Baku Adventures

To Be An Expert Overnight

The other evening as I shoved potato chips in my face and binge-watched It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I was struck with this idea:

Never before have I been an “expert overnight” as often as I have in Azerbaijan. We’ve all done it, pretended to know everything about a topic to get through an assignment or bluffed our way through a conversation. “Here, talk to Hayley, she studied history.” “Uhh, what?” “Hayley, tell us, what is your opinion about _____?” Cue volumes of platitude.

We become experts on-the-spot to save ourselves from embarrassment, to persuade an opinion, to clear up misconceptions, to get the job done. When I explain to people here that I’m not a trained/professional English teacher, they often laugh and remark that I’m perfectly qualified because I’m a native English speaker. So it’s all good.

Therefore, even if I don’t profess to be an expert at something (or if I explicitely state that I am highly UNqualified), it doesn’t matter because other people say I am.

Fulbright pulls a similar trick and says that we’re “experts” on American culture. So we’re encouraged to give presentations, hold dialogues, and answer any question to the best of our knowledge. For me, it’s humbling — also scary. My God, I might be the only American some people are ever exposed to. What I say about my country and my time in Azerbaijan might completely form or alter someone’s opinion. So although I can’t say that I enjoy being an expert overnight, I can say that I’ve learned a lot, and hopefully I’ve helped others as well.

The rest of this post will explain some of the extracurricular projects I did at Baku’s American Center, projects that shoved me into the spotlight of expertise. Hopefully this will give you future Fulbrighters some ideas, and prove to people back home that I did more than travel in my free time.  🙂

“Michigan” as part of the 50 Stars Series

This last spring, the US Embassy started the 50 Stars Series. Each week a guest speaker gave a presentation on his or her home state, and created a short quiz for everyone to discuss at the end. The audience was a diverse group; equally men and women of all ages (youngest attendee was a kid who I’m guessing was about 10 years old). English skill of the audience was high-intermediate.

Tips for a project like this:

  • Include LOTS of pictures, use text for points or facts that are very important.
  • Take a minute to define special vocabulary (in my case, “peninsula”).
  • Find a way to directly relate your home to Azerbaijan (e.g. “Michigan is made up of two peninsulas, Baku is also on a peninsula, called the Abşeron Peninsula”).
  • Include excerpts from the news or music; it redirects their attentions and gives you a break!
  • Try to include something that dispels or challenges stereotypes of American culture. I’d heard comments like, “Americans are afraid of Muslims” or “It’s hard to be Muslim in America because they hate us.” I try to explain that Americans, for the most part, don’t care too much about what people do in their private lives (which I think we tend to classify religious beliefs as “private”) as long as you seem like a decent, hard-working person. For this presentation, I included a slide about Dearborn, the city that holds the largest population of Arabs in the U.S. They were fascinated and had no idea that Islamic/Middle Eastern culture could have as strong a presence as it does in Dearborn.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. And praise those who bring up a fact that you forgot or couldn’t squeeze in. (e.g. “You forgot to say that Madonna was born in Michigan.” “Why I did, thank you for reminding me!”)

 Click here to see the “Michigan” presentation

“Azerbai–WHERE?! Surveying What Americans Know About Azerbaijan” as part of the Getting to Know the United States Series

I don’t know what got into me — I HATE giving presentations. And why I signed up to do another one mere weeks after my “Michigan” presentation is beyond me. It’s something else to put on your CV, Hayley, I chided myself, plus, people here LOVE talking about what Americans know about Azerbaijan.

So I devised a little experiment that seems very selfish in hindsight. As you see, I have this blog. One of the main goals of maintaining this blog was to improve knowledge of Azerbaijan back home. Of course, I can’t make drastic changes, but if friends and family learned a couple things through my journey then I would consider that a successful outcome.

I created a survey (sent only to Americans who volunteered to take it) that tested general knowledge of Azerbaijan. The second part centered on the effectiveness of my blog. For the presentation, I went over each question and broke down how participants answered (I encourage you to check it out, it fascinated me). Then I shared some comments from the survey and encouraged the audience to use social media to express their own journeys and exchange ideas.

Tips for a project like this:

  • Be prepared for any kind of audience. A class of elementary school children attended my presentation, along with university students. I was NOT ready for the school children, but the format of my presentation actually kept their attention (I was lucky). So, if you’re giving a talk that is open for anyone to attend, expect the unexpected.
  • Do something that you really want to talk about. Duh, you might be thinking. But when you feel pressured to participate in cultural activities, the things you’re passionate about don’t always come to mind. Don’t fret about what you think others want to hear, do something you are comfortable with or have a lot of knowledge of, and the audience will take what they will from it.

Click here to see the “Azerbai-WHERE?!” Survey

Click here to see my “Azerbai-WHERE?!” Prezi

Practice Interviews

I can confidently say that almost EVERYONE I’ve talked to here has made this comment, “I want to study abroad/work for an international company.” English is quickly rising in the ranks as a lingua franca of the region, and young people in Baku realize that if they want a decent job, they need some proficiency in the language.

The embassy recognized this too and hosted an “English Week” at the American Center in March. One activity was practice interviews, and several ETAs and staff members from the embassy acted as employers and asked basic interview questions. We only had 10 minutes with each person (there were a lot of attendees), but we were able to make notes and share some comments to the whole group afterward.

I remember one woman well, a local who worked with the Peace Corps as a coordinator. My jaw dropped. “You worked with the Peace Corps for 10 years? You should interviewing ME!” I confessed. She kindly insisted otherwise, but I’m still flabbergasted. Again, here I am barely getting started on a path to a career (whatever that may end up being), and, as a native English speaker, I act as an expert (of sorts) for interview skills.

Oklahoma Fancy Dancers

This last event I participated as an audience member. The embassy hosted members from a Native American dance troupe, the Oklahoma Fancy Dancers, and took them to several universities and centers in Baku. I commend those dancers — to perform and be sociable with that kind of jet lag is amazing.

For me, it was interesting to see the reactions of local audience members. They were star-struck, purely astonished. I could guess some of their thoughts when I glanced at faces, These people are from America? Do they always dress like this? Where do they live?

I was totally engrossed in their performance. First of all, just look at them — visually striking:

Fancy Dancers 1

Fancy Dancers 2

Fancy Dancers 3

It took me back to my childhood, when I first learned about these cultures; to when I was 17 and visited the Navajo reservation in New Mexico for a mission trip (a life-changing experience for me); to 2 years ago when I took a class on “The Peoples and Cultures of Native North America.” I grew strangely homesick in that moment. My reverie was broken when I heard a young woman, about the age of my students, ask, “I don’t understand…how can a person fight like that?”

She was referring to the war dance one of the male dancers was performing. He was hunched over, his short, padded steps fitting the pace of the beating drum. I tried to explain that it wasn’t the actual way they fought, but his dance tells the story. She seemed to get it, and she continued along with another student, “Did you grow up knowing about Native Americans?” “Did you learn about them in school?” “Do they dress like this everyday?” “Do they speak English?” “Where do they live?”

Some hard-hitting questions, but good ones. Yes, they might seem insensitive, but you have to start somewhere. And for me, I would rather someone ask an ‘insensitive’ question to clear up any misconceptions than have it go unexpressed, and develop into something more. I can only hope that I’ve done my job well here, and God knows I’ve learned a lot in the process.

And I also hope that you’re not asleep by the end of this.  😉

Until next time…  (:

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The Man of the Hour

Rarely a day goes by that I don’t see this gentleman’s image hung on a wall, perched on a table, or gracing the side of a building or billboard:

Heydar Aliyev 1

Friends and family back home, if you don’t know who this is, get ready for a little lesson in Azerbaijani political history. This is Heydər Əliyev, the first stable president of independent Azerbaijan. (His name is commonly spelled like this in our alphabet: Heydar Aliyev.)  I knew about Mr. Əliyev before I arrived in Azerbaijan, thanks to the book Azerbaijan Diary by American reporter and academic Thomas Goltz. The book chronicles Goltz’s time in Azerbaijan as the USSR crumbled (early 1990s), and explains in great detail the power struggle amongst Baku’s political elite. It’s actually really confusing, not because Goltz is a bad writer (definitely not), but because he’s writing about messy history: the process a former USSR republic faced as it learned how to become an independent country in the modern age. Yikes.

Now, I must say, I would NOT have wanted to be a major power player in that situation. Can you imagine starting an independent country…sorting the logitics of borders, an army, your resources, laws, the safety of millions of people, all while watching your own back as factions develop and alliances constantly shift?

Hell no. No, thank you.

Anyway, one man came up repeatedly in Goltz’s narrative, the guy I mentioned earlier…

Heydər Əliyev as seen in a conference room.

Heydər Əliyev as seen in a conference room.

Mr. Əliyev was actually born in Naxçıvan (or, Nakhchivan), an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan sandwiched firmly between Armenia and Iran. Naxçıvan also shares a teeny tiny border with Turkey, something like 4 miles in length:

1208azerbaijan_map_200w

The only way to get to Nakhchivan from mainland Azerbaijan is by plane. Whenever Nakhchivan comes up in conversation, I’m told that the people there talk “very, very fast.” (Photo from http://gisandscience.com/)

Əliyev was a household name prior to independence, being a key leader within the Soviet system. This meant that when the Soviet Union ceased to be, he had powerful friends but also plenty of enemies in Baku. He whisked himself away between Moscow and Naxçıvan in self-imposed exhile and layed low for a few years. It proved to be a smart move, as he smoothly transitioned into the role of president in 1993 at the behest of the populace, and maintained the office until his death in 2003. He actually died in Cleveland, OH while undergoing care for heart issues.

Upon arriving in Baku, I’ve been struck by how prevalent his image is throughout the city. It reminds me of Atatürk in Turkey, whose face I saw in paintings hung in offices and recital halls, and banners draped over the sides of buildings:

In case you don't know: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is a revolutionary hero and symbol of progressive modernism in Turkey. Here is a short biography for more info: http://www.ataturk.com/ Photo credit: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/youth-ataturk-day-celebrated-in-turkey.aspx?pageID=449&nID=47179&NewsCatID=341

In case you don’t know: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is a revolutionary hero and symbol of progressive modernism in Turkey. Here is a short biography for more info: http://www.ataturk.com/
Photo credit: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/youth-ataturk-day-celebrated-in-turkey.aspx?pageID=449&nID=47179&NewsCatID=341

And as I’ve traveled, I’ve noted Əliyev’s face and name on a regular basis, even in the most remote mountain towns and villages deep in the hinterlands. Below are just a handful of examples:

Here he is in the courtyard of my university.

Here he is in the courtyard of my university.

Greeting those who arrive in the town of Gəncə.

Greeting those who arrive in the town of Gəncə.

Located in a park in Quba.

Located in a park in Quba.

In a research library of a museum.

In a research library of a museum.

There's even a bust of him in Tbilisi, Georgia!

There’s even a bust of him in Tbilisi, Georgia!

It’s hard to equate this with anything in American culture…but think of a famous political and military figure who served a pivotal role in American history, someone who set many standards for not only presidential behavior, but for citizen behavior. George Washington is an easy example. Now imagine if portraits of George Washington were displayed everywhere, and if a few major streets in every city were called “George Washington Street,” and if a significant number of public theaters, halls, cultural centers, parks, universities, and charitable organizations were named after the founding father.

Yes, it’s a lot. It’s impossible to go through a day without hearing, reading, or seeing his name or face in some form or another.

I mentioned earlier that Heydər passed away in 2003; so who is president of Azerbaijan now?

This fellow, Ilham Əliyev.

This fellow, Ilham Əliyev.

Mr. Ilham Əliyev, his son, became president immediately after and it looks as though he’ll remain for a while longer. Political “royalty” (so to speak) isn’t unknown in American political culture; the Bush’s and Clinton’s are prime examples, the Kennedy’s and Adams’ even earlier.

Father and son.

Father and son.

Yet it’s an awkward prospect, especially in a young country practicing democracy for the first time. But, maybe it’s good to have a singular leader/family for a sense of consistency, especially in as volatile a region as the Caucasus. On the other hand, there are also benefits of bringing in new blood to diversify the political scene. I argue that it is too soon to speculate which is better for the situation; this will have to be the work of historians and political scientists down the road.

In the meantime, I’m still getting used to running into Mr. Əliyev on a daily basis. Coming from an entirely different cultural background, I’ll admit that it’s a little strange. But I gotta hand it to him, he was a man who lived through tumultuous times and got Azerbaijan on its feet. Anyone who serves his or her country like that deserves to be “the man of the hour” for many hours.

Until next time…  (:


Additional links:

Official Website of Heydar Əliyev, Biography

News article dated from December, 2003

News article dated from December, 2014

 

Azerbaijan State Economic University

ASEU Sign

Not to make anyone jealous, but I think I have one of the best schools any Fulbright ETA can ask for. First, just look at it:

Walking on the perimeter, this is the front of the Main Building, right by all the fun things in Baku.

Walking on the perimeter, this is the front of the Main Building, right by all the fun things in Baku.

Courtyard during an assembly on the first day of classes.

Courtyard during an assembly on the first day of classes.

ASEU 2

 

ASEU 13

ASEU 7

 

ASEU actually has three or four campuses throughout the city. This is one of them.

ASEU actually has three or four campuses throughout the city. This is one of them.

 

An auditorium in the Main Building

An auditorium in the Main Building

Azerbaijan State Economic University (ASEU) has become like a second home, largely because I have amazing colleagues and my own work space in the International Relations Office (IRO).

America and Azerbaijan

As you can see, Azerbaijan and the USA have a close, friendly relationship (:

 

Unlike professors at any American university, teachers here are rarely guaranteed personal work space. There are department offices, but that’s where everyone hangs out for tea, to chat, and meet with students. It’s hard to concentrate in such an environment, so many teachers I know prepare their lessons at home. I, on the other hand, am extremely fortunate: Not only do I have space, but I have my own computer — not kidding. I can use the office printer too, a luxury. I can be productive, and have some division between ‘work’ and ‘home,’ almost like a real adult.

Yet I end up taking my work to-do list home most evenings. I’m regularly interrupted, but I don’t mind. I’m always amazed when my students visit. Wow, they’re stopping by to say ‘hi,’ I feel like a real teacher! Then I give them Russian candy, because what better way can I show my gratitude except through a sweet? Impromptu Azeri language lessons occur between me and colleagues regularly, and I hear the occasional request to proofread a letter or edit a blurb.

And since I’m in the IRO, students approach my desk and ask in Azeri or Russian if so-and-so is here, or if I can tell them about Erasmus/study abroad programs. “Muslim Müəllim is out now, but he’ll be back in a few minutes,” or, “The person you want is Afət and she is at lunch, but she’ll return before the end of the hour.” Of course I answer in English, my Russian is non-existant and my Azeri is nothing to celebrate. I also do it to see their reactions, sometimes baffled and amused, sometimes that classic deer-in-the-headlights look. I like being someone’s unexpected encounter for the day.

Anyway, back to the tour. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve noticed that the university building butts right up to this big stone wall.

Just like that.

Just like that.

And that.

And that.

That stone wall straight ahead represents the original boundary of İçərişəhər, or, the Old City (which I’ve talked about with plenty of pictures in this post and this one); some parts are reconstructed or older than others, but it is impressive. ASEU and several other Russian-inspired (i.e. pre-Soviet) architectural beauties line the main street, completely blocking the Old City walls. It was something I wondered about in the back of my mind, but I assumed it was the result of bad city planning.

It was a stupid assumption. My colleague indicated the wall one afternoon as we walked from the canteen to the office. She explained that, at some point, the Russians demanded that Old City’s walls be torn down to 1) make way for newer construction, and 2) erase medieval Baku/Azerbaijani history. The suggestion was made instead to construct new buildings right in front of the walls, enough to block idle gazes from noticing them, but without completely destroying valuable history. And that is exactly what happened:

Block the walls...block them!

Block the walls…block them!

Wall 2

Oil money enabled locals to construct too, such as this building, “Ismailliya” by I.K. Ploşko in 1913.

 

Wall 3

Old City — what Old City? Look at the fountain!

 

This perfectly demonstrates the indecisive Russification policy I’ve read about. The Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, wavered between two opinions as it dealt with Azerbaijan and its other territories: Should non-Russians be forced to abandon their languages and histories to identify only with Russia’s? Or should some allowances of cultural autonomy be practiced?

So the Old City, a medieval-era symbol of Azeri power and source of ethnic pride, was forced to fade into the background while other buildings, such as ASEU, were constructed at the forefront. That’s good enough for a society struggling to maintain its identity in the face of a colonizer. It’s that option or have your history be decimated. (And some back home have told me that “history doesn’t matter.” Hm. This should give you something to think about…)

Another factoid about ASEU’s main building: it was built as a school for girls, funded by oil millionaire Musa Naghiyev. It was the first school for women in the area, in the mid- to late-1800s, just after Baku’s economy boomed from the first wave of foreign investment. I asked what the girls were taught, and it sounds like a combination of home and practical skills like reading and writing. For some reason, I thought about those young women multiple times in the week leading up to the start of the spring semester. I imagined their laughter and voices echoing in the cavernous, chilly hallways, maybe because it seemed too quiet without the intermittent chatter of teenagers.

So quiet.

So quiet.

Barren.

Barren.

The inspirational quotes were added over winter break.

The inspirational quotes were added over winter break. I can translate one for you. “Hər gün kitab oxuyun” = Read a book everyday.

ASEU Stairs 2

And here’s another translation: “Hər zaman gözəl sözlər danışın” = Always speak beautiful (kind) words.

 

But now young voices bellow down the halls regularly, and several of them are greetings aimed my way, “Hello, Hayley!” I encourage them to use my first name, I figure it’s good for them to practice a different name since I have to practice all of theirs…such as Günay, Əntigə, Fuad, Toğrul, Faik, and Ceyhuna. But I’ll admit that my heart thrills a bit when I’m called teacher. “Hello, teacher, how are you?” “Thank you for today’s lesson, teacher, we enjoyed it very much.” “What will we talk about today, teacher?” “Teacher, how long will you stay in Azerbaijan?”

I know it’s a simple title, but Jesus was called teacher (rabbi) in the Biblical New Testament by several who addressed him. Actually, if I’m not mistaken, several pioneers of religious movements from Buddha to Muhammad were viewed and recorded as teachers. I like sharing such a title with those great people.

Although the title is just about all we have in common. I teach conversational English to several groups of students that meet with me once a week. Those groups of students are also fluid, meaning that I see new faces weekly, others drop out forever, and some attend when they feel like it (like stopping by for the last half of class). It’s…interesting…definitely different from my personal university experience…and it constantly tries my patience. Taking that into consideration, and the fact that I come across a rather wide range of English skill (“Intermediate” is a very broad category and somewhat deceiving), I don’t take it upon myself to teach them brand new grammatical structures or introduce lists of vocabulary — that’s what their formal curriculum covers. Instead, I frame a discussion or class around a theme or activity, and give them the chance to use the English they already know. I like having that freedom, and I think they appreciate the change of pace.

I work in two different conference rooms. This one is on the top floor in the Honors section.

I work in two different conference rooms. This one is on the top floor in the Honors section.

And this one is right next to the IRO, on the lowest level. I hold my conversation clubs here.

And this one is right next to the IRO, on the lowest level. I hold my conversation clubs here.

There you have it, a little taste of ASEU. When my friend Esther visited, I made sure to give her a tour. “This is the kind of place I can see you working,” she said.

I daresay it is a good fit.

Until next time… (:

Cultural Chaos

Situation #1

“You are a very bad girl.”

Excuse you? I wanted to retort some smart, biting comment. I also had the urge to smack the speaker. Hayley — stop, have patience…

“How is that bad? Staying out late with friends was what everyone did in high school. You can’t do anything else in a small town. It’s normal…” I faltered to justify my past actions, which weren’t bad in any shape or form.

She continued, “All good girls should be back home by 10 at night.” My jaw dropped.

Obviously, I was annoyed during that conversation; I would die under that kind of cultural curfew. However, it did open my eyes to something: I don’t see many women out past 10pm in Baku, regardless of the day of the week or part of the city I happen to be in. And now I know why: married or unmarried; single or with a family; old or young…good girls are at home.

Situation #2

“It’s high time you got married.”

High time, huh? Right, because my drop-dead gorgeous looks will quickly pass by, like dust in the wind. Heaven forbid a 24-year old young lady should remain happily single. Better find a man now — snag one before it’s too late! Hayley — stop, have patience…

It’s the haughty and somewhat bossy tone that sets me over the edge, so I fail to control my own tone and word choice when I reply, “I will never get married!”

Some women laugh at my reactions, some question me further, others shake their heads and make a comment that I’ll change my mind when I find the right Azerbaijani man…

Recently I’ve built a higher level of tolerance for the topic, enough to ask one simple question: Why? Why is it “high time” that I get married?

“You just should.”

Situation #3

I love learning about a culture’s proverbs and anecdotes. So when a friend started with “We have a saying in our country,” while we were out for lunch, I got excited. She continued: “A woman can make three things from nothing: a salad, a hat, and a fight.”

I processed: salad, check. Hat, check. Fight, check. Wait — what? A raging battle took place in my mind: one side encouraged me to laugh along and go with the flow while the other induced me to scream in protest, “What kind of a saying is that, I don’t start fights from nothing!!” Hayley — stop, have patience…

Even now, I get weirdly defensive whenever I think about this saying. If anything, I justified it with my reaction. I know it’s ridiculous yet, it is?

Situation #4

I’ve been told by some women that “marriage is a game.” It tends to be said during dinner parties, over tea, with no men around. The implication is that a wife holds a household together, but she has to make her husband think he’s responsible. If she wants anything done, she has to lure her spouse into thinking he came up with the idea. She can’t be too forward, because that’s brazen. I doubt that’s the case with every marriage in Baku, but the half dozen women present during this conversation agreed with the speaker.

I admitted that I didn’t like the idea of marriage being a game. Can it be teamwork? Life is hard enough, why complicate your marriage? But, no one really listened. What do I know anyway?

Situation #5

“She wants to say that she hopes you will have many children. Children of your own.”

I looked from my friend, who was translating, to the young woman who wished me many children. The expression in her deep, brown eyes was genuine, almost bashful, and I knew she meant well by her wish. There was no judgement, she wasn’t going to demand that I get married, she was simply blessing me. Her toddler daughter scurried across the office for the second time, tempting everyone — even me — to smile.

Situation #6

I’ve been flabbergasted at the rate and severity a woman’s life can be destroyed in Baku if she is divorced. Her career, personal and professional relationships, and financial safety all suffer. Her past must be kept secret from any potential suitor. Otherwise, he’ll assume she’s an easy woman who might as well give him any favors he asks from her.

Additionally, hearing other women talk about a divorced woman is…devastating to me. We don’t know the full story, how can we judge? She has children, can we show some compassion? If she cheated, we might as well expect the husband to have cheated too, several people have told me “that’s what happens here.” I’ve found myself getting strangely caught in the middle sometimes, a few people have asked me if whether or not this woman or that woman is indeed divorced. Simply put, it’s awkward.

But what is a divorced woman to do, suffer in silence? Yes. Either that, or leave everything in Azerbaijan and start over in a different country.

Situation #7

I looked at the group that showed up to English conversation class: five students, all girls. I scraped my pre-made lesson plan, “So, do you want to talk about boys?” They laughed and immediately jumped on the topic. Of course we talked about marriage, and it was interesting to note that the girls almost definitely wanted children, but weren’t so sure about that whole marriage thing. Eventually one of them turned to me and asked that fateful question, “Do you want to get married?”

I fought my usual knee-jerk response of “NO! I shall NEVER get married!” and channeled my responsible, role-model teacher side. I appreciated that she asked and, for a brief moment, I double-guessed myself.

“I’m not planning on it, but if the right one comes along, then sure.”

“How old do you want to be?”

Huh, I haven’t thought about that… “How old do I want to be if I meet the right person?”

She nodded her confirmation as the other girls leaned in or cocked their heads to the side. In a country where many girls get married fairly young (about 18 to 22), my answer was doubtlessly interesting.

“It would be great if I could meet him before I’m 30. But if I don’t meet him until I’m older, even 50, then I would be okay with that.” I also explained that I do other things in my life, such as exploring the world, in order to find happiness. It’s important to make yourself happy and not rely solely on a boyfriend/husband/significant other figure to do that for you.

Their smiles melted my heart. Now, I can only hope that if any of them wants to take a bit of a detour from tradition, that she will find support from friends and family.


Those situational snapshots are examples of some of my (many, many) on-going, inner dialogues during my time abroad in Azerbaijan as an American expat: Relationships, (specifically marriage), and what it means to be a woman in Azerbaijani society.

A part of me wants to never again voice any question on dating, relationships, sex, or marriage here. Some take it that I’m passing judgement on them and their culture. I will admit that yes, I judge something when I first come across it. Yet with people and their culture, I’m careful to bite my tongue until I formulate the best, noninflammatory statement or response. Although, I’m human and I know that my words can offend when I very much do not intend that.

It doesn’t help that I become offended when others try to convince me the relationship scene/marriage dynamics here are perfectly natural and work for everyone. Or when people slap a label like “Bad Girl” on me. My only response is to dig in my heels, halt all discussion, and quickly change the topic. I don’t want to confess that I disagree with them. I don’t want to confess that picturing myself as an Azerbaijani woman, either single or in a relationship, makes me uneasy. The experiences outlined above (and much more) suggest that a woman’s ultimate role and responsibility in Azerbaijani culture is to be a wife and mother. Sure, have a career, but it’s more important to have a family with the career. If she is divorced or remains unmarried, then she must lack morals. But the alternatives of cheating or entering into a lifelong commitment without genuine feelings seem immoral to me too.

It’s always at this point during my inner dialogue that I get frustrated with myself. Doesn’t this happen in the United States? Yeah. Haven’t people back home told you to “settle down already”? A handful, yes. Don’t couples cheat on each other all around the world? Sadly, yes. So why on earth are you so bothered by all that here?

Of course I don’t have a straight answer. Basically, I’m a cultural mess…I’m in cultural chaos.

I like to think that I can separate the personal from any new environment I encounter. And I can do that for a short amount of time. However, staying in a different place for a fairly significant amount of time challenges the will power to remain purely objective. It becomes emotional because I’m invested. Invested in the country as a curious observer. Invested in people as a resource, teacher, and friend. Invested in the crazy journey because it has challenged me in unexpected and empowering ways.

So this foreign culture in which I’ve been inserted has unearthed questions about my own home culture, and questions about myself, that I’ll agonize over for a while. (If you can’t tell by the end of this post, I’m really good at agonizing.) And you know, that’s alright. I think it’s good for people to be thrown into chaos every once in a while. It helps us evaluate and analyze our lives, and forces us to step back in an attempt to see the bigger picture.

Even though my time in Azerbaijan thus far has been a roller coaster, I’m excited to see what the next three months will bring, even if it just brings more questions and little answers.

Until next time…  (:


A fellow Fulbrighter in Azerbaijan wrote a piece somewhat similar as this post, but much more eloquently and with far less agony. I highly recommend it. Click here to read “With a Large Grain of Salt” from Madeline’s blog Land of Fire, City of Winds

 

Baku: Being a Newcomer Again

I have this AWFUL habit of saying things like, “I’ll totally explore this someday soon,” “I’ll check out that place in the near future,” and “I’ll make sure to venture there while I’m here.” Instead of taking initiative and actually going to places, I make empty promises to myself and, in the end, utterly fail. Please affirm me and say that I’m not the only person with this problem? Should that shortcoming be something I slap on a New Year’s resolution list with hopes that it gets better?

Lucky for me, one of my dearest friends from home paid me a visit. Now, this was a big deal…not only does it cost a pretty penny to come to an obscure place like Azerbaijan, but she carefully timed her trip during the interim period between jobs – she’s actually going to Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer in early January, days after returning home. I’m extremely fortunate that she chose me and Baku as a vacation spot, and it motivated me to become a newcomer in a city where I’ve started to fall into a rut of only going to places deeply engrained in my routine.

It was high time to shake things up, and here are some highlights (in all honesty, each segment should get its own post, but that would take a while and I have other things I want to write about!)…

Içərişəhər (Old City)

You’ve gotten a glimpse of this older part of Baku in this post, but of course new things are discovered each visit!

Old City 100

IMG_2608

More doors, Hayley? I did not come to your blog to see MORE doors.

More doors, Hayley? I did not come to your blog to see MORE doors.

Fine, here's a window.

Fine, here’s a window.

And another.

And another.

Annnnd another cool door.

Annnnd back to a door.

Don't forget to look up!

Don’t forget to look up!

Old Ciity 108

Old City 109

Old City 110

Old City 111

Old City 112

We were happy to find Cümə Məscidi (Juma Mosque) in İçərişəhər. The women’s entrance wasn’t clearly marked, but no one was around for me to ask. So we went to the main entrance and started taking our shoes off. Within seconds a man appeared and kindly led us to the correct place. There’s not a lot of information about Cümə Məscidi; from what I can find the current structure was built over an older one in 1899, but the adjoining minaret is original – or at least much older.

Came across this mosque. The women's entrance wasn't clearly marked, but no one was around for me to ask. So we went to the main entrance and started taking our shoes off. Within seconds a man appeared and kindly led us to the correct place.

Old City Mosque 1

Minaret…

I almost died when I saw these engravings.

I almost died when I saw these engravings.

Old City Mosque 3

During our wanderings, we came across the Miniature Book Museum, which I believe houses the largest collection of miniature books in the world. If you end up finding it, it’s totally worth the 15 minute visit. The lady who worked there communicated with us in a fabulous mix of Russian, Azeri, and English, and was passionate about the multitudes of books carefully displayed in dozens of curios.

Seriously. A ton.

Seriously. A ton.

It's also free to look at this stuff - so no excuses!

It’s also free to look at this stuff – so no excuses!

I think the blue box holds one of the smallest books in the world, and can only be read with the magnifying glass.

I think the blue box holds one of the smallest books in the world, and can only be read with the magnifying glass.

Books in every language, including English.

Books in every language, including English.

And of course we made time for shameless selfies as we visited the Şirvanşah’s Palace (which I also wrote about in a separate post):

Old City 113

Old City 114

Old City 115

Old City 116

Qız Qalası

In the middle of our İçərişəhər tour, we walked through Qız Qalası (Maiden’s Tower). For a cheap ticket fee of 2 manat per person, we walked up several flights of winding stairs and enjoyed the informational displays on each floor. I think it’s newly renovated, and everything was well done. In a nutshell, the origins of Qız Qalası are debated (as is anything in ancient history), and various academics hypothesize that it was originally built as an observatory, a temple, or a fortress anywhere around the 12th century. The name “Maiden’s Tower” is steeped in local folklore and there are half a dozen stories that explain the name. All of them end with the young maiden dying (awesome) by throwing herself off the top of the tower in Tosca-esque fashion. Gotta love local histories!

Qız Qalası 3

Qız Qalası 1

It is an impressive structure.

Qız Qalası 5

Yeah, another door. It's my blog I can post as many doors on it as I want.

Yeah, another door. It’s my blog I can post as many doors on it as I want.

But honestly, the price was worth it just for the views at the very top of the tower.

I think I re-fell in love with Baku in this moment.

I think I re-fell in love with Baku in this moment.

Qız View 2

We were so fortunate to have that glorious sunshine and blue sky...

We were so fortunate to have that glorious sunshine and blue sky…

Qız View 4

Hello, Caspian!

Hello, Caspian!

Of course, always time for selfies....

Of course, always time for selfies….

...even when it's SUPER windy!

…even when it’s SUPER windy!

Carpet Museum

In case you live under a rock (or have no clue what goes on in the Caucasus), Baku revealed a brand new Carpet Museum in September…and it is freaking fabulous. Seriously, look at it:

IT'S IN THE SHAPE OF AN UNROLLING CARPET

IT’S IN THE SHAPE OF AN UNROLLING CARPET!!

Seriously, how cool is that?!

Seriously, how cool is that?!

From what I gathered as we toured this massive museum, it was built under a partnership between UNESCO and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, Azerbaijan’s main source of funding for cultural works, publications, and projects. Speaking of the interior, check it out:

Carpet Museum 3

We spent almost 3 hours in here….not kidding.

Carpet Museum 4

Carpet Museum 6

It was a major visual overload and we felt so sleepy afterward.

The Carpet Museum has a grand display of Azerbaijan's rich textile culture. This table cloth was one of my personal favorites.

The Carpet Museum has a grand display of Azerbaijan’s rich textile culture. This table cloth was one of my personal favorites.

Carpet Museum 7I also want to note that as Michigan underwent freezing temperatures and rainy/snowy weather around Christmas, we enjoyed sunshine with temperatures that lingered in the 50s to 60s, as is seen during our walk to and from the Carpet Museum:

See how sunny it was?

See how sunny it was?

Like a spring day...

Like a spring day…

Azerbaijan's flag...

Azerbaijan’s flag…

Walked through "Little Venice"

Walked through “Little Venice”

Həydar Əliyev Mərkəzı (Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center)

Okay, last but not least: Həydar Əliyev Mərkəzı. This is an architectural gem that has won international awards and recognition.

And for good reason.

And for good reason.

It's huge and kind-of trippy.

It’s huge and kind-of trippy.

Broad waves of white tile and glass can have a surprisingly fluid look.

Broad waves of white tile and glass can have a surprisingly fluid look.

Aliyev CC 5

Always time for photo ops!

Always time for photo ops!

The interior was equally impressive and houses several art exhibits at any given time. The Cultural Center also hosts concerts, and has a permanent exhibit dedicated to Azerbaijan’s first president after independence: Heydar Aliyev. It was 12 manat for an all-access ticket, but you can also get tickets for individual exhibits which ranged between 2 and 5 manat.

A swanky cafe.

A swanky cafe.

These are stairs leading up to the second floor.

These are stairs leading up to the second floor.

Aliyev CC 8

The interior easily rivals the exterior in terms of modern beauty.

The interior is just as modern, smooth, and beautiful as the exterior.

Aliyev CC 10

Not to mention how expansive it is - like being inside a large conk seashell.

Not to mention how expansive it is – like being inside a large conk seashell.

So that was the longest post ever, and we actually did MORE during the 5 days my friend was here…but I’ll save those for other posts. At least you got endless pictures – and I know how you all back home love pictures. (;

Before I end, I’ll quickly dedicate this last bit to thank my friend who visited me:

Esther, your presence here brought a much-needed taste of home to this new place. But more importantly, to me, you were able to see a culture and region that has captured my heart. I can only imagine what family, friends, and acquaintances think about my interests in history, Turkic culture, and my decision to be in Azerbaijan…they must think I’m nuts. And that’s okay, sometimes I wonder about myself. But you took the extra step and ventured to my corner of the world to try and see what I see. That means the world to me, and is something I will never, ever forget.

Me and Esther

Until next time…  (:

To Be a Teacher

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts. ~C.S. Lewis

My first semester as a Fulbright ETA is quickly winding down, and of course, I have musings to share with you.

Story #1

I give up. I made it 50 minutes out of 60, good enough. I slumped down in the chair at the head of the extensive conference table, “Okay, I’m going to let you guys go early. You keep talking in Azerbaijani and I don’t know what to do with you. You can leave and I’ll see you next week.”

I couldn’t sense much reaction from my students as they continued chatting and packed their things. One student lingered a bit and said, “Teacher, I was sleeping.”

No, you were playing on your phone, I wanted to retort. But I channeled my patient teacher side, “Ah, you feel sleepy today?” He confirmed and I asked why. “I was up late [half-mumbled word] my computer.” “You were fixing your computer, repairing it?” “No, putting it together.” “Oh! I see, you were building a computer. That’s very impressive!” I was honestly impressed, and his project reminded me that my freshman honors university students are very bright, and can be very motivated. It gave me hope.

Lesson #1

Ugh, but the way they acted…I just don’t understand – why would you take the time to show up and then not try? 

Then they took it a step further and many of them stopped showing up. How am I supposed to interpret that? Do they hate me? Am I the most boring person alive and they can’t stand me? Dear Lord, did I offend someone and they told their group mates and then they told their parents? They haven’t given me the chance to ask for feedback so how can I learn how to fix this?

I painfully learned the lesson that I, in the role of a teacher, cannot instil motivation in my students (I know that many people disagree with me). Additionally, I shouldn’t dwell on those who cease coming. Instead of constantly reflecting on those students, my concentration and efforts should be devoted to those who are the most consistent and show the most effort. I’ve always favored the philosophy of “quality over quantity,” and students are no different.

Story #2

This semester I taught 5 student conversation clubs/classes. To keep it simple for myself, I have the same or very similar lesson plans for all of them. One week I chose to highlight this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan. (If you don’t know who she is, get to researching her – she’s truly a special young women.) This covered several topics relevant to my teenage students’ lives: current events, youth, world peace, universal education….so many things!

In the end, some groups were more receptive to the topic than others (as to be expected), but I noticed a trend in every class when I rounded everyone together from the activity to conclude with a large group discussion. When I asked questions such as, “What does ‘peace’ mean to you?”, “Is it important to think about peace? Why/why not?” “Can humanity achieve peace in the world?”, the ambiance became hesitant and conversation stalled.

Every class, my breath hitched; oh, I suck I suck I suck I suck I suck I suck…and I nervously bit my lip, wary to ask my question, “Is this hard to talk about because you don’t know how to describe it in English, or because you don’t think about things like this?”

Every class, several voices piped up, “We don’t think about this.”

Lesson #2

I was SO relieved. No, my material isn’t too easy or too difficult; no, my topic isn’t boring everyone out of their minds. They’re challenged by this subject. Some of my best teachers and professors were the ones who stumped me – who challenged me to conceptualize the world and my life differently. It’s my job to assist what is there, not tailor to my preferences or paradigms. As C.S. Lewis suggests, I’m there to irrigate encouragement by introducing new things. I’m nowhere near as fantastic as my educators, but if my attempts make my students think differently, even at least for a short time, then I feel I’ve done my job.

To Every Student I Had This Semester

So fate has introduced us to each other.

Students 2

Through you, I experimented with classroom management and class topics, experienced the group dynamics and camaraderie that play a significant role in Azerbaijani university culture, and have felt some of the most extreme ups and downs thus far in my life.

Students 5

If you attended just one class, or faithfully joined me every week; if I co-taught as a guest, or was a permanent fixture in your schedule, be assured that you taught me many lessons.

Students 1

Every group I worked with asked that loaded question: “Why Azerbaijan? Why are you here?” I always answered along the lines of, “I fell in love with Turkey, and it led me to Azerbaijan. But I want to experience what makes Azerbaijan different, what Azerbaijani culture is and where it is headed.”

Students 4

Everything I observed and experienced during class time with you has contributed to my growing fascination of this place.

Students 3

I’m fortunate to act as a link between my culture and yours. Know that my impressions of you impact the portrayal I paint of Azerbaijan to my culture. The growing awareness and respect I sense from home should encourage you, and I hope I’ve been a good representative of the United States to you.

Until next time….  (:

 

Awkward Cultural Encounters at “Swan Lake”

Ahhhh, the theater….a sublime place of art and performance. A space separate from the daily grind of work, technology, and stress – a holy place to celebrate human creativity and ability. Often the physical place is a source of pride for the community, whether it be historical, modern, state-of-the-art, quirky….The Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater is beautifully historic with a hint of Gothic influence in its architecture, built in 1911, and well preserved.

Baku Theatre 1

It’s located in a nice plaza close to Fountain Square.

Baku Theatre 2Baku Theatre 3Baku Theatre 4

Baku Theater 4

Baku Theatre 5

Baku Theatre 6Baku Theatre 7

Last weekend Dana and I eagerly attended a showing of Swan Lake. Note the word “eager”: two dancers from the Belarus Academic Bolshoi Theatre were brought in to dance the main roles of Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile. Azerbaijan’s ballet is good – as one who danced classical ballet from childhood through high school, I can attest that there is some solid technique there. But is it special like Bolshoi, Paris Opera, Royal Ballet, or American Ballet Theater? Not quite. Gara Garayev’s Yeddi Gözəl (Seven Beauties), which we saw in September, was worth watching but the company, as it is, would have a hard time performing Swan Lake. So once we caught wind that two dancers with epically Russian names (Olga Gayko and Igor Onoshko) were dancing in Baku, we knew we had to attend.

Personally, this was a big deal: it was my first ballet seeing Bolshoi dancers live, my first live Swan Lake, my first time hearing Tchaikovsky’s music live, and I could hardly wait to watch the pas de deux from act II – the epitome of the classic pas de deux.

The performance was at 7pm, we arrived just after 6:30 to get tickets. We entered the ticket office and had our first strange encounter. Barely six feet in front of the booth was a man and a younger couple. I’m still unsure of what exactly they wanted, but it seemed awkwardly shady. After trying to communicate in a strange mix of Russian, Azeri, and English, we stepped past them to buy our tickets. Sir, I might be a foreigner, but I am not stupid. Seriously, if you’re going to sell contraband tickets, why do it in the actual ticket office?

Whatever. We got our tickets and made our way to the theater. We purchased cheap nose-bleed seats (13 manat each), but we were in the nose bleed section of the nose bleed seats. Luckily, it’s a small enough theater that it wasn’t too bad, but we had a hard time finding our seats. There were no row and seat numbers tidily tacked onto the chairs. We asked an usher for assistance. She semi-rambled in Russian (of which I know nothing) but her actions suggested this: “Don’t you see? It’s so obvious. You are row 10, start counting from the bottom of this balcony section – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Seats 17 and 18 – again, obvious. From here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc. until you reach 17. Then sit down, duh.” So we tried that. Of course, there was some kid sitting in my seat–if that even was my seat. Ugh, he probably doesn’t speak English so we’ll just plop down in this general area.

Down we sat, and watched with much amusement as other audience members struggled with this seat system too. We ate some Russian chocolate that we smuggled in, trying not to make faces while eating a weird fruit-gel-chocolate monstrosity.

At 7:20, it finally started. We shoved away the chocolate. Tchaikovsky’s genius bellowed throughout the space and thrilled my soul….so wonderful….but why are people still talking? Seriously, you had an extra 20 minutes to finish chatting with each other and on your phones. Enough.

About half way into act I, a bright light flashed over our right shoulders. Ohhh hell no…is that what I think it is? We looked in astonishment and, yes, some lady was recording the performance on her phone. Very blatantly. Lady, you are literally lighting up the entire theater with your phone – PUT IT AWAY. But to top it off, she replayed the video she had just made with the volume at full capacity. Whaaat – I have no words.

At another point during act I, the guy sitting next to Dana started to shift around a lot. Why are you antsy, dude? It’s Swan Lake, calm yourself. He got up and fumbled over our legs to leave. Fine, go! Stop moving! But he came back a few minutes later with his girlfriend. My lord, who let them in? Where’s the rambling Russian usher woman to stop them? More fumbling over our legs – sit doooowwwwnnnnnn!!!

So at this point, I was in a weird mood. In some ways, this was all hilarious and highly entertaining, but I didn’t want these people who obviously disrespected theater culture to completely ruin the experience. So I said a quick prayer (or a threatening curse, depending on how you look at it): In the name of all that is considered holy, if anyone disrupts my reverie while watching the pas de deux of act II, I will rip their heads off.

Lucky for everyone, I enjoyed that pas to my heart’s content. I don’t know if people did actually behave themselves for a full ten minutes or if I was able to drown out all distractions. But it was magical….

I was floating on air when intermission rolled around. Dana and I were equally awed by the visiting dancers and the theater culture we were witnessing. In the middle of our discussion, a loud baritone voice echoed through the nose bleeds, “You are being very, VERY rude!”

What is this, now? We peered over to see the drama unfolding on the other side. A tall, husky expat gentleman loomed over another man and was scolding him in English. He went on for a while, and I sorely wanted to be munching from a big container of popcorn. Fight, fight, fight! The lady companion of the husky man chimed in, “[indiscernible, angry comments]…AND YOU HATE CHILDREN [concluding indiscernible angry comments].” Haha, woah – what is going on?? After a few more seconds, they stormed out, leaving the objects of their anger dumbfounded and highly embarrassed. I wanted to give them a standing ovation – sir, thank you for standing up to rudeness, and for doing it so well. Not sure what children had to do with it, but job well done!

The ballet finally resumed and, at this point, we were just brimming over with anticipation. What other amazing feats of dancing will we see? What other examples of poor theater etiquette will we witness?

It did not take long. A bit into act III, during a jovial tune, the woman behind us loudly clicked her tongue along in tune to the music. Excuse me, ma’am, are you Tchaikovsky? No, you are not. Did the man himself explicitly give you permission to casually tongue-click along to his masterpiece? No, he did not. Am I enjoying your impromptu performance? No, I am not. I shot her a dirty look over my right shoulder. Don’t know if that worked, but she stopped.

We had a second intermission, which threw both Dana and I for a loop. “It is done?” I looked at the time, “I mean…we’ve been here forever – but there has to be death, they both die.” When it was finally over, the ballet had lasted over three hours. Three hours of strange and rude spectator behavior. Phew!

In conclusion, it was a weird night. It was bizarre to juxtapose the mastery and skill of the Bolshoi dancers to the careless etiquette of our fellow audience members. Do you know just how special that was? Do you realize how lucky you are to be so close to one of the prime cultural traditions of the world? And what were we supposed to learn or take away from having all of those awkward cultural encounters in one night?

But that’s Azerbaijan for you, and a part of me wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time….  ; )

How to do Halloween in Azerbaijan

How to do Halloween in Azerbaijan

Step 1

Freak out when colleagues ask you to coordinate a fun Halloween party. “Make it just like in America!”

Step 2

Avoid the thought of throwing an American-style Halloween party for colleagues for about a week.

Step 3

Be guilted into your American/Fulbright duties from friends back home. Tentatively bring up the Halloween party at lunch two days before the holiday. Feel relief when they offer to help, and ask only for some ideas from you.

Step 4

Suggest a pumpkin carving contest. Tag along with some co-workers on their shopping expedition to get food and pumpkins for the party (the taxi driver might get slightly lost but that’s okay). While shopping, look at the cart in bewilderment as fresh fruits and vegetables are piled in. Remind them that American Halloween is about candy and junk food – healthy food is not allowed. Prepare to be hushed and ignored.

Why are we even in the produce section??

Why are we even in the produce section??

Step 5

Leave the store with a myriad of food items. Stop at a random produce alcove and buy a pumpkin – an Azerbaijani pumpkin. Assume that the original idea of having a pumpkin carving contest is off the table; one pumpkin is good enough!

Make sure your pumpkin has personality. This one obviously had a hat.

Make sure your pumpkin has personality. This one obviously had a hat.

Step 6

Get set up for the pumpkin carving extravaganza:

Convince your university's kitchen to lend you some supplies.

Convince your university’s kitchen to lend you some supplies.

Experience the jack-o-lantern process with the newbies….

Make sure everyone has a chance to pitch in.

Clean out the pumpkin.

Azerbaijan Pumpkin3

Make sure everyone has a chance to pitch in.

Practice face drawing. Debate if your pumpkin should be angry, or happy, or have curvy eyes versus triangle eyes.

Practice face drawing. Debate if your pumpkin should be angry, or happy, or have curvy eyes versus triangle eyes.

Draw the face....

Draw the face….

Carve the face...

Carve the face…

Take pride in the finished product:

Ta-Da!! Look at him...!!

Ta-Da!! Look at him…!!

Stick a tea light inside and bask in the Jack-O-Lanter’s glow

Mwahahaha!

Mwahahaha!

Step 7

Set up the food and EAT.

Halloween Bounty

Here’s one food station. It might not be candy, but it was nothing to scoff at. (:

If candy won’t do, then let it be fancy cake.

If candy won’t do, then let it be fancy cake.

Step 8

Set up the pumpkin in an honorary place in the office. Forget about it over the weekend and witness this sight on Monday:

Hahaha, eeewwwwwww!!!!!!

Hahaha, eeewwwwwww!!!!!!

And that, friends, is how you celebrate Halloween as an expat in Azerbaijan!

Until next time… (:

Baku Mosque Tour

One of the things I unexpectedly fell in love with during my semester abroad in Turkey was hearing the call to prayer (Arabic adhan, Turkish ezan) everyday. I say “unexpectedly” because I honestly wasn’t sure how I would like it. Coming from Michigan, I was no stranger to the call to prayer debates that regularly occurred in the Dearborn area (Dearborn, MI is home to the largest population of Arab-Americans in the United States): “they are noisy and disruptive” some argued, while others asked, “how is that any different from hearing church bells?” I remember we even had debates about it in middle and high school during various social studies classes. Growing up in a conservative Christian town, the majority of my classmates felt that the adhan or ezan was unnecessary and just downright strange. But I was always drawn to it for some reason, and hearing it in Turkey proved to be a powerful experience, especially when I was caught in the crossfires between calls from several mosques in the middle of Ankara.

Azerbaijan, for the record, has no official state religion. Anyone can practice whatever they want. With that said, I knew that the mosque situation would be different in Baku. The Soviet Union wasn’t supportive of organized religion, to say the least. And, it turns out it’s actually quite the opposite from Turkey; I don’t think I’ve heard the ezan once since being here. The main reason is simply because mosques are few and far between. Baku has some, but they are scattered – what was originally in the region was largely destroyed when the Bolsheviks came to the fore in 1918. So any mosque that is here is very special because it has either survived some challenging history, or it is a recreation of a mosque from the medieval period. Orthodox churches also fell to the same fate and I’ve heard that there are just a couple in the area.

But, I’m in a predominately Muslim country, and I wanted to see whatever mosques Baku has to offer. Luckily the opportunity arose a few weeks ago and I went on a little mosque tour…

Mirmövsüm

This mosque was located on a far corner of the city; it took a good 35 minutes by car to get here. It’s a newer construction, but I believe that it’s a recreation of an older mosque. Being the dork that I am, I hopped right out of the car once it parked and started looking through the headstones in the cemetery – some inscriptions in Cyrillic…others in Arabic…so fascinating! I was slightly scolded by my hostess for my actions; it’s improper to walk through a cemetery at night. Oops. 

Even in the dark, it was very pretty.

Exterior of Mir Movsum. Even in the dark, it was very pretty.

We looked through the interior. Is it improper for me to describe the interior of a religous building as “blinging”? Well, it was – the walls and ceiling were covered completely by glass tiles. At night, this made quite the visual experience. I just have one picture below, but you can see what I’m talking about by visiting their website here: Mir Movsum Photo Gallery.

Blingin' interior.

Blingin’ interior.

Mir Movsum 3

Of course, happy to be there.  (:

Of course, happy to be there. (:

Təzə Pir

Təzə Pir is located smack dab in the middle of Baku. We managed to find a parking space right next to the outer wall of the mosque.

Teze Pir 1

Teze Pir 2

Walked through this magnificent entrance arch.

Walked through this magnificent entrance arch.

If it wasn't so windy, I would have strolled through this expansive courtyard.

If it wasn’t so windy, I would have strolled through this expansive courtyard.

Teze Pir 5

Teze Pir 6

The sky was a fantastic blue that day…

Bibi Eibat

Located on the southeast corner of Baku, Bibi Eibat is a newer mosque. It’s also located right by the coast, and therefore by an extensive field of oil machinery:

Not the prettiest site, but highly interesting nonetheless.

Not the prettiest site, but highly interesting nonetheless.

Bibi Eibat 1

Luckily the mosque looks a lot better.

 

Bibi Eibat 2

 

Always photo ops!

Always photo ops!

Göy Məscid

The final mosque we visited that weekend was Göy Məscid, or Blue Mosque. The interior was, you can probably guess, painted in multiple shades of blue. I think this was everyone’s favorite mosque. It was smaller, quieter, older, and possessed a comforting feeling. A personal highlight was hearing a young lady receive a Quran recitation lesson during our time there. It was peaceful, calm spirituality and reminded me of the Orthodox churches I’ve visited.

Goy Meschid 1

Peering out from the women’s area. Yes, women and men are separated from each other in the worship areas. Sometimes women are on the second level, other times below. It was interesting to see the variance.

Goy Meschid 2

Walking out.

Walking out.

And there you have it – a taste of the religious side of Baku. Until next time…  (:

To Be a Fulbright ETA

I’m getting real sick and tired of this “adjustment” period.

Seriously. When will it end?

Actually, maybe I should ask the question, “When did I start to feel out of it?” I mentioned in my first post written from Baku that I felt surprisingly at home. But lately I haven’t. What happened?

The job started. My role as an ETA (English Teaching Assistant) went into full-swing about a week after I arrived and since then it’s been a crazy ride. I’m aware that I haven’t delved into much detail yet concerning my role as a Fulbright ETA. Part of the reason is that my role is being redefined or altered almost on a daily basis. I want to know 100% what I’m doing, what I’m responsible for, and what people need from me. That way I can tie this concept of “Fulbright ETA” into a neat little package and present it to myself (and you back home) as a tidy idea.

However, that has not the case. And I’m begrudgingly realizing that that might never be the case during my time here.

Because of this, I’ve had some intense periods of frustration and angst, and some days I’ve felt downright weary (just being completely honest, not seeking sympathy). I sincerely thank friends and family (both in Azerbaijan and back home) who have practiced great patience with my venting emails, texts, comments, and Skype dates (especially since you all have your own crazy lives to deal with!). Additionally, I’ve had an on-going dialogue with myself concerning the amount of detail of those struggles I should write on this blog. I don’t want this forum to be a flurry of daily frustration but a resource for future Fulbrighters, especially those considering going to Azerbaijan. But explaining some struggles will doubtlessly be helpful, and I want to be honest about my experience here…

What to do? What do to?

Well here, let’s discuss my role, in general, as an ETA. I’ll list most of the projects that are either fully-functioning or in development that I have been asked to do:

At Azerbaijan State Economic University (ASEU)

  • Lead weekly conversation classes for 3 groups of Honors College students (at my university they’re referred to as “Special Talent Groups/STG”)
  • Lead weekly 2 conversation clubs for university students (still in development at the time of this post)
  • Lead weekly 1 conversation club for university staff (This is slowly catching on…)
  • Assist English department staff at 3 weekly meetings (at the time of this post, this has been hit-or-miss)
  • Help in various first-year business English courses (I’ve had a few days where I visited or co-taught classes, otherwise this is so up in the air)

Other Commitments

  • Facilitate a MOOC (online) course entitled “College Writing 2.1” and meet with participants weekly at the American Center
  • Lead clubs at the American Center (I keep putting this off, partly because my schedule keeps changing but also because, seriously, look at how much of my time is taken up already!)

Personal Goals

  • Intensive language study (I’ve concluded that I need survival Russian skills and I want to develop my Turkish/Azeri to an Intermediate level)
  • Side project I promised Fulbright I would do (still not sure what this will entail; maybe I can make this blog be my side project? lol)

All this on top of maintaining/forming lasting friendships, getting to know Baku as my residence, exploring Azerbaijan, and traveling. Plus having enough alone time to prevent me from going crazy. Oh, and I’m applying to grad schools and fellowships right now. Where’s my American coffee? Or should I ask for a bottle of wine?

I’ve been here a month-and-a-half, and seeing my list of things that are still “in development” or “up in the air” makes me squirm. I’m learning that I find too much comfort in having a consistent schedule. I would say Americans tend to like consistency, but I’m attached to it to the next level. I can be flexible and understanding initially, but I expect my kindness to be returned with consistency in a timely manner. I also like to commit to a select number of things and devote a lot of time to them, versus having responsibility for a dozen ideas/projects that I can’t dedicate time to. Quality versus quantity.

However, I have to stop and remind myself that I haven’t been here that long. This is both comforting and terrifying. If things get better and more consistent, then great. If everything remains as hectic as it is now, my time here will seem never-ending. Ultimately, I take comfort in the fact that I will adapt.

Indeed, I will adapt.

It might take some time, but I’ll be alright. A lot of people have affirmed this and I’m slowly realizing it now. I adapted to crazy Turkey, and that country occupies a special place in my heart. So even though I’m overall uneasy about my role as a Fulbrighter at the moment, some things will fall into place and make sense.

So, dear fellow Fulbrighters or hopeful applicants, let’s explore a challenge I’ve been repeatedly facing lately, and see how it illustrates (in my opinion) what it means to be a Fulbright ETA, especially during the initial months:

  • Develop extreme levels of flexibility. So I get all dressed up for the day and arrive at the school only to learn that some of my classes I just started are cancelled/delayed indefinitely due to scheduling changes. Wait, what, how long will it take before the schedule is figured out? Can the school really change the schedule 5 weeks into the semester? Oh yes, it can….if anything, expect the worst case scenario to occur – brace yourself.
  • Practice self control. Great, my classes are delayed for God knows how long; that’s not the most pleasant news to be presented after spending time preparing materials, brainstorming ideas, and worrying myself sick because I want to do a good job. With such news, I react by first becoming distressed and wanting to shut down, and then I’m consumed by anger and want to swear like a sailor, or lash out with ethnocentric comments. Of course, I can’t control internal dialogue, but I can (and must) control how I conduct my words and actions aimed at my peers.
  • Take initiative and be persistent. In essence, I have a free day now. I’ve gotten good at going to other faculty members and asking, “Would you mind if I joined you for a bit and observed your class?” Some people have taken me under their wing and I can discreetly hop into their classes whenever I want. Not only am I there as an English resource to potentially help others, but I’m learning too. Learning the topic they are teaching about (I’m at a university that emphasizes economics, marketing, and business, so a lot of this is new territory for me), and I’m learning new teaching methods and ideas. So even if I can’t teach for a day, I can at least learn!
  • You are part of the team. If anything goes wrong, I know that I am not the only one hindered or disrupted – everyone is affected. For instance, when I asked about the kinds of technology available to me, I was assured that having a projector and internet would be “no problem.” It turns out, it is a problem – hardly any piece of technology in the classrooms is up to the task. I was promised these things, I will demand to have them! Nuh-uh, not so fast! Everyone has to work through the bureaucracy and fill out forms to explain what is broken and why they want it to work. Everyone? Even me? Oh yes, no one gets special treatment and everyone suffers. But one gets creative when challenges arise; and if I’m plugging myself into a community, I’m committed to it for better or for worse – as part of the team.

To conclude, I’m sorry that this post was a snore but, some of you back home have asked about my “job” here. It’s a bit of a mess, but I’m navigating my way….perhaps this is what the “real world” is all about?

Until next time….  : )