Monday, July 14, 2008







Conversations
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.


Dusk
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.”
“Queues?”
“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.