A Month in a Far Country
Azerbaijan, November 2013
by Timothy Kenny
“When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land.” —Jack London, “In a Far Country,” from The Son of the Wolf (1900)
It takes about 10 days of teaching before I realize the chaos of Baku’s streets has decamped to my classroom.
Our accents have begun to make sense to each other: the pronunciations less confusing, the awkward syntax mentally transposed. But asking a question of one student still elicits shouted answers from two others vying for attention. Arguments break out. Students compulsively check Facebook on their laptops and thumb emails on smart phones. We all have our limitations.
I am demanding in ways that are seemingly unthinkable to students who grew up in an educational system that allows buying grades. Poorly paid and undervalued, Azeri teachers rarely ask outright for cash, but parents are known to provide “stipends” to ensure continued top marks for their children. School hours can be flexible. Grade-school teachers with appointments are known to dismiss their students in the middle of the day.
My teaching style is based on 23 years of daily American journalism. I stress the importance of mastering the class material to my six college graduate students, Gunel, Lala, Etibar, Bayram, Shahnaz, and Nezaket.
Sometimes we’re at odds.
My students are graduate students, but I’m teaching basic journalism. This first semester, held in Baku, is a sort of leg up in preparation before the next two semesters they’ll spend in Tbilisi, where all class work will be in English often taught by Westerners. My students’ command of this second language ranges from adequate to poor, and I worry about how they will perform next semester.
My students tell me they are already experienced journalists. Indeed, they have all worked for Azerbaijani media outlets since graduating from college, but none are yet reporters. They remind me of journalists in the Soviet sense, metaphorically propping their feet on a desk as they fire up a pipe and think deep, philosophical thoughts. I insist they check, not surmise. Taking accurate notes is a requirement, I say, not a suggestion. They balk at rewrites. We know how to do it, they tell me. Yes you do, I agree, but only in your heads. Show me.
They try. At mock press conferences they ask the kinds of pointless questions they hear on government-controlled TV: “Can you comment on…?” We discuss the vagaries of imprecision. They pay little attention to detail large or small. These students, all but one in their mid-20s, have grown up in the aftermath of Communism in Baku, Azerbaijan, a place choked by government-sponsored propaganda and public relations, not fact-based journalism. They have their own notions of what news should be, but little experience of it to go on.
It is not their fault. In a month of searching I never found an independent newspaper for sale in Baku. No newsstand sold any Western European or U.S. publication. The only issues in English were giveaways for businessmen, specializing in ads for massage parlors and escort services. Internet use, while available, is monitored.
* * *
Today’s Baku struts. Its newfound wealth is evident in a Four Seasons hotel and along streets crowded with BMWs, Lexus SUVs, and purple London-style taxis with meters that work. The daytime city center drowns in honking horns, as if constant clatter were needed to certify the city’s new-money ambitions. As I walk to work down Nakhichivani Street, trapped drivers lean on their horns for 15 seconds at a time. That may not sound long; try it, listen to it, multiply it by dozens of cars captured in daily gridlock along narrow streets lined by 16-story apartment blocks.
On an empty Sunday afternoon I walk to central Baku. It’s the middle of November 2013, my first week in Azerbaijan. Older people glance at my shoes, as people often did in Soviet Moscow, knowing that the better the shoes, the more likely a stranger was not from the USSR. When I need directions, I stop at travel agencies along the route downtown, the only places I can reliably find English speakers.
At one point a police officer making a left-hand turn sees me step off the curb. He punches the accelerator on his BMW, which is what police drive in the oil-rich Azeri capital. As the police car nears, I’m forced into a quick jog to avoid getting dinged. As the cop blows past, he either waves or throws me the finger. It’s not clear which. Either way, I have been warned. It’s best to learn local street rules early, no matter the city.
Azerbaijan’s oil money has fueled a threefold increase in vehicles of all kinds. Twenty years ago, this country of 9.5 million people drove 350,000 cars. Today, there are more than one million vehicles on the roads, some 70 percent of which crowd Baku’s uneven streets. The government blames an increase in traffic accidents on cars without seat belts and good brakes. My students say ordinary Azerbaijanis are more inclined to blame accidents on bad drivers who bribe their way to a license. Both points have merit. The government also makes it difficult for older vehicles to pass safety inspections. “It’s just a way for them to get rid of the old cars,” Gunel tells me. “They look bad. They make smoke. The government wants Baku to only look good, to look rich.” The other students nod their heads at this.
In addition to Baku’s traffic quirks, parked vehicles clog city sidewalks as they often do in older European cities, making the lives of pedestrians precarious at times. Along the sidewalks old men set out bright orange cones or small crates filled with rocks, blocking off spots they then rent to motorists. No one parks anywhere in Baku without paying someone. Everyone seems happy with the arrangement.
On the other hand, no one seems pleased with city bus drivers. Buses in Baku are universally hated. There are several reasons for this, besides the fact they’re filthy.
Bus drivers must lease their vehicles from a private company that has purchased routes from the city. Drivers also have to buy their own gas, oil and tires, as well as make any mechanical repairs, while presumably trying to turn a profit. The system seems to have put most bus drivers in a perpetually bad mood, an observation reflected in the speeds at which they drive through Baku intersections while talking on cell phones and leaning on their horns.
I never crossed a street against the light or in sight of an oncoming bus. I marveled at the many pedestrians who did. In Baku, pedestrians and drivers wrestle endlessly over the intersection of their interests, and winners are not apparent.
* * *
Sometimes it’s clear what Baku is not. The city has not fallen into the West’s reliance on hand-held electronic devices for entertainment, guidance and distraction. In public, I never see groups of people, young, middle-aged or older, huddled over smart phones or tablets. My classroom, however, is another matter.
In class my students pay attention, but no one takes notes. Perhaps it is too difficult, listening in English and writing as I speak. I make them stash their computers and phones on a table at the end of the room, which irritates them no end. It takes time to convince them that I need to hear what each person has to say and that it’s truly not possible for them to understand what I’m saying if they’re fooling with electronic devices.
“Multi-tasking doesn’t really work,” I tell my students. “It just means you’re doing two things not very well. Besides, you’re working in a language that is not your native language. Listening in another language is hard work.” I say this with confidence, as if I can speak another language fluently.
Then I add, “There is an old Jesuit expression I like: ‘Do what you are doing.’ What do you suppose this means?” Blank stares, just as there were in my classes at the University of Connecticut.
People repeat what I have said several times. They mutter, then look at each other and shrug. Etibar speaks for the group: “It does not make any sense, this expression.”
“I know,” I say. “It’s hard to understand at first. Anyone?” I pause. I repeat: “Anyone?” I can’t help myself. None of my Azeri students has seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, however, and they fail to provide the appreciative laugh I seek.
My admonitions and attempts at humor do not always hit the mark. These young men and women are not 18-year-olds. Some are married; one has children and is 37. They all have held jobs after college and are smart.
They also are used to coming and going as they please and handing in assignments when they see fit. Three—Gunel, Lala and Nezaket—are punctual without fail. Shahnaz and Bayram skip one week out of our four-week class to do other things. Etibar, a published writer and a blogger of some repute, does what he wants, which is turning out to be little.
Three of the four women live at home. Gunel and Lala tell me one day they are already too old to get married. They say this with an underlying fierceness, apparently angered at cultural rules they are powerless to change. Gunel is 25;Lala, 26.
“We are old maids,” says Gunel, smiling with no humor. She often appears annoyed with the secular Muslim society that binds her so closely to family. She is stuck for the moment, however. About her inquisitive relatives, who quiz her like an 8-year-old coming home from school, Gunel says in class one day, “They are eating our lives.” The line prompts sharp laughter from Lala that sounds like a bark. I compliment Gunel on her poetic English. She beams.
Weeks later, after she leaves Baku and her family for the first time to study and live in nearby Tbilisi, Georgia, Gunel emails me. “I had a dream, to live alone in another country,” she writes. “Now I reach my dream, but unfortunately it did not make me happy. I miss everything I hated.” She recovers from this homesickness, but it takes time. The fear of change seems to depress her.
* * *
Azerbaijan has long been a political and geographical version of a place environmentalists call an ecotone, a convergence between two habitats, like estuaries and meadows, where each landscape lives under constant physical pressure. A stop along the Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia, Baku has lived for centuries with the jostle of competing cultures and nationalities. A mid-19th century oil boom brought tens of thousands of roustabouts to the city, which grew fat with lavish homes. Baku was also roiled periodically by socialist unrest, prompted by the profound disparity in wealth. Two years of independence followed World War I. Azerbaijan fell to the Communist rule of its Russian neighbor shortly afterward and remained under it until 1991, when life finally leaked from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
There are, in fact, two Azerbaijans, one north and one south. The smaller northern version became the country whose capital is Baku. The second Azerbaijan, larger but lesser known, is an Iranian province to the south, a remnant from the Persian Empire. Azerbaijanis, ethnically Turks for the most part, are approximately 85 percent Shiite Muslims; the remainder are mostly Sunni Muslims with a small number of Orthodox Christians and other beliefs. Most Azerbaijanis are wholly secular and infrequently religious, thanks to decades of godless Soviet influence. I never saw a mosque in Baku or heard a call to prayer, although both are allowed.
My students tell me stories about their former high school classmates who converted to Salafism, a fundamentalist strain of Islam popular in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, the turbulent autonomous region along Azerbaijan’s northern border. Its networks of Islamic extremists have largely dropped underground but continue to worry governments in the neighborhood. Several of their former schoolmates, my students insist, fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re concerned that Salafism may widen its appeal among the young and that Azerbaijan will have to wrestle with insurgents and religious fanatics. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the Boston Marathon bomber brothers, visited Dagestan in early 2013, perhaps learning the skills that later caused so much harm. My students are not wrong to worry about religious extremism. Change could happen quickly in the volatile Caucasus.
* * *
At the end of the first week of class, Shahnaz tells me she will be gone the following week because she has booked herself as a radio trainer in a city near the Russian border. “I must go,” she says. “It is my job. My boss says I have to go.” The part about its being a job requirement may or may not be true. Journalists earn little money in Azerbaijan, however, and the training session will no doubt bring Shahnaz some needed extra income.
Everyone in class hears this discussion and waits to hear my response. Everyone knows everyone else’s business and discusses that business without constraints. When one of the administrators running my teaching program arrives to give me my per diem money for other expenses, I suggest we go out into the hallway to conduct our business.
“But why?” she asks. “We can do it here. It’s more comfortable.” And so we do, my students watching with great interest as she counts out fourteen $100 bills.
Not long after Shahnaz’s announcement, Bayram asks me to let him go on a photo shoot to Shamakhi, a city also north of Baku. He is an accomplished photographer and intends to make it his profession. Lala, who is sitting next to Bayram, interjects for him: “He needs the money. You should let him go.”
My students often stand up for each other. I find it endearing, as well as annoying. They constantly tell me they are a team: they came into the program together, and they must stay together. I sense that this assumption may turn out to be wrong, but at this juncture no one knows that.
* * *
Just days before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, I interviewed three teenage boys on a street corner in East Berlin. Two of the three, caught up in Leipzig’s nightly street demonstrations and the flight of East Germans through Hungary to the West, told me their names and answered my questions about what lay ahead for East Germany. The third, however, would not talk to me and became increasingly agitated as his companions urged him to do so.
“Who is this guy?” he finally shouted at them. “You hear his English, and he says he is American. You think that is okay. You do not know anything. Have you forgotten where we live?” The other two young men looked at each other, chagrined. All three soon walked off, the one who would not talk to me continuing to berate the others.
I was reminded of that incident in Baku. Like all places without a functioning media, Azerbaijan is alive with rumor and hapless speculation. Journalists who don’t sufficiently toe the government line are picked up by police, questioned, harassed. It’s hard to know whom to trust. People are wary. They are helpful and unfailingly polite with visitors, but also mindful of where they live. They appear trusting but rarely say what they think.
The story of Khadija Ismayilova provides a cautionary tale for all Azeri citizens, but especially journalists. She is a reporter for Radio Free Europe whose stories about state corruption have targeted Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and his family. Like Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, the Aliyev family essentially treats Azerbaijan as a family-owned ATM.
Ordinary citizens are not especially worked up by this. They understand and expect autocratic behavior. Aliyev’s father, former Azeri President Heydar Aliyev, ruled the country with a firm hand from 1993 to 2003. A former KGB general and Soviet Politburo member, the older Aliyev created a cult of personality in Azerbaijan that is evidenced today by his name appearing on what seems to be every other building, park and museum in Baku. He left Azerbaijan to his son, Ilham. The younger Aliyev was “re-elected” to a third five-year term in October 2013. The day before balloting, Azerbaijan’s Election Commission inadvertently announced he had won with 73 percent of the vote. The following day—after the polls had actually closed—Aliyev was declared the winner with 85 percent of the vote.
The Aliyev family found Ismayilova’s reporting about corruption objectionable, and in 2012 she was warned to stop. She has since been charged with leaking state secrets. In addition, videos taken by a hidden camera and posted on YouTube showed Ismayilova having sex in her apartment with her boyfriend. In a culturally Muslim country her acts are shameful and scandalous.
The Azerbaijani government is not without its wiles, however. Aliyev has also built apartment buildings for journalists only. The two- and three-bedroom units are paid for by the government and include residents who work for pro-government media as well as people considered opposition journalists. Baku is getting more expensive every day, and finding good housing is difficult.
* * *
Like most young people, my students seem uneasy. The life dramas they have cut and pasted
together captivate them; they call these tribulations their lives. They focus on things not in their control. It’s understandable. Life in autocratic Azerbaijan’s pseudo-democracy exists on a knife’s edge for many.
By the third week of class, Etibar begins to slide out after lunch, gone for the remainder of the day. Shahnaz and Bayram occasionally arrive two and three hours late in the morning. Things come to a head after I hand back a quiz.
Lala has turned suddenly sullen and insists she correctly answered one of the questions. The correct answer was “all of the above.” Lala’s answer was partly correct, but so were the two other answers listed. Only “all of the above” covered all options.
Lala, tall, poised and willowy, does not care. Her name means poppy in Azerbaijani.; she has two Russian grandmothers and speaks the best English of my six students. She often wears red and is self-confident enough to call me by my first name from the outset.
Lala refuses to accept my point about “all of the above.” Perhaps it is the first time she has seen such a test question. She pouts. “I deserve to get it,” she says. She looks down when I stand firm against her plea, an unhappy 7-year-old.
In solidarity, Gunel takes out her phone and begins fiddling with it. Gunel, who stands about 5 feet 9 inches tall and is heavyset, pays close attention to the tone of the class. She has deep brown, intelligent eyes and a round, pretty face and tends to the others’ needs, which are many. She is kind and smart and self-possessed, and intuitively seems to understand what journalism is supposed to be. I also believe she understands why Lala got the question wrong, but Gunel will remain Lala’s friend long after I have returned to the United States.
“Gunel,” I say, “if you play with your phone you can’t listen to our discussion.”
She is nonchalant. “I am listening,” she says, not angry but not looking up. The exchanges trigger a sudden switch in classroom tone, a subtle change in emotional temperature that all teachers have felt. I can see we are going nowhere by going over the results of the quiz. I also know Etibar has cheated on it, but I’ve let that slide.
Neza tells me later, “He looked at my paper and got a better mark than I did. I do not like this guy.” Not one to keep her emotions hidden, Neza is clearly angry. The tide on their Three Musketeers’ all-for-one-and-one-for-all notion is starting to turn.
To break the bad mood over the quiz results, we walk down to the city center to conduct man-on-the-street interviews. In Fountain Square and the older sections of Baku the three women who have paid the closest attention in class, Gunel, Lala and Neza, impress me with their willingness to walk up to strangers and get them to talk.
They all ask the same question, “What makes you happy?” The interviews that eventually run on our web page offer glimpses into the lives of these ordinary Azeri citizens. Bayram, who wants to be a professional photographer, shoots street portraits that are the focal point of the assignment. Shahnaz and Etibar don’t come with us.
* * *
People frequently stare at me as I walk down the street. I am taller than most Azerbaijanis and have gray hair and an aging Irish-American face. I am wearing an out-of-fashion nylon trench coat that drops to my ankles and snaps out behind me in Baku’s constant and strong fall winds. People ask “How do you like Baku?” followed soon by, “It is called the city of wind.” They smile, as if the name is a clever play on words.
The winter wind howls in Baku. But it is not quite winter. When gusts of 15 to 20 miles per hour hit us as we walk to lunch, I make small talk by stating the obvious, “Geez, it’s windy today, isn’t it?” Bayram looks at me and shakes his head.
“No. It is not windy today,” he says, laughing. “You will know when it is windy. Sometimes it’s hard to stand up.”
I’m certain he’s exaggerating.
By early December, it’s clear he wasn’t. Temperatures that had parked in the 60s well into November have dropped to the 30s. Winds of 20 and 30 miles per hour are common. Baku cowers in the fierce, prodding, unrelenting wind. It rattles the windows of my Soviet-built, 11th-story apartment, howling to get in. At the end of the hallway outside my door the wind bangs a window open and shut; it whistles down the elevator shaft, resolute, determined. I mention this to my students, who laugh. Wait, they say. Winter is just beginning.
It will get worse.
Indeed. On the mid-December day before I leave Baku, 50-mile-per-hour gusts scour the city, sending streams of dust, paper, plastic bags, cigarette butts and at least one bright pink scarf into the air. Walking home up a hill, I see small women, children and the infirm stop and hold onto street signs or the handle of a parked car, resting before soldiering on. High winds force the cancellation of flights out of Heydar Aliyev International Airport. I hear not one word of complaint.
* * *
In the middle of November our classroom, no more than 12 feet across by perhaps 20 feet deep, is usually hot, despite the mild 60-degree weather. Students object, however, if I open the window, as people do all across Russia and Eastern Europe, frightened of getting sick by sitting in a draft.
In the summer of 1992, with temperatures in Bucharest well into the un-air-conditioned 90s, I found myself stuffed with four others in a Dacha, a small, Romanian-made car. Three people were smoking; all the windows were rolled up tight. When I tried to crack a back seat window, someone immediately looked over at me and wagged an index, saying with a frown, “curent, curent,” which means blowing air or wind.
It’s the same in Central Asia and, apparently, in the Caucasus. Everyone seems still to believe that wind carries illness. Although my students in Baku are more polite about it, the minute I crack the classroom’s window all the women shrug into their coats and hunch their shoulders, as if it were 10 below zero outside instead of the middle 60s.
Etibar has skipped four classes and is clearly bored. He is 6 feet tall, with a winsome smile. Married, he is a writer of literary essays, and his work is part of a newly published collection he shows me. Etibar says he is not really interested in writing news stories.
“But that’s what this class is all about,” I say. “We’re learning how to write hard news and feature stories. Reporting. We’re explaining the world we see.”
“Yes,” says Etibar. “I know. I already know how to do this.”
Etibar may be the brightest in a bright group. Intellectually, he understands the inverted-pyramid news story form and how it’s supposed to work. He knows the questions that need to be answered—who, what, when, where, how and why—but does not yet know how to take notes. Really, he doesn’t believe in the value of taking notes and so does not. Getting people to master the skills they need to produce impartial news stories is not easy, even when they want to.
I once asked Gunel whether she should write a story about two children who were missing but found at home in a closet, unharmed and well, after police and parents had searched for two hours.
“No. Why should I write a story?” she asked. “Nothing happened. They were found. They were okay. You just told us.”
“Yes, but it’s unusual, isn’t it? Police came. People across the neighborhood searched for the children for two hours.”
“No. Kids get lost all the time. Then they are found.”
* * *
For my students the changes wrought in their city are a mixed blessing. They are caught up in the remarkable nip and tuck that transforms Baku’s buildings and tantalized by the economic possibilities the future holds. They smile silently when I tell them I admire Baku’s three-pronged “flame towers” building. This is not entirely true but is clearly what they want to hear. They are concerned about the result of Baku’s physical changes. They also fear that Azeri journalism will remain a stifled, government-controlled paean to President Ilium Aliyev, a topic alluded to but never discussed.
“The Baku of my youth is disappearing a little each day,” a woman named Hanam tells me as we drive across the city one day. She sounds wistful. Like my students, she understands there is little chance for her to change the course of life in a country that remains a family business.
* * *
Nezaket, the oldest student at 37, is a mother of two children she adores and a husband she never mentions. Like many marriages in the former Soviet republics, hers may have run its course, but getting an actual divorce is too much trouble. She runs a small janitorial and babysitting business, hiring neighborhood women she knows.
Neza is slight, perhaps 5 feet tall and 110 pounds. She is fearless and driven. The best natural reporter in the class, she will ask anyone anything. When my Internet service is turned off because my landlady did not pay the electric bill before skipping off to Turkey with the rent money, Neza helps restore my WiFi when no one else can.
Shahnaz often stares at me throughout class discussion, seemingly struggling to understand the conversation. She has her own weekly radio talk show and is personable and pretty. Shahnaz is not, however, fully versed in the vagaries of spoken English. It’s never clear to me what she truly understands. She always says she understands everything, which is possible, but since she has difficulty speaking English I’m left wondering what she knows and, more important, what she can produce. Shahnaz frequently asks colleagues in Azerbaijani what I’m asking. Her writing in English is atrocious.
Bayram looks on, speaking only when spoken to. He is interested but is also unable to offer much discussion. We have gotten to know each other a bit and shake hands on those rare mornings when we first see each other, a cultural wrinkle I first learned in Romania in 1992. I like all of these people immensely and they like me. We get along well, even if cutting corners is occasionally their preferred method of work. It’s not their fault. This is Azerbaijan. This is what they know. I am trying to help them understand something they don’t know.
I tell them they will like Tbilisi because it is old, wrinkled, cobbled, foul-aired, German-looking in places, a rundown Pristina in others. It is a sophisticated place compared to Baku and quite different, poised, Western in outlook, comfortable in its Orthodox Christianity. Georgians walking through Freedom Square will stop to look up at the gold-plated statue of St. George and say a short prayer, crossing themselves three times in the Orthodox fashion, left shoulder to right, before walking on. The Georgia press is irresponsible and uneven, but it is allowed to write critically and broadcast mostly as it pleases. My students listen to my thoughts about Tbilisi; it’s not often an American has told them what he thinks about Georgia’s capital.
* * *
I write the strongest recommendations I can for all my students except Etibar. I believe that everyone else should continue on to Tbilisi. I have trouble convincing the Azeri woman who runs my program that Etibar should be dropped. I explain that he does not care about the class and that he only wants to get a master’s degree because it will look good. He does not intend to become a journalist, I tell her.
“I’m not sure he’ll go to class in Tbilisi,” I say. “He doesn’t come to class here. I don’t see why he would change his behavior, do you?” I wait. She does not reply.
“Look, it’s not personal,” I add. “Etibar is a good enough guy, but he’s just along for the ride. The others seem to think they must bring him along. But he’s not doing any work, and they also resent that, I can tell.”
“But they are a group,” she answers. “They came in together, and they expect to go to Tbilisi together.”
“I think they understand that things are different now. They recognize that Etibar is a freeloader.” I’m hoping she understands this idiom.
“Yes,” she says. “That is true. I have talked to them. But I have never done this before, not sent everyone to Tbilisi. This is not the way we do it in Azerbaijan.”
“Sure,” I say. “This is the American way. You can blame this on me. Everyone will understand.” She knows this is true and relaxes.
* * *
When I leave Azerbaijan two weeks later, I share a ride to the airport with the regional security officer at the American Embassy, his wife, and their four children. His name is Dwight, and the family is headed to Idaho for Christmas. He looks and talks like the military guy he used to be. Ten seconds after he steps into the van he says hello, then starts grilling me about who I am, what I’m doing in Baku, how long I’ve stayed and who I’ve met. When I tell him I’ve been teaching journalism to a group of six students, he pauses, then asks, “Which one do you think is talking to the government?”
I am glad to hear someone else say what I have been thinking for a while. I never mentioned this to anyone for fear of being thought a cynical Cold War relic. But spend some time in Azerbaijan, and it becomes evident there is a persistent whiff of the Soviet system lurking around the edges of Azeri society. My apartment building superintendent, for instance, watched me closely as I came and went, following me down the block on occasion and solicitously offering help when my hot water went out. The odor is faint, non-threatening, but evident.
“It’s funny to hear you say that,” I tell him. “I thought the same thing. Do you suppose that’s what happens?”
“I don’t know,” says Dwight, whose voice says he thinks he does know. “I think maybe someone has a chat with someone in class every now and then. Just, you know, to see what’s going on.”
“Just one person or more than one?”
“It’s hard to say. Hell, it could be all of them.”
We both laugh, weighing the likelihood his comment is true.
* * *
Somewhere during our month together my students began to call me “professor” or “Mr. Kenny,” titles I never suggested they use. When we went out on the streets for interviews, they made a point of introducing “our American professor” to people they talked with. My students and I came to understand one another during my month in Baku. Perhaps our classroom offered them protection of sorts. Eventually they lost their fear of saying the wrong thing and questioned me about the underlying nature of Western journalism, its values and purpose.
My students knew that if they practiced journalism in Azerbaijan they would constantly have to tiptoe past the truth, accepting unwritten rules in exchange for employment and social status. I expect several will leave the country, reluctantly, despite worries about forging a coherent future. Perhaps one or two, unable or unwilling to leave, will work as journalists, complicit and accepting. Places like Azerbaijan cannot change easily; in the meantime, accommodation must be made.
I felt fortunate, and relieved not to be young. I was returning home.