Azerbaijan International

Summer 2003 (11.2)
Pages 14-15

Baku - Best Kept Secrets
by Betty Blair

It's Oil Show time again. Our summer issue of Azerbaijan International is always geared to coincide with the annual Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition - now in its tenth year. Accommodations in the city are, once again, quite full as this event continues to attract the greatest influx of foreigners to Baku during the entire year.

I'll soon be boarding a plane myself - for the 24-hour, door-to-door journey between Los Angeles and Baku. I'll have to admit that since 9/11 (September 11, 2001), traveling these long trans-oceanic, trans-continental flights, isn't quite the fun it used to be. In the time it takes to check in and go through security at LAX airport; the plane used to be half way across the United States. Not any more.

Admittedly, there's something quite degrading and humiliating about those security checks. There you stand, arms outstretched, in a pose reminiscent of Christ crucified, in total obeisance to a stranger patting you down, and passing a Geiger counter over your body to check for concealed weapons. To add insult to injury, they can ask you to take off your shoes to x-ray for any bombs that might be hidden in the soles. What a sad day for humanity - that we've been reduced to such scrutiny as this - that these processes are accepted as everyday routine in what is defined as a hostile world.

Last week, the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System, again, announced "Code Orange" (High Alert), fearing that terrorists might be planning an attack on American cities. Orange is the fourth highest color-coded alert in the rainbow spectrum of warnings: green, blue, yellow, orange, and red. Code Red indicates such serious concerns that major governmental offices are likely to shut down. This is the fourth time since 9/11 that the U.S. government has identified the danger as "Code Orange" and call out the national peace-keeping authorities for duty. All the while, television commentators blabber on about hypothetical terrorist scenarios that could occur, as if our imaginations needed any prodding.

Left: The newly renovated Philharmonic Hall, originally designed by Ter-Mikalyan in Italian Renaissance style in 1912. Closed since 1997, it is finally ready for the new concert season! Photo: Elman Gurbanov.

Whether these alerts are well-founded, based on paranoia, or merely orchestrated for political advantage, they have succeeded in making all of us who live here quite apprehensive and fearful of everyone that we don't know personally.

In urban settings, already characterized by anonymity, that means that deep down in our psyches, we're suspicious of virtually everyone. Our personal defenses are up. Especially troubling is how fast people stereotype "Middle-Easterners", since they have been blamed for the 9/11 attack.

Governmental authorities are now soliciting U.S. citizens to inform them of any unexplained activities they see. Even parks are being set up with hidden cameras. Already, if your neighbor is under any suspicion, authorities can attach a "roving wire tap" to their phones - which monitors his conversations, as well as yours and the rest of the neighbors. In the past, approval from the courts was required before authorities could tap into conversations for a specific phone.

In addition, these days, people can be arrested on suspicion alone and held without charges and without access to a lawyer. Paper trails can be followed - credit cards, checks, emails, titles of books that you've purchased or checked out at libraries, all these new restrictions are justified under the broad, catch-all phrase - "war on terrorism".

These developments are particularly troublesome to those of us who have spent the last decade witnessing, day after day, hour after hour, how people are beginning to gain hard-earned, new-found freedoms, in countries like Azerbaijan, and other republics of the former Soviet Union.

How ironic that the people of the former Soviet Union, who once lived under authoritarian regimes and who aspired to the freedom and democracy that we proclaimed in the West, are actually gaining their personal freedom at the same time that we are coming under closer scrutiny and surveillance ourselves. Have the tables been turned?

Our Web site -, "the World's Largest Web site about Azerbaijan" - often receives inquiries from people seeking advice about traveling to Azerbaijan. Especially since the U.S-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, people are asking: "Is it safe to travel to Azerbaijan, especially given its close proximity to Iraq?" Families, who are hoping to adopt children from local orphanages in Baku, are worried: "What is the attitude of the Azerbaijanis toward foreigners, especially Americans?"

Azerbaijanis are not xenophobic. They pride themselves in international friendships and language learning. It's common for an educated person to be fluent in at least three or four languages. But, take note, neither are Azerbaijanis as naïve as they once were, back in 1991 when they had just gained their independence. Perhaps, "cautiously optimistic," would best describe the pervasive attitude that Azerbaijanis hold towards foreigners today. Ten years ago, when the West was perceived as a substitute Father-figure to replace their reliance on the Soviet Union, just appearing on the scene as a foreigner generally guaranteed an embrace.

Our hope is that the Oil Show will continue to be a catalyst for foreigners who are interested in Azerbaijan and that relationships will continue to be mutually beneficial. For Westerners, especially Americans, at this point in history, may this be a time of healing and reassurance that strangers can, indeed, reach out to one another and become genuine friends. To
Azerbaijanis, may it be a time of reassurance that their traditional gestures of warmth and hospitality will not be abused.

For centuries, Azerbaijanis have known the benefit travelers can bring, enriching their economies and providing opportunities to exchange ideas and create new possibilities. Above all, may this be a time for the reaffirmation in the goodness of mankind and genuine belief in international relationships.

Locks on our doors, guards, guns and even nuclear bombs are not the answer. As citizens of the world, we must tirelessly commit ourselves to building relationships, based on genuine care, trust, a sense of fairness, justice and mutual benefit. We hope that the articles included in this issue: "Best Kept Secrets", which describe places in and around Baku that are often overlooked, will go far to facilitate international relationships and contribute to this amazing, journey of reaffirmation, so fundamental to our survival, called friendship.

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