“Thank you for your service.”
This is my last post from Azerbaijan for quite a while. As of today, I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer. Over the past month or so, I’ve been wrapping things up in Lənkəran and preparing to end my Peace Corps service with all sorts of personal and administrative closure. I’ve turned in the Peace Corps-provided brown monster of a sleeping bag and my silver bullet water filter; closed the door to my Lənkəran apartment and handed the keys over to my landlord; filled out the Close-of-Service checklist and surrendered my International Bank of Azerbaijan ATM card. This last trip down to Lənkəran with Ryan was my goodbye to my host mother and Mirbağır, as well as a few other folks. After two years of living here in the same city, I’ve got more connections than I realized, and possibly more than I could ever say goodbye to.
Inevitably, there will be many things I’ll miss from here in Azerbaijan. I probably can’t list them all, but those that I can think of off the top of my head include the Snickers bars, which are better here than the ones in the US, and the sprawling public transport system that can get me to any corner of Azerbaijan, regardless of how rundown are the marshrutkas and “roads”. Some people might not notice it, but the fresh produce here is fantastic: tomatoes, watermelon, lemons, and the most important of all, pomegranate! I bought four pomegranates for about $1.20 the other day. That isn’t going to happen in the US. I’ll also miss being able to make my own schedule that results in something akin to a five-day weekend and allows me to miss work because it’s raining out. Trying to think of all the people here who have touched me, Volunteers, host families, colleagues, friends in all places, is an impossible task. The last few weeks have been a time for me to think back on all of those things as they led up to my denouement.
Yesterday, as I was finishing my exit interview with my country director, and then again finishing up paperwork with our administrative officer, they ended our meetings with, “Thank you for your service.” I’m not yet sure what is the correct response to that. My initial thought was, “What was my service?” However, I think that as I’m leaving Azerbaijan in a few hours and embarking on a trip that will loop me back home around the world, I’ll have to turn this over in my mind quite a few times. This service started in Milwaukee where I passed through security at the airport and put my shoes back on under the “Recombobulation Area” sign. As I’m headed out of here and arriving back home in about a month, I think I’ll slowly figure out what this service was. Part of that is already complete, two years of living in Azerbaijan, building relationships, learning about others and about myself, and thinking about my own plans going forward. But maybe an even bigger part of this process is going to be what I shape it to be as I move on from Azerbaijan and find myself back in my own personal “recombobulation area.”
My next post will be from an Aaron who is no longer in Azerbaijan. See you there!
After giving it a second go, Ryan has finally made it to Azerbaijan. Last time, it went down that the Azerbaijani government changed the visa rules without telling anyone and Ryan had to turn around mid-flight and head to Beijing instead of Baku. This time, he got through and we spent our first night in Baku, getting ready to take on a quick tour of Lankaran. But who knew the weather wouldn’t cooperate? Last year, there was nearly no snow at all in Lankaran. This year, it might be a little different. Today we woke up to whipping wind and sheets of rain. Mid-morning, it alternated between snow and rain, and then just snow. And more snow. At least a few inches of snow. After a tame winter in 2009-2010, and snowless 2010-2011, an early November snowstorm was not expected. Global climate change? Ask Həzi Aslanov:
It has been just over a week since my friend, Steve Hollier, passed away. Eli and I had been in a car on our way up from Lənkəran to Baku, looking forward to meeting up with Steve and his partner, Sandra, staying in Baku for a few days. We didn’t learn until later that day that Steve had passed away. It was a shock, as Eli stumbled through a phone call delivering the news. We felt crushed. We had just been chatting with Steve the day before. We had read a post of his early that Wednesday morning.
Normally, the passing of a friend wouldn’t warrant a blog post here. Yet, I think his passing is just as relevant to Azerbaijan as anything else. Steve had come here trailing Sandra as she took her teaching job at a Baku school. When I met him last year, he had just been getting a feel for Azerbaijan and was meeting up with Peace Corps Volunteers. We PCVs know that living in Azerbaijan can be difficult, even in Baku. A lot of ex-pats have a hard time even getting out of their apartments in Baku just because culturally and physically, Azerbaijan can be a difficult place for many foreigners. Steve and Sandra, however, had the opposite approach: to overcome the difficulties of living in Azerbaijan, they pushed out and not only explored Baku, but also went on to explore as many regions of Azerbaijan as they could, dragging along their ex-pat colleagues when they could. Steve contacted Mason through CBT and Mason ended up taking him all over the country. At first I thought that this was just a weird guy who was bizarrely interested in Azerbaijan. As it turned out, he was actually a good person with a good heart and an enthusiasm for life.
To me, Steve was the kind of guy who you felt like you knew for 10 years after a 15 minute conversation and, at the same time, someone who you couldn’t stop learning new things about. Steve was open and thoughtful, and always ready to offer help or a suggestion, and was endlessly generous (especially to us PCVs). He had an energy about him that could capture you and pull you with it as he talked about this idea or that. He was a good listener. He was a warm and welcoming spirit. Incredibly, however, he seemed to have an endless supply of experiences and knowledge that would arise out of nowhere. I knew he could write and that he was an excellent photographer, but then other things started piling on: first I learned he had managed arts programs back in the UK, then I learned that he had been trained in forestry, and then that he was an accomplished musician and singer, and then that he was an accomplished modern dancer. When I talked about my experiences with management here in Azerbaijan, we followed that up with a long and thoughtful discussion about his own experiences as a manager, a trove of knowledge. One of the first things I remember about Steve was that he was working with people at Sandra’s school to put on theater productions.
As Steve was getting to know Azerbaijan with Sandra, traveling to all parts of Azerbaijan, he was also looking for a job. There was no better fit for him than the editor position at AZ Magazine. Almost overnight, the magazine went from a fluffy ex-pat magazine with pictures of celebrities on the cover and puff-piece articles to a magazine with substantive content, a publication that showcased what’s happening in Azerbaijan. Now, even the website is going under a transformation Steve started. This is where Steve really took off. He had vision and passion and energy to transform the magazine into a valuable resource, easily the only one available to the Baku ex-pat community. When we visited Steve and Sandra in Baku, he would be stoking ideas and almost uncontainable was his excitement for reinventing the magazine. Steve found ways to get people involved and contributing, finding where there were neat things going on in Azerbaijan and putting them into the magazine. Steve was taking what he had, a country full of content, and spinning into a work of art.
It’s tough to get across what a great person and a great personality Steve was. The words here don’t really convey how much he cared, how much we cared for him, and the true treasure he really was. His is a big loss for everyone. I consider myself fortunate to have known Steve and to be able to celebrate who he was. One of my first thoughts upon hearing the news was that this was a major loss for Azerbaijan, as he was so good for this country. He was excited to explore it, experience it, and share it with the world in a way that could only help Azerbaijan. He was only getting started.
Sandra told us Steve had said that, here in Azerbaijan, he felt like he had finally found his tribe. After traveling the world, he ended up in Azerbaijan where he had a place and a group of people who he couldn’t help but feel comfortable with. For those of us who didn’t have the privilege of knowing Steve, it is enough to know that he touched many lives and was a wonderful person, someone we should all be thankful for and who we will celebrate. For those of us who did know him, we have the honor of being a part of Steve’s tribe.
It’s been a rough week, so the posts this week have been few. We’ll start the new week with a poem from Bakhtiyar Vahabzade (Bəxtiyər Vahabzadə), called Speed (Sürət):
Time was, we would sit
in the compartment of a train
Three days and three nights
Counting the miles
For lack of anything else to do.
Then, eight hours by plane,
And now just three hours,
We want to fly
With the speed of light,
But even the speed of light
Is too slow to catch
The flight of our thoughts.
I am the son of modern times.
Give me now
The speed of my mind
The speed of my thoughts,
Not to worry me,
Not to bore me to death.
Match the swiftness of my mind,
Sorry that there’s no translation this week. If you’d like to check out more poems by Bəxtiyər, head over to Azeri.org.
I don’t really understand what it means to be a Sister City, but that’s apparently what Lənkəran and Monterey, California are now. Wikipedia tells me that sister cities form agreements “in geographically and politically distinct areas to promote cultural and commercial ties.” However, it doesn’t really go into what that practically means. Ideally, yeah, cultural and commercial ties sound great, but I would love to see the first delegation from Monterey arrive here at Lənkəran International Airport (really, it exists) to get a look at their new sister city. I am, regardless, a strong proponent of the idea that increasing ties to the outside world for Azerbaijan is almost always a good thing, at least in this direction. I’m assuming that these ties aren’t ways to smuggle the best pomegranate in the world to Monterey.
It does seem like they had a nice way to celebrate this newfound relationship in Monterey, inviting an Azerbaijani artist from Delaware to display some of his artwork:
The paintings of green mountains, lush meadows and tranquil lakes and rivers hanging in Colton Hall this weekend evoke the landscapes of California. But these works by Yavar Rzayev actually depict the artist’s native Azerbaijan, a country between Russia and Iran that is the home of Lankaran, Monterey’s newest sister city.
The art exhibit forges another tie between Monterey and the land of this sister city halfway around the world, which share similarities in environment and culture. The inspiration to connect the cities arose from a friendship between Monterey councilwoman Nancy Selfridge and Shafag Mehraliyeva, the wife of a Naval Postgraduate School student from Azerbaijan. Selfridge said Mehraliyeva kept drawing parallels between Lankaran and Monterey: Lankaran hosts a military presence, and has a large fishing industry due to its location on the Caspian sea.
And in other ‘Sister City’ news, it looks like Baku’s Nasimi District, a section of the city that includes the most touristy sections, has recently twinned with San Diego:
The Nasimi district in Baku and Switzer Highland in San Diego, California were declared twin regions for the first time in history on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of restoration of Azerbaijan’s independence.
The event was conducted in the San Diego city council on the 20th anniversary of restoration of Azerbaijan’s independence. Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Todd Gloria announced a special declaration, signed by members of the council, the Azerbaijani Consulate General in Los Angeles told Trend on Wednesday.
San Diego should be jealous that they missed out on pairing up with Lənkəran. Again, I still have no idea what this actually means. Maybe someone can enlighten me on the tangible benefits of Sister City-hood?
This past weekend, The Guardian‘s Comment is Free article by Mary Fitzgerald had some pointed words about Azerbaijan and its free speech record. She attended a reception in Westminster City Hall held by Azerbaijan that night, headlined by Ell & Nikki, the Eurovision darlings. The evening was packed full of typical Azerbaijani PR material and she describes her take on that evening in England and its reflection on what is happening in Azerbaijan thus:
Apologists for the regime – and I met many that night – will tell you that the last presidential election was not “quite as bad” as the ones preceding it. The evidence supports this – yet all have been marred by violence, intimidation, allegations of fraud and suppression of dissent. Last year, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that journalists and bloggers “work in a climate of endemic impunity and under persistent pressure from the authorities”. A number of activists are currently staging a hunger strike in protest at the harsh sentences meted out to opposition activists involved in a quashed demonstration in April this year.
It’s embarrassing, to say the least, for those who want to befriend this energy-rich republic. Responding to the April incident, the European parliament’s president Jerzy Buzek called for the release of all political prisoners in Azerbaijan, and stressed that Azerbaijan’s relationship with the EU “would become even stronger with more progress on human rights and political freedoms”.
So, not really in praise of Azerbaijan’s promise of growth and development, you see.
Ms. Fitzgerald’s criticism isn’t a new thing around here, but it does speak to a reality that people in the US, and the West generally, need to keep in mind about Azerbaijan: just as with any other country, their functions abroad can betray the realities of governance at home. The leadership here in Azerbaijan is likely fully aware of how they act abroad and conscientious of the image they wish to portray to the outside world and to foreign governments. From the message they deliver about Azerbaijan’s fruition as a new democracy all the way down to the cut of their suits, these folks are no fools and can probably play the international diplomatic game as well as anyone. It’s to their credit that they have a solid grasp of their diplomatic missions abroad. You can’t fault them for trying to portray an appealing and progressive face to the rest of the world.
To illustrate this, you don’t have to go far. Recently, President Ilham Aliyev sat down with David Frost (of Frost-Nixon fame) for a somewhat lengthy interview here in Baku. If you can get past Frost’s strange mannerisms and cadence to actually get to Aliyev’s answers, you’ll find the interview an interesting look at how Azerbaijan is able to portray itself to the world. Then go back and contrast with Mary Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the situation in Azerbaijan.
This week’s poem is by Vagif Samadoghlu (Vaqif Səmədoğlu), called That Strange and Soft Tune (Sənin səhərdən axşama kimi oxuduğun). Enjoy:
That Strange and Soft Tune
That strange and soft tune
that once you were murmuring all day long
in the language that I didn’t understand,
is still ringing in my ears.
I have learned by heart
the strange words of that nice and inconsolable,
of that distant and desperate song,
and they are still ringing in my ears…
That strange song that once
you were singing all day long
is as far, unhappy and somehow cautious
as my native land.
For the Azeri, read below… Read the rest of this entry »