Wednesday, November 3, 2010


This post is sort of like a dinner made of leftovers. As I get ready to leave Azerbaijan next month, my mind is filled with a jumble of things I want to do or complete here. I dropped a few of my thoughts in the blog.

When I came here, I wondered if 27 months would seem too long or not long enough. Some of the volunteeers I started with left early for different reasons—mostly medical. A few are staying a few months to a year longer.

For me, 27 months seems perfect--three months of training and two years doing my work. I feel so much more competent than I did when I started and feel compassion for the volunteers who will be starting their new lives as I leave. We try to share our knowledge as much as we can, but there are rough spots and adjustments for everyone that can’t be smoothed over, they just have to be experienced.

One of the things I have tried to do in this blog is to help people to understand what it is like to live here. I am not the caliber of writer to convey what it is really like, especially what it is like to live in a Muslim country. However, I recently read a book that seemed really authentic to me in its description of the contrast between America and a totally different country. I felt like I was there. That book is Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

Greg is the guy who has been building schools for young children in Pakistan and Afghanistan for over 20 years. Most schools built by well-meaning foreigners there have been burned down or otherwise destroyed, but most of Greg’s schools have not. He operates in a way that is similar to what the Peace Corps does.

He doesn’t do things for people—he helps them do things they want to do. The community must demonstrate their strong desire for a school, they have to have strongly committed village partners to keep the school running, and be able to supply all the labor and source materials to build and maintain it. Greg doesn’t do anything before he gets to know the people of the community and is trusted before he begins working with them.

In the book, he describes his relationship with warlords, Taliban and mullahs—and why all of these people are not automatically bad guys like we read about in the press. He could not have done his work without having productive relationships with these people. He conveys the frustration, the learning curve, the relationship building and the excitement of a finished product very effectively.

After finishing this book one morning before breakfast, I had a chance to have a lengthy chat with one of the women in my host family. She just turned 69 years old and has been a teacher all her life. I respect her intelligence and insights. I was curious about something and know her well enough to ask a lot of questions that might be annoying.

I have written before about how volunteers constantly hear from 40-plus year old Azerbaijanis how much they miss the Soviet Union. They miss full employment, being part of an important world power, producing food and other goods for the other 14 countries and financial security.

When I lived in America, I had never heard any of this. It is an article of faith in America that Mikhail Gorbachev is a respected figure and Ronald Reagan is often credited with assisting with the fall of the Soviet Union. However, most Azerbaijanis despise Gorbachev for being an agent of the collapse. They are incredulous and angry when they hear that Ronald Reagan is given credit for assisting because they don’t feel the US had anything to do with it. They feel the collapse was due to oil prices and other mismanagement by Gorbachev. Also, they are incensed with the idea that Americans would think they had the right to try to change the government of another country.

The one thing that I never hear is anything bad about the former Soviet Union. So I asked my family member to tell me about some things that are better now or that she did not like about living in the USSR. She thought for awhile and said she couldn’t think of anything. I prompted her by saying that I had heard that people could not ordinarily leave the USSR, that they did not have quality consumer goods and had food shortages.

She said that it was great to be able to travel to the other 14 countries in the Soviet Union and that now most people are too poor to leave their city, let alone travel outside the country. She said they don’t have quality consumer goods now and that they never had food shortages.

After more prompting and more thought about any criticism of the Soviet Union, she said that in Soviet days some of the best fruit and vegetables from Azerbaijan were sent to Moscow. She also said that she thinks men are not as rude to women as they used to be. (The country has become more socially conservative since the Soviet days.) That is all she could say and that is typical. I don’t know what to make of this except that I have heard political observers in America say that Americans vote using their wallets and their sense of security as a guideline. They don’t mind giving up some of their rights or those of others if it will make them feel more secure or prosperous. So maybe this is all just human nature.

I have spent a lot of time in my blog talking about the things I like about this country. People have asked me what criticisms I have of Azerbaijan. After two years, I find I don’t really have any—and that is not because I couldn’t find any if I looked. It is because this is not my country. As a non-citizen, I am not invested in it and feel my opinion shouldn’t count. I am a guest here and am not here to change the country. Do Americans like it when Europeans tell us how we should be more like them? Remember Freedom Fries?

I am here to help Azerbaijanis make the changes they want in their personal or professional lives, to tell Americans about Azerbaijanis and to tell Azerbaijanis about Americans. That is it.

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