Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Photojournalism: The Lives of the Pipeline

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After two years of living here in Azerbaijan, I still enjoy the photo essays and documenting of Azerbaijani lives as they are affected by various contexts, such as a massive oil pipeline. There are so many aspects of living in Azerbaijan that few will ever witness that we can only rely on those willing to travel here and take the pictures, write the stories. Last year, Amanda Rivkin was one of those people. She took a grant from National Geographic to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline to document the lives of the pipelines route.

This time around, it turns out Amanda is back for more. She just couldn’t get enough of Azerbaijan and its (and Georgia’s and Turkey’s) pipeline. She’ll be hanging out in Azerbaijan until next summer on a Fulbright scholarship, documenting the lives of the pipeline. This is an opportunity to get a look at parts of Azerbaijan that even a rugged adventurist might not be able to see. In her past work here at the BTC, Amanda shot images even the biggest journalism players couldn’t access.

You can check out Amanda’s work by going to her website and flipping through her pictures. On the top left of her page, you can see what she did on the BTC last year, among others. If you’re impressed and want to see more, check out her new project page. You have an opportunity to support more work being done to document and reveal to the world the lives of people in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. We’ll be able to get a feel for the types of landscapes and lives that surround the pipeline, a geopolitically loaded project, and the conditions in which our oil-reliant world is enriched.

Written by Aaron

October 22, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Where Does Azerbaijan Belong?

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The CRRC has a new report out detailing gender attitude differences in the Caucasus and comparing those attitudes to the wider set of data from the Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Project. What you get is a picture that lifts up the differences in Caucasus countries in contrast to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The takeaway:

Armenia and Azerbaijan tend to emphasize more traditional gender roles, and in global terms are often closer in attitude to Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Georgia, meanwhile, is more inclined to aspire to gender equality, and in this sense is closer to countries in Western Europe and the Americas. However, the picture is complicated and, using other data from the Caucasus Barometer, the report shows that gender perceptions in the South Caucasus are deeply nuanced, and do not fit into a conventional picture of equality versus tradition.

The report (pdf) is a quick and informative read. What I’m interested in here, though, is what is not in this report. One of the glaring absences in the Pew report is data from Central Asia. For obvious reasons, countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are rather inaccessible. And from what I can tell, it looks like Uzbekistan last participated in the Global Attitudes Survey in 2002. Not exactly a recipe for a reliable data set from Central Asia. Kyrgystan and Tajikistan aren’t represent at all, nor are Iran and Afghanistan. Without the work of the CRRC, we wouldn’t have comparable information for Georgia, Armenia, or Azerbaijan, either.

I’m willing to posit, though, that if we had that information, we would see vast similarities between Azerbaijan and the Central Asian countries. I’d even go so far as to say that in addition to the geographical grouping we give Azerbaijan, with the other Caucasus countries, it’d be appropriate to say that Azerbaijan fits right in in Central Asia. Websites such as NewEurasia, a recent find that I’m really enjoying, leave their reporting to only the countries on the other side of the Caspian (not sure if that’s just because they don’t have an Azerbaijan source or not). It’s fairly obvious why I think that Azerbaijan shares so much with those countries: Muslim populations, former Soviet states, natural resource wealth, strong Russian leadership legacies, and more. If you’ve read Chasing the Sea, an account from a former PCV in Uzbekistan, the similarities, all the way from food and clothing choices to government apparatuses, are striking. Reading Hooman Majd’s The Ayatollah Begs to Differ offers more similarities that can extend throughout countries of the former Persian Empire, which would includes a significant chunk of the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as the Caucasus. The influences from the Russians, Iranians, and the myriad of other conquerors of the region have left impressions that mark the entire region.

This post doesn’t really have a larger point to make. What I’m trying to say is that I think it’s completely legitimate to include Azerbaijan in the region of “Central Asia”, even though it’s geographically separated from the typical list of countries because it’s on the wrong side of the Caspian. Whether it’s a fruitful comparison to make, I’m not sure, but I’d be interested in seeing information like that gleaned from the CRRC and the Pew surveys produced to compare the typical Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan.

Written by Aaron

October 19, 2011 at 5:54 am

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

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A Sunday Poem, On Monday

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Travel logistics made Sunday’s poem get pushed back to today. This week, we read a poem by Füzuli, Azerbaijan’s epic poet writing in the 16th century. This is an excerpt from his rendition of Leyla and Majnun (Leyli və Məcnun), describing Leyla:

Among all the girls was one bright as a fairy,
Who aimed all her glances directly at Qays.
So beautiful she, with her ways and her graces,
That many an elder, forgetful of vows,
Might find all his virtue caught up in her curls.
Calamitous chain for the neck was the garland
Of ringleted locks that fell down in a cloud:
Affliction for lovers was spelled by her eyebrows,
As lovely as twins, and, as twins, forming one.
Each eyelash that curved from her lids was an arrow
That pierced to heart and that stirred all the blood:
Her eyes from their shelter poured forth fiery glances
That, piercing the soul, spread the fever of love.
Her brow, like an ocean, far spread and smooth rolling
Like the ocean had many a peril in check.
The black of her eyes shamed collyrium’s darkness
And made it a captive in chains to her mole.
Her cheeks flushing red, paled her rouge to a whiteness,
No rouge ever sullied their delicate blush.
Should her eyes lose their pupils, no blindness would follow,
Her mole would become a black pupil of sight.
Her teeth, pearly white, from between her lips’redness
Gleamed forth as bright pearls in the heart of a rose:
When the doors of her speech were full opened, one fancied
The dead must spring forth from their mouldering tombs.
From her round dimpled chin her neck curved to her bosom;
Her stature and form were creation divine.
The falcon itself, a bird sacred to kingship,
Unhooded, can gaze in the eye of the sun,
But the eyes of this child, with their antelope softness,
Could flash forth a look that the falcon outshone.
Her motion was graceful, her words sugared honey,
No act but had grace, every movement a joy-
But why count her beauties? Put all in a sentence:
The whole world itself, in a passion of terror
Clung fast to her hair, as she went on her way.
Beloved of all the world was this maiden.
Qays looked and he perished, for Leyla her name.
As he with a sorrowful passion of yearning
With sighs fed the fire that her beauty awoke,
So she in a thousand sweet joys lost her reason
For him without whom she knew living was death.
She saw how the world gave its ultimate wonder,
She saw how he held all her world in his hands.

You can find more from Füzuli’s Leyli və Məcnun here at this site about Turkish culture. For even more Azeri poetry, go to Azeri.org’s Poetry page.

Written by Aaron

October 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm

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

How Being Polite Can Be Frustrating

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I’m currently reading a short book called The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, by an Iranian who was raised in the West by his parents, members of Iran’s diplomatic class in the 1960s and 70s. Hooman Majd tells his story in short vignettes. He deconstructs the minutiae of his return trips to his homeland, visiting government officials and ayatollahs and old friends. His insights into Iranian culture are particularly vivid, as he is at the same time an Iranian at heart and steeped in Western culture. Being bilingual is certainly an asset in bridging that gulf. As Majd recollects his stories, he notes the persistence of ta’arouf, a form of politesse permeating nearly every interaction in Iranian culture. I can tell you, this idea of ta’arouf is thick in Azeri culture, as well.

Throughout the book, Majd explains the ta’arouf in almost every possible situation, whether it is in his meetings with the Iranian Foreign Minister, displayed in the minister’s offering his service while not really meaning it, or talking with taxi drivers about how much to pay, in which the taxi driver insists that paying for the taxi ride is an act unworthy but really just refuses the payment until you overwhelm with your own insistence that you must pay the fare. Of ta’arouf, Majd writes:

Western observers often define ta’arouf as extreme Iranian hospitality, or as a Persian form of elaborate etiquette, but since Westerners naturally engage in ta’arouf too (as everyone who has ever complimented a host or hostess on what was actually a bad meal knows), it’s easy to miss its true significance and its implications in Persian culture. The white lies that good manners dictate we tell in the West and general polite banter or gracious hospitality cannot begin to describe what for Iranians is a cultural imperative that is about manners, yes, but is also about gaining advantage, politically, socially, or economically, as much as anything else. One might be tempted to think of ta’arouf as passive-aggressive behavior with a peculiarly Persian hue, but although it can be, it cannot be defined solely so.

I can tell you: the Azeri culture that I experience is thick with ta’arouf. I cannot purchase something without hearing the phrase, “qonaq ol”, or “be a guest”, meaning that I shouldn’t pay. This goes for big meals to short taxi rides. Last time I was in Baku, I was told to be a guest for a cup of coffee I bought. And every greeting and goodbye is often a long trail of phrases that almost knock you over. This could involve asking “how are you?” in every permutation possible. This sounds great, a place of extreme courtesy, right? Well, for any foreigner who’s in Azerbaijan this can be a strong change of pace. And when the seller tells you to be a guest, the correct response is to insist on paying. This next part from Majd is right on, as well, describing the same tactic I use when walking in the street here:

Any visitor to Iran will also describe Tehran traffic as perhaps the worst in the world with, paradoxically for people known for their extreme hospitality and good manners, the rudest drivers of any country. True, for someone behind the wheel of an automobile, man or woman, is anonymous. There is good reason why Iranian drivers avoid eye contact with other drivers and pedestrians, for if they make eye contact, their veil of anonymity has been lifted, the gates to the walls of their homes have been unlocked and they must become social Iranians, which means they must practice ta’arouf. Many a time as a pedestrian I have made every effort to make eye contact with a driver bearing down on me at full speed as I step off a curb, and when I manage to, the car inevitably stops and the driver, usually with a smile, gestures “you first” with his hands.

It’s true. I can’t tell you how well this works in Azerbaijan. We PCVs have discussed that, often, the famous hospitality in Azerbaijan comes most commonly after you have engaged in a bit of the ta’arouf which makes your greetings long-winded marathons of niceties. Once an Azeri is no longer anonymous, the hospitality shines through. With the anonymity, you’ve got a much different situation on your hands.

For someone who’s not used to this state of affairs, it can be exhausting. It turns buying knick-knacks into a chore, when everyone knows what the end result is from the get-go. The other unintended consequence, as far as westerners are concerned, is that it leads to a frustratingly contradictory view of the people we are dealing with. While some of these folks can be some of the most generous people we’ve come across, offering their best, it can also lead to these same people saying things they don’t really intend to follow through on. Our Azeri hosts may say that they’ll provide something because it is the proper and polite thing to say, yet with no intention of delivering. You can imagine the frustration as we exclaim, “They just lie to us!” Yet, at the same time, we need to understand that this is less about lying than it is about trying to be a polite and appropriate host.

In a work setting, these frustrations can be even more pronounced, as my colleagues will want to make sure that they are exercising the right amount of politeness with me, the foreigner. And yet, they just can’t say no when that is what they are thinking. Efforts to appease someone like me as an advisor or someone who is in a higher position means putting forth an effort many western businesspeople would find inefficient and ineffective. However, ta’arouf has its role in business, as well:

American businesses and businessmen are known to succeed with brashness, determination, and sometimes even a certain amount of ruthlessness; Iranian businessmen succeed rather more quietly with a good dose of ta’arouf and in such a way that doors are opened before the ones opening the doors realize they have done so.

Reading The Ayatollah Begs to Differ has provided me a great voice to describe some of my experiences here in Azerbaijan. You can find a fantastic essay adapted from the book here. That essay, in particular, gives a great summary of why Americans have a very difficult time understanding Iran and Iran’s politics. While it might be too easy to say that everything Majd offers fits neatly with Azeris as much as Iranians, his writing is clearly appropriate for understanding my time in Azerbaijan, and very clearly shows a few ways in which Azerbaijan relates to the neighbors to the south.

Written by Aaron

October 10, 2011 at 3:18 pm

A Sunday Poem

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This week, a poem by Fikrat Goja (Fikrət Qoca) called An Unfinished Work (Yarımçıq İş):

An Unfinished Work

An unfinished work is
An engaged son or daughter
Without a wedding.
An unfinished work is
An autumn without harvest.
An unfinished work is
A road without a bridge,
A land without a road,
A tongue without a word.
An unfinished work is
A work done without a goal,
A curse without meaning,
A kiss without love.
An unfinished work is
A roof with a ceiling
That leaks,
Brother, in short,
An unfinished work is
A person who is good for nothing.

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

Written by Aaron

October 9, 2011 at 5:47 pm