Friday, September 22, 2006

Shirali Muslimov turns 201

It was Shirali Muslimov's birthday on September 4. Yeah, I know, I forgot too. But if you didn't send a present it's ok, he died in 1973. And while it's too bad the old codger is dead, he was causing a birthday candle shortage, plus that darn cake was a fire hazard.

For a while in the 1970s, many old timers from Azerbaijan were going around claiming that they were very old. Like, really, really, ancient. This might seem strange in our youth-obsessed culture, but these people would routinely tell others that they were well over 120. I don't know why they did this. I can just imagine their conversations,
"You're 129? Well I happen to be 136 years old."
"Oh yeah? Well I am in fact am 142 and used to be Napoleon's valet."
And this sort of thing would go on for hours.

The king of these old timers was Shirali Muslimov who died on September 4, 1973 at the purported age of 168 years, allegedly making him the oldest man that ever lived, aka, the world's oldest man. His birth certificate read 1805, which made him 168 at the time of his death. He claimed to have fathered a child at the age of 136, which of course provokes some interesting questions of the who would be mating with a man of that age.

Muslimov spend his incredibly long life in the village of Barzava, 150 miles south of Baku, in the hilly Shiral region near the Iranian border. He didn't leave his village much, so you can assume that he got to see the whole town before he died.

Experts consider that the longest a human can live is 115 years old give or take a few shakes of the hourglass. But many Azeris insist that their grandmother lived to 136 or 141. The proper reply to these claims is to boast that your granny lived even older.

But Muslimov (aka Mislimov) put Azerbaijan on the map as a place where people live to a ripe old age and there is some evidence that certain people in the hills live to an extreme old age and interantional experts are still getting grants to poke around into the reason behind this.

But Muslimov caught everybody's imagination. The Soviets loved this old Talish shephard for representing their claims of superiority. Danone yogourt also loved him as he inspired a successful advertising campaign attributing extreme longevity in the Caucasus to the comsumption of yogourt. National Geographic wrote about his great age, although they later recanted and suggested that he might not be as old as he claimed. The Azeri government put him on a stamp in 1994. So if all these people loved the old coot, who are you not to?

I hereby suggest that September 4 be hereafter marked by the United Nations and celebrated as the Shiraz Muslimov International Day of Longevity and Celebration of Centenarians and I think you should listen to me, as I am a wizened old man of 143 years of age.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

New RÖYA update

The Great Röya Riots of 2006 - Baku's controversial singing sensation has once again provoked general outrage. During a recent outdoor performance in Baku, rain started falling, electrical devices short circuited and things generally went awry and lo-and-behold the Caspian chanteuse had soon taken flight from her own performance. When the crowd realized that Röya had am-scrayed, a general melee ensued as angry patrons decided to take their Röya rage out in an aggressive manner. Details at 11.

Pen pals await....

I've been to Azerbaijan and yes yes yes yes! what they say is true. What is it that they say again? Oh yes I remember... they say that it boasts the most beautiful women on the planet. Of course there's good and bad within any population, but I didn't see much of the bad over there when it comes to the female population. And the coolest thing is that you can meet them simply by clicking a few buttons on your computer, here are a few looking for pen pals that I found on one site. So let me introduce you to Samira, Yuliya, Afag, and Sabina. Azerbaijanis can speak Azeri, Turkish and Russian and many can speak English as well. Their English might be a bit wobbly, but yours isn't likely all that great either. I'd suggest you get some pen pals and get to know some Azerbaijanis so once you go to visit, you'll have a great place to visit and some pretty cool people to hang out with.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Azeri crooner Oqtay Agayev suggests other singers be shot

Oqtay Agayev
, an old time big-band type singer, was quoted this week by the Azeri press suggesting that singers who reveal too much skin should be "shot."

Azerbaijan show-business takes the culture to abyss. Famous artists do nothing but showing strange culture in the stage by undressing. They should perform culture and tradition but not do a strip-tease. In our period there was a serious censorship on music. Law quality music was not allowed to air. I hope Art Council will remove this disgrace. If it can not, we can do nothing but ‘shooting’ them,

"Agayev said he had health problems some times ago."

I assume they mean he has
mental health problems, as this lunar crooner is obviously crackers.

Now I like a splashy story as much as the next wanker but I question this particular paper for running such an insane, violence-promoting rant, particularly during a week where somebody went and shot up a college a few blocks from my house here in Montreal.

This seems to be a good time to share my thoughts on Azerbaijan's artistic generation gap. It's a painful time for some old school Azeri artsies because of the esteem that Soviets once laid on artists has largely disappeared as a demographically-weighty generation has come along hauling an entirely new cultural freight but I'll spare you such pontification and go right to the fleshy Azeri pop stars that seem to have troubled him so.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Yanardagh - Quebec play salutes Azerbaijan's refugees

Dominick Parenteau-Lebeuf is an accomplished Montreal playwright who wrote Rock ("Bascule"), one of five separate scenes in a 2001 French Quebec play Yanardagh, which dramatizes the plight of Azerbaijan's refugees forced from their homes by Armenians during the Karabakh conflict. This play, which was performed as recently as May 2004 in Quebec City, also includes scenes written by other top-notch Quebec dramatists, including My Grandmother's Diaries by Evelyne de la Chenlière, The Dream by Anne-Marie Provencher, The Marriage of Arif and Gulnara by Jean-Pierre Ronfard and Soviet by Robert Claing, who also directed the play. The work was inspired by photographs of Azeri IDPs (internally displaced people) forced from their ancestral homeland into dreadful conditions in makeshift Azerbaijan refugee camps, often old railway cars.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Az's tourist billboard - a work in progress

Azerbaijan is an incredibly photogenic place. The two shots above are just a couple of hundreds of amazing pics I took and I'm a bad photographer with a cheap camera, imagine what you could do. So when I saw this tourism billboard poster
aiming to bedazzle and allure you to visit the country, I suffered a sudden and acute case of underwhelmeditis. I suppose there's an entire strategy behind it. I wish I knew it, but I wasn't there to hear the discussion that led the tourist authorities to choose this image and slogan. I guess the slogan "there's more than a few oil wells" is supposed to be a catchy double entendre, but it doesn't even hint at what those other things are. Water? Hills? Women? I guess I should suggest something here. How about : "Istanbul + Moscow + Adventure = Azerbaijan." or, "Azerbaijan - the ancient land of the future." Or "Azerbaijan: the Soviets have left, but they left some vodka."
Okay, I know, I know. Can you do better?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Interview with Azerbaijan Diary author Thomas Goltz

I'm thrilled to offer readers the following exclusive interview with Azerbaijan Diary author Thomas Goltz. Goltz was an American living in Turkey when he moved to Azerbaijan in 1991 to become a unique outside witness to the transformation of the country, from the bloody Black January massacre of Azeris committed by Russians, to the Karabakh War, to the dealmaking which set the Azeri oil wealth into full flow. This true story makes for a spellbinding action adventure, packed with intrigue, passion and politics, it's a must-read for anybody who wants to lay peepers on a crackling good yarn.

Now Azerbaijan Diary has been translated and will be on the shelves in Azerbaijan in early 2007. It will surely become the major buzz of the year in Azerbaijan, as the book offers unique depth of detail and description of the events in this country during a crucial time in independent Azerbaijan's short history.

Here are my questions and his answers:

Q: Azerbaijan Diary tells the story of a time and place that no other book tells, how was it received in Azerbaijan?

There’s been a project floating around for four or five years now, trying to get Azerbaijan Diary translated and published in Azeri. It’s finally going forward thanks to a series of happy chances and coincidences. The book doesn’t pull any punches and it’s certainly not a propaganda piece for anybody atop of the Azerbaijan leadership so there’s a very healthy ambivalence about the book there.

Q: Your book deals with a lot of incredibly charged issues and some have come right out and challenged some of your accounts, such as the dreadful Khojaly Massacre where Azerbaijani civilians were killed in big numbers by the Armenians.

Nobody challenged my description of Khojaly in public but they did it behind the scenes in nasty ways. So if you were to punch my name or book on Amazon where readers and buyers get to post their own reviews, there are about 44 of them and some of them get very, very brittle and nasty. The nastiest one that I recall was one that - in addition to accusing me of being paid by Turkish MIT or state intelligence, CIA, Mossad, KGB and maybe even the Chinese thrown in for a change, as well as big oil - that I was the mastermind of the Khojaly non-event. It’s ridiculous but I have had that sort of stuff as a result of the book and death threats as well. How serious were they? One doesn’t really know. As well, there was a general bunch of nastiness from the usual suspects but it goes with the territory if you’re going to be writing about these kinds of subjects, you have to expect such results.

Q: There are some pretty naked descriptions in Azerbaijan Diary, and I’m thinking of, for example, your account of Azerbaijani-Karabakh residents in Imaret Kervat having their homes burnt down by the same neighbouring Armenians they had long lived near and went to school with. And yet I’ve seen you praised by some Armenians for your honest account of the Karabakh War. Have such vivid descriptions made you public enemy number one in Armenia?

No, although I hasten to say that I’ve got a fan club – a very small one - but a fan club nonetheless in Yerevan, Armenia. The book is not completely unknown there and I’ve received some very curiously favorable reviews and comments and things like that. Sadly, I’d say that those are in the extreme minority.

Q: I’ve read recently that the Armenian settlers have largely abandoned the occupied territories adjacent to Karabakh. Some suggest that this is a sign that Armenia is ready to hand this area back over to Azerbaijan. Have you got a sense of what’s going on behind the diplomatic curtain in Karabakh now?

I haven’t been to the occupied territories in a very long time, nor mountainous Karabakh itself but I try to keep my finger on the pulse there. I try to talk to people who have traveled there legally or illegally and my impression is that the occupied territories have been looted and abandoned. Whether it’s in anticipation of a deal or not, I don’t know. Then there’s the mysterious forest fires in western Azerbaijan in the Fizuli region which have been raging all this summer. The question is: were they set or are they natural? I’ve seen some satellite photos of these areas and it would appear that the burns are on remarkably straight lines. Maybe it’s because these lines are roads, and fires don’t jump roads. Is it that the conditions have been so dry that suddenly a lightning strike has ignited a fire in the general area? Then why are they only burning in side the occupied territories and not on the immediate other side of the engagement? These are rhetorical questions. I can’t answer them. And nobody can until they get boots on the ground to take a look to see if they’re man-made. Let’s make an assumption then. We have to ask why, if they’re man-made, then why are the Armenians burning down the forests and fields in this area? Fields come back after the first rain, but forests are more serious, they take a generation or two to regenerate.

Q: Azerbaijan seems insistent on the issues of the fires, they brought it up in the United Nations Security Council this week and seem strongly convinced that the Armenians are behind this. Do you think that they have intelligence suggesting Armenians set the fire?

It’s the satellite photography that has keyed them off. They paid up and hired a satellite photographer to take a look. It’s quite clever of them. But the problem is that Azerbaijan has its hands tied, because in order to determine what the source was, you have to get in on the ground. At the same time they’re raising the level of rhetoric and debate at the UN and elsewhere. From my perspective is a rather clever thing to do.

Q: In Azerbaijan Diary, you repeatedly mention how the international media was disinterested in even the biggest war stories out of Azerbaijan. Do you think that the world is still overlooking Azerbaijan, or are things different now?

Has it changed? I would say yes, although the dynamic is different because right now we’re not in a hot war situation and we have other wars, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan. But given the hand of cards that Azerbaijan has been dealt recently they’re playing it cleverly. They’re keeping Karabakh on the international agenda through the fires, etcetera and they’re in a general outreach mode of thought that they were not in before. For example, they invited certain artists to perform for in the Baku Jazz Festival, which was originally funded by British Petroleum, now it’s funded by local companies. They’re cottoning onto the idea of promoting themselves in the world at large and in the region as well as Azerbaijan and I applaud that. It’s a little bit late but they’re catching up quick and in the best possible way because it’s not just nastiness, and starving people anymore. They still may rely on showing refugees to journalists; but now there are also these other aspects: music, culture, and architecture, and fun things that deserve to be known to the larger world.

Q: Azerbaijan can’t really permanently resettle its refugees because that would make it look like they’ve accepted the loss of land, but having them live in bad conditions seems inhumane. Is there a solution to that dilemma?

Any country that has a refugee problem will be stuck with the same dynamic and it’s sad, because the moment you settle your refugees you admit that you have lost forever. So keeping some refugees in some photo-op nastiness is just one of the things that happens to refugees. It still pertains to Armenia and Georgia as well, although the Georgians are a bit more proud and don’t show it off as much. So they’re sort of obligated to show their wounds, at the same time there are programs for more permanent housing even though it’ll never be called that. We’re talking building blocks made with low quality mortar. The idea being that when the occupied territories are liberated they can deconstruct these homes, put them on blocks and onto trucks and move them within 24 hours into well into the occupied territories.

Q: Near the end of Azerbaijan Diary you bemoan a speech Heydar Aliyev gives upon ascending to the presidency for vowing to win back the territories lost to Armenia. You suggest that it will doom another generation to bloodshed. Do you believe this now?

I remain really ambivalent about that and it comes from hating this thing called war on a profound, visceral level. I’ve just seen way too much of it. At the same time I can understand my Azerbaijani friends and their frustrations with the negotiating process. And whether that means they’ve got to include the threat of renewed violence in order to get back the occupied territories and maybe Karabakh. I’m not going to second guess them. It’s just that if it does go bang, it’ll be really nasty as both sides are determined and entrenched. If Azerbaijan were to go forward, they’d be going forward against an entrenched opposition that has been there for 10 years waiting for an attack and they’ll be attacking uphill which isn’t ideal.

Q: Journalists tend to dwell on the same themes when addressing Azerbaijan– rigged elections, the possibility of religious resurgence, corruption and yet they don't tend to mention the obvious good things happening in the country, the increased prosperity, the opening of the BTC pipeline this summer, which was a pretty big deal but got virtually no coverage here in Canada?

No, the opening of the pipeline was huge on TV everywhere else. The government trotted it out as a grand event. If anything, they were exaggerating the importance of it, but it was an important event. It was a political victory, an example of when politics trumps economics, which is not supposed to happen. And oil is also at $70 a barrel as opposed to $30 or $13 a barrel. That means there’s going to be a ton of money coming into Azerbaijan, a so-called wall of money. Whether that can be used successfully is, of course, a huge question. They have an oil fund. Will it be used or abused? We really don’t know. There’s even the perception of the country being phenomenally wealthy and if the guy on the street keeps on hearing in the news that the annual average income of the Azerbaijan citize is, eight million people divided into some huge number, he will then look and see that he doesn’t have that Rolls Royce. He's going to start asking why he's not benefiting from this prosperity. And what happens after that It is impossible to predict.

Q: Do you see that crisis of rising expectations as a serious potential problem? Do you have some intuition of the future of Azerbaijan, whether the future holds many curveballs for the country?

It’s not just Azerbaijan, it’s the entire South Caucasusian mindset, as in many ways there’s not a lot of difference between Georgians and Azerbaijanis, who are both coming out of the so-called Seventy Year Experiment. The difference in Azerbaijan is that suddenly they are going to be getting all this money without having worked for it. It is going to be dwarf whatever cash can be given the Armenian diaspora, which is what Armenia survives on. You add oil money into that sort of environment and it’s potentially explosive, it could be a real firecracker or perhaps something lovelier. I hate to be vague but it can go either way. Is the glass half empty or half full?

Q: Since your first went to Azerbaijan in the early 90s there has been an entire new generation of young people that have come along with their own priorities, not necessarily those of their parents. What impact do you think this will have?

My impression is that with younger generation is much more profoundly Azerbaijanified, they grew up with this theoretically independent state. The older generation may be inured to the idea of Soviet Azerbaijan, the way things always worked, everybody was employed and all state artists were sufficiently respected, etcetera. But those days are gone and there will be lingering bitterness there. But the 20-to-30 year-old crowd that I run into and - being the author of my book helps because I m a hero to some of them - I meet and greet all these folks and they seem to be much more attached to the idea of an independent Azerbaijan and all that entails: language, environment, culture, return to traditional musical modes, and then you infuse that with the fat of all the oil money coming in. You also have all these individuals traveling the world. I had the pleasure to attend a couple of different meetings of the youth of Azerbaijan; one was of graduates of English language institutions. It was held by the Azerbaijan Alumni Association (AAA) they tended to be grads of US universities but other schools too. There was a panel of four guys from the ministry of foreign affairs, one was the consul general of Los Angeles, one was the ambassador to Brussels of the European Union and Council of Europe, the ambassador to Austria as well, and an OSCE rep and then finally the individual responsible for press information and intelligence at the foreign ministry and they held this open panel. The language of the evening was English and that too was an extraordinary thing. Five or 10 or 15 years ago there would be no possibility of such an exchange. It was intensive; there was a Q&A on some delicate subjects, from the evaluation of the entrance exams of the Foreign Ministry to policy in Karabakh. It was very impressive to watch these youth conducting themselves like that. Two days before I was at a soiree where all of the ambassadors of Azerbaijan were called back to reacquaint themselves with Azerbaijan. There were 48 embassies abroad represented, plus generals. Once again, it was impressive. I was thinking of my days in 1991 and 92 when they first established the foreign ministry when they had me as the one talking to the world. I was helping draft their documents. I had to assure them that they wanted recognition, that they wanted that to be the situation. Now they have the money to do all this. They’re retooling, sending their people to see the refugee camps and to see military training, as well as the oil culture, a bit of this and that. There was also this collegial solidarity. It was extraordinary. I couldn’t have imagined this happening.

Q: The state of democracy is Azerbaijan is rregularly assailed. What’s your view of its development?

I hate to go into relative-land but let me start with the concept of democracy in the USA. What is the paradigm we are looking for all other countries to strive for and achieve and in what period of time? When I hear the world democracy I think George Bush and Condoleeza Rice and that’s not a good sign at all. In terms of this thing called participatory government, you can ask: can Azerbaijan do more? And the answer to that is yes of course. But at the same thing is true for all the lands of the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, as well as UK elsewhere too. Democracy has yet to be perfected anywhere that I know of and I’m not going to hold Azerbaijan up as an example of what can be achieved, although certainly that doesn’t mean that cops should be out hitting protesters with truncheons.

Q: What’s your feeling about Ilham Aliyev, have you met the president and what's your impression of him?

We met quite a few times before he became president. He was VP of Socar and periodically when I’d see his old man he’d be in the room. We’ve been aware of each other 10 years or so. I’m still withholding even partial judgment. He’s got big shoes to fill. His old man was this fascinating, interesting, contradictory guy that I had the pleasure of meeting when out of power and then back in power but Ilham is slowly but surely attempting to fill those shoes. He’s getting rid of some of his dad’s cronies and filling those positions with other individuals. What I find interesting now is - and this is speculative: what is that wall of money going to do? My sense is the last time I was in Baku meeting with a bunch of individuals, I was meeting people who might be considered corrupt, or not corrupt, but they were clearly post-Soviet. They seemed to be cleaning up their act and they were confident of living in a wealthy country so that they weren’t trying to squirrel away their money and I regard that as a good sign.

Q: How did you manage to pick up all these languages, Turkish, Azeri and Russian?

I’ve got a good ear I guess. I started Turkish as a second language in university. That obviously helped and then I ended up in Turkey and ended up married to a Turkish woman and exploited that opportunity shall.

Q: What are you doing now?

I am a visiting scholar here at the University of Montana, which has a longtime engagement with the rest of the world. There has been an East Asian connection for 20,or 30 yars, through Japanese and Korean and now there is this Central Asia component which is now expanding west to the Caspian and Caucasus which is why they brought me in, although I’ve had some connection as a visiting lecturer for 10 years. Now they’ve formalized it, so I have a course, an introduction to the post-Soviet Caucasus. It’s a bit of literature, music, culture a lot of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and Chechnya. You can’t look at these places in isolation.

Q: Are you originally from Montana?

I’m from North Dakota. We’re the butt of all Montana jokes but there’s a family connection out here from the mid 70s. I established a real residence here in 1990.

Q: You’ve also written Georgia Diary and Chechnya Diary and you’ve recently written a book about your times traveling Africa doing Shakespeare in the 70s.

It was brought out in London two months ago but I drafted it 28 years ago and it finally got picked up two years ago after being rejected by 30 publishers. It’s mainly about me wandering around Africa. Azerbaijan Diary is the longest of the three diaries. Chechnya Diary is the shortest and most intensely personal as it’s about a village, not a country. People have been saying that Georgia Diary is the most complex and comprehensive of the lot. The reason is that it reflects on 15 years of association and reflection as opposed to Azerbaijan, which is experiential and Chechnya Diary is brooding, dark and meditative. The Shakespeare in Africa book is completely different and people say that it's not my best book but it may turn out to be the most successful. I suspect it may be true, it’s a lot more approachable than the others.

Q: How well did Azerbaijan Diary sell?

The publisher is a crossover academic publishing house. They’re delighted to sell 2,000 copies. One day when I was sitting around talking about the Chechnya book with Thomas De Waal (The Black Garden) and Sebastian Smith who wrote a book called Allah’s Mountains published by NYU Press. We were sitting around and badmouthing our publishers as are writers will do and it turned out that St. Martin had published 5,000 hardbacks of my Chechnya Diary. These other two were wild with envy. That’s the context here of how many numbers of books of a relatively obscure subject matter get published. I think Sharp published 2,000 maybe more of the hard back and once it sold out it went to paperback and probably sold 15,000 to 20,000 copies of Azerbaijan Diary, which in a book of its size and price and subject matter is an insane best-seller.

Q: So when will it be out in Azeri?

This summer I got together with a translator and noticed it had been completed. I got some money to do it. It was huge to get that albatross off my back. We then started going to various publishers in Azerbaijan and creating a team of proofreaders copyreaders, editors and that’s the process I’m in and am fairly certain we’re going to be doing this, and basically waiting for some starter cash from a benefactor. But after that I’m almost all set and ready to go so I’d like to have it by the first of the year. Whether anybody in Azerbaijan will buy it is another question.

Q: What kind of life are you living now?

I live in a one bedroom apartment not far from campus. I come in on my bicycle or on my feet to my office. I lecture to my students and will be working on a film that I started work on four years ago about he oil odyssey, an insane journey on a three wheel motorcycle along the BTC route before it was sanctioned and before they wanted us to give it any attention at all. The US government, BP, didn’t want to have anything to do with it, then President Heydar Aliyev and (Georgia President Eduard) Shevardnadze realized that his sort of insane stunt circus on wheels might be the thing that would get international attention to this project. The project is like A River Runs Through It meets Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve finally got all the original tapes. I wanted to work in Baku but had to return to teach, so I’ll arrange with the local media centre. I have an expert student cutter. He’ll get credits and hopefully after six hours a week we’ll stitch it together to get a solid rough draft form and start cutting around and see if it can get on PBS or elsewhere We shot it three times, the first time 2000 and then 2001 and 2002. It was a circus. I brought all these traditional singers from the theatre in downtown Baku along with refugee camp people and turned this motorcycle adventure into a Kafka circus, the working title is The Oil Odyssey.

Q: When you think back about your times reporting on the Karabakh conflict, standing in the middle of the war as bombs rained down all over, was it worth it?

I didn’t it give a lot of thought and then I reflected on it and I almost got mystical. I’m not a religious guy but it was one of those situations that in retrospect you were destined, selected. There was no one else there to do it. Whether I would do it again, I don’t think so. I’ve had too many of my nine lives already removed and too many friends killed. Another generation of war hacks deserve the opportunity to do it now.

Q: Are you still bitter that so few newspapers agreed to publish your articles from the frontlines of the Karabakh war, a fact you complained bitterly about throughout the text?

Not really. In retrospect it makes for a better story, a better book. Although I didn’t know I was writing a book about it at the time. It’s also a wake-up call. Let’s go into the land of imagination, let’s say that bringing in Khojaly to world attention would have landed me a staff job at the New York Times. That’s how it works. A stringer files and is on the front page and then gets a staff job, that means being transferred in and out of countries. You get sent to Moscow for two years, then Japan and Argentina two years, all that’s fine and good but it strips one of the intensity of the experience of living in one place over the larger term and being responsible to that place rather than being a parachute journalist.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Spiderman in Fountain Square

If you were wondering where Spiderman is these days, he's in Baku, apparently keeping a close eye on Fountain Square.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How Azerbaijan will save your life....

Only three more weeks until the season begins. No, I'm not talking about hockey season puckhead! Soon it'll be pomegranate season. That's when these luscious red fruit ripen and beckon us to open their hard-shells and lustily dig into their juicy red jewels, shamelessly tearing at the fleshy pulp, as sweet scarlet dew dribbles down and makes our chins look like painted toenails. It's a ritual that doesn't flatter our manners, but one that does astoudingly brilliant things for our health.

Pomegranate juice is your very own portrait of Dorian Gray except you need to refrigerate it and it doesn't have to go in your attic.

This stuff is God's Own Medicine, landing Mike Tyson uppercuts of antioxidants onto those nasty free radicals while it unclogs your arteries and does such fantastic health things that pomegrizzle has become the shizzle in Hollywizzle, as actors anxious to perpetuate their glorious youth have started sipping it by the gallon.

And from whence cometh the fruit of hearty trees able to survive cold weather and salty soil conditions? Glad you asked. Azerbaijan, natch. Long, long ago the Azzies passed a sapling on to the the Greeks, an act only Persephone regretted after eating seven seeds in the Underworld, dooming her chances of returning to Demeter. The plant took off from there. The Bible is full of pomegranate munchers, Jewish mythology equates the fruit with prosperity while other cultures associate our dearest fruit with fertility.

The best pomegranates on this blessed Earth are lovingly plucked off trees in Goychay, (ie: Blue River) a magical province of 56 farming villages on the tilted plains at the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. Goychay sits northwest of Baku and gets refreshingly cool even in the summer. The pomegranates aren't just delicious in that slice of heaven, they also make for such a stunning bucolic backdrop that painters such as Togrul Narimanbekov did for Azerbaijani pomegrante groves what Monet did for haystacks.

Azeri farmhands will soon start propping stepladders onto century-old greyish cracked bark. They will mount and cull the round red hard-shelled fruit from branches of the 12 foot trees, and lay them into balsawood baskets. The burgundy treasures then depart the farm in boxes, which get packed into trucks and backseats of Ladas and brought to streetside market in Lenkoran, Baku and beyond.

Thanks to this pomegraphic ritual, the next time you shimmy down to that magic section of your health food store, you'll find the best and most affordable juice is from Azerbaijan. It comes in a variety of names, Sameco, ILG, Lakewood, Crown, Seqment but just look for Azerbaijan on the label and you'll get the caviar of health tonics for a low price.

If you want to go the distance, try some wine. Azerbaijan has a long tradition of viticulture - and its Azerinar pomegranate wine contains triple the antioxidants of regular ol' red wine.

And do yourself a double favour. Google other pomegranate recipes, and you'll find ways of packing even more of this miracle anti-aging concoction into your weary corpus (ie: POMEGRANATE SHERBET Sugar – 30 gr. Pomegranate juice – 40 gr. Water – 120 gr. Food-ice – 20 gr. Boil water and dissolve sugar in it. Squeeze the juice out of a pomegranate into a separate plate, add it to sherbet and cool.)

I like my pomegranate juice in the morning. My ideal day begins as I wipe the sleep from my eyes, peer at my Tag Monaco while housemaid Nigar Talibova enters my bedroom with a big cool glass of pomegranate juice. This here pomegranate enabler is, after all, a man who likes to start his day in a certain happy mood.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Canada's embarassing ignorance about Azerbaijan

My fellow Canadians know nothing about Azerbaijan.

It's a Catch-22. If you try to tell them about the place, they don't want to know. It's simply not on the list of things they are curious about, as they've never even heard about Azerbaijan in the first place.

I'm struggling to change that.

As a print journalist who started in the inky trade 26 years back, I sadly confess that I'm not entirely proud of the way media sometimes approaches stories. The first time I had my faith shaken occured when a dear friend died in an accident. It became the front-page story in a local rag, probably because the tabloid obtained a rather glamorous photo of her. The article was so full of mistakes that I permanently lost some of my faith in the entire news conveying industry.

One way to judge for yourself is to read a travel article about your city. They're frequently so full of obvious errors and hackneyed generalizations that it shakes your faith in what you're being told.

As an amateur Azerbaijanologist I had one of those faith-shaking media moments this evening courtesy of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. A host named Brian Stewart interviewed British filmmaker Ivan O'Mahoney about his documentary called How to Plan a Revolution.

Director O'Mahoney works for a BBC show called Insight and flits from country to country, doing shows about suicide in Lithuania and ethnic intermarriage in the Netherlands.

The producer Shahida Tulaganova has been described elsewhere as "an Uzbek activist living abroad."

So I'm not entirely convinced their Azerbaijanology creditials measure up to the standards set by myself and Eddie Izzard.

Prior to this documentary, I don't recall the CBC ever mentioning Azerbaijan in any other context, even in passing. Not a word this summer about the opening of the massive BTC pipeline (the world's second largest), nothing about the Karabakh War for the last decade, or even about the suspicious fires which have claimed about one tenth of all the forestland in the country this summer.

But they show this documentary over and over.

The documentary focuses on Murad Hasanli, (aka Murad Gassanly) a high-spirited young Brit who cruised back into the country of his birth to participate in an opposition to the Aliyev government while importantly striding around and dashing in front of the camera like the Beatles in a Hard Days Night.

Hasanli aims to promote an Orange Revolution in Azerbaijan, similar to that which took place in the Ukraine and Georgia (where they called it a Rose Revolution). He is presented as a swashbuckling devil-may-care idealist, but I guess to those less enamored by him, he's just another aspiring politician. He too wants a piece of tasty government pie.

As many who lived Orange have learned, just because that pie has a nice orange colour, it doesn't mean that it's always sweet. As blogger Sean Guillory writes about the Ukraine, "Revolution doesn't mean automatic change. Sometimes it means simply putting the other guy in power."

I admire the two young high-spirited bucks featured in the film. Such watchdogs are important to the organic process of governing. But it's important that they be scrutinized as well.

The documentary would be a total snoozer without extensive footage of the police cracking down on a demonstration organized by the Orange revolutionaries. The cameramen got ample footage of cops pushing the protesters back, the type you rarely see, as most police forces are savvy enough to cover the cameras before forcing demonstrators back. The director muses about his good filmic fortune, ultimately ascribing it to the naivete of Azerbaijani riot squad.

These images were presented as proof that Azerbaijan is a repressive, anti-democratic regime. By those standards Canada is a repressive country too, just ask Jaggi Singh and other demonstrators who were brutally repressed and jailed here in Canada during the Quebec City summit.

Months after they first started showing this unflattering portrait of Azerbaijan, it's on our Canadian TV screens again, this time with an extra interview with the director, conducted practically with the interviewer sitting on the floor, looking up lovingly at the guy.

Director and CBC guy both agree that the orange boys are the good guy. The baddies are, as usual, Turks. The Turkish authorities, Azeris included, have long been sitting ducks for faceless vilification. Call it the Midnight Express Syndrome, (a film, which like Gallipoli, presents Turks as knuckle dragging apes). Turks seem disinclined to fight back when portrayed in such an unflattering manner. These days cultures who can spin news effectively can often control their own destinies.

Thus the media-unsavy Azeri government gets described as a "regime," the reason being that the elections which brought Aliyev to power merited some suspicion from the international community, although the exact nature of these criticisms never seem to have been fully fleshed out.

The implication is that Aliyev rigged the elections. But logically speaking, unspecified accusations of election irregularities do not infer rigged elections, although the CBC host feels entirely comfortable making this logical leap.

Perhaps in an effort to compensate for such criticisms, Aliyev has since loaded up government committees with members of the opposition and has agreed to put its petrobucks into a transparent fund for all to monitor. Freedom of speech has been so free that even the Azerbaijan Press Council criticizes the slander that small papers get away with. Admittedly, Azerbaijan's democracy isn't yet as polished as ours is, but they're taking steps in the right direction.

Thomas Goltz, whose brilliant Azerbaijan Diary criticized many aspects of the political process in the country, offers some insight into its electoral habits. In the 90s opposition candidates regularly accused electoral victors of fraud and yet the extensive exit polls that Goltz conducted confirmed the results, although in those early days the totals were exagerrated, Soviet-style, for emphasis. In other words, the announced winners were legitimate victors, but sometimes election administrators, new to democracy, would exagerrate the margins of victory. Presumably they've been instructed not to do this anymore.

I have nothing against London School of Economics radicals such as Murad Hasanli returning to their parents' homeland to liven things up and spray paint their slogans on walls throughout the city.

But I'm not convinced that the ragtag gang of oppositionists had a chance to win that election or even run the country competently in this crucial era. Perhaps opposition parties believe that there's an appetite for change in Azerbaijan but my sense is that Azeris realize that there's a lot of work to be done. I just don't see the people throwing their lot in with Murad and his gang who stride around with pickets reading "Oil is Shit."

Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, Azerbaijan has some pressing preoccupations and incredibly large projects to manage. For one, the government has an entire infrastructure to organize, roads, train tracks, and social institutions need to be built. 2-There are major international contracts to manage and 3- there is a WAR going on.

Amazingly, nowhere in this documentary nor Stewart's interview with the director was it mentioned that one fifth of Azerbaijan is occupied by Armenian military forces. Perhaps such a tidbit would be too much information for the TV media to try to convey to us viewers.

Unlike Canada, Azerbaijan also has to worry about neighbouring Iranians, Russians and Armenians slipping in to destabilize the country. The Great Game as it has long been played in the Caucasus deems that larger powers always try to divide and rule countries like Azerbaijan. The Azeris have a legitimate fear of agents provocateurs, particularly as the oil stakes and military conflict remain high stakes games. This doesn't excuse cops for wailing away at protesters with billy-clubs, but when your country is partly occupied and in a tense war footing, it's not a huge surprise that its patience for self-described revolutionaries might be a bit thin. Failing to mention this context makes for pretty dubious reporting.

So once again, I salute the CBC for at least mentioning Azerbaijan, but I also sigh that they opportunistically show only a corner of the jigsaw puzzle.

The old adage of 'if it bleeds it leads' remains the dominant dictum and the complex challenges faced by this former Soviet colony remain sadly overlooked.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Arson in the occupied territories

In early 1992 Armenians took control of the Azerbaijani province of Karabakh by military force. They claimed a legitimate irredentist right to separate from Azerbaijan, which Azerbaijan has not accepted.

In 1993 Armenia gained control of additional lands to the east and the west of that province, lands to which it has no legitimate claim. The lands held by Armenia adjacent to Karabakh are internationally recognized as illegally occupied territories.

The same areas where ethnic Azeris and Armenians long lived peacefully side by side are now entirely populated by Armenians, after Armenian military forces ethnically cleansed the region of Azerbaijanis.

Azeri civilians had to flee or be killed by Armenian snipers, as they were in Khojali in February 1992, a horrific moment of modern history in which Armenians murdered Azeri residents in manners so cruel that they surpass the scope of human comprehension.

After taking these territories by force, Armenia then offered incentives to Armenians to move there. Armenians were offered free homes, which actually belonged to Azerbaijanis that had been forced to flee. The rightful owners of these homes have been living for 14 years in IDP camps in Azerbaijan.

Armenia promised Armenians free electricity and cash incentives to have more children if they moved to these occupied territories. In recent times they have reneged on both of these promises.

In spite of the goodies, Armenians simply didn't want to move to these regions.

Nowadays these occupied territories are almost entirely unpopulated. Electricity is rare and roads are bad.

Prospective Armenian settlers have shied away from living in these war-torn areas probably because they realize that raising their children amid landmines in a place that could either be attacked by an Azerbaijani offensive or returned diplomatically to Azerbaijan isn't ideal.

Countless displaced Azerbaijanis dream of returning to their homes and I've spoken to many of them. The international community should really get involved in helping pressure Armenia to return these homes to their rightful owners.

Sadly, this summer a series of mysterious fires have devastated the forests and fields of these occupied (actually pretty much unoccupied) territories.

Azerbaijan was helpless to douse the flames because they are behind military lines held by the Armenians.

Azerbaijan has loudly expressed outrage at the fires, which they believe were intentionally set by Armenia as a way to discourage the hopes of Azerbaijanis who want to return to their rightful homes.

Azerbaijan has aimed its wrath at Andrei Kasprzyk OSCE representative in charge of monitoring the ceasefires. Kasprzyk dismissed the fires and suggested that they were started by dry weather.

Azerbaijan has criticized Kazpryzyk heavily. However they have stopped short of asking for the Polish diplomat's ouster.

On Tuesday September 5, the government of Azerbaijan will bring the case to the United Nations General Asembly.
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