It’s a course at McGill, “The Art of Listening”; probably the greatest bird course the institution has to offer. Nearly everyone I knew took it at one point or another. I did not, and although I doubt many of my classmates actually attended the lectures when enrolled in this course, I wish, more than ever, that I had taken it.
As the 6-month marks fast approaches, I am understanding this “art” like never before. In fact, I blame my recent lack of blogging on this very craft. When I actually have time to sit down and write, I am usually so rapt and inundated that I cannot possibly dream of personal creation. Be it a new Azeri phrase I learned (i.e. “hech na olmaz” [don’t worry about it]), a new grant opportunity I found, a good book I read (currently Half The Sky), an entertaining movie I watched to attempt to unwind, words of encouragement from friends and family back home, or a comment from a student that completely floored me (see below), I have more reasons than ever to keep my mouth shut (and fingers still) and my eyes and ears open.
I am learning to become absolutely content following. In fact, here, it seems to be the most effective form of leadership. The line that divides strong leadership and mere support grows hazier each day. This is not a new concept; I am not writing about some groundbreaking discovery in the field of international development. However, in this time of great personal growth and discovery, it becomes clearer everyday that the answer to nearly every problem, every uncertainty, is simply to listen. The way to complete communal inclusion and sustainable development is through the ears, not the mouth.
My family here in Balakan is far quieter than my first family in Khirdalan. Granted the children are older, but in general they keep to themselves more. This initially made learning about one another quite a chore. In the Dibirov house, many nights can be spent in near silence, save for the television, of course. My brother will play computer games all night while my host father shakes his head at the TV, my sister looks through the same 20 pictures on her cell phone over and over again, and my host mother sits in front of the peç grunting, “Ay Allah” because of the cold or back pain or a combination of them both. At first, I forced conversations or gave up entirely and retired to my own room, expecting that they had no interest in me. However, I have learned. I sit and wait, and enjoy the silence. Our best, most enlightening conversations, where we shared our cultures with one another, have come after 30 or 40 minutes of not talking at all. Eventually, a comment will be made or a question will be asked, and it might be another hour before we are silent again. Then, we start over, silent until the next conversation is had. This is a minor anecdote, but it very effectively reflects my work and experience in Azerbaijan thus far. Patience and attention have been the keys to my success.
On a somewhat related note, today, I met the face of Azerbaijan’s future, and it couldn’t look more promising! This glimpse into the future took the form of three 12-year-old girls in my newest conversation club.
A little context first: Balakan is the northern-most region of Azerbaijan. It is a lovely place to live: small yet bustling, affable yet so foreign. The city perfectly reflects the kind of work that I, up until now, have undertaken…small and simple. For a country so small (about the size of Maine), its regions could not be more diverse. Some volunteers are placed in larger cities and spend their days working with energetic university students who are fluent in English. Others, like myself, are assigned to smaller cities and towns where education may be secondary and motivation a little lacking. If you were looking at our work from the outside, you’d never know that we all worked in same country. For me, motivated youth are somewhat of a commodity, so whenever I do meet these kinds of kids, I snatch them up as quickly as possible (in a non kidnapper way). This is why these girls were such a treat.
For our first session, I wanted to make the lesson simple and fun. For the youth of Balakan, I want my clubs to be a break from school, not a supplement. Most students spend all day in school, and then all evening in private lessons…it’s universally accepted that schools are not sufficient in providing children with a proper education. My hope is for my clubs and my “resource room” to become a refuge for youth, a place where they can come, unwind, share ideas, and hopefully learn a little bit about themselves. That being said, our first lesson was to make a list of adjectives that they thought described them. After we made that list, we drew pictures, with our names written vertically and adjectives written horizontally based on the letters that make up your name. Upon completion, we shared ours and explained why we chose these words specifically. Könül (which means heart in Azeri) presented first. At the bottom of her drawing, ornately decorated with butterflies and hearts were these words: “I hate bribe! I want justed!” She explained that her group of friends and her (mind you they are 12) are known as “Antibribe” because of their commitment to stopping corruption in this country. I was so touched by their maturity and awareness, despite the little spelling mistake (justed = justice). They are mature far beyond their years and more perceptive than many people twice or three times their age. I am so fortunate to have met them and cannot wait to see their growth over the next year and a half.
|Snowman (Gar Baba) made by my host siblings...it melted completely by the end of the day.|
|Where the taxi driver stopped about 30 minutes outside of the town of Ilisu because he could not get his car up the hill any further. We were going for a 7km hike to hot springs.|
|The valley we were about to hike|
|Not the best of conditions|
|Pretty beautiful though|
|Trey braving the river on the way back|