Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Posts Tagged ‘Azerbaijan

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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Run Afoul of the Weather in Lənkəran

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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:

Written by Aaron

November 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Posted in Culture

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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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A Sunday Poem

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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):

Speed

Time was, we would sit
in the compartment of a train
Three days and three nights
Counting the miles
Baku-Moscow
For lack of anything else to do.

Then, eight hours by plane,
Baku-Moscow,
And now just three hours,
Still sorry,
Bored stiff.

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.
Just now,
Match the swiftness of my mind,
Move now!

Sorry that there’s no translation this week. If you’d like to check out more poems by Bəxtiyər, head over to Azeri.org.

Written by Aaron

October 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm

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

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