The Pleasure of Good Neighbors
I think almost a miracle must have happened to get me this flat: good price, great location, and, as I have discovered, really nice neighbors, including my landlord and landlady. I must admit, when we first drove up to this place that first Friday, I thought it looked a bit like a shanty town (actually, I still kind of do, but the inside of my room is nice, and there are children around, which I take as fun and a good sign). Several evenings, my landlady has popped by, and she’s always friendly. The neighborhood children run around and play like scamps. The odd board blocking the path to my flat and two others functions as a playpen, and I’ve concluded that the random series of knocks on doors is probably that impish girl who looks about four. :-) I’m definitely the quietest one in the neighborhood, but it’s nice to hear people (although as an introvert, I do keep my door closed, not just screened).
I have to apologize in advance that I don’t have many names for people. I’m having a really hard time remembering and pronouncing them because the language is so different from the other ones I’ve studied. I’m working on it, and I have a plan: asking my landlady’s daughter, whose name I kind of know but cannot pronounce (I think it involves a “no English equivalent” sound) questions in English as practice.
Bulvar at Night
On Wednesday, my landlady knocked on the door with what I think were chicken kofta (this part of the world’s meatball–yum–and not too different from the Russian kotlet) and some vegetables. (I’m happy to ignore the implicit concerns about my cooking abilities and just eat the yummy food.) She asked if when I was finished I’d like to go walk to Bulvar, the nice pedestrian area that buffers the sea from the street filled with honking cars. It was after 8:30 and I was a bit concerned about being out late, but since I had a local companion (and dinner!), and I’d only seen it during daylight, I went. (I think also she is concerned that I don’t go out enough... but I don’t think my Russian is up to explaining journal competition grading.)
So, after I ate, graded some more journal competition packets, and waited for the rain to subside, we went. Her whole family came, husband, daughter and son, as well as a family friend. So we went walking. I’m including some pictures because it’s quite lovely (plus you can’t see the oil slick in the water at night).
Bulvar was full of families and groups of friends out. We walked around, my landlady and I speaking a mix of English and Russian (mostly Russian by the end I think), and her translating for the others (with occasional English from her daughter). We also stopped at what I would call a beer garden and had tea (of course) served in beautiful Turkish-style lotus glasses before walking some more. Baku, I have heard, is trying very hard to be the Dubai of its region. Nowhere was it more evident than the flame-shaped buildings that dominate the skyline lit up in the night. Inside, they’re hotels (with apparently very, very good blinds), but at night, the outsides are lit - not just colors, but images, a flickering flame, or a waving flag, or even a person waving the flag. It’s beautiful and incredible. All in all, it was quite a nice night (although as we got in at midnight on a weeknight and I begged off early at that time, and I just got asked on another walk - at 9:30 on a Sunday night, I’ve decided that “Baku is an up-late city” is confirmed).
I’m in a little corner of my section of the courtyard-within-the-courtyard created by the one and two levels of flats here, and in my same corner is Rasim. He speaks a few words of English (I think his understanding probably isn’t bad), and he was kind enough to let me know the water would be off for a few hours during repairs on a couple of occasions. He’s probably in his sixties, and seems to have a lot of refridgerator parts to repair (plastic shelves, which I find really impressive–I had always thought of broken plastic as something to replace, not repair). I’ve had now two long conversations with him.
The first thing to know about Rasim is that he knows his geography. When I arrived home the other day, he was working outside. He said hello and asked me what state I’m from. We ended up in Russian pretty fast (most Azerbaijanis speak it), and, while I didn’t catch everything, it was nice to kind of tune my ear in again and have a conversation. He can name all fifty U.S. states: he told me he could, and he went through them all, counting them off on each finger five times. I don’t think most Americans can do that, and told him so. (I can reliably get to about 46 and then have to hunt around for the last few.) I think he said he could name all the Soviet republics as well (which isn’t just the countries that broke up, but semi-autonomous regions within Russia). He brought out an old Soviet-era atlas and we took a look. He has, I think, quite a few of these.
As always, in the former Soviet Union, a girl shows up with an American passport and a “Russian” name (not only Russian, thankyouverymuch), and she gets a question about how she came by that combination. Fortunately, I had had enough practice that it wasn’t hard to explain that my great-great-grandparents had come to America from Slovenia, and most of my siblings have, as I do, Slavic names because of it. Naturally, Rasim knew exactly where Slovenia is (it was the northwest corner of Yugoslavia), so we named all the former Yugoslav capitals (checking against another atlas of his), and then he told me that there had been some Azerbaijanis helping partisans in Yugoslavia during the war. I had never heard of it and, to be honest, would never have suspected it, first of all because the Soviet Union had enough to be getting on with at the time, and secondly because, while they’re all caucasian, Azerbaijanis tend to be rather darker complected than your average southern Slav. The fact that there apparently was at least one was really cool.
I later googled and I think Rasim was talking about Mehdi Huseynzade. He fought at Stalingrad, was wounded and captured at another battle, escaped and joined the resistance in Slovenia, doing some serious damage. He killed himself rather than be taken capture after stumbling upon a patrol in 1944, less than two months shy of his 26th birthday. I wonder what would have happened if he had not killed himself. Considering how much trouble he caused the Axis powers, I’d guess he probably would have been executed. If by some miracle he had been imprisoned instead, he may have suffered that fate or been sent to the gulag upon returning home, as Stalin generally distrusted prisoners of war.
Even more incredible, however, was the story of Ahmadiyya Jabrayilov. Rasim told me he was Charles de Gaulle’s right hand man; Wikipedia didn’t confirm that (not that it’s a better source) but it did say he knew de Gaulle. Rasim explained that Jabrayilov had been born albino, and also that his parents had encouraged him to learn German, which he became fluent in. Between his fair coloring and his language skills, he became an amazingly effective resistance agent. He too had been captured in battle, but was instead sent to a concentration camp further west, from which he escaped. I looked him up further and there’s a truly incredible story that he was wounded in an operation to save 500 children, but because he had German military I.D. was taken to a German military hospital and treated as an officer before being put in command of a town, which position he used to free people. What a hero!
He did survive the war, and received French honors and citizenship–both of which caused problems for him when he returned to the Soviet Union a couple years later. As Rasim told it, he was considered suspect and no one knew who he was until de Gaulle visited in the ‘60s and asked to see his old friend. Jabrayilov was living in obscurity, and they had to get him new clothes and clean him up to be presentable. He was later allowed to visit his comrades as well as given honors. I enjoy history quite a bit so this was a fascinating story and one I wish I’d heard before. Rasim also explained that there was a Nazi plan to take over this area because of the plentiful oil. It’s an interesting lesson in what and how history is taught.
The next time we talked he got out the atlas of America again (north and south, thankyouverymuch, with Soviets reminding U.S. it’s not all about us), and asked what town I’m from–specifically, not just “a suburb of Boston.” Lo and behold, the map had it–a town of about 30,000 on a Soviet map from a few decades ago (who knows how many people lived there then). They also had the tiny town my sister lives in. No Williamsburg, but Newport News I think, and definitely Norfolk. It made me think of that class I took on the history of the KGB, so impressed was I with the level of detail.
We did have to get past a little conspiracy theorism (I’m not sure where identifying famous Americans as Jews (including the Kennedys, haha) was heading, but thankfully we didn’t go far down that path, although I was impressed that he knew Marilyn Monroe’s birth name). Then I got an incredible history of Azerbaijan. I wish I’d caught more of it, but when you’re listening for about an hour in a foreign langauge you don’t speak fluently, at a certain point you do hit overload and it goes from getting most of it to getting the idea of it.
There were a number of interesting stories. One was that, as I think I’d read somewhere, Azerbaijan was known for the “fire mountain.” The oil and gas is so plentiful in that area, and the gas in the air, that it sparked (it still may–it’s somewhere out in the countryside). I think Rasim said that people associated it with a god. But more interesting is the fact that the name “Albania” comes from this–it actually means “fire mountain” and there are connections between Albania and Azerbaijan. This is where I started losing some details, but I think he may have tied it in with his brief history of religion in Azerbaijan. It’s definitely something I’ll be looking up.
Azerbaijanis were Zoroastrians, and I think Rasim may have said that the holy book of the religion was from around here. (Don’t quote me on it, however; as interesting as Rasim is, all of his stories seemed to have a common thread of Azerbaijan’s preeminence in the region and having been responsible for all their neighbors’ greatnesses, and having claim to a good deal more land than they have today.) Today most Azerbaijanis are Muslim. However, Rasim told me that in fact there had been Christianity here before Islam came (and before the Slavs became Christian, which makes sense), and separate and distinct from the Slavic Christianity, because the missionaries came from Jerusalem, rather than Constantinople (which is where Russia became Christian through). Christianity came and was accepted peacefully. Islam came in, and originally, according to Rasim, people were given a choice whether or not to convert, but when a lot of people didn’t, conversion was forced. I think Rasim is technically Muslim, but he gave me some pork sausage, and, of course, had lived for decades under the aggressively secular Soviet regime, so I get the impression he doesn’t really practice.
He told me a couple more stories about some kings of old, and one sounded familiar (a man being served his own son for dinner). I think the idea was that the people involved may not all have been kings of Azerbaijan, but were at least related through a very, very smart princess. That’s all I got on that one, though.
The folks around the office are all quite pleasant, and I had a nice conversation with a couple of ladies over lunch, touching on history, culture, and religion. We educated each other about divisions within our respective religions. We also touched on the central tenet of Islam that “God is one,” (as opposed to three persons but one God), and I did my best to discuss the Trinity without theological blunders or de-mystifying what is, in fact, Mystery. It reminded me of a Chesterton quote (as many things do), and I found it later on my computer: “It is not merely true that a creed unites men. Nay, a difference of creed unites men - so long as it is a clear difference. Many a magnanimous Moslem and a chivalrous Crusader must have been nearer to each other, because they were both dogmatists, than any two agnostics. ‘I say God is One,’ and ‘I say God is One but also Three,’ that is the beginning of a good, quarrelsome, manly friendship.” Perhaps because we were ladies, we could leave the quarrel out of it. ;-)
We also discussed the office diet. Every day, the ladies eat lunch together in the conference room, and most of them eat tomatoes, cucumbers, and I think some cheese, with lavash. I don’t eat meat on Fridays so I also had tomatoes and cucumbers and was asked if was also on a diet (which I guess I kind of am - it’s called the Save Money + Be Healthier + Not Creative Enough to Think Up a Substitute Sacrifice Every Friday Diet). I’ve been packing my own lunches, but they’re so generous and have offered me salad every day. (Explaining the no Friday meat thing is what got our really cool discussion about faith started, actually, so that was cool.)
As far as the work itself goes, I am getting a better idea of exactly what the program does because I’ve read some of the project reports, as well as several Azerbaijani laws. The first component of the program has made the most progress because it’s gotten a lot of green lights and approvals on both sides of the world. That involves doing things like repairing roads in rural areas (which has a huge impact in terms of children getting to school, being able to trade goods in other villages, and of course emergency care) and getting function tents for use at weddings and funerals (so that a community can share one rather than burden weddings and funerals with high costs and difficulties of renting and transporting and setting up tents for up to 250 people).
The third component is the murkiest, and of course the one most legally-oriented and that really interests me. Several years ago the parliament passed a law providing for greater citizen access to information, so that’s good. Right now, we and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) are waiting on a law that’s gone through it’s second reading that’s about increasing citizen participation. These are good steps, but things can change a lot and it’s hard too to know how things will turn out as well. I may be taking a field trip over to ICNL this week and can hopefully learn more about it. In the meantime, I’ve read the Constitution of Azerbaijan and a few laws, and I have a copy of the criminal code, so that should be interesting.
I think I’ll also be working on putting together some language for grant reports. SEDA, my organization, sponsors a lot of these component 1 projects, and many of them are the same (roads, tents, medical facility or what have you). If there’s one thing I didn’t really “get” until I lived in Russia (even having studied Russian in college), it’s that languages just don’t work the same. Sometimes things match up, and sometimes they don’t. In Russian, if you want to know when a store’s open, you’d ask when it’s working, and the languages were drastically more distinct when written. I spent a good five minutes on the first environmental compliance report trying to figure out what a “mobile tent” was (aren’t they all mobile?) and how to communicate what was a normal, universally understood thing to USAID (between the project application, the picture, and talking to the assistant chief of party, I decided on “function tent”). I think having been an EFL teacher will come in handy and if I can get some good language worked out it could save a lot of time and also just neaten up the paperwork. Then, project leaders can just pull from a pool of applicable sentences and plug in the specifics for their project.
Summed up: My washer is also a dryer, which was exciting, even more so when I figured out how to use it, and a bit less so when I realized I’d laundered my passport pouch (thankfully my passport was elsewhere, and cash is very sturdy). I guess I’m now a money launderer in the most literal sense and felt quite foolish (but grateful that my passport didn’t go through that–I can tell you from a non-laundry experience that border crossing guards look at passports with the cover pulling away with suspicion (even when you’re 14)) and had to dry out some manat as well as a few dollars, rubles and bolivianos. Some papers in there didn’t fare as well, but I figure by the time a grandchild or grandniece finds the now torn-edged Polish train ticket I’ll have concocted a story that is much better than, “Oh so I saved a ticket from my trip to Poland and then ran it through the wash in Baku." (I'm thinking less laundry, more heroics.)
Also, I have a cockamamie idea to make chocolate chip cookies on the stove (because I have no oven). The internet said it would work, although the internet may have better burner knobs. I second-guessed the batter (something’s off, but adding flour wasn’t the way to fix it) and am now third-guessing, since my tester batch tasted a little pancake-y. Anyway, cross your fingers for me for that and to get the other mosquito. (I think I headed off an ant problem, I killed two spiders, and I got one mosquito, but there’s one more I think, and I can hear it flying over my head at night and it’s driving me nuts.)
Back to Baku for now,