Winter 2000 (8.4)
France's Cultural Diplomacy with Azerbaijan
Guinhut, French Ambassador
first became fascinated with Eastern culture decades before his
appointment as French Ambassador to Azerbaijan in August 1996.
His interest led him to become fluent in Arabic and Persian.
Along with English and French, he also speaks some Spanish, Turkish,
and even some Azeri.
Guinhut's appreciation for Azerbaijani culture runs deep and
reveals itself in the array of programs and projects that he
has supported during his tenure as Ambassador. While seeking
to bring Azerbaijanis closer to Western methods of education,
he also believes that the world has much to gain from being exposed
to Azerbaijani culture. Here Guinhut explains the French Embassy's
focus on cultural diplomacy, whether it be through improvements
in French-language instruction in Azerbaijan, training for journalists
or artistic exchanges between Azerbaijan and France.
It's obvious, at least for open-minded foreigners, that there's
a great deal of culture in Azerbaijan. You're not always able
to know where it comes from, or exactly how it works, but there's
lots and lots of it - most likely because we're in one of the
most ancient parts of the world.
When France first established diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan,
we knew from the very beginning that cultural activities would
be fundamental to our presence here. According to General [Charles]
De Gaulle, cultural diplomacy should rank extremely high among
the Foreign Ministry's primary affairs and activities abroad.
Above: Guinhut with world-renowned
cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (pictured here with the French
ambassador, left) who was born in Baku and has been returning
to Azerbaijan annually since 1998 to give Master's classes to
young talented musicians. French Senator Jean Boyer (back to
camera) and French Embassy Press Attache Gulnara Karimova look
De Gaulle used to say, "The life between two countries is
somewhat like that between two individuals. Even if things aren't
going so smoothly in politics or the economy, don't do any damage
or harm to cultural relations. They should remain on the same
level, regardless of what happens." Here at the French Embassy,
we try to be very faithful to this ideology of promoting peace
and good will through cultural relations.
These days at our Embassy, Gerard Neraud, who has a genius for
organization, is our Cultural Counselor. This enables us to be
active in many cultural realms from French-language education
to cultural exchanges, including artistic contacts and cultural
activities in both countries. In fact, since January 1999 - nearly
two years now - we've been organizing some sort of artistic or
cultural event every other week. That's more than a hundred programs.
We place all of these activities in the framework of fair and
balanced cooperation - state to state. We are trying to go deep
inside the reality of things, not to change them - because Azerbaijan
will change itself. Our goal is to share with Azerbaijanis a
few of the things that have worked in our own country.
Azerbaijanis are very gifted at learning languages. You can tell,
because they are extremely good at speaking Russian. The quality
of Russian in this country is extraordinary. Even average people
in Baku speak Russian well, like you would hear in St. Petersburg
Embassy has been sponsoring a cultural event in Azerbaijan every
second week for the past two years. On the occasion of the grand
opening of the personal art exhibition by Faig Gambarov [see
AI 6.4 cover, Winter 98 about Architecture] (right to left) Guinhut,
Gambarov, President of Artist Union Farhad Khalilov, and Italian
Ambassador Alessandro Fallovollita. Khalilov just received the
esteemed medal "Les Arts et Lettres" by the French
Ministry of Culture in December 2000.
As far as the French language is concerned, our goal is to foster
an effective pedagogical system to teach the language properly.
When you ask a student a question like: "What time is it?"
you don't need to have them recite lines from a famous play by
Jean Racine or Pierre Corneille. They don't need to know verses
of poetry to tell what time it is.
That may sound a bit ridiculous, but when I was teaching French
in Egypt, I came across some students who had been learning French
for years, but when I would ask them: "What time is it?"
or "What's your name?" they would respond with verses
of famous poetry because they didn't understand the question.
Literature and poetry, of course, have their place. But first,
students must master a certain number of practical patterns so
that they can carry on basic conversations with other French
speakers. That's what we want to do with Azerbaijanis - give
them the capability to communicate.
Two years ago, we began French programs here in two universities:
the University of Foreign Languages in Baku (previously known
as the Institute of Foreign Languages) and the University of
Nakhchivan. Students who are training to be teachers have now
begun their third year studying French. Afterwards, the best
will be selected to study in Grenoble or Strasbourg [France]
for another year to complete their training. This initial group
of 30 teachers will enter the Azerbaijani teaching system in
Above: The French Embassy
sponsored the perfomance of a mugham group at the Palace of the
Khans in Shaki, Nov 11, 2000.Soloist Samir Shirinov (gaval),
Namig Rezayev (tar), Elton Naghiyev (kamancha) and Maestro Marc
Loopuyt (French Oriental oud / lute).
Every student we send to France signs an agreement promising
to return to teach French here for a certain number of years.
If they don't return to teach, then one of the fundamental aspects
of our system is flawed. We don't budget money for foreign students
to learn French so that they can simply go out into the world
and make money on a private basis. We need some return for our
Of course, we're only at the beginning stages of our contribution
to French instruction in the public teaching system here. On
the French side, the University of Marc Bloch [L'Université
Marc Bloch] in Strasbourg is very involved in this project here
in Azerbaijan. Strasbourg is an important city for international
connections because it is the capital city for the Parliament
of the Council of Europe and the Parliament of the European Union.
This University, named after the distinguished French historian
Marc Bloch, supports the programs in the Azerbaijani universities.
For the past two years, a team of professors from Marc Bloch
has come to Azerbaijan each June to organize final examinations.
This means that, in Azerbaijan, these university exams are organized
completely on a Western standard.
We have posted French instructors in various cities throughout
Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan, Lankaran, Ganja and Shaki as well as two
schools in Baku: the University of Foreign Languages and the
Nasraddin Tusi Pedagogical University. The French program has
been organized in full cooperation and mutual understanding with
Azerbaijan's Ministry of Education.
Not Just English
Right now, Azerbaijan has about 700 French teachers and 70,000
students learning French. For a country with a population of
more than 7 million, that's not too bad.
Above: Evening visit to Zoroastrian
landmark Yanardagh (Burning Mountain) on the outskirts of Baku.
Far right: Guinhut with Kader Belarbi, Star Ballet dancer of
the Opera de Paris, French Embassy Cultural Assistant Azelma
Hasanova, and dancer Celine Talone also from the Opera de Paris.
April 24, 2000.
When Azerbaijan first became independent from the Soviet Union,
Azerbaijani parents were keen to have their children to learn
English. They said: "Forget about French, German, Persian
and Arabic. We want English."
Well, I don't blame them. After being abandoned by a Russian
"Big Brother", they felt that they needed another Protector.
Where was another one? Perhaps, America. Today Azerbaijanis have
a more realistic understanding of the world, but at the beginning,
there was a tendency to only study English.
Of course, English provides access to the West, but it's not
enough. It's not the only language; the world is much more democratic
than that. If you know English and French, or French and German,
or English and German, such a combination provides more choice.
These days, Azerbaijani parents want their children to learn
several foreign languages - not just English. I think that's
the right attitude.
French is the first or second language in at least 50 countries,
so it can be very useful to Azerbaijanis as well. Take education,
for example. At the University of Sciences in Ankara, there is
the possibility to study sciences such as geology or seismology
in French from A to Z. Similarly, instruction at the famous Galatasaray
University in Istanbul and the Marmara University in Istanbul
is all in French and Turkish.
We are encouraging Azerbaijanis to experiment with new teaching
methods - ones that they have helped develop themselves. Up to
this point, we've been using methods that are completely French.
Now we want experienced Azerbaijani teachers to create their
own new methods with help from our specialists. The first new
book should be available by the end of December .
We want the emphasis to be on the spoken, not written, form of
French, just like most other modern language-learning methods
throughout the world. However, this is the first time that an
Azerbaijani method emphasizes the students' ability to speak.
In this new method, the dialogues, which form the core of each
lesson, will coincide with the Azerbaijani culture and mentality.
The grammar examples should not be explicit and didactic at the
beginning. You do teach grammar, but you don't inform the students.
They absorb grammatical principles unconsciously, like Monsieur
Jourdain in Molière, who was speaking in prose without
realizing it. The students learn grammar through real-life situations.
After a while, these patterns become automatic.
In the classroom, direct word-for-word translation is not permitted.
This means that teachers have to be well trained; otherwise they
won't be able to teach without translating themselves.
We're proud at the Embassy to have facilitated the first French-Azeri
dictionary in the new Latin script, which Total Fina Elf helped
to sponsor. Of course, a French-Azeri dictionary already existed
in Cyrillic, but this is the first one in the new official script
of independent Azerbaijan. Now we're waiting for the reverse
volume - Azeri-French - and hope that it will come out in December
I really hope that Azerbaijanis will create an academic center
for translators, especially interpreters. I believe that our
new methods in French could fuel this possibility. Interpreting
is such a wonderful career, as it puts people in contact with
each other and helps them understand one another. It also offers
one of the best-paying salaries in the world.
To become an interpreter, you need to be fluent in at least three
languages; if you added a fourth language, that would be even
better. For the Azeri language, it's nearly impossible to find
interpreters any other place in the world. Nor are there very
many interpreters for the Turkish language. Azerbaijanis who
are gifted in languages could add the Turkish language to their
repertoire without much effort.
Another aspect of our activities at the French Embassy relates
to journalism. There is a genuine press here, and the people
are very interested in magazines and newspapers. As soon as there
are financial opportunities, we see new publications cropping
up like mushrooms after rain. Those that manage to get published
are extremely interesting and extremely free. But the journalists
in Azerbaijan need training.
Of course, we Westerners have this sort of dogma about freedom
of the press. Sometimes we are bound to say, "Well, isn't
it too much?" But not if the press is framed by a good deontology
- a code of ethics or moral behavior that determines the rights
and duties of the journalist. In France, we often refer to it
as the "American classification".
When you speak with a journalist, you have to clarify the status
of your talk in advance: if it's "on the record", "off
the record", "background" or "deep background".
This creates a special relationship between the source and the
journalist. If a source agrees to speak with the journalist,
he knows that the journalist as a professional will honor that
relationship. In turn, the source is obligated to tell the truth.
Two years ago we began asking Azerbaijanis - students, teachers,
young journalists and the Ministry of Information - "What
can be done?" We then decided to organize an Institute of
Permanent Training of Journalism, which we hope will eventually
become a regional institute for young journalists from the North
Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia, Georgia and Armenia.
We're committed to training the press and creating a new generation
of journalists through a new method of journalism - exactly as
we do for teaching French. This official, systematic training
system is being organized by the High School of Journalism [l'ÉSJ]
in Lille, in north France. Beginning in December 2000, we'll
have teachers permanently based in Azerbaijan to train professional
In terms of the arts, Azerbaijanis are very gifted, and at the
Embassy we try to show that we care about their unique traditions.
We look at our exchanges in this field as good opportunities
for us to create relationships. For instance, by having dancers
of the Paris Grand Opera come to Baku, we wanted to give training
to dancers - an exchange experience. It will happen in December
Another success for us was La Fête de la Musique, which
has been held on June 26 for the past two years. We hope that
next year the mayor of Baku will organize this international
festival; of course, we will provide help, along with the Americans,
Russians, English, Germans, Italians and so on.
Recently Jean Boyer, president of the French Senate's Friendship
Group between France and Azerbaijan, arranged to have the National
Philharmonic Orchestra of Azerbaijan as one of the main features
at the Berlioz Festival in August 2000. This Festival was created
by the Senator himself ten years ago. Now it has become a major
music festival, held each summer in the birthplace of Hector
Berlioz (1803-1869) - La-Côte Saint-André, about
45 km from Grenoble.
Farhad Badalbeyli, Azerbaijan's most renowned pianist and the
rector of the Baku Music Academy, was awarded the medal of Les
Arts et Lettres (Arts and Literature) on that occasion. This
is a decoration that we present to very esteemed artists in France
and the world. It was awarded in the name of the Ministry of
Culture and presented by Senator Boyer.
Last July a group of young Azerbaijani mugham singers had enormous
success in west France, performing at the Festival of Young Talents
in Traditional Music. These young ambassadors of Azerbaijani
culture were invited by the former Foreign Minister of France,
who has himself visited Azerbaijan a number of times.
We've also organized joint cultural operations with the Germans
and Americans. For instance, two years ago we worked with the
TUTU Publishing Group to host a delightful exhibition of illustrations
from children's books.
From time to time, we have the opportunity to host art exhibitions
here at the Embassy. From the very beginning, we decided to only
display works by Azerbaijani artists.
There's so much that we would like to do. I wish we could form
a trust group or a syndicate of music-lovers here in Azerbaijan
in order to take a few operas and musical comedies out of the
country. It may be costly and rather difficult to create portable
sets and provide all of the translations, but it's worth a try.
If I fulfill my dreams, I would choose works by Hajibeyov like
"Koroghlu", "Leyli and Majnun", "Arshin
Mal Alan" (The Cloth Peddler, presented in Paris in the
1920s) and "Mashadi Ibad" ("O Olmasin, Bu Olsun,")(If
Not This One, That One). These are tremendous performances and,
without a doubt, could compete with international productions.
I've mentioned a few of the ways that we at the French Embassy
have contributed to the cultural field here. We care about Azerbaijani
culture and want to make it known in our own country. As a representative
of the French government, I'm the one responsible for the use
of our money in this country. I'm quite satisfied. I mean, whenever
two countries are able to reach a level of understanding between
each other, then we have fulfilled our duties. Our goal is to
continue with such efforts and even to increase them - through
culture, of course.
To read Ambassador Guinhut's comprehensive analysis of
the Leyli and Majnun legend, see "The
Man Who Loved Too Much" in AI 6.3, Autumn
(8.4) Winter 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.
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