Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

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In Memory of Steve Hollier

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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.

Written by Aaron

November 3, 2011 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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Azerbaijan’s Second Independence Day

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Last night, I had to send a text to one of my colleagues at the bank because I didn’t know if today was a bank holiday or not. October 18th is Azerbaijan’s second independence day, celebrating their re-emergence as an independent state in 1991. As the Soviet Union crumbled, Azerbaijan was enveloped in a tumultuous few years of war with the neighbors to the west and a rather wild attempt at democracy, marked with raging protests in Baku and even a secession attempt by a rogue general in Lənkəran. I had to ask my colleague if it was a holiday or not because no one could say definitively whether everyone had off or not for Azerbaijan’s independence day. Turns out, it was a workday.

That Azerbaijan has two independence days (there is a Will Smith joke in here somewhere…) makes this a rather unique situation. The other is May 28, 1918, when Azerbaijan declared independence from the Czar’s Russia and held on to that until the Soviets pushed back down into the South Caucasus, in 1920. I don’t know too many countries with multiple independence days, but maybe because they are more common here, it’s less of a big deal and they don’t need a day off from work to celebrate it. In addition to that, I can also say that I’ve met many Azeris who tell me that they don’t really think of October 18th as a very important day. They, instead, say that they prefer May 28th because they feel that the government at that time was more democratic and was more progressive. Indeed, the first independence saw the creation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and is portrayed in Ali and Nino as a rather progressive movement towards a western democracy. I can’t tell you whether that is an accurate depiction, but it certainly seems so. The government of the time was responsible for establishing a multi-party system. The Prime Minister of Azerbaijan, Fatali Khan Khoyski, had been part of the movement in Czarist Russia to oppose the monarchy and grant autonomy to regions of the crumbling empire. He was also instrumental in establishing diplomatic relations for the new state and pushed for the creation of Azerbaijan State University.

For more on the most recent independence day, however, Trend.Az gives us this barely-intelligible blurb:

Thanks to favorable historical condition established after collapse of the Soviet Union in late 20th century Azerbaijani people gained its independence in the 20th century for the second time. It was the second prominent achievement in Azerbaijani people’s political history.

As a result of the activity of the democratic powers in Russia it was impossible to suppress non-subordination to the central power and independence wish in the republic. At the extraordinary meeting called under the people’s will on June 30, 1991, the Supreme Council of the Azerbaijani Republic adopted a declaration about restoration of Azerbaijan’s state independence.

Constitutional Act “About the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan'” was adopted at the session of the Supreme Council of the Azerbaijani Republic on Oct.18, 1991.

So, even though we still had to go to work today, I’ll take this moment to say Happy Independence Day to our Azerbaijani friends!

Written by Aaron

October 18, 2011 at 10:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

An Azerbaijani Reflection on the Night of Qadir, and Our Connections with Divinity

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The end of Ramazan (also known as Ramadan) draws nigh and just this past week was the celebration of Lailatul Qadr’, or the ‘Night of Power’ (one possible translation). Muslims believe that the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad happened within the last 10 nights of the month of Ramazan, on an odd-numbered night. Around here, that means there are 10 nights during this time when the devout will stay up all night at the mosque praying. Muslims throughout the world have been fasting already for the first three weeks of Ramazan. As the end of Ramazan approaches, known as the Eid or Eid al-Fitr, on the 30th and 31st of August this year, I thought I’d share a thoughtful reflection by a blogger, Sabina, on her first experience going to a mosque last week during the Qadir:

I was really excited about the idea of going to the mosque and spending the night there awake. In Azeri, Mosques are called ‘Allahın Evi” (the house of God). I truly believed that I was going to be much closer to God. When I was in Georgia, my friends and I went to the cathedral and lit a candle. I was feeling embarrassed that as a Muslim I had gone to the cathedral first. So this was a good chance for me to feel God in another house of His.

However my excitement faded away when I stepped in the mosque. No. I didn’t see the mosque, but the yard of the mosque. When I began to follow the crowd, which mainly consisted of males, my sister grabbed my arm and forwarded me to the tent. It turned out that males were going to spend the night inside the mosque with Akhoond, and females were to spend the night in the tent in the yard on the ground covered with old carpets. There was a speaker in the tent to hear the voice of Akhoond.

To be honest, I was really surprised, because I have read a bit of Quran, and God’s words say to treat woman kindly. Besides, in our culture, in the buses or other places, males always give their seats to females, or they always seem to be protective. Sometimes extremely protective to females. But no, in the house of God, males agree to stay inside and let females (their mothers, sisters, wives) sit in the tent on the ground in the cold weather. (That night it was drizzling). Another surprising thing was that the women didn’t care about it. It was just me asking around why males are inside. My aunt thought I should keep silence. Well I did. But I didn’t keep silence in my mind; I really thought a lot but didn’t find any answers. Although my sister answered this question, it just seemed a pretext to me.

There are so many ideas going on here. Sabina embarks on a deep reflection on the role of Islam in gender, the complexity of our earthly connections to divinity, against a background of not just Muslim culture but also Azerbaijani culture. The whole post is worth reading to get a full perspective from one Azerbaijani woman on Ramazan, Islam, Azerbaijani culture, divinity, and the questions we should all be asking ourselves.

Written by Aaron

August 29, 2011 at 6:43 am

Return From Indonesia, and a Note On Tourism

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The plan was to have Mason step in to drop a few posts while I was out. Obviously, that plan didn’t work out, so sorry about that. No worries, though, as I’m back in Azerbaijan, fresh from Indonesia, and back in action on the blog. Things were great in Indonesia, a fantastic tourist experience. In light of that, I thought I’d get started with an article Steve came across a week ago about tourism in Azerbaijan, from Trend:

The Ministry representative further said that the current priority is to familiarize the world with Azerbaijan as a tourist-friendly country, to be commercializing and advertising Azerbaijani brands of tourism, expanding information on activities, creating regional touristic-cultural routes in the context of international programs, and expanding international relations.

“Our ministry is involved in about 20 exhibitions in leading world countries, to promote the annual tourism potential of our country “, Gurbanov said.

We’ve talked about tourism in Azerbaijan here before. Here, here, and here are some good examples. I think this story above does a great job of capturing a major issue with tourism in Azerbaijan. This has classic cart-before-the-horse written all over it.

It’s great that Azerbaijan recognizes that they need to promote themselves to a wider audience. For a country that wants to be a tourism hub, it’s far too common to hear someone say “What is Azerbaijan?”; we’re not even to the point of asking where Azerbaijan is yet. However, the more important aspect here is not that Azerbaijan isn’t known. Instead, it’s that Azerbaijan doesn’t necessarily have a tourism product to promote. There are some hotels around, but that doesn’t make for a very good tourist destination. Customer service is uniformly poor (a gem of a host here or there, but extremely rare). And Azerbaijani tourism services don’t do a very good job of focusing on the natural assets in the country, namely their mountains and the Caspian Sea. Wider availability of services such as hiking or backpacking tours or serious skiing spots (no, this is not a serious attempt at a ski resort) would be a drastic improvement. Actually making an effort to clean the beaches and the Caspian would go a long way towards making those resources appealing to a tourist. And these are all, of course, subject to the stranglehold that the relatively poor transportation infrastructure has on getting around this country (not to mention the barriers to actually getting here in the first place).

Coming from a country that has been doing their tourism bit for a long time, for millions of tourists per year (Azerbaijan hits about 17-18,000 tourists per year; Indonesia gets 17-18000 tourists in one day), it becomes readily apparent that Azerbaijan, despite any tourism-attracting assets it might have, has a long way to go before any of those assets start producing real tourism numbers. I would love to see Azerbaijan actually take advantage of its location and geography. Those kinds of changes could only reap positive benefits, across multiple spheres, environmental, economic, and cultural. The important part of the quote from above is that we continue talking about Azerbaijan’s tourism potential.  Somehow, we actually have to figure out how to get from potential to realization.

Written by Aaron

August 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm

A Sunday Poem

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This week’s poem comes from Isa Ismayilzade (İsa İsmayılzadə), titled The Year 1941 (1941-ci il):

The Year 1941

The year of my birth
Is forever bound
With the name of the Unknown Soldier.
That dark, stern year
Born in trenches,
In smoke,
And fire,
The year of my birth.

The year of my birth
Scarred the breast of the earth
Like a jagged bayonet wound.
On the breast of the earth.
Soldiers’ iron-shod boots
Stamped
The year of my birth.
Across the dark sky
Fire-breathing cannons
Spat out the date.
In clouds on high
Wild scorching rockets
That could melt distant stars
Etched that cursed year.
And bereaved mothers’ eyes
Engraved that black year
In the pillows they soaked
With many a salty tear

I never wish to celebrate
The year of my birth,
For fear lest I wake,
By the clinking of glasses and noisy mirth,
All those who sleep in memory’s vaults.

I wish never to celebrate
The year of my birth.
For sorrow will never cool
Like food long grown cold
On my older dead brother’s plate.
My sense of loss and guiltless shame
Are keenest of all
When I look up and see
His portrait on the wall
In its simple black frame.

If I can find a translation, I’ll post it here.  You can read more Azerbaijani poetry at Azeri.org.

Written by Aaron

July 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm

A Summer Salad and a Cold Glass of Ayran

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NPR had a feature yesterday on Soviet cuisine, highlighting the lighter side. As they explain here, some of those Russian dishes don’t necessarily come from Russia, itself. They describe a great light salad from Azerbaijan. With temperatures these days regularly over 100 F, we are all enjoying light foods and cool drinks. Here is both the description and the recipe:

Most Russian salads aren’t the lettuce-based affairs we think of. They’re more a collection of various summer vegetables, chunked up and tossed together. This particular version, adapted from Culinaria Russia, edited by Marion Trutter (H.F. Ullmann 2007) comes from Azerbaijan. In the early fall, you can garnish it with pomegranate seeds, but during summer it’s lovely as is.

Makes 4 to 6 servings, as a side dish

  • 3 large tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cucumber, peeled and diced small
  • 3 sweet Italian peppers, diced small (substitute bell peppers if desired)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Place the tomatoes, cucumber and peppers in a serving dish. Mix together the olive oil, lemon juice and scallions to form a dressing, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss the salad with the dressing and serve.

It really is great in the summer. One of the reasons it’s so great is that the summertime in Azerbaijan is overflowing with fresh, delicious tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s standard to have tomatoes and cucumbers on the table year-round, but when they are in season in Azerbaijan, it’s unbeatable. Taking advantage of it and putting together a light salad for summer delight is perfect.

The other feature they have up there is okroshka. That Russian version is foreign to my palate, but around here, okroshka is one of my other favorite summer standards in Azerbaijan, known here in Lənkeran as Ayran. Ayran (eye-rahn) is fantastic.  It’s a thin-yogurt drink, a little sour, a lot delicious. Served chilled, you can drink it plain, as described in this recipe by Sofya, or you can add some more goodness to it. Here in Lənkəran, the cold yogurt drink is mixed with finely chopped dill, mint, and cucumber, seasoned with a pinch of black pepper. Those combine with the slightly sour taste of the yogurt and to create a cold, refreshing drink for the hot summer days we are slogging through. This drink is not only popular here in Azerbaijan, but also in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries. Nuş olsun!

 

Written by Aaron

July 20, 2011 at 6:08 pm

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Defining Success for Women in Society

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This quote from a Voice of America news article caught my eye today:

“I was married the week after I got out of college and when my children they would say to me well how come so and so went to law school, and she was your age? And I would say, ‘She was a failure. I was a success.’ Because success in 1959 was to go to college, graduate from college and get married.

This is a fascinating way to look at how we measure ourselves against the society we grow up in. For that woman, and for that society at that time, success for women was fairly strictly defined. And that statement reinforces my thoughts about Azerbaijan being set at different decades of development when compared to Europe or the US. It’s not really a fair comparison, but there is no doubt that certain aspects of Azerbaijan feel very much like eras past of countries in the “developed” world (I still remember stepping off the plane in Baku, my first step into Azerbaijan, and thinking about how it reminded me of what we imagine as the 1950s). Instead of thinking about the buildings and environment, however, the statement above strikes very closely to the ideal of women in Azerbaijan, whose socially-defined success ends at getting married and having children. For women in villages, that statement expects too much by including going to college. I think it’s fair to say that the aspirations for many women here, and the expectations of parents for their daughters, is to get married. So much so that early marriage is still a problem in Azerbaijan. For a woman in Azerbaijan, success is defined as getting married and having children.

This reality hit me in an unexpected way last week when I was discussing a new soccer camp we’ll be doing for girls in Lənkəran next week. The plan is to get about 40 girls from Lənkəran together at the sports school and teach them basic things about playing soccer, staying healthy, and being active. We’ve got some fantastic soccer players here who are PCVs running the camp, and we’re also having some of the players from the local Xəzər Lənkəran soccer team join us!

This sounds great, right? Right. But imagine that your perspective on women in society is that their main role is to get married and have kids. In discussing getting funding to put on this camp with my Branch Manager at the bank, we talked about why we were doing the camp. Rahman talked about this camp being a big competition, with a championship at the end, which really isn’t built into the camp since this is more about teaching skills than having a tournament. He then talked about this being an opportunity for coaches from around Azerbaijan to basically scout for promising players for girls’ teams. Again, this misses the point of the camp. Rahman was exasperated by me when I explained that the camp wasn’t really either of those things, and the only question he could come up with was, “Then why do girls need to play soccer?”

Yes: this is where our American and Azerbaijani perspectives on women crash into each other. From the point of view of someone whose mindset says that male and female gender roles are relatively fixed, and that the woman’s measure of success is getting married, there really is very little reason, in this conception, for girls to play soccer. Explaining that women should be active and should be participating in things like sports to stay healthy didn’t really convince him. As a bank manager, he’s much more focused on results than he his on whatever processes you use to get there; thus, the lack of a “result” from a tournament or a possibility of being recruited precipitated the above question.

This also lays bare a sort of cultural imperialism as we American PCVs seek to get women in our host countries more active and empowered. Fortunately for my sanity, it’s a type of cultural imperialism that I have no problem attempting to impose. That makes my service here as a PCV much less anthropological and much more normative, not only recognizing the differences in culture but also seeking to make moves toward a more Western conception of women in society. As far as I know, these ideas of women’s emancipation have available in Azerbaijani literature for hundreds of years. Mirvarid Dilbazi described her conceptions of it in a fascinating interview with Azerbaijan International in the 1990s, talking about the ideas contained in Azeri plays:

Between the 1920s and 1930s, the most burning issue among the Azerbaijani intelligentsia related to women’s emancipation. This theme became very popular in literature. For example, there was Jafar Jabbarli’s play “Sevil,” Mammad Said Ordubadi’s “Misty Tabriz,” and others. What was meant by women’s emancipation was first of all taking off the chadors [veils], then women’s participation in governmental affairs and women’s literacy.

So, with ideas like that around for so long (and let’s not forget that the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic in 1918 also granted women voting rights before the USA), how long does it take for a society to shift their conceptions of success for women? It also makes me curious about how we would articulate a socially-defined measure of success for women today in America.

Written by Aaron

July 19, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized