Living at the Crossroads of Civilizations: Fast Times in Azerbaijan
I'll admit, before getting that phone call from Peace Corps, I didn't know much about Azerbaijan (and three years ago when I submitted my application, I probably couldn't have found it on a map). Since I've been here, interesting events engulfed the region (for better or worse), and I've learned a lot about the complex, and nuanced history of the Southern Caucasus.
After winning Eurovision in 2011 (which, I also had not-a-clue about before I was Azerbaijan-bound), the international song contest is coming to the land of fire in May. Along with the thousands of people planning to attend, eyes have fixed on the small Caucasus country. In particular, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have launched an onslaught of critiques, which has even lead to a call for a Eurovision boycott campaign.
Azerbaijan has also made the news because it shares a border and historical ties with Iran. With the increasing tension between Iran and Israel over the former's nuclear energy program, Azerbaijan has found itself labeled a "Den of Spies," among a spur of assassinations and near-assassinations.
The recent news coverage is also dusting off the 20 year "frozen" conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Weekly, I am privy to televised public service announcements reminding us that Azerbaijan is in a state of war. Within the first few months of being in Azerbaijan - both random people on the bus and public officials - detailed the stark state of affairs. As February ended, schools and businesses closed down to remember the Khojaly Massacre which occurred in 1992 during the brunt of the nearly six-year war.
The conflict is highly politicized. Facts differ on both sides of the cease-fire line. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, I will not be discussing the disputed territory often. The following are two informative neutral sources: Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War and Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic. The latter is written by Thomas Goltz, a Montana resident and part-time faculty at Montana State University.
Despite all the excitement in the region, my life is fairly quiet. There is the occasional child practicing his English by yelling "hello," but mostly my life carries on like the Montana towns I've lived in. Many conversations are about the weather (which, was harsh for a few weeks, but warming up) and the current job situation (which, is currently boasting a 1/3rd unemployment rate).
In the coming months, I'm planning on keeping this blog updated with my day-to-day affairs, updates about the region, my travels, and the insights of living immersed in a new culture. Not everything will directly relate to my Peace Corps service; writing is a great way to keep a firm grasp on my sanity! I'm also bound to include some "sociological analysis," because that's what I do. So, I apologize ahead of time!