Thursday, July 31, 2008

Judge Rules: White House Aides Can Be Subpoenaed !!!

President Bush’s top advisers MUST honor subpoenas issued by Congress, a federal judge ruled on Thursday, opening the way to testimony, perjury and prosecution of White House shills.

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What it takes to become a teacher here

One of my favorite parts of this class is talking about story ideas. It’s interesting for me – to see how students think about the news. I also learn about their world as they suggest ideas for articles. Many of the ideas that students suggested were good. Many were vague and not feasible. By the end of class, however, we had nine solid topics for articles. If five students follow through and actually write a decent article, I will be very pleased. My experience so far has been that students are reasonably good about coming up with ideas. Completing the work and writing the article, however, is another story.

As often happens, I get little glimpses of my students’ lives as they describe the issues that are close to their heart. One interesting exchange came today as a student started describing how she wanted to do an article about unemployment. I said this subject was too broad, and we started to talk in more detail about what was on her mind. As it turned out, she is trained as a teacher, and only works as a journalist as a hobby. Needless to say, she receives almost no money for the articles that she writes. Why is she not working as a teacher? She doesn’t work as a teacher because she cannot afford the $1,000 bribe that is needed to get a teaching position. So, she is barely employed as a writer for a local newspaper. I think it is more accurate to say she is unemployed. And this is a subject that is close to her heart.

As we talked, I suggested some ways to write about the subject. As we are now entering August, it is timely to think about school and teachers. What is needed to become a teacher in this city? That is the story as we left it this afternoon. I hope that she can write this story. It is an important subject that touches on a number of different areas. The education system. Corruption. Protection of corruption by high officials. I didn’t tell her this, but I expect that she knows – that if she actually writes this article and it is published under her name, she will never get a job as a teacher.

Actually, maybe we should talk about this, just in case this fact hadn’t occurred to her already. On the other hand, it looks like she’ll never work as a teacher in any case!

After work, I took a taxi ride to the nearby village of Fazil, where archeologists have been excavating an underground labyrinth. A new museum is dedicated to the archeological project, but the museum was closed when we arrived. The labyrinth, of course, was underground and invisible to us. Some sheep grazed on the mounds, presumably unaware of the site's historical significance.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Turley: 'Pathetic' if Only Goodling takes the Fall for Bush

While a recent report on illegal politicization of the Justice Department is a good first step in introducing accountability to the Bush administration, it would be "pathetic" if culpability stops with midlevel aides like Monica Goodling, a constitutional expert says.

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Thank God for young people! On Tuesday, attendance in the class had dropped to four, and the energy level was flagging. So – the word went out in certain circles and on Wednesday, we had an influx of about ten new students. Some of them are still in high school. That’s fine. I’d rather have an inexperienced youngster than an older person who thinks he knows everything and knows why things cannot be done differently.

Also – it was good to see a mix of sexes. I don’t have the attendance sheet in front of me, but I think the proportion was fairly evenly divided between male and female.

I can predict that in any group of students, there will be a wise-ass. Usually this student is male, but not always. But often the wise-ass can ask interesting questions, even if the motivation might be less than constructive.
In this case, the wise-ass is a male student, who also happens to be the best English speaker of the students. The wise-ass questions are usually posed to challenge the teacher in some way. But – if the questions are taken the right way, they can be useful. The main thing is to not take the questions personally.
On my way home, I was thinking about some of his questions. (Not all of the questions. Do I believe in UFOs? Hmmm. Agnostic on that question.)

Have I ever written propaganda? I answered this one in class with a categorical “no.” But – I also realize that the answer is not so simple. Propaganda to some extent is defined by the reader. So readers who disagree with facts or a viewpoint are likely to call it propaganda.

This is what my dictionary says about propaganda:

1 chiefly derogatory information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view : he was charged with distributing enemy propaganda.
• the dissemination of such information as a political strategy : the party's leaders believed that a long period of education and propaganda would be necessary .
2 ( Propaganda) a committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.
ORIGIN Italian, from modern Latin congregatio de propaganda fide ‘congregation for propagation of the faith’ ( see sense 2 ). Sense 1 dates from the early 20th cent.

I have never written news articles that were in the service of any political cause. But I have written editorials that openly supported a political point of view. To people of opposing viewpoints, these may have been interpreted as propaganda.

And while my news articles were not in the service of one political party, I have written articles that in the end favored one interpretation of the facts over another. This is the nature of journalism. We journalists collect information, and then we select which facts we will use in our writing. We choose how we are going to use the information. It is a human enterprise, and humans have opinions. So, this is a much longer answer than I gave to the wise-ass question.

I also chewed on his question about whether I had ever changed my mind about a story. I was able to confidently answer “yes” to this question. In fact, there are numerous articles that I have written where I went in with one point of view and that point of view changed – albeit sometimes subtly – over the course of researching the subject. I have gone into interviews thinking I would dislike the subject, and then found that we had some real areas of agreement. I have had interview subjects persuade me about the validity of their point of view. So, I feel quite confident in my answer to this question – but it is still a good question to ask. A good question to ask myself. A journalist should retain an open mind.

Here are a couple of photos from yesterday evening. The downtown mosque at dusk, and the scene in the park near the mosque. While the fellows played pool, the fountains danced to a recording of classical music. A funny juxtaposition.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

At $648 Billion, Cost Of Iraq War Almost Equal To Vietnam

In a new report, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reveals that the real similarity between Iraq and Vietnam is in the price of staying. In constant FY2008 dollars, the Vietnam war cost the U.S. $686 billion. The Iraq war, at just over five years old, is priced at $648 billion:

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Class was fine today – but lacked energy. Only five students came. One of the guys is really not interested in journalism. I’m not really why he’s in the class. The other is completely owned by the government. All of the female students are better than the two guys.

One incident illustrates the problem facing just regular journalists here. We’re talking about stories & such. And one woman (the one I like most) describes how she was working on a story about student stipends. Many students only receive half of what they should. It’s common knowledge, and people complain among themselves about it. So – she started to write a story about it. She had talked to many people. The story was ready to go. The day before the publication, the newspaper ran a teaser about it. But publication of the story never came. Someone high up called the editor. This high-placed person said the story shouldn’t be published. So it wasn’t. End of story. The students are still only receiving about half of what they should get for their stipend.

And this is not a huge oil scandal or anything. This is a very concrete matter of people not getting something that they are owed by law. And the newspaper can’t write about it.

Tomorrow, I’m hoping to get more students. Even high school students would be good. The journalists who are already working in the system are in general disillusioned, cynical, apathetic or corrupt. Or all of the above.
(The top photo is taken from a Sheki street. The others: a photo of the low hills on the road to Sheki & a shot of the waterfront of Baku at dawn.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

"What is it about Bush that makes you want to serve him?"

OIG confirms Democrats allegations about Bush's politicization of the DoJ. The report states that the DoJ Official, who testified that she "took an Oath to the President" and refused to drink water during her testimony on the grounds that her fingerprints could be obtained from the glass, broke the law by hiring based on Party loyalty.

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Another course begins

First day of class in Sheki. It went well, aside from the day being unusually hot. We were fortunate that our room was air-conditioned – but the air-conditioner was inadequate for the size of the room. We survived and no one melted.

The number of people in the class was less than I hoped – but they were mostly experienced journalists. The first day is always introductory – at least in the classes I teach. I like to get to know the students a little – and have them get to know each other. One useful assignment I give for the first day is a news story assessment. I bring in a bunch of newspapers, and have the students pick out a couple of good news stories and a couple of bad news stories. Then – they explain their evaluations to the class and me. Their assessments reveal how they evaluate the news in general.

For example, one fellow today picked out one story as a bad story, because it was about a journalist who had been libeled in the government media. The article he picked out said that the journalist was actually a good guy. So this was confusing. Confusing = bad. Perhaps it was not surprising that the student himself worked for a government media outlet. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable.

In general, students thought news articles that agreed with their opinions were good. If they raised uncomfortable facts, they were bad. An article about a rash of poisonings in Baku was judged bad, for example.

The Armenian issue came up. Entirely predictable. One fellow chose as a good article a recapitulation of the argument with Armenia. This was useful, he thought, so that all the reasons for hating Armenia were laid out there in one place. I didn’t argue with him, but I brought up his example – indirectly – later when I talked about what is news. “News” means that there is something new. Something happened since the last time the subject was discussed in the pages of that newspaper. There is a new reason to write an article about this subject. I’m not sure if the journalist got my drift.

At the end of class, the journalist who was suffering from cognitive dissonance came up to me and asked if I had ever been to Armenia. I replied that I haven’t been there.

After class - I wandered around, although the afternoon was hot. Walked up to the old city. The palace of the khan, which is one of the big tourist draws here. I visited it when I was here back in June. It is definitely worth the trip. The whole complex is interesting as a whole.On a hot Monday afternoon, I seemed to be the only foreign tourist. I stopped for tea and some fellows offered me Russian vodka. I declined their invitation to drink, but the sentiment was nice.

Here are some photos from the day. The boys are from my neighborhood. I was intrigued by the toys they had made for themselves - little sticks with wheels, which they turn into pretend cars, running down the alleys, chasing sheep.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rep Baldwin *Impeachment Hearings Now Necessary! 25, 2008 C-SPAN
Finally, this issue is being talked about seriously. Yes, late is better than never.

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Sheki: In the Shadow of Mountains

I am now on the third of my four excursions into the regions of Azerbaijan. My current location is Sheki, at the edge of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The mountains do feel close, much closer than in Ganca, where I also taught. The green slopes seem to envelope the city.
I’m told that Sheki has 100,000 inhabitants, but it feels much smaller. I went for a walk in the downtown this morning, but I didn’t explore very thoroughly. I was here once before – on a day trip – in June, so some of the places were familiar. The renovated caravanserai (lodging & meeting place for the caravan traders). The office of Transparency International.
One indication of its proximity to the mountains – aside from the mountains themselves – are the concrete lined channels that run down through the town. The city of Sheki was actually built on a new location after a terrible flood of the river Kish wiped out the old city at the end of the 1700s. The rivers in Azerbaijan are like this. Usually, they appear to be quite paltry streams running through enormous riverbeds. But – if you see them after a day or two of rain, you will understand why the riverbeds are so wide. The torrents toss boulders the size of houses. And – of course, they toss houses and people too.
I am told that 13 students have registered for my class at this point. This is fine. If there are more, that is fine too. My experience is that at least five or so will drop out quickly. I try to make the course challenging and interesting – and for some people the challenge of the class outweighs their interest in the subject.
(Pictured is one of the riverbeds we passed on our way to Sheki last night.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The 25 Most Vicious Iraq War Profiteers

Following is a detailed rundown of the 25 companies squeezing the most profit from this controversial conflict. If you have more (I bet you do), list 'em below.

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Child labor laws

People who think they are libertarians should live for awhile in a country like Azerbaijan. I was thinking about that when I headed out for my early morning walk. At roughly 7 a.m., a boy about eight years old was sweeping my street. A man was about 50 feet away, with a trash barrel. Perhaps the man was his father? I don't know. I felt a little shy about photographing the scene - so the picture isn't that good.

I should note - the scene is not that unusual. Children routinely work in restaurants and in other occupations at very young ages. This is just the first time I've seen one sweeping the streets. When I was teaching in Ganca, one of my students wrote an article on the subject of child labor. It was a good piece. He focused on one family - and in this case the child stayed out of school, because his time was more profitably spent working.

What is the loss for the child? For the family? For the society?

Yes, minimum wage law and child-labor laws are intrusive and free market dogmatists argue that the market will take care of any abuses. The market is a self-correcting system.

But before the system corrects itself, how many opportunities are lost, as children are sacrificed to the material aspirations of parents and guardians?

Anyway - that's my rant for the day.

Here's a photo of the street as I returned home this morning. Note the old woman on the side, probably resting after finishing cleaning chores for the morning. And a picture of the Old City walls. And the moon.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

New YouTube Video: John McCain's Neverending War

This is long - but really worth watching all the way through. I wish every voter considering a vote for McCain would sit down and really watch it - and think about the consequences of electing this guy!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Building boom

One of the best places to grasp the scale of the current construction projects in Baku from the top of the Radisson Hotel. From the roof of the 17-story building, you can see for miles around the city. In every direction, you will construction projects.

I was up there last night with some American friends. We were talking about the pace of the construction - and the motivation. Much of the construction is of luxury apartment buildings. At best, it's crazy speculation - thinking that there will be a market for these expensive apartments before they depreciate. At worst, it's shameless money laundering. While Azerbaijan has signed agreements to control money-laundering, theses are widely perceived in the country to be as effective as the legislation signed to combat corruption.

The revulsion against the building boom is pretty wide - outside the small sphere of connected individuals who are profiting from it. Thomas Goltz, an American journalist who is now working with the government of Azerbaijan, several years ago penned a diatribe against the building boom, decrying the shoddy construction and the aesthetic harm that the boom was inflicting on a once-charming city.

On the other hand, there are cheerleaders for the many new projects. A forum on the "skyscraper city" website extols the modern vision being imposed on the city. I'll include a couple of architectural renderings from that site. I know some of the projects discussed there are actually being constructed - but others seem like they are just fantasy.

'04 Ohio Election Fraud Case Implicates Top GOP Operatives

Leading Data Security Expert Joins Press Conference, Case, Notes Fraudulent Patterns That Should Have Triggered Investigation. Motion to Proceed with Targeted Discovery in Case Explained as Effort to Help Protect Integrity of '08 Election... McCain Hires possibly fraudulent IT guy to head up his election.

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National Press Day in Azerbaijan

Elchin Shikhlinski, editor-in-chief of Zerkalo and chairman of Azerbaijan's Journalists' Union, is interviewed in today's edition of Day.Az, the more-or-less independent Azerbaijani news portal. The interview focuses on corruption among journalists. This is an important topic, certainly, but I wonder whether corruption is the main problem in the sphere of journalism. The entire system is built to exclude honest news coverage as much as possible.

I have met Shikhlinski, and I respect his position as a journalist who attempts to publish an independent newspaper against steep opposition. And the interview begins with his straight-forward assessment of the state of journalism and society.

"Certainly, Azerbaijani journalism today is in a poor state. But it is an axiom that Azerbaijani journalism is a reflection of the state of our whole society and problems of media representatives are integral part of the problems of the whole society. Thus, it is naive to hope that problems of Azerbaijani journalist will be settled more quickly that the problems of our society."

The interview is timed for National Press Day in Azerbaijan. I'm not sure what the meaning of this holiday is. One of my students called me up to congratulate me on it. The International Press Institute used the occasion to to call for the president of Azerbaijan to release four imprisoned journalists. As the IPI notes in its statement, "Azerbaijan has earned the unenviable reputation of being among the world’s worst jailors of journalists."

Note: The picture has nothing to do with journalism. It's a cat - sitting on a tandoor oven at the bakery where I buy my bread. I suppose this might frowned upon by health inspectors, if such people existed here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

First Gaffe Of Obama Trip......Goes To McCain

John McCain made ANOTHER geography gaffe this morning on Good Morning America while trying to debunk Barack Obama's trip to Iraq. Just last week, McCain repeatedly reffered to Czechoslovakia, a country that hasn't existed since 1993.

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On hot summer nights, the promenade by the sea provides some respite from the heat. And - it is simply a good place to socialize. There are not a wide variety of musicians, but you can count on a certain number of people playing Azerbaijani instruments - either stringed instruments that are reminiscent of a mandolin, double reed wind instruments, accordions or drums. Here - you see an ensemble. As you notice, the group is composed entirely of men. Women make music - but not on the street.

I'll include some other shots taken tonight, to give you the flavor of a summer night in Baku. This children in the little cars are a menace to pedestrians in the downtown area. In several areas, you really have to be careful, because if you aren't careful, a cute little tyke is likely to run right into you. I've seen it happen numerous times. It cures you of the illusion that toddlers are always cute.

A more sedate activity is paying to learn your weight. Never having spent much time thinking about my weight one way or another, I don't quite get this. I'm told that the practice dates from Soviet times. In those days, the goals was for men to impress their women by showing how much they weighed. Now - perhaps it is the women who are trying to show how trim they are. I don't know, really. But the people with the scales do a brisk enough business, on the boardwalk and in pedestrian areas downtown. It costs 10 qapek, usually. Less than a quarter or so, with the current value of the dollar.

Finally, there is the best activity of all. Watching the sunset. It's free. You don't have to speak any particular language. You don't need to understand Azerbaijani culture or politics. You just find a nice spot on the pier, and watch the day turn to night.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Librarian with ‘McCain=Bush’ Sign Kicked Out of Public Event

Sen. John McCain was in Denver, CO, today for a town hall meeting. The event, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, was billed as “open to the public.” Yet Carol Kreck, a 61-year-old librarian carrying a “McCain=Bush” sign, was taken away by police for trespassing.

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Chess players of Baku

Last night I went down to find the chess players – only to discover that they had fallen victim to renovation of a restaurant. As far as I know, the chess players had inhabited a corner of this outdoor café for time immemorial. To be accurate, the corner of the café was occupied by men – average age of about 60 – playing chess, backgammon, and dominoes.

It was the chess players, however, who interested me. Most of them played a “blitz” style game. Very fast. Punctuated with the players reaching over to slap the timer. Kibitzing expected. Bystanders felt perfectly comfortable offering free advice. And some of the players kept up a lively obscene patter. (I only understood the Russian obscenities – but I assume that there were some Azerbaijani obscenities in there too.)

Anyway – the chess players have been evicted from the café where they used to play. Now – they are located in a section of tables not really connected to the café. I was on my way somewhere else – and so I decided not to visit last night. But I’ll be back later this week. It’s one of my favorite after-dinner activities: taking a walk by the sea and stopping by to watch some chess games. Good clean fun.

I should note that chess has a secure place in Azerbaijani culture. Most cities of any size have a chess school, for example. Often these schools incorporate a chess motif in their design. And - of course - World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov is a native of Baku. He is, however, of Armenian and Jewish heritage. Not Azerbaijani.

Here is a picture of the scene that I took earlier this summer.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Morning stroll

One of my favorite aspects of my apartment in Baku is its location. My apartment overlooks a small park next to the Old City, and it is a short walk from the boulevard by the sea. This promenade, which was created in the early years of the 20th century, is one of the most popular strolling places in the city. In the evening, hundreds of people walk the length of the area, which has now been designated as a national park. At the far end, a new Olympic-style training facility is being built. At the other end are the working shipping docks. In between are amusement parks, restaurants and cafes, flowering trees and gardens. Two crumbling piers also jut out from the promenade, nice places to fish, chat, or just watch the sunrise.

In the summer, this is where I get a good part of my exercise. While running for health is not really a part of Azerbaijani culture, it is accepted on the boulevard, especially in the morning. Later, the day will get so warm that exercise is not very pleasant. But at seven a.m., the temperature is tolerable, about 75 degrees. When the air is still, the smell of oil hangs over the bay, but you get used to that.

Here are some shots I took on my morning jaunt today.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Police disperse protestors

Just in case you get the impression that there is no political dissent in Azerbaijan or that the dissent is completely muffled, I should note that little sparks of protest erupt occasionally, but they are usually suppressed immediately and effectively. Last week on July 11, members of the Musavat Party held an unsanctioned protest in front of the Baku mayor’s office. The news account I read did not give information about what the focus of the demonstration was. In any case – it was small. Police detained 13 activists and two reports, releasing them with verbal warnings.
According to the deputy chairman of the Musavat party, the arrested journalists were subjected to physical pressure. I’m not sure what this means. This could mean anything from twisted arms to beatings. Journalists have been beaten, stabbed and killed here in recent years, not to mention imprisoned. Combined with the fact that the government owns the major news outlets, the press is fairly effectively repressed.
So, what shape does dissent take – if even minor expressions of opposition are repressed? Sullen resentment, as far as I can tell. Unorganized resentment. The desire of the most educated people to leave the country. I have heard knowledgeable people say that the main form of opposition will be wearing religious clothing. I’m not sure this is true – because in general the Azerbaijanis I know don’t seem fervently religious, but I could be wrong. At the moment, the society seems to me like a pressure cooker, with the heat on very low. There is no release valve for the pressure, but neither is the stove burning very hot. Yet.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Free elections and human rights protected in Azerbaijan

In a little less than three months, this country will conduct a presidential election. This is fairly certain. There were rumors that the election might be delayed but those have been emphatically denied by government authorities. The victor in the election is if anything even more certain than the election date of Oct. 15.
While I do not present myself as an expert in Azerbaijani politics, I am a fairly perceptive political observer. As far as I can determine, no candidate who will oppose the incumbent Ilham Aliyev has mounted any sort of campaign. Formally, the nominating process for opponents to the president will continue until late August, according to the Central Election Commission.

Meanwhile, President Aliyev makes full use of his position – grabbing headlines every day with pronouncements about Azerbaijan’s great future, its military prowess and the pressing need to regain properties lost in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is to say nothing of the thousands of huge posters of Ilham and his father Heydar that grace town squares, highways, restaurants and just about every sort of public space available in this country. How is a democratic election even possible when the public is subjected to such a propaganda campaign?

Quirk Global Strategies provides a cynical assessment of the coming elections. “Cynical “is probably not the right word. That implies an attitude that is darker than is justifiable. “Utterly realistic” is probably a better modifier.

This week’s issue of AzerNews – run by a government proxy – devotes page three to a lengthy discourse about the wonderful state of Azerbaijani democracy, the country’s great record on human rights, the wise reforms initiated by President Ilham Aliyev, and the general fact that the president is a great guy! Here’s just an excerpt from the article, written by Elshad Abdullayev:

“Ilham Aliyev, who has proven himself in 1995-2003 as a monumental, patriotic, pragmatic, and initiative personality with high administration skills in all areas of his activity, secured his undisputed victory by gaining the trust and confidence of the required majority.”

For whom is this written, I wonder?

But when I look at the headline of the article - “Governance mechanism promoting protection of human rights and freedoms” – I also think about my own country, and its own hypocritical stance about the protection of human rights. The subject is fresh in my mind, after listening to an excellent program about Guantanamo Bay prison. I really feel that U.S. citizens who do not travel abroad receive much less information about their government. Yes, I have read articles about this prison in the Washington Post and the New York Times, but the television coverage of the subject is largely sanitized. Viewers abroad receive more information about the U.S. government’s brutal treatment of prisoners. And the natural question is – “So, how are you going to lecture us about our government? How can you talk about human rights with a straight face, when your own president effectively has ordered a policy of torture?”

My reply to that question – which I have faced – is that many U.S. citizens oppose the Bush administration. Unfortunately, this opposition has been insufficient to cause the changes that are necessary.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Perceptions of the United States

Last night I took a long walk after dinner into unexplored areas of Baku. I walked to the end of the promenade by the Caspian Sea – and then turned up the hill and just kept walking. And walking. Past the train station. Past the familiar stores. Into areas where everything was unfamiliar. It’s not difficult to keep oriented in Baku, because you have large landmarks like the Caspian Sea.
At a certain point, I noticed an area marked off with chains and barriers. Not surprisingly, I realized that this was the U.S. Embassy. I have lived here now for nearly four months – but I’ve never been close to the embassy. As I understand it, a new embassy – much farther from the center – is being built. This is part of a global effort by the U.S. government to build its embassies in super-secure locations.
I realize the point for this – but I think this effort is indicative of just how counterproductive U.S. policy has been for the last seven years. We are trying to make ourselves more secure through strength, but a better policy would be to make other nations hate us less. People who do not travel outside the United States cannot realize the depths to which the United States has fallen in the estimation of many ordinary people in much of the world. I am not talking about terrorists or radicals. I am talking about middle-class citizens, who regard the United States as a hypocritical bully. The citizens of Azerbaijan, which if anything has a stronger relationship with the United States than many other nations in the region, often wonder why U.S. citizens hate Muslims. They regard the people of the United States as spoiled and foolish. The U.S. military is poorly regarded. People know that it has been greatly weakened by the debacle in Iraq.
Of course, people also like the potential that the United States represents, the ideal of democracy. But people doubt that these ideals are relevant as the United States conducts its foreign policy. Democracy is great at home – but inconvenient when other nations actually attempt to govern themselves.
People here – and I imagine in other countries too – have interesting perceptions about how the United States is governed. Many people are pretty cynical about how real the democratic ideals are even at home. Two conversations come to mind:
My hosts in Lenkoran had been visiting a relative in the hospital, a soldier who was there for some reason. (I wasn't sure if I understood the word that the mother said. It sounded like hemorrhoids – but I didn't want to ask any further. It seemed indelicate.) Anyway – she mentioned about what a rough time he's had in the army & how glad he was to see his visitors. He started crying. The "tradition" of abusing and beating new recruits is quite alive & well here. In Russia, it has been horrific in the past – with soldiers literally beaten or tortured to death by their "superiors." For what? To impose discipline? Just institutionalized sadism.
Anyway – the conversation moved easily to war (I'm against it) and foreign policy. And then the Iraq war & US – Iran relations (Iran is quite a large player in this part of the world). And finally to the US presidential election. I told them my preferences, and explained a little about the election process. Obama is favored, I told them, and I support Obama. They agreed that he is the better candidate – but they told me that the Masons will never let him hold power.
Yes, the Masons. They control everything in the United States. The daughter – who has lived in the United States for three years – said the Masons are very powerful in the USA. In fact, you see Masonic lodges in practically every town! The mother said that the only two presidents removed from office in recent years – Nixon & Kennedy – were the only presidents who weren't Masons.
"I read this somewhere," she noted.
Earlier in the evening, I had an interesting conversations with two close friends of Maxmud , the father of the household. They came over for dinner because the women-folk were out at some event. So we had a "men's night." While Maxmud fixed the shashlik (like kebabs), I talked politics with Rafael & the other man (whose name I forget. I will call him Anar.) We also talked about Iran, Iraq, and how far the US has fallen in the estimation of the public here. Anar was particularly concerned about the news of the night – about the rocket tests that Iraq had conducted.
Of course, there was always the chance that Israel, rather than the US would begin a war with Iran. But – the US was to blame for this – because of its unconditional support of Israel. (A position, by the way, that I completely agree with.) Why does the US support Israel? The Jews, Rafael triumphantly concluded. The Jews run the government in the USA.
So – there you have it. The Masons & the Jews. I'm not sure how this works, because as far as I know, Jews cannot be Masons. (For the record, I am neither a Jew nor a Mason. So – my information is perhaps suspect.) Perhaps it's some sort of power-sharing agreement. Or perhaps the Masons have changed their bylaws.
Seriously, the most interesting thing for me is that these discussions were not held with ordinary shopkeepers. These are really the intelligentsia of Azerbaijan. Mahmud is a film director. His wife is former teacher who now runs a human rights organization. Their son is a highly placed assistant to the current president of Azerbaijan. Mahmud's brother is a general in the country's security forces. Rafael is an ecologist & scientific researcher.
(I didn’t take a picture of the U.S. Embassy – because I thought I might get branded as a terrorist and hauled in for questioning. But here are some other pictures I took last night. A fountain in the neighborhood of the embassy. And two lovers by the Caspian Sea.)

Just another fireworks show

I used to excited about fireworks. When I was eight years old. Now, the pyrotechnic displays are more often annoying. Surely this is partly because they are so damn frequent here in Baku. Last night we were treated to the spectacle again. I believe the occasion tonight was to mark the return of Heydar Aliyev to power in Azerbaijan.
What? You thought they were celebrating Bastille Day?
I lose track of the celebrations and the fireworks. I think the previous display was for Army Day. I saw that parade, as well as the fireworks in the evening. First we saw the jeeps, then the missiles, the trucks with soldiers, and finally the tanks. That was the parade part. After the parade, the jets swooped through the air, leaving colored smoke in their wake. The people whistled & took pictures with their cell phones.
It was the first military parade I’ve seen. I’ve seen parades with soldiers before, of course, in the United States. I have seen veterans marching in May Day parades in Russia. But this was a straight-forward and unabashed military parade. Nothing dressed up about it. No special uniforms. The military hardware could have been speeding off to Nagorno-Karabagh.
In fact, this is a concern. On Army Day, the AzerNews, an English-language newspaper, published a front-page article in which a U.S. official was quoted as warning against a new war to regain the Karabagh territory. I don’t really know much about the newspaper - but its lead article is about a report that is highly critical of the Azeri government’s record on human rights. On the front page, two articles concern the nation’s conflict with Armenia. On the second page, three articles concern the conflict. (Technically speaking, the conflict is with the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh - but this region is supported by Armenia, which in turn is supported by Russia.)
In my own country, I once made the mistake of thinking that a war that was really stupid just wouldn’t happen. Yes, the signs were looking that way - but surely war so foolish a policy that the people in charge in Washington wouldn’t choose that path. But they did. And the people in charge in Baku might choose war too - despite the suffering war causes.
Previous to Army Day, we had a smaller fireworks display for the founding in of the First Republic of Azerbaijan - the first democracy in a Muslim country. This short-lived republic granted suffrage to women – before Great Britain or the USA did so. But the republic was crushed by the Bolsheviks in 1920.
The biggest display of fireworks and festivities I’ve seen so far have been for the birthday of Heydar Aliyev. The former president was not on hand to enjoy the party, however, because he died five years ago.
The scope of the spectacle was astonishing, even for a population that has become largely inured to massive spending devoted to pet projects and ego gratification. The budget for the flowers laid at Mr. Aliyev’s grave was said to exceed the yearly budget of the country’s environmental agency. I have no idea how much the fireworks cost – but they were amazing.
The photo above is from the show last night, seen from my balcony.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sunday afternoon, July 12, 2008

We are four men: Two Azerbaijanis, a Talysh & an American. We are talking after dinner in an outdoor restaurant not too far from Iran. The birds are singing. The bees hum around the remains of our large lunch. The conversation turns to Iran, and its recent missile tests. I maintain that some sort of diplomacy is possible. Perhaps the current regime in Iran is despotic, but we should still resume normal diplomatic relations with it, as we do with other despotic regimes. We have to talk to our enemies, I maintain.
Talk with this regime is not possible, says Aflg, the Talysh man. The president in that country is just a figurehead. The religious council holds all the real power, and that council is composed of religious fanatics and chauvinists. And I am absolutely certain that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
Still, I say, there are plenty of signs that the regime is not that popular with the Iranian people. If we contain the country, then the people themselves will force change from within. Peace is better than war.
Emin, one of the Azerbaijani men, says this is not so simple. When 20 million people are deprived the use of their language, that is not peace.
To explain – the Azerbaijani people mainly inhabit Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey. In Iran, the minority is repressed the way that a despotic regime represses all minority groups. Likewise, the Talysh people straddle the border between Azerbaijan and Iran, where they are also repressed.
So, here I am – arguing for diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy – while two natives of a land neighboring Iran argue for war. Both of these men, I should add are highly educated. Emin has two master’s degrees and Afig is a doctoral student.
Somehow, fortunately, the talk shifts to another topic – but the conversation weighs in my mind.

July 12, 2008
We are in Heydar Aliyev Square. I am talking to an Azerbaijani man, an actor and a friend of Maxmud. Tevakkul looks like an actor, with a dramatic bearing. His diction is crisp. His voice is strong. He is handsome, and he knows it. We are talking about one of the perennial themes – the difference between United States and Azerbaijan. We are talking about shorts. It’s OK for men to wear shorts at home, or at the beach. But in public (outside of Baku) – it is unthinkable.
“If you paid us a million dollars, you couldn’t get Maxmud or me to walk down this square in shorts. It’s just not possible,” says Tevakkul.
I don’t have a million dollars, so I can’t test this assertion. But I think he is right.

Evening, July 12, 2008
I am in my room, going over the days photographs, choosing which to keep and which to discard. Maxmud comes in my room, with a disc upon which he has loaded photos. I have on the screen a photo of Afig and his grandfather. A nice photo, I think, but I also know that Maxmud doesn’t like Talysh people.
Maxmud sees the photo. I explain who it is.
“I don’t know if I told you, but I don’t like Talysh people.”
“You told me.”
“They are like what you have in America, negroes.”
I am silent.
“I don’t like them,” he repeats.
“I think it’s a good photo,” I say.

Sunday morning, July 13, 2008
I go to the train station early, 7:30 a.m. I’m planning to buy a ticket on the electrichka to Baku. I’ve been told that a crowd amasses for an hour before the doors open & I need to get a place. Not many people are evident, however, and I wander around, taking some photos. And I see my friend Musa. He tells me he’s been up all night. He can’t sleep. Recently, he was discharged from the army, after serving a year. When he got the induction letter from the army, he had his bags in hand to begin a Muskie Fellowship in the United States. And he is still bitter about this enforced detour to his career plans. We have some tea and chat. Then – I see that it is 8 a.m. – and the doors should be open. In fact, the small crowd has moved inside & is now clustered at the ticket window.
“This is one thing I miss about the United States. Lines.”
“Right,” I answer.
“I think you could look at the presence of queues as an indicator of democracy.”
“I think you are right. If you don’t have a line, then it is the pushiest person, the biggest person, who gets served.”
Musa waits with me a little bit – but he knows it will be awhile. He leaves. I stay. I wait. And wait. While I wait half an hour, three people – in no particular order – are served. One man has argued that women should be served first, but he in fact is one of the first people served. And – while I wait – three men and one woman is served.
Later over breakfast, I ask my host family if there were orderly lines here when the Soviet Union still existed. Yes, they tell me.
So, are orderly lines an indicator of democracy?

Photos: Afig with his grandfather, drinking tea in a cafe in the mountains, talking on Heydar Aliyev Square, people buying tickets at the Lenkoran railway station.

Sunrise and another expedition

July 6
I woke up early this morning by chance. When I was coming back from the kitchen, I met Mahmud – who asked if I wanted to go see the sunrise with him. It was about 5:30 a.m. I said "sure."
So we did. It was a beautiful clear morning – although clouds lingered on the horizon. We walked. Talked. Photographed. Met up with some fishermen. Had some tea with them. Mahmud bought some fish from them. And headed back for breakfast.
I had plans to meet Afig – who works as a local manager for Transparency International – for a trip to the nearby national park – which was anti-climatic. It was basically a walk of about ¾ mile. But then we continued on to Astara – near the Iranian border, on to some sort of reservoir, and then finally to Lerik, in the mountains. I don't think we went very far into the mountains. I was snoozing for the last little bit of the trip – tired after waking up to see the sunrise with Malmud & then hiking around. Afig & I stopped in a pleasant restaurant by a river, had lunch & then hiked around. Very pleasant. Afig is a doctoral student in environmental geography – and so interested in crimes against nature. We stopped every so often to photograph an terrible example of littering, or else some illegal woodcutting. He was a good hiking companion, in fact. I was surprised that he managed to clamber up and down hills with me – and somehow keep his fancy clothes more or less clean.
Finally, we headed back – and I arrived in time for a true Lenkoran feast – of lavangi (not sure about the spelling.) Chicken stuffed with nuts and onion. Then a bunch of other dishes I can't remember. Stuffed eggplant. Patties made of nuts, eggs, and mushrooms. Salad. Plov (garnished rice).
Photos: sunrise and waterfall in the Talysh Mountains

Isti Su

July 5
The exploration of the day was Isti Su. This literally means “Hot Water.” Isti Su is a Soviet Era sanitarium – but really there are a set of hot springs. At least, that was my understanding after a conversation I had at the place I finally found in the mountains.
The Soviet Era sanitarium is pretty unappealing. Trashy. The resort itself is like Chernobyl or something. It looks like it was just abandoned after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The rose bushes are healthy. The buildings are completely empty – and decaying rapidly.
After exploring the ruins, I got some confident directions from a Russian-speaking man at the resort. He told me something like “You will find it.” With that somewhat mystical injunction, I was inspired – and in fact I climbed through the steep hills tangled with ironwood thickets, unto the crest with the oaks and the occasional cow. Beautiful hills. Beautiful trees. And then down again – where I found another resort – much more appealing. I shelled out two mantat for 20 minutes of soaking in the hot, sulphuric water. Despite the fact that the day was hot, it did feel good. I haven’t had a hot shower since I arrived in Lenkoran – so it was nice just soaking. I didn’t suffer from rheumatism or gout before my little bath – but perhaps now I am even less likely to be afflicted with these ailments. Or any others. It did feel good.
The trip back was non-eventful, aside from a challenging conversation with a couple of women selling vegetables, fruit and household items. They spoke almost no Russian. No English. But they were really excited to meet an American. Eventually, they waved over a guy who had worked in Russia for eight years. He served in the army - but also worked there. Loved it. The discos. The girls. Here – boring. Rafik likes Baku too. The discos. The girls…..
The younger woman had a daughter & a son – but no husband. She wanted me to bring her to America. We didn’t agree on anything firm. She knows that it would be difficult without knowing English. She wouldn’t accept payment for the melon she gave me. I must admit that the melon was good. Despite some misgivings, I agreed to give Rafik my phone number. I hope he loses my card.
(Above is a photo of the woman who wanted me to bring her to America. She's with her son. Also - a photo of one of the cabanas on the beach - at night.)

The challenge of new thinking

July 3
Interesting conversation of the day:
At the end of the day – we were discussing article subjects. One student is writing about a rash of suicides in the area. Another guy is writing about the growing number of drug addicts – pegged to the record opium harvest in Afghanistan. But Kamel – the fellow who writes his articles by hand, had no real subject. I asked him about his ideas. He suggested the fact that Armenia still holds so much of Azerbaijan. The Armenians were holding Azerbaijani women captive. (This thing about the women is a new allegation for me – but it sounds very much like propaganda material.) I asked him – so what is new about this? The war occurred how many years ago. What is the new angle? He didn’t really have an answer- but then he suggested something about how Armenia was now claiming that Azerbaijani musical instruments were Armenian. I could see we were going downhill. I started improvising. Sometimes, I said, when I was looking for a story, I read other newspapers – and thought about my audience – and how I could use an angle suited especially for my readers. (Kamel edits a newspaper oriented to veterans issues.)
For example, there was recent coverage of the country’s military budget. The president has sought (and of course received) a very large increase in the military budget. Why not use that as a peg to look at veteran benefits. How much have they increased? What is the situation for the nation’s veterans? It could be easy to find out the figures of the military budget. Easy to find the official levels for veteran benefits. Kemal already knows plenty of veterans to interview.
Kemal seemed momentarily satisfied with this idea- but then his face fell. His paper doesn’t have any protection. It took me a moment – but just a moment – to understand what he meant. It’s like in Russia – every business needs a “krisha,” a roof. Someone powerful who will protect the enterprise. So – even such a basic article might be treading too close to the edge – especially for a newspaper without protection.
What I thought was especially interesting after I thought about it was how Kemal just went straight for the well-carved groove – let’s write another article about Armenia- and how Armenia took our land and hurt our pride and the injustice of it all and what terrible people they are. And it’s just mind-numbing. It’s not even patriotism. It’s like some sort of brainwashing. People who think about things realize this. I was talking with a lawyer tonight – and mentioned the incident – and he observed that this issue is kept front & center – so people don’t think about anything else. Which is pretty much how I look at it. But – he made this observation to me in very hushed tones.
(The photo above is of me teaching.)


July 3, 2008
One unpleasant aspect of Lenkoran – perhaps the most unpleasant at the moment – is the mosquito population. It’s very high. Last night – after some rain – I felt literally enveloped in a cloud of mosquitoes as I walked home. At night, I try to make sure that I am completely covered by a light sheet – but of course I hear the whine of the mosquitoes – leading to the inevitable question – “Is she inside or outside my little tent?” I am not one to complain lightly about mosquitoes. I’m not usually bothered by them – but there are very many here.
A possible reason for this is the open sewers that line the street. I suppose they once may have served as real sewers – now they are just ditches – albeit concrete-ditches. Esmira told me that in Soviet times, these ditches were regularly “disinfected” (DDT?) – but now they are just ditches – usually holding stagnant water with a healthy mat of algae – and a bubbling collection of mosquito eggs.
Today – we are talking about writing in class. This should be interesting. I find that the writing style is where the differences between Western and Soviet journalism are most stark. The Soviet Union collapsed 14 years ago – but the Soviet style – which mixed opinion quite freely with fact – lives on quite healthily. I have some in-class assignments – so that should highlight the problem. But I don’t have the illusion that I am going to change the writing style of students in a couple of hours. Writing style is something formed over years – and these writers have grown comfortable with it. The most I can do is expose them to a different style – so that they at least know that a different way of writing exists.
(Above is a picture of the bazaar in Lenkoran.)

Arrival in Lenkoran

Morning, June 29, 2008
I am watching trash fly from the neighboring compartment. A group of young Russian men slept there last night – drinking beer, snacking and talking into the night. They did not interfere with my sleep – although the rain on my face and the strange shaking of the train did. It felt as if the belly of the train was dragging some rough objects.

We will be arriving in Lenkoran in about half an hour – so this is a short entry. Last night I shared the compartment with Timur and a man I’ll call “Anar.” A fourth man entered during the night and slept on the other lower bed – but he departed in the morning without a word.

Timur is Tallysh – an ethnic group that straddles the border with Iran in this area. “Anar” is Iranian. I refer to him by this pseudonym because I don’t want to cause any problems for him. We spoke frankly about politics – in the limited amount of detail allowed by his poor knowledge of English. He hates his president – and likes to come to Azerbaijan to go to the disco, drink and enjoy the company of some friends. I don’t go to discos & I don’t drink – but I also am disgusted with my president. I said that I hoped U.S. policy to the rest of the world will change after the election of Barack Obama. Currently, the United States has an idiot as president. We shook hands, and drank to friendship between our countries in the future. He has his bottle of Azeri beer; I had my bottled water.

Timur works in Moscow as a chauffeur, and was returning to his family in Lenkoran for a couple of weeks. Naturally, he spoke good Russian, and we spoke comfortably. He said the situation in Russia is much better for Azerbaijanis is much better now – comfortable. He earns good money and has a good boss. In Azerbaijan, on the other hand, work is hard to find, and often requires payment of a bribe.

This morning, Timur’s traveling companion came by the berth for awhile & we chatted. He was a former officer in the Soviet army, and later worked for the Azerbaijani government, trying to help members of the Azerbaijani diaspora. He had traveled all over Germany with this task. Earlier, he had worked with some sort of quasi-military campaign in Afghanistan. I asked him – what was the answer to the tragic situation in that country. He pointed out the difficulties in working there – the tribal mentality, the segregation of the sexes, the low level of education. But we were arriving in Lenkoran before he could give an answer to my question.

Afternoon, June 28, 2008

Now, at 4:10 p.m. on Sunday, June 29, 2008, the house where I am staying
is quiet. A rooster crows somewhere nearby. Esmira & her husband are sleeping. The three-year-old granddaughter roams around the house, talking to herself quietly. Now – she has roused her grandfather (Baba) for something. The house is still quiet.
I became part of this quietude. I had not intended to nap again after lunch. After my arrival this morning, I napped once – perhaps for an hour – because I had slept so little on the train. But after the large lunch (Eat. Eat. Don’t be shy, Esmira said.) – a nap felt good & natural.
Lenkoran is a quiet town – or at least it seems quiet this afternoon. I strolled around a little before lunch – at the height of the afternoon heat. Some men sat in the shade by a few of the stores. A few people walked on the streets. But the streets were mostly quiet.
It is a low-built town. Esmira pointed out that this makes sense –because all of Azerbaijan is earthquake territory. In Baku, people have forgotten that, in their rush to build high buildings and launder large sums of wealth. Even here- she said- such tall buildings are being built – but it’s nothing like Baku.
I may be with Esmira two weeks. Or perhaps less. I think I am welcome to stay that long – but we’ll see. I have another option – except it is farther from town. I feel like I should pay Esmira something but she hasn’t asked for any money. I have to say the location is very convenient. She is the director of the service agency where I will be presenting my class, and the agency is a short walk from here. Supposedly the ocean is also very close – but I didn’t see it on my short walk around town.
Esmira’s husband is at the sea every morning, taking pictures. He said he has about 4,000 pictures of the sunrise on the sea. I believe it. I saw a portion. They are very good. He worked locally as a photojournalist. Esmira herself was a teacher for many years – enough to earn her a pension of 35 manat monthly. (You can buy a nice dinner for 35 manat – if the restaurant isn’t too fancy.) Now, she is the director of a local non-profit center that serves other non-governmental organizations.
They have both been very nice & hospitable to me. I had a good conversation about politics with Esmira earlier – about Azerbaijan. She once ran as a candidate for a government post, and she obviously is informed about the situation in this country. And as most people who are informed- she is cynical. Perhaps cynical is not quite the right word. Skeptical about the possibility of change. Disappointed. Trying to live her life as well as she can, survive in an honest way, make her small contribution to social change. But not very optimistic that any substantial changes are possible.
(Above is a picture of Heydar Aliyev Park, Lenkoran. Ironic - because he actually advocated planting trees - but many old trees were cut to create this sterile space.)

Moving from iWeb

I've never been one to gripe much about companies constantly updating software. But - I am annoyed that because the new Mac "iLife" product - which includes an update for the iWeb program - I can no longer publish my site. Oh, I can - if I buy the update - but I'm in Azerbaijan - and I don't think there's an Apple store in a thousand miles. So - I'm shifting to this format - to continue the blog I started back in December when I moved to Moscow.
I am now in Baku, Azerbaijan, more than six months into a year-long Knight International Journalism Fellowship. My fellowship involves teaching journalism in different regions of Azerbaijan. So far, I have presented training sessions in Ganca and Lenkoran. In two weeks, I go to Sheki.
Here are two entries that I would have published on my iWeb site - if I had been able. (At left is a photo of the Talysh Mountains, bordering Iran. I was staying in this area for the last two weeks.)