Albert’s story is practically overwhelming. Albert was a Jewish man who is a celebrated as a war hero in a Muslim country, which is a fact to trump all paradigms about Muslims and war, Jews and war, and most fundamentally, what is possible between Muslims and Jews living together as a community. This story goes way beyond a peaceful co-existence.
Since the legend of Albert Agarunov is a true story, it also serves as hope, inspiration, and a profound source of pride. The lessons of Albert’s heroism are magnified by the lessons we can learn from the nation for which he served; a Muslim nation that has always lived harmoniously and in equality with a diverse population of Jewish people. May this story inspire us all.