The U.S. Peace Corps started working in Azerbaijan in 2002. Previously, they had been prevented from doing so thanks to the efforts of the Armenian-American lobby which had successfully blocked U.S. assistance to the country because of the unresolved conflict between the two over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. That changed when U.S. President George Bush waived a provision in the 1992 Freedom Support Act which prohibited such assistance.
Since then, according to the Peace Corps Wiki, over 190 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Azerbaijan and as was the case in Armenia, a number set up blogs from the beginning of 2006. Operating outside the capital, Baku, the blogs detail life in the regions of an oil-rich country that few would otherwise experience.
One new PCV in the country this year is Chris Sensei in Azerbaijan. In an extended post accompanied by photographs, the blogger introduces readers to his work site.
We are staying in and around Sumgait. A place that could have been a beautiful resort town on the Caspian but instead the Soviets built refineries and chemical factories here. It was one of the most polluted place on Earth for 20+years, with cancer and child mortality at astronomical rates but Independence brought the collapse of those industries. Its gotten much cleaner since then. Many crumbling factories and pipelines remain but the streets are cleaner than those I saw in India and rural China and the water is clean enough to drink without filtration. […]
In the suburbs most of the roads are unpaved and lack drainage so. It had been raining that morning so as we were being dropped off we had to deal with mud roads and puddles like small ponds. Most of the housing around here is brown concrete Soviet built apartment complexes and family compounds surrounded by walls built from brown concrete, limestone, and rusted scrap metal. The outsides seemed depressing at first but years of Soviet oppression taught people to let the outside look drab and uninviting while the insides are generally very nice and inviting.
In addition to writing about the problems, however, PCV bloggers such Eric's Peace Corp Adventure In Azerbaijan have also detailed what steps are being taken to address them.
Things have been going well lately. Yesterday the trainees took part in an environmental clean-up initiative sponsored by a new recycling company in the area. Until now, there has been no system set up for the recycling of plastic bottles in the Sumqayit region. Bottles, along with most other waste, has been disposed of by burning. With the help of this new company, however, there will be an opportunity for people to dispose of their plastic trash in an environmentally safe way.
The trainees met yesterday near the beach by the Caspian Sea, armed with rubber gloves and garbage bags, with the goal of picking up plastic bottles. Although the large truck was filled up quickly, we made only a small dent in the overall plastic problem near the beach. But the important thing is that it was a start, and media coverage of the event might publicize the dangers of plastic to the environment. […]
But, with patriarchy prevalent throughout the South Caucasus region, posts can irk some Azerbaijanis. At the beginning of October, for example, Jeff at 27 Months in Azerbaijan describes one of the better students attending his English-language class.
My student’s name is Fidan. She’s awesome. […] After she scolded a boy in the class for actin-a-fool, I told her she needed to calm down a little bit. She responded by saying “Mr. Jeffrey, today I am calm like a cat.”
“Wow. What are you like when you’re angry?”
“Like a tiger.”
I almost fell down it was so good. For context, no one in my school speaks English this well. Not only did she know the words she was saying, but she spoke them with an ease and attitude that was missing from my other students. […]
She also had a great attitude. Most young Azerbaijani women are shy and reserved, following the be-seen-and-not-heard mentality (this is true at least for young women around men, which by definition how they are around me. […]
[…] Fidan’s family falls on the more ‘rusified’ part of that mix which makes them, and her, seem to have a more western mentality. She listened to different music, is critical of injustices in society, and has a strong intellectual curiousity. […]
An Azerbaijani male reader, Atilla, took exception to the post and attacked the PCV blogger.
Hey dude, I would suggest that you be a little careful about the language you use in describing the Azerbaijani culture and women. Yes my way of living, life style and understanding of honor is much different than American men (thanks to God), but it doesn’t make my culture or way of living abnormal. […] I would suggest you to refrain from assesing cultures and women of other nations. I am proud of being Azerbaijani and being a real men vs. the girly men like creatures in USA who can’t have no understanding of honor and extremly immoral. Soo keep your morale and propoganda for American women. Nobody here wants to listen your “precious” and highly subjective and illogical advise. […]
27 Months in Azerbaijan responded in a separate post and highlights why information from the regions of the country is so important.
[…] I could be completely wrong about this, but I’m 95% sure that this Atilla character is a Bakuvian. When I go to Baku, especially after having spent a long time in the regions, that I’m going to different country. People move differently. They act differently and have access to more information, entertainment, and opportunities that those in the regions. Because Atilla comes from such an environment (again, that’s my assumption), my description of Azerbaijan doesn’t fit the one that he has. […] Still, I stand by the claim that I don’t think that everyone in Baku is in touch with the situation in the regions. If the entire country was like Baku, they wouldn’t need Peace Corps Volunteers. Things are quite different out here,and that not only goes for the development that has taken place over the past few years, but also the mentality of the people and the culture. So while it may be alright in Baku for young women to do something like go outside by themselves, or use the internet, or take a test to see if they are qualified to study in America for a year, it can be very different situation in the regions.
The issue of gender in Azerbaijan also cropped up on another blog run by a PCV volunteer in Azerbaijan, KZ in AZ.
[…] the project is basically informing women about the Azerbaijan Family code funded by the Norwegian Embassy. To briefly explain if women get divorced here the law states that the husband gets 100% of everything. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was or who asked for a divorce (which in this culture is only men anyways.) Women who have experienced divorce often have to orphan their children and move back in with their parents. This is because they don’t have money to support their children and a divorced woman is “spoiled” and will never be able to be married again. It’s a very tragic situation and although taboo happens much more often then people would like to believe.
Our project aims to reach over 150 young women from Khachmaz, Mingachevir, Zagatala and Lankaran regions on the Family Code and incite discussions of this issue within the regional population. […] We talk about family and marriage explaining the juridical aspects. We inform these women about Family Code and Marriage Contracts. […] We hope this will lead to participation in the restoration of the violated women rights and create sense of self-confidence among women. […]
Veemo in the Azerbaijan also touched upon the subject.
Discussions with other volunteers about blogs have made me feel that I say very little about my perception of the local culture. In truth, there are so many nuances I'm still trying to understand about Azeri culture and we've had it drilled into our heads that it isn't our place to change or judge their culture (not that I want to anyway, if I were a local I wouldn't be too kind to some foreigner coming in and telling me I am wrong about everything I know), and yes there are a lot of things that for me as a fiercely independent, single woman raised in the Western world that I have a hard time digesting.
I recently met a young woman, probably younger than I am, whom I tried to comfort in Baku. A fellow volunteer and I were walking behind her and her male escort (which we determined to be her brother or her husband by the “protective” way he treated her) and as soon as he left, she burst into tears, and rightfully so. […] I tried my hand at comforting Azeri but she spoke English well and she told me that he was her husband and she did not love him at all, her parents forced her to marry him and she was unhappy. […]
That is not to say that all Azeri men have unchecked behavior towards women, my current host family has me living in a home with a married couple and their 2 young boys. The boys call me aunt since their parents are so close to my own age, my host brother treats his wife quite well and is affectionate with his sons. […] It makes me hopeful for an improvement on Azeri gender relations and roles for future generations.
Of course, PCV blogs are not only full of posts on gender or the environment. Indeed, in among the reflections on life in the regions of transitional countries such as Azerbaijan there are posts on the cuisine and also reflections on their stay when the time comes to leave.
I learned that we live WAAAAAY in excess in the States and am sure I will feel that for a long time to come and hopefully live a little more within what I know is fine for me.
The people of AZ are amazingly kind, friendly and caring people and I am extremely grateful for their hospitality-they made trip unforgettable
There is a list of past and present PCV blogs from Azerbaijan at http://www.peacecorpsjournals.com/aj.html.