Monday, November 22, 2010

Baseball and Sacrifices: July 4th in November!

The grillmaster at work
Our picnic table, notice the hind leg hanging in the background on the right and the intestines and head on the ground to the left!

Nothing like eating a freshly grilled piece of meat while the decapitated head of the animal sits at your feet, it’s lifeless eyes staring at you. I almost felt bad about savagely tearing at the late sheep’s tender shoulder, almost. This was my Gurban holiday!

Gurban holiday (the holiday of sacrifice) is one of the most celebrated holidays in Azerbaijan, and in the Muslim world. At my house, Gurban is the perfect combination of Thanksgiving and July 4th/Canada Day! It all began a week before. Nicat’s uncle pulled up to the house in his tiny 2-door sedan. Nicat asked me to help him. When I asked why, he said that the sheep for the Gurban holiday were in the back of the sedan. Live sheep in the back of his car? How? To my surprise, there were actually 2 sheep in the back of the sedan! PETA would definitely have had something to say about this! Anyway, one of the days of (it is a two day holiday), November 16, I had language class in the morning, but after that, my cluster all made their way over to my house where we watched my host-father slaughter a sheep. The sheep was skinned and chopped up into 12 separate bags containing 1 kilo of meat each. These bags were distributed to other families and friends in the area as recognition of my family’s love and thanks.

Of course, no holiday, especially one in Azerbaijan, would be complete without a feast! My host-father and mother prepared a delectable spread of kebabs (grilled on a makeshift spit in the backyard), pickled tomatoes and onions (unspeakably delicious), cherry juice, bread, and about 10 different kinds of cakes and candies. I think I ate about half of that sheep myself. Being outside grilling, celebrating with family, and giving thanks for the friends and family in our lives couldn’t help but send me down memory lane. I expected to get a little homesick around this time of year, first seeing Azeris celebrate such a momentous holiday with one another, and then watching as my own holiday season flew by from half-way across the world. However, as nice as it would be to be around my own family and friends back home, I am around family and friends here, and I don’t feel homesick at all. The Azeris and my fellow PCTs that I have met thus far have been so remarkably hospitable that I feel completely at home and happy here, now.

In other news, my friend Brad came to Khirdalan this past Sunday, our one day off. I was recently given baseball gear by a departing PCV. So, on Sunday, equipped with my Expos hat, instead of our usual soccer game, Brad and I introduced the neighborhood to the sport of baseball, and in particular, the games “500” and “Pickle”. Despite the language barrier, and the confusion with baseball being neither a contact sport, nor a sport that requires the use of your feet when throwing and catching, it was a fabulous success. The entire neighborhood was entertained for hours! There was quite a crowd watching us as well. The only thing stranger than an American playing soccer is Azerbaijanis playing baseball!

On a more serious note, I was meaning to comment on the recent parliamentary elections that took place here in Azerbaijan on November 7, the 4th parliamentary elections since the fall of the Soviet Union. According to the Peace Corps mission, it is my responsibility to:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. 
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.
Because of this 3rd proclamation, I feel the need, however brief it is, to inform the readers of the current evens of this country. The elections were to vote for new members of the 125-seat parliament for its next 5-year term under a majoritarian election system with only one round of voting. Although the elections were peaceful, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), who sent more than 400 monitors to the elections, found that “the conduct of these elections overall was not sufficient to constitute meaningful progress in the democratic development of the country.” Azerbaijani opposition has frequently accused the West of muting its criticism for fear of losing out to Russia in the battle for Azerbaijan's oil and gas in the Caspian Sea.
The US State Department, however, agreed with the findings, asserting that the:
Pre-election environment was characterized by a lack of balanced media coverage of candidates, continued restrictions on fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression, and a deficient candidate registration process that, taken together, resulted in an uneven playing field for candidates. On Election Day, observers from the U.S. Embassy in Baku, like their OSCE/ODIHR counterparts, noted serious violations of election procedures, including ballot box stuffing.
There are, however, positives to take out of these elections. The OSCE/ODHIR noticed that “some technical aspects of the election, including centralized registration and the inclusion of record numbers of domestic observers, constituted improvements, as did a modest increase in the percentage of female candidates.” These are very important improvements that must not be overlooked. Inshallah, things will only improve from here. For more information on Azerbaijan, and the following blog,, are wonderful resources. I have many other news sources if anyone is interested, just ask.

 Lastly, I had my counterpart conference on Thursday. I cannot tell you how excited I am! My counterpart is a wonderful old woman who speaks absolutely NO English! She is incredibly bright, and despite my language deficiencies, we had wonderful conversations about the next 2 years. She has high hopes, as do I, and is so excited to begin working with me. She trusts me completely and is willing to entertain any ideas I have. I really believe that she is grateful for having me and fully understands that I am a volunteer who is to be her partner, NOT her employee. She also made it clear that she does not want me rushing into anything. This is a policy that Peace Corps deeply supports, but she brought it up herself. She firmly believes that getting to know my site and my community and gaining people’s trust is my first task before any concrete work can begin. I am so fortunate for everything and cannot wait to begin my service!

PS, for my cluster’s Thanksgiving party, I was in charge of getting the turkey. I successfully got the bird. Nevertheless, I must admit that, as embarrassing as it is, I could not bring myself to kill the thing and had to have my 15-year-old brother do it for me. They got a great laugh out of my apprehension. Later, they told me it was okay, and that I needed to start smaller. So, this week it seems as though I will be killing our dinner, a chicken. 
The boys hard at work

July 4th Azerbaijan style!

Friday, November 12, 2010

At Last!

Nate, Dan, and I at an Irish Pub (Finnegan's) in Baku

The grave of former president Heydar Aliyev
The largest flag in the world, on the shores of the Caspian

Martyr's Lane: Dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army in Baku during Black January in 1990
I held off writing my next entry for so long in order to have something truly exciting to talk about in this post! Voila, permanent site placement! It doesn’t get much more exciting than that! I am very thrilled to inform you all that I have been assigned to Balakan, the northern most region of Azerbaijan. For the next 2 years, I will be living and working in this mountain region that is bordered by Georgia to the west and Russia, specifically Dagestan, to the east. I have little information to offer you all in terms of a description of the region. All I can tell you is that it is exactly what I was looking for and I am so thrilled that my program manager was able to place me in this beautiful part of the country. Aesthetically, Balakan is a small region in the Caucus mountains range and is endowed with many natural wonders. I look forward to exploring the many mountain rivers and verdant forests that occupy most of this bountiful land. This will certainly be a pleasant transition from the bustling, garbage burning, diesel smoking streets of Xirdalan and Sumgayit. I hope that being around such untamed wilderness will afford me the opportunity to initiate projects and clubs focused on environmental responsibility and sustainability.

Speaking of project ideas, I have the unique position of being paired up with two different organizations in Balakan. You see, every PCV is matched with a host organization in their permanent site that correlates with their expertise. Organizations from all over the country apply to work with PCVs. My first organization is the Azerbaijan Women’s Rights Protection Society. From what I have been told thus far, this quaint, 2 room center carries out annual events, including training seminars and forums, has a number of clubs, and hosts round table discussions. The organization also has a youth unit that focuses on capacity building and education. This is, I believe, where my expertise will be most utilized.
My second organization is the Ministry of Youth and Sport. How I will work with this government department remains to be seen. The Ministry of Y&S, I have been told, organizes civil and governmental activities and events related to the problems of youth and their families. They also serve as advisory assistants to youth in need.

My new site.
Welcome to Balakan.
I chose Balakan specifically. I wanted a challenge; I wanted to be a trailblazer so to speak. The sites and the work that volunteers do varies so much, and although all the work in every region is important, I wanted to enter a region as one of the first PCVs to ever work there. Thus far, Balakan has only ever had two TEFLs. They have been there for the past year. In Peace Corps, TEFLs serve as the pioneers, usually entering new regions before anyone else. In December, I, along with a CED (community economic development) named Trey, will move to Balakan to begin our work.  Trey is a funny story! It is such a wonderful coincidence that we were placed in the same region. Trey and I were in the same hotel room, essentially, in Philadelphia for staging. We were seated next to each other on both legs of the flight to Azerbaijan, and we were roommates during welcome week in Baku! It is only fitting that we will spend the next 2 years working side by side. I am excited to learn about his economic development projects, and I know he is equally excited to work with the youth in any projects that I undertake.
More on Balakan to come as I receive new information. I meet with my new counterparts next week for a luncheon where we will get acquainted and discuss our expectations for one another.
Ulvi proud of the pizza he made.
Toy Plov (rice cooked like a cake with chicken inside)
This week, there has been a lot of talk about post-Soviet Azerbaijan vs. USSR, and the differences between the two eras. It has been so interesting hearing the varying perspectives. The lesson I have most taken away from such intriguing discussions is that Azerbaijan truly is a country in limbo. Half stuck in Soviet times, yet slowly inching forward. The country is on the brink of transition, yet a significant percentage does not want to move forward; they speak fondly of the order and certainty that accompanied Soviet rule. I realize now how delicate this country is, how uncertain it is of its new identity and the direction it wants to move in. I realize now, more than ever, the importance of listening and understanding, as there is so much more to this country than meets eye.

I will end this blog with a cute little story. The other day I got a knock on my door. When I opened the door, Nicat and my mother handed me a 5-manat bill and told me that it was from my host father. Confusedly, I asked Nicat why I was being given this. He told me, “because,” indicating that it was a gift. I immediately walked into the living room to kindly refuse the sweet gesture. What a mistake that was! When I tried giving him the money back, my father’s eye met mine and I saw in them a rage only matched by the devil! He berated me for what seemed like 5 minutes. Following the verbal scolding, I graciously accepted the money, shook his hand to attempt to regain some semblance of manliness and sat down on the couch, tail between my legs. A minute or two later, after absolute silence, he smiled and spoke a few words to Nicat. Nicat translated that Oktay had said that he wanted to give his sons a small gift, and that because he now considered me one of his three sons, I should accept the gift and be happy.
Later that night, Nicat came barging into my room doing a celebratory dance. He pulled a 10-manat bill out of his pocket and bragged that he had received a bigger gift than I. For my family, 10 manat is a very significant amount of money.
I congratulated him and asked what he was going to spend it on. I thought I was going to have to encourage him to save it instead of spending it frivolously as most 15 year olds would. How wrong I was. He left me speechless when he told me that his friend’s father had just died, so the 10 manat would be given to his friend as a way to help. I insisted that he give my 5 manat to his friend as well, but he refused, claiming that it was his responsibility to make sure his friend had all the money he needed during such difficult times. When’s the last time a 15-year-old boy you know did something so selfless?