Aaron in Azerbaijan

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Aaron’s Last Post from Azerbaijan: A Service ‘Completed’

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“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!

Written by Aaron

November 11, 2011 at 7:07 am

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More Voices

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It doesn’t hurt to hear more from Azerbaijan through the lens of Peace Corps Volunteers. Unfortunately, it took me way too long to get these new links up for you. Last year’s new crop of PCVs brought with them a bunch of blogs they semi-regularly update with pictures and videos and stories about what they are doing here in Azerbaijan. Altogether, it makes for a nice diversity of voices and experiences from all over this small South Caucasus country. You can check out Brad’s site, he of Caspian Dreamer fame, and Julie’s site, who is out in Yevlax, in the middle of the country. Jane writes her blog from way up in the northwest, a village called Danaçı in the Zaqatala region. Crystal is in the middle-west, in the city of Mingechevir and Peggy is here in the south, in the region just north of Lənkəran called Masallı. Moses is working in Gəncə, the second-largest city and former capital of Azerbaijan.

Another voice I’ve added down below is a blog by an Azerbaijani, Sabina. Among other things, Sabina was one of our Azeri language and culture instructors for Peace Corps trainees and also participated in the social correspondent training I told you about in July. She writes her blog, Sensible and Sensitive, about her experiences and observations here in Azerbaijan and as she gets ready to go abroad.

Enjoy these other great voices from Azerbaijan as they fill you in on their experiences, challenges, and thoughts in this little-known country. You can find them all in the list over there on the right.

Written by Aaron

October 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm

A Sunday Poem

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This week’s poem is by Ali Karim (Əli Kərim) called Stone (Daş):

Stone

Half-naked,
Primitive man
Cast a stone at his foe,
Shed blood.
But the stone
Didn’t fall to the ground,
It kept flying,
From horizon to horizon.
Don’t say that the stone disappeared.
That stone transformed into an arrow,
And then a sword,
A bullet,
A missile.
It did not stop as we thought.
It transformed into an atom.
Piercing the summit
And wishes
And the ocean,
It sped away…
Nor has that very stone
Stopped even now,
It still shoots through the air, but where?
It becomes neutron,
Electron-
A lot of this, a lot of that.
Transforming into fire.
Death.
Poison.
You, my contemporary,
You, brother of Truth,
Tell me, can’t that stone be stopped,
That the half-naked,
Half-savage,
Primitive man
Cast so long ago?

For the Azeri, read below… Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Aaron

October 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Whispers of the Village: Who Are These Americans?

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Peace Corps Volunteers in Azerbaijan know that when they arrive to their sites it’s not likely that everyone will be awaiting their arrival, open arms ready to embrace the service we are here to carry out. Most people likely are surprised by the presence of a foreigner, and then further surprised to see that the foreigner is sticking around for two years, working at a local organization, be it a school or library or, in my case, a bank. I’m here in Lənkəran, a sizable city, and I’m confident that most people would recognize me as someone who has been around a while, but probably have no idea why I am here. I can only imagine the conversations that are or are not happening about my being here. Some folks know, and I’m able to explain, to some extent, that I’m from Peace Corps and what Peace Corps is. Yet, despite all our chances to get on TV around here, and wildly popular videos like this one, most folks still don’t really know.

With that in mind, I was pointed to a fascinating read from Global Voices Turkmenistan (thanks, Ani). A discussion board took off discussing the existence of an American with a camera who’s been teaching English at a neighboring village:

I don’t know whether you have also a similar situation in the area you live but in the neighboring village an American is working as an English teacher. It is obvious that they [the American teachers] aren’t coming here because of the salary of a village school. At the celebrative ‘toy’ events he is filming everything so that some aunts (elder women) from the village started to swear: ‘The haram who should be swallowed by the earth’ [a Turkmen expression meant for someone who is wished to disappear]. He is exhausting our patience by using his camera. What are your views about them? What do you think they are doing in Turkmenistan?

It was not difficult to see this one coming:

They are learning the economic, political and social aspects of the [Turkmen] people. Hence, they are constructing a ‘vicious’ strategy. In short they learn the anatomy of the people, they learn the strengths and the weaknesses. Like in a struggle they use the opponents’ weaknesses.

And this one was a little blunt:

Who knows what their aims are. We should fear them.

Read the fuller discussion at Global Voices.

That these people are expressing distrust and fear isn’t strange. The concept of joining an organization to go live in the largely-forgotten villages of developing countries is a difficult concept for a lot of Americans to understand; even more so for the people we are living with. On my first day here at AccessBank in Lənkəran, one of the loan officers asked if I was FBI or a spy (I informed him that the FBI is domestic). A strong legacy throughout Central Asia and the former Soviet states is an understanding that foreigners are likely spies. You can imagine how this might affect one’s Peace Corps service.

The fascinating part of that discussion from Turkmenistan, however, is how it turns from the people who express fear to those who push for a more open-mindedness:

I am currently working in the Azatlyk (‘Freedom’) Farmers Union in Yoloten. I am video taping whatever I see because here it looks like Afghanistan. Am I also a spy? LOL to you. Go to see America as well, to see their villages with cameras. You won’t be called a spy. Learn and let your thinking progress. Rather than gossiping about America let your thinking grow.

And, finally, someone with knowledge of Peace Corps pipes in:

The English teachers are being sent by the Peace Corps. Likewise, our people are being sent to the States for learning English. There is nothing to be afraid of. Our people can also video tape there. I have seen with my own eyes that how many of them have been taught English. If my family had allowed me I would have brought a girl to live with us if we were a family but the relatives at home didn’t allow and the Corps said that they don’t locate their people in Ashgabat. When I asked why they said to teach the village people English and second they said it is easier to learn the Turkmen language in the villages than in the cities.

So there it is. If you read the lengthier discussion at Global Voices, you’ll see how the conversation twists from confusion and fear, crosses over to conspiracies of religious imperialism and espionage, and finally ends up with people pushing for a more open view of what’s happening as Peace Corps goes into a country.

The key here, it seems to me, is that this former Soviet space is a place where good information is incredibly hard to come by. News outlets and Facebook are closely monitored. Most people don’t have access to sources of reliable information, and those who have the information are intent on guarding it for their own purposes. You can watch this dynamic all the way from down here in my bank branch with various workers and the branch manager, all the way up to people high in the government. This is a situation that breeds confusion and fear of the unknown, because everything is unknown. No one can be sure that the messages they are receiving are true. And no one is sure that someone else doesn’t have a secret on them. As more people are able to travel from these places, expose themselves to reliable outlets, and acquaint themselves more readily with the unknown, that is when these feelings of insecurity and fear will subside.

Written by Aaron

September 22, 2011 at 8:19 am

Familiar Rumblings for Peace Corps Turkmenistan

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The Peace Corps news of out of Central Asia right now is that the fall crop of Volunteers set to be heading into the Turkmenistan is facing some delays and, possibly, reassignments. Eurasianet has the story here:

Reports have circulated this week that the Peace Corps is once again having troubles in Turkmenistan, the independent émigré site chrono-tm.org reports. An anonymous tipster said that the latest batch of volunteers from the US were supposed to come to Ashgabat in early October, but were delayed, and may possibly even have been reassigned. The current group of volunteers was said to be facing the expiration of their visas on October 1.

For anyone who has gone through the Peace Corps application process, that has got to be painful. For those of you not familiar, the Peace Corps application process takes anywhere from six to 15 months, maybe longer in some cases (mine took 12 months). Then imagine that 10 days before you leave your home in America, your family, your friends, possibly a previous job or your university town, you’ve sold everything you’ve got and re-organized your duffel-bagged wardrobe to reflect the conservative culture of a Central Asian country, and then you get notice that, in fact, the country you are supposed to go to, with the feel-good mission of development and cultural exchange, tells you that you aren’t wanted.

That’s a rough way to ‘start’ your Peace Corps service.

I say this is a familiar story because the same thing happened back in Turkmenistan in 2009. The reason this post relates at all to Azerbaijan is that a significant population of our group of PCVs that came in in 2009 were transplants from a rejected group of to-be Turkmenistan PCVs. Neat, huh? This creates a whole bunch of problems, as delays are wont to do. Not only are logistics all screwed up, but that’s also a decent chunk of money that gets upset (at least, a significant chunk when your budget is small already). When Volunteers don’t get placed in their original country, Peace Corps has to figure out where they can go, or if they’ll just wait for another assignment. Lots of logistics, the job of which I do not envy.

To be sure, Peace Corps Volunteers in Azerbaijan have similar challenges to those in other Central Asian and South Caucasus countries, and probably similar to those of Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide. We have our misunderstandings and miscommunication (and non-communication) with the government here and with the colleagues we work with. And it can be shockingly difficult to integrate with our adoptive communities. Yet, as far as I know, Peace Corps Azerbaijan hasn’t suffered an all-out rejection. When things get rough, the top players are able to step in and cooler heads prevail, allowing Peace Corps to continue the English teaching, the youth developing, and the community economic development, and allowing both Azerbaijan and the US to benefit from our time here.  As usual with Peace Corps, however, you have to be ready for anything.

With all that in mind, maybe the new group of Azerbaijan PCVs, set to arrive in a few days, will get some unexpected additions to their crew. Hopefully, though, our friends in Turkmenistan will get it sorted out and those Americans headed to Turkmenistan can continue on their way.

Written by Aaron

September 21, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Azeri Students FLEX for America, Take English Test

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Today was that only-once-a-year event in Lənkəran, the FLEX test for students in Azerbaijan who want to go to high school in America for a year (learn more about the program by clicking here). Over 100 students from Lənkəran and the surrounding southern regions crowded into School #4 in the city to take Round One of the test, the qualifier for tomorrow’s Round Two, also at School #4. Over to the left, there are two lovable PCVs wasting hard-earned taxpayer dollars taking their time to streamline the registration process.

In general, this was a pretty good turnout with 100 students showing up and that matches about what they did last year. Right now, the only successful applicant from Lənkəran in 2010 is way out in the northwest of the USA, in a small town outside of Seattle, Washington. If we’re good, maybe we can bump up the numbers of Lənkəranlı Azerbaijanis at high schools in the US this year.

That standard turnout, however, didn’t come so easily. As usual, messages got dropped and a lot of schools didn’t get the message that the FLEX tests were happening today. Communication fail. Also, we PCVs had an interesting situation arise when we were told that PCVs are not supposed to be involved in education or the schools in Lənkəran. It’s pretty standard for Volunteers to be helping out, as many of these students are people we work with regularly and we want to see them succeed, encourage them to take the tests and give it their best shot. Plus, it’s just nice to have a few extra sets of capable hands around to help with organizing the students and doing registration. For us, though, it looks like someone at the local education department’s office isn’t too thrilled about us hanging around schools.

Written by Aaron

September 20, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Why Peace Corps is Important: 9/11 and the Third Goal, Ctd.

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Before we move on from the topic, this is just an addendum to my thoughts on how Peace Corps can help heal from days like 9/11 as we slide past the 10th anniversary of the tragedy. Today was my first day back at the bank after the anniversary. While I am cognizant of the tragedy of 9/11 and understanding of the grief it causes for many, I am not so strongly swayed by the memory of that day. However, it was touching today as my colleagues talked about the 9/11 disaster with respect. Multiple expressed to me what a terrible day that was for the world. One even commented that he was surprised when a friend attended a wedding on Sunday, believing that having a celebration on a day of tragedy is inappropriate. A few others expressed how much they dislike Bin Laden and what he and Al Qaeda stand for.

Whether they say these things because I’m there and because I’m American, I can’t know. Yet, it’s still a reminder that there is such a thing as humankind, where we can feel solidarity with one another and understand each other across borders, across oceans, and across cultures. This is an experience I would like for more people to have.

Written by Aaron

September 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Why Peace Corps is Important: 9/11 and the Third Goal

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This is not about where I was on September 11, 2001. Instead, this is about where I am now and why that is important relative to September 11, 2001. Peace Corps and the Third Goal were made for days like this.

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Peace Corps service is defined by three goals: 1) Provide technical assistance and training for people in the host country; 2) Give people outside of the United States a better understanding of Americans; and 3) Give Americans a better understanding of people from other countries. Goals 1 and 2 are best done while Peace Corps service is going on, the 2+ years a Volunteer is in Peace Corps, working in the country. Goal 3, however, is a mission that starts from Day 1 of Peace Corps service and continues on for the rest of your life. Creating and updating this blog is one of my biggest contributions to date towards pursuing Goal 3. When I leave Azerbaijan, I’ll have to find a new way to do it. Part of pursuing Goal 3 through new ways will be incorporating the message of this post into my life in America.

After living in Azerbaijan for two years, my Peace Corps colleagues and I have the insights and knowledge of this country that very, very few people have. We know the frustrations of travel here. We know that this is a nation with many incredible people and many more people who are struggling. We know that rice is best served with melted butter drizzled over the top of it, alongside a roasted chicken from an earthen oven. Azerbaijanis are as much a part of the global community that strives to improve their lot as Americans or Chinese or Angolans. We know that, right now, their system is working against them.

The Third Goal is about sharing this knowledge and our experiences with people in America. I can’t give anyone the full feeling of living in Azerbaijan. Yet, I can paint that picture with a palette more alive than anyone else’s, with nuance and understanding, with strokes broad and deep. My painting of Azerbaijan will be added to the gallery of cross-cultural understanding that is the collective mind of Americans.

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My days with a host family in Lənkəran always started off the same: breakfast of bread and cheese and butter, multiple cups of tea. My host mother usually prepared everything. The day continued with me going to work or reading or wandering around Lənkəran in tandem with Eli, we, the Giants of Lənkəran. All through this period, my host mother performed her prayers three times per day, as is customary for the Islam practiced here in southern Azerbaijan. It was an unassuming task, something you would hardly notice if you weren’t looking for it. Without a Muezzin singing the call to prayer to remind you it’s there, you might stop noticing it exists.

At home with my host brother, the TV would usually be on. Programs from Baku and others streamed in. Within the first two weeks of my living there, a show came on in which the popular and energetic host invited a distinguished scientist to discuss evolution. It was difficult for the scientist to get a good word in on evolution. Much of the discussion turned on religious points and the host derided Darwin.

Ramazan and Qurban Bayramı come and go every year, and so do Məhərrəmlik and Aşura. And Novruz tops all of those holidays. The first time I experienced those holidays was here in this country, walking to various mosques with my host brother, or witnessing the killing of the sheep for Qurban with my first host family, or learning about the meal at the end of the day, Iftar, which marks the end of the fast that day at sundown. Ending a fast with that plate of buttery rice and roasted chicken is a great thing.

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In America, since 9/11, we have learned much more about Islam and Muslims throughout the world. However, there is no doubt that misinformation persists, stereotypes have embedded themselves in our collective consciousness, and our society has shaped itself in opposition to people with Muslim backgrounds, of Islamic faith. It is hard to divorce the word Muslim from the word Terrorist, even though it is patently obvious that the association is bogus.

When I return from my Peace Corps service, I don’t just have the opportunity to share about my experience with Azerbaijanis and the post-Soviet sphere, my work with a bank and helping students. I will have an opportunity to tell about the people I met here who are Muslim culturally and religiously and who are great people because of it. I can talk about the people who were curious about my own beliefs, but never saw the differences as an Us vs. Them proposition, seeing us all as part of the same world. These folks talk about disasters in all parts of the world with an equal sense of grief, regardless of place or people or religion. Or they talk with me about NBA basketball and the tragedy of the lockout.

The anniversary of 9/11 is the type of event that makes Peace Corps service that much more meaningful. Our experiences are deep wells waiting to be plumbed, a water that brings words like Muslim and Islam and mosque to life so that we are no longer talking about flat characters from the other side of the world, but instead people who we’ve shared meals with and shared terrible bus rides with and laughter with and, possibly, long electricity-outages with. A 9/11 anniversary is the type of event that allows us to heal the wounds of yesteryear through better understanding of others. It is in this frame that we can best approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and in this frame that I can best view the changes in me through my Peace Corps service.

Written by Aaron

September 11, 2011 at 3:54 pm

The Caspian Dreamers Showcase Baku, Prepare for Eurovision

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Not much to say here.  Just watch:

Some additional info:

This is the brand new duo, Caspian Dreamers, made up of two Peace Corps Volunteers currently serving in Azerbaijan. Brad and Tim put their creative skills together to come up with this pop-rap soon-to-be-megahit Baku State of Mind. While nobody is going to quibble with the notion that there are some serious problems affecting Baku and Azerbaijan as a whole these days, Caspian Dreamers have put up an excellent showcase of what Baku has to offer: good food, great carpets, delicious tea, and an astounding array of new and innovative architecture. As they show in the video, there’s a lot going on in Baku these days, and there’s a lot more to come as the city ramps up for Eurovision 2012!

Written by Aaron

September 11, 2011 at 9:08 am

International Writing Olympics 2011: Awarded

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This past weekend, we celebrated another successful go of the Writing Olympics. The award ceremony was packed with guests, including representatives from the US Embassy, Peace Corps, and a host of media organizations, not to mention our budding young writers and their families. At the US-Azerbaijan Education Center in Baku, we gathered to present awards, read selected essays, and congratulate Azerbaijan on a job well done competing both within the country and internationally.

The Writing Olympics is an important piece of what we do here as Volunteers because it gives our Azerbaijani friends and students an opportunity to compete, to practice their English abilities, and to think creatively (a skill not though very highly of around here). Having students ponder questions like “Why is the grass green?” or “If you could fill the night sky with something other than stars and planets, what would it be and why?” is an exercise that doesn’t happen often enough. It would be great if we could do this essay competition in Azeri, but that would make the international part of it much more difficult.

I wrote about the Writing Olympics first last year, when it was the Trans-Caucasus Writing Olympics competition. We reached just under 300 participants and netted some real gems of quotes from the writers. Of the 11 international first-prize awards, Azerbaijan took 5 of them, more than any other country involved (Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova).

This year, Azerbaijan’s students were competing with countries across the globe, including Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and a bunch more (total of 9). Almost 500 students competed, and Azerbaijan tied Ukraine for the most international prizes taken. Overall, it’s a feel-good event that spreads throughout the world through Peace Corps. Encouraging creativity, providing a space to improve English skills, and building connections with people from nine different Peace Corps countries (and within their own countries, too!) is tough to beat.

On a side note, we also got some serious press coverage. In addition to my being interviewed about Writing Olympics and Peace Corps on the national TV channels, we also got picked up on Today.Az and Trend:

US-Azerbaijan Education Center on Saturday held a ceremony to award winners of the International English Olympiad. At the event, certificates and prizes were presented to eight representatives of Azerbaijani youth who have become winners of the contest. The contest was attended by 483 people from all regions of Azerbaijan – both pupils and students. For the first time, the International English Olympiad was held in Georgia in 2004. This year, the contest was by attracted 4,867 people from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Albania, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Mongolia, Ukraine and Armenia. It was noted at the event that most prizes were gained by the Azerbaijani and Ukrainian pupils and students.