Limbo Year / Why Azerbaijan?

Note: This is the final post of my other blog, Turkish Musings, but I think it forms a good link between my experiences in Turkey and what is to come in Azerbaijan.

So. Almost an entire year has gone by since my last post. I’ve kept up on Turkish news, watching the various protests, social media bans, government election drama, and most recently the mine disaster. I find it funny how this place has almost become an obsession for me. Turkey and the greater Turkic region has captured not only my academically-minded attention and intrigue, but my heart as well.

I took this past year after graduating from Grand Valley State University to think about life. I dubbed it my “Limbo Year” and I sure felt liminal the majority of the time. It turns out that seriously asking myself ‘life questions’ is very difficult and emotional: “What makes me happy?” “What do I want to pursue in life?” “What are my motivations to live life completely and honestly?” “How can I live now so that 10 years, 25 years, 50 years, etc. down the road I don’t have regrets?”

While undergoing this mental and emotional exercise (or torture, I might call it), I made the decision to apply for a Fulbright ETA grant (English Teaching Assistant). A huge perk of applying for Fulbright is the liberty to choose the country I want to journey to. But this also proved to be a challenge; I could only choose one. Initially, I was thinking about Indonesia, largely because I wanted to compare Islam between Turkish and Indonesian contexts. Plus, Indonesia simply looks amazing–I dare you to Google image it and NOT become captivated.

It turns out, though, that Indonesia is on the Equator and I don’t do well in humid heat. I learned that after my parents moved from our home town and I remained in West Michigan. I relocated temporarily into a house with 5 other girls and no AC. My job also lacks AC. This was during the hottest summer in Michigan in several years. I got no respite–almost died.

Okay, so Indonesia is a no-go. I turned my attention to Central Asia, also known as the “Turkic World.” For as tempting as it was to return to Turkey, I knew deep down that I wanted to use my experience there as a launch pad toward other places. What about Turkmenistan? The desert environment and extremely repressive government (seriously, people are required to obtain a permit to leave their home city–woah) quickly dispelled any desire to go there. Similarly, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic seemed a little too….too….weird? Uncomfortable? Like I’m not ready for “those types” of places? Something–they just did not feel right.

I obsessed over the world map. Where to go? Where to go? I thought about Turkey again but tried to remember the other places that people talked about during my time there, and one location repeatedly cropped up….

“You really should visit Baku.”

“Baku? I’m sorry, but where is that?”

“Azerbaijan–Baku is the capital,” eyes peered suspiciously at me, “You DO know where Azerbaijan is, yes?”

“Yeah, duh–it’s by Armenia and Russia and Georgia.” I blurted out to prove that an American knows exactly where this obscure country was located in the Caucasus. “But what is so special about Baku?”

The suspicious eyes visibly transformed into a starry-eyed gaze that looked past me, almost as if the speaker was witnessing Baku’s lively cityscape right that second. I received different answers at this point, but they were always accompanied by this sense of wonderment. “Baku is ancient and modern.” “It is a Turkish Dubai.” “There are so many things to do there, many young people live there.” “Baku is just beautiful.” All of my Iranian friends had been there, in fact, one of them worked for Azerbaijan’s government after he received his undergrad from Middle East Technical University in Ankara. I asked him if he would go back.

“I would. But you should go–soon. You would like it.”

Huh….interesting.

I subconsciously filed those conversations–and there was a surprising number of them–in the back of mind. Slowly, in the months after returning from Turkey and as I considered the next big step in my life, those discussions unfolded in my memory to reveal that Azerbaijan was there to link me between Turkey and the greater Turkic world. But more than that, Azerbaijan is an entity steeped in complicated historical dynamics and a multitude of cultures–is it fascinating because of its liminality. There’s no better time for me, a liminal person, to study a liminal location!

I applied for a Fulbright ETA grant to teach and live in Azerbaijan for one academic year…and I got it.

I got it. (Thank God/MaşAllah!)

So to conclude this long-winded update on the blogger: Turkey threw me for a loop. I often tell people that instead of falling in love with a man abroad, I fell in love with a region and its cultures, histories, and languages. Now I want to see how possible it is to intimately understand the Turkic world as an “outsider.” Going to Azerbaijan is one step in this process, but I’ve become extremely captivated by this obscure, tiny country in the Caucasus.

And I cannot wait to explore it.

Until next time….

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