Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Monday, September 29, 2008
Everything is connected, so just because my involvement in the stock market is limited to one very small 401k doesn't mean that the US financial crisis doesn't affect me here, thousands of miles away. Sometimes it's nice to cling to the illusory feeling of isolation. Earlier this month when I spent a couple of weeks in the small mountain city of Zaqatala, it was easy to feel that the USA could implode and the Azerbaijani cattle would continue to saunter slowly through the streets, the nut trees would continue to bear their harvest, the clouds would continue to dance over the mountain. And, of course, they certainly would. But that doesn't mean that I wouldn't be touched by such a crisis.
I was reading the post-vote commentary this morning, and one comment stuck with me. A majority of Republican representatives voted against the economic rescue plan, displaying their independence from an administration that begs for their support. Where - the commentator asked - was this independence six years ago, when the Bush administration was drumming up the case for war? In that case, independence would certainly have been a good thing. Perhaps if the Congress had not been so servile, we would not be mired in the aftermath of a tragically failed foreign policy. Now - members of the House of Representatives - especially Republicans -demonstrate their independence - and risk causing even greater harm to the economy. Very perverse.
(I see plenty of problems with the bailout bill - but I think there is a strong case to be made that the cost of inaction outweighs the demerits of the legislation.)
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Saturday, September 27, 2008
This is a short film, showing my students interviewing on the streets of Sheki. The sound quality isn't good - and unless you know Azerbaijani, you won't understand anything beyond the facial and body expressions. Beyond the merits or demerits of the film, I think the student's assignment was useful, and I hope to repeat it in the future. Interviewing strangers on the street is great practice for beginning journalists.
Friday, September 26, 2008
Today I had a much briefer conversation with a cab driver. The initial pattern of the conversation was familiar.
1. Q. Where are you from?
Oh - America! (People tend to be surprised about this because at least 90 percent of my conversations are in Russian.)
2. Q. What are you doing here?
3. Q. What do you think about Azerbaijan?
4. Q. What do you think about the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict? (Worded in in one way or another. This question is asked at least 75 percent of the time.)
5. What is the average income in the United States?
To be honest, I didn't know the answer to this question, so I guessed at $2,000 a month.
This is a lot for Azerbaijan, and it seemed reasonable to me. I've since checked and learned that the real figure is roughly double that. But incomes vary widely from state to state. What really impressed the taxi driver was the existence of poor people in the USA. Yes, poor people exist in the United States of America. Many, I told him. He simply couldn't believe this - but I told him "I'm an American. I know about this. Yes, there are many poor people there."
His sister lives in Brooklyn, so I'm not sure what she tells him. Last time I checked, there were poor people in Brooklyn too.
But it reminded me of one of the basic misconceptions about the United States. It's a wide-spread misconception that all Americans are rich. When I lived in Russia in the 1990s, many Russians were in the thrall to a silly soap opera - Santa Barbara - which I had never seen before moving to St. Petersburg. For many Russians, then living in the grim period of transition from communist rule, Santa Barbara was a wonderful vision about how capitalism could help make everyone rich.
Oddly enough, this summer I got to know an Azerbaijani woman who moved from her country to Santa Barbara. She hated it.
(Above is a picture of Capwell clan of Santa Barbara fame.)
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
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Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I perceive the fevered pace of public works in Azerbaijan in the context of the coming election. People can look at the new lamps going up on the boulevard by the sea in Baku and think – “Oh, there’s my government at work.” They can be happy with the shiny new ride installed for the kids downtown. A small army of street sweepers is employed to scour the public areas around the center of the city throughout the day. It would be interesting to count how many are employed every day during this pre-election period, and compare it with the post-election employment. Hmm. That’s a possibility.
Today I took a long taxi ride – and hence had a long conversation with a taxi driver. The conversation spanned the gamut from geopolitical questions to local politics. His take on the elections was predictable – nothing will change. But his read on the current political climate was even darker than most people I talk to. His conclusion: If you criticize the government aloud, you put yourself and your family in danger. The man wasn’t talking about writing a letter to the editor or something. (That option doesn’t really exist here.) Even making open criticism at the market, for example, could be dangerous. People get killed for it. Just disappear.
The driver said he wouldn’t have expressed this opinion to other Azerbaijanis, but I’m an American, so he felt safe talking about the situation.
Whether or not his dark view is justified, I think he was being sincere in expressing his fears. In itself, this is disturbing. Repression works through fear. Actually going to the trouble of physically repressing all dissenters is quite labor intensive. But all you need to do is inspire enough fear, and the dissent will be manageable.
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Sunday, September 21, 2008
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The election season has begun here - with posters similar to the one above plastered on walls around the city. The posters remind me of those that I saw in Russia before the election there, depicting "ordinary citizens" who are apparently going to exercise their civic duty and go vote.
The president also has some posters up, just a photo of himself and a short phrase that identifies himself as candidate. I haven't seen posters for any other candidates.
By chance, my path crossed that of the president earlier in the week. He was coming to Sheki as I was leaving. In preparation for his visit, the authorities had closed the only road to the city. Very inconvenient. My first taxi driver turned back - with a defeatist attitude. I'd just have to spend another day in Sheki, he said. I wasn't resigned to this - and was able to find a driver that had a pass through the police blockade.
While the president was in the northern part of the country, he supposedly visited a whole bunch of stuff that has been on hold for months, waiting for his visit. A new stadium, culture club, and hotel in Zaqatala, to name just a few projects. In Sheki, the scene was characterized by feverish activity, as people of all ages were painting, weeding, and cleaning along what I presume was the route of the presidential entourage.
The election, of course, isn't much of a contest, but that's not to say there's nothing to write about.
The last issue of Zerkalo carried on page two an article that depicts the contrasting situations for the the New Azerbaijan Party (the ruling party) and its opponents. YAP, as it is known from its Azerbaijani initials, held its meeting in a stadium. Attending the meeting thousands of government workers, who were essentially required to attend.
The opponents of the governments, however, were only able to get permission to meet at a remote location.
Friday, September 19, 2008
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Thursday, September 18, 2008
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Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Monday, September 15, 2008
Nonetheless, the school that employs her is still in business and still making plans for the coming year. Life goes on. Earlier in the week, I met an American who is planing to move to Tbilisi, captivated by its open intellectual atmosphere - quite different from the atmosphere in Baku, I might add.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
Of course, I've talked to numerous local citizens who are fairly cynical about the visit. People aren't stupid. They know that Azerbaijan has much natural wealth & they wonder why they don't see more of that in the hands of ordinary citizens.
Nonetheless, I'm sure many people are excited about the visit, if only because of the many new projects that connected to it. Of course, Zaqatala isn't alone. This set of ceremonial openings is coordinated across the country, as the nation prepares for presidential elections on Oct. 15. Today I was reading Baku Worker, a government paper written in Russian. The entire paper is devoted to speeches given at these ceremonial events.
The coverage brings new meaning to the words "boring" and "synchophantic." Here is a picture of the president cutting a ribbon. Here is a picture of him at the podium. Here is a picture of him cutting another ribbon. The speeches - particularly the speeches welcoming him - are really embarassingly effusive.
So, these are the examples of journalism with which my students are familiar. I'm not saying it's not journalism - but it is a completely different activity than what I teach.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Life is surprising. The beauty of clouds drifting over a mountain can surprise me. The question asked by a student may surprise me. The peripatetic Christian rock band that plays a set in front of the Zaqatala Culture Hall can surprise me.
This band was playing yesterday evening in the main square as I was hurrying to get some materials translated. Otherwise, I would have lingered, not so much to listen to the music to observe the interaction between the musicians and the singers. And there was an audience. You can see from the photo above. They appeared to be listening politely, interested if unmoved. The lyrics concerned the resurrection of Jesus, God’s love, and similar nice sentiments. OK. I didn’t stop to listen for more than a minute, so I’m not completely certain of this – but these subjects are pretty much the standard fare of Christian rock.
The visitors didn’t seem to be bad musicians. A black woman in a flowing skirt was dancing around the stage as the musicians played. This must have seemed very exotic also for the locals. A few Chinese merchants sell plastic toys door to door, and ethnic minorities like Georgians and Avars have lived in this area for centuries. But I doubt the region is often visited by African-Americans.
I heard from a Peace Corps volunteer that the band had played earlier in the day in a small city down the road. I’m not sure where they were headed next. I’m sorry that I didn’t have more time to spend in square, to talk with the audience and the musicians. I would be interested in the visitors' impressions of Zaqatala. I know there is some evangelizing that occurs in this area, and it is in general met with official hostility. Not long ago, a pastor in this area was charged with gun possession, a charge that supporters said had been entirely fabricated.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Yesterday, we added a dozen more bloggers to the Internet. My students here in Zaqatala say they plan to write about subjects such as soccer, local history, journalism, and local current events. The process of getting them all registered and signed up for blogs is a little stressful, because not all of them are very computer savvy. But it's worth it.
I should note that the main lecturing and instruction on blogs is provided by Emin of Transitions Online. He's been visiting my classes since Baku, and I'd like to think we've improved our approach since that class in the late spring.
We've learned a few things. One is that the young students are more receptive to learning these new forms of communication. They are less likely to be intimidated or bored. And we've learned that the theory needs to have real application. It's not just about telling the students about what blogs are. They sign up and get started blogging during the class.
Does this have a political impact? Perhaps. Several of the students told me they intend to write about what is happening in their community. This is news reporting, even if it's not done for a newspaper. And it is far less likely to be censored than a newspaper. Like most political change, the change created by these blogs will mostly occur slowly. But that doesn't mean that it is less real.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Zagatala is not off the map, of course. It’s right by the border that Azerbaijan shares with Georgia. But it certainly not on the main route followed by tourists. In my opinion, this has more advantages than disadvantages.
Yes, it may be impossible to find a postcard in the town. (I haven’t looked – but I’m told that the mosque used to sell old Soviet cards.) Only two bank machines serve the town- and their operation at any time is far from a certainty. At this point, only three hotels serve the town – as far as I can tell. I’m not counting the grand hotel that is scheduled to open after the president visits next week, or something that may or may not be a motel down by the bus station.
But the advantage to its remote location is that you can feel more of a sense of discovery when exploring the place. Yesterday, I went up with Ivan and Emin into the woods, to an ancient Albanian fort of some sort that Ivan showed me last week. Ivan, 16, loves the woods and loves to share his knowledge of the woods. He showed us the bones that he has found inside the fort. And we found an apple tree that produces star-shaped fruit. It is these simple but satisfying discoveries that aren’t so likely when the whole area has been commercialized by a successful tourism industry.
Later, we visited an ancient Albanian church located in a nut grove. No plaque marks the spot. The site is mainly protected by a nearly impenetrable tangle of thorny vines. To see the church itself takes an act of imagination, because most of the structure has collapsed. But the six-foot thick walls remain. And underneath, surely there are archeological riches. At the moment, however, the site is excavated only by wild animals.
Above is a shot of the tower, Ivan holding the star apple, and the back of the covered church.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
I had a few people warn me against going to Georgia, but they were far away from the area. The area I hoped to visit was far from the fighting, so I assumed that life wouldn’t be too affected at this point.
I was right.
I crossed over the Azerbaijan-Georgia by the Azerbaijan town of Balakan. On the other side of the town is Lagodekhi. The guidebook I’m using calls Lagodekhi “soulless.” That seems harsh, although I can’t say I saw much compelling there. The nature reserve that it borders sounds quite beautiful, with populations of chamois, mountain goats, bear, and wolf. But visiting the reserve takes considerable planning. You can’t just drop in and go hiking.
After crossing the border quite easily, I caught a taxi to Tsnori (40 lari, or about $20). Tsnori had less to it than I imagined. A run-down commercial area, and run-down Soviet-style housing. So I wandered through the back streets until I found the road to Signaghi. Rather than pay for another cab, I decided to walk the whole way. After the first 40 minutes of the walk, I began to question my decision – but I had made the choice and there was little chance of flagging a cab at that point, even if my pride had allowed it.
On the positive side, I found an old Georgian church on the way. It was ancient- but not abandoned. Inside, people evidently still burned candles in front the icons. But I’m not sure if the bats sleeping on the ceiling were Christian.
And when I got hungry, I found snacks growing on the blackberry bushes and pomegranate trees by the road.
People have lived in the area now occupied by this little town since pre-history, but the town itself only developed in the lat 18th century. Perched on a bluff above a broad plain that stretches to the Caucasus Mountains, Signaghi has been has home to many musicians and artists over the years. I could understand this, given its scenic location.
At the moment, the town seems is still completing a renovation project, financed by some U.S. grants. Maybe some World Bank funds too. (I can’t remember the details from the signs. While some people might argue that the grants make the place look less “authentic,” for the most part the renovation seems to have been very tasteful. It’s nice to see houses well-kept and painted. And I loved the baskets for throwing litter away. They were very common – and appeared to be used. Of course, out of the town, people still dump their trash by the side of the road, but at least within the town it’s quite neat.
The style of the architecture in the town is quite different the houses in Azerbaijan. The houses were almost Italianate, brightly painted with red tiled roofs. After strolling around the center, I headed toward what is referred to as “the monastery.” Now, this place is a convent, and the black robed nuns were working outside on the beautiful grounds. In the church lies the tomb of St. Nino, the saint who brought Christianity to Georgia.
You may notice that the word “war” doesn’t occur in any of this description. No refugees clogged the roads. No smell of cordite in the air. The war was alluded to in a conversation I had at the local tourist center. But no one spit at me when I asked if Russian was understood. And in fact, most of the people I spoke with did speak Russian. The most extensive conversation I had about the war was in the taxi on my way back from Signaghi. He said that Georgia has good relations with all its neighbors. Except for Russia.
Yeah, I guess.
(Above is a shot from the interior of an old church. And a shot of Signaghi.)
Friday, September 5, 2008
Thursday, September 4, 2008
In Zaqatala, it won’t take you long until you hear about the nut factory. Nuts, as we know, grow on trees. The factory processed those nuts. So, people call it the nut factory.
The nuts to which they refer are what English-speaking people call hazelnuts or filberts. Very tasty. The bush-like trees grow well here. Sometimes it seems like they grow wild.
In the days of the Soviet Union, Zaqatala was home to one of two “nut factories” in Europe. I think the other one is in the Czech Republic. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so too did the business of the nut factory.
This is just one of countless examples around the former Soviet Union. You will find these examples all over. The factory that used to produce machine parts, but the orders stopped coming after the Soviet Union collapsed. The large farm that grew cotton, but then the demand for the cotton plummeted after the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s difficult for Westerners who have not traveled in this region and really thought about it to understand the depth of the impact caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, when the Western politicians crow about the West “winning” the Cold War, it’s hard to feel very good about this when this means that the West’s “victory” means mass unemployment and despair for your town.
In Zaqatala, some Turkish investors have recently built a new nut factory, but it’s much more modest in scope than the old Soviet plant. It comes nowhere near to meeting the economic needs of the community.
I’ve been thinking even more about the collapse of the Soviet Union lately because I’m about half-way through “The New Cold War,” by Edward Lucas. It’s a timely book, although I’m sure it strikes many people as a fear-mongering and alarmist work. I’m not sure it’s unduly alarmist. I’m thinking about my recent conversations with Russian friends. And thinking about conversations with people who have traveled in Russia very recently. One friend recently remarked that she was alarmed at how nationalist her friends had become.
In many ways, this nationalism is entirely predictable. I lived in Russia during the Yeltsin years. I remember very well the crash of the ruble, the final economic crisis that was the beginning of the end for Yeltsin and his administration. It is easy to understand how those are shameful memories for Russians – and how Russians would be happy to support a nationalistic administration that appears to have brought order and pride back to Russia.
Many people will argue, of course, that nationalism - whatever the nation - isn’t a bad thing. Pride in one’s country or village or family is natural and good. But I am opposed to nationalism – whatever that nation – if it is an excuse to neglect self-criticism. If we love our country, then we should be brutally honest about its shortcomings. If we are not honest about these faults, we cannot improve them. So, I am quite frank in my discussions with foreigners and other Americans about the aspects of the United States that I consider shameful – its health care system, its materialism, its foreign policy, its economic inequality, its violence, its racism, its religious intolerance, its poor education system. But I am an American, and as such, I have am responsible to some extent for this large and powerful country. I cannot make excuses for it.
And I cannot make excuses for the foreign policy of the United States, that in some ways made the rise of Putin possible. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the politicians and businesses in the West badly managed the situation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it’s equally hard to expect that they could have managed it well. Following a policy that might have avoided the current dangerous situation would have required much greater wisdom than could be expected from elected leaders and businesses. Politicians revel in triumphalism. And in a capitalist system, entrepreneurs will always seek quick profits.
I would summarize the mistake of the Western powers as a failure to consider Russia a real negotiating partner. In negotiation, we must exercise our imagination in order to consider as fully as possible the perspective of our negotiating partner. We must attempt to view the world through that partner’s eyes. To understand his fears, his desires, his motivations. Because the West - particularly the United States – considered that it had “won” the Cold War, it failed to treat Russia as a negotiating partner. The Soviet Union, after all, had been defeated. The perspective of its former rulers was not relevant.
And now, we are shocked to learn that the Russians are not embracing the democracy of the West. Many Russians consider that they tried democracy. It brought them economic chaos and few concessions from the West. Better for Russia to apply a more familiar authoritarian model of government and rely on its own natural resources to command the respect of the West. I think this is an entirely understandable position.
Of course, this will not help in the long-term economic development of Russia. The country’s reliance on its energy resources means that broad economic restructuring can be avoided. And Russian foreign policy informed by resurgent nationalism already has made the region more dangerous, as the Georgians recently discovered. But the response of the Russian leadership – and of the Russian people who support those leaders - is completely understandable.
And in Zaqatala, perhaps the Turkish investors will be successful. Perhaps the country will remain at peace, despite the Russian troops a few hundred kilometers away. And perhaps a nut factory will again employ many of the population here. Inshala.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
I am writing in a noisy and smokey computer center in Zaqatala. The computer centers in this country are generally used by young men who play violent video games. I look to their screens, and see how they are hunting video humans with guns. Occasionally, bright splashes of video blood brightens the screens.
So, I will not write much tonight. The day was long. After teaching in the morning, I went hiking in the woods with two of my students. One of the young men knows the woods very well, and knows of several ancient ruins. Albanian ruins. They are listed in either guidebook I have. The ruins I saw today date from the 4th century. The structure appears to be some sort of guard tower. It's not a church. Under the structure, the beginning of a tunnel is visible. Ivan says the tunnel links other structures in the area. I wasn't going to verify his statement this afternoon, but actually it sounds plausible. I remember visiting the tunnels in Budapest, where the local population took refuge during the raids of hostile tribes. I imagine something similar might be possible here.
The whole area seems almost entirely untouched by archeologists. Aside from a small sign on the ruin that dates its approximate age, the site is unmarked.
We opted not to continue another couple of hours further up the mountain. The afternoon was getting late by the time we made it to this first ruin. On the way back, we stopped at the camp of Ivan's friend, a young man who lives there with his father. They raise bees in the forest, camping there all summer. As we sipped our second cup of tea, Ivan looked at his watch and said we should be going. We should get out of the woods before it got dark. Wolves, he said.
"Wolves?" I asked. "Seriously."
He was serious.
They're scared of people, I said.
Not if there are many of them.
But we are many, I joked.
Ivan smiled, but he took the threat seriously. The wolves killed several cattle here this summer.
For me, wolves are something fanciful and exotic. Only in Northern Michigan have I ever camped where wolves lived in the forest. And there, the wolves were not something to be feared.
But here they are. We left the forest with plenty of light left in the day.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
When I was in Car, I had a conversation that exemplifies for me the internal conflict that many Azerbaijanis have. I was having tea in a restaurant there and an older local gentleman sat down at my table and began to chat. The usual questions. 1.) Where are you from? 2.) So, what do you think about Azerbaijan? Honestly.
I gave my usual answers. 1.) I’ve been around a lot of Azerbaijan. I’m impressed with its beauty and the way that different regions are quite distinct in their character. 2.) The people of Azerbaijan are very hospitable. 3.) The gulf between the rich and the poor is quite large.
He didn’t argue with me on the last point, but he did offer some perspective. You don’t know how it was before, he said. Before we had strong leadership in the government. Things were chaotic. You didn’t know if the bus that you took to Baku would arrive at its destination. Now, the people in charge know that strong leadership is needed. They have given this leadership. There is order.
I listened. I said that I understood, that I heard about the stories about banditry, about the period when each individual region of the country seemed to be controlled by a local strong-man.
Later, we left the table. While we were walking, he asked me about democracy. Is democracy possible in such a place like this? No, I answered. I don’t think it is possible, when posters of the president or his father adorn every street corner.
Right, he said. It is impossible to live freely in such a place. And people need freedom, he said.
Both points of view are completely accurate and not necessarily contradictory. People need freedom and people need order. It is that delicate balancing act that is never perfect. At the moment, the balance in Azerbaijan weighs more heavily on order than on freedom, but that may change.
Monday, September 1, 2008
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Another town, another adventure. This time, my students are young again. The youngest one is 15. Most of them, however, are young women between the ages of 17 and 20. Most of them speak some English, so my lecture today was a mixture of English and Russian, assisted by quite capable translation into Azerbaijani.
I am changing a few things this time. I am accelerating the course, because I have the idea of creating an actual copy of a newspaper. We’ll see how this turns out. The idea came to me because the facility that I’m using has a copy of the Microsoft Publisher program. It’s possible to produce a decent newsletter with this program, so if I have some material to work with, that’s what I’ll do.
After class, I went to check out a different hotel. I think I will change hotels tomorrow, because the one I’m in now is much too expensive. So, my time for exploring the town hasn’t been that great. Yesterday, I explored the village of Car a little. It’s adjacent to Zaqatala, up farther on the mountain. It’s notable because most of the residents are Avars. This is a quite separate group from Azerbaijanis. They speak an entirely separate language and they are much more fair skinned. Quite a few are blonde with blue eyes, for example.
One obseration: when I took a taxi from the train station on the first day, I talked with the driver about the Avars and the other ethnic groups. I was curious about how they differ. My driver – I think he was Azerbaijani – said they speak a different language. But in customs and traditions, they are identical. But when I later met an Avar and chatted with him about his ethnic group, he was quite specific. The Avars, he said, are entirely separate and distinct from Azerbaijanis. He talked in terms of having “pure blood.” This term has come up before in conversations with members of ethnic groups. I think it was a member of the Talysh.
So, perhaps the member of the dominant ethnic group doesn’t see the smaller ethnic group as being that distinct. But the members of the minority see their distinctiveness more clearly.
Oh, on the subject of hotels. One interesting observation: When I arrived in Zaqatala, I noticed a new hotel – the Hotel Qafqaz. Looks very nice. Why don’t I stay there? Oh, it’s not open yet. It’s supposed to open when the president comes to town. He was supposed to visit in May – and since then all sorts of preparations have been made. The large public park on the hill over the city has been closed, for example, in preparation for his visit. The authorities don’t want to open it too far in advance of his visit. The town waits and waits for the visit of the president.
I’m including a few photos. You can see the black-and-white polka dot pattern of the walls that is particular to the Zaqatala region. The bust of the young woman in the traffic circle is of heroine of labor – a woman from the Zaqatala region who became the first woman to operate a cotton combine. Unfortunately, I am told that her long hair got caught in the combine, and led to her death. This information is from a Peace Corps volunteer so I’m not sure it’s accurate.