Azerbaijan International

Summer 2006 (14.2)

Spirit of Internationalism: More Essential Today Than Ever Before
by Betty Blair

betty blairSetting: Elementary school in a small rural town in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee (southeastern USA). Late 1950s.There we were, as school kids, being told that sometime during the day - we didn't know exactly when - there would be a "bomb drill". When the siren went off, we should line up at the classroom door and rush to join the 300 other pupils in the hallway.

As the school had no basement, that narrow space in front of the principal's office was the only area that was not exposed to big glass windows that could shatter. This would be a trial run-a practice - so that we would know "what to do" in case of real danger. The implication was that the "Russians" were formidable foes. Watch out! They might bomb us.

For most of us, including me, everything was quite vague and fuzzy in our minds. But we picked up on the atmosphere and knew we should be afraid-very afraid. We didn't know the terms that grownups applied to the political situation between the Soviet Union and the West, such as "Cold War". Nor had we heard of "McCarthyism" - that anti-Communist movement where people from all walks of life were hauled off in front of Congressional committees under suspicion of being Soviet spies or Communist sympathizers. Joe McCarthy was the Senator who tried to convince everyone that there really might be "A 'Red' under every bed!"

Azerbaijan? Where was that? We had never heard of the place. To us, there was only one big vast monstrous enemy and that was "Russia". Little did we know that the USSR was made up of 15 republics, and Azerbaijan was one of them.

It was all rather disjointed - bombs, planes, possible invasion, but the fear that pierced our young hearts penetrated very deeply. In fact, so much so, that as adults, we didn't quite know what to think when the Soviet Union "collapsed" in late 1991.

That same year when we were practicing bomb drills, our teacher started reading to us Thor Heyerdahl's venture sailing the Pacific on a balsa log raft called Kon Tiki. He and his companions made the trip crossing 4,300 miles in 101 days. They had only a few sails, a rudder, a compass and a simple radio,. That along with courage, determination, sheer grit and muscle.

Thor Heyerdahl was convinced that early man had migrated to distant shores via quite predictable ocean currents and that boundaries between countries and peoples were artificial constructs. Walls really didn't exist, and that those barricades, which had been needlessly erected, should be torn down.

Fast forward 30-odd years to when we first started publishing Azerbaijan International in January 1993. How could it be that when I first set foot in Baku that year, that Azerbaijanis greeted me with genuine warmth and hospitality. Hadn't they been living "behind the "Iron Curtain" all of their lives? How was it that they were so eager to embrace the West (especially during those early years of independence) - their hearts full of dreams, waiting to become realities.It wasn't long before I learned that as kids, they, too, had been indoctrinated - much as we had. One Azeri told me: "We were very frightened of the United States.

We were taught to be afraid. When Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, I remember our headmaster telling us: "Now a really crazy guy has come to power in the States. You can call him 'Ares - the God of War' from Greek mythology. And then he went on to talk about the arms race," she said.

"They dumped all this stuff on us when we were seven and eight-year-old kids and I would wake up in the middle of the night, horrified that this crazy man might attack us." ["Soviet Collapse: The 30s Generation - Changing Horses Midstream" by Dr. Alik Zeynalov, Sona Abbasova and Betty Blair. AI 11.4, Winter 2003. Search at] These shared childhood memories became the basis of our friendship. And since then, Azerbaijan has inundated us in a sea of friendship - not only to me, but countless others as well.

But now, I sense that globally once again, walls are going up at an unprecedented speed, especially after September 11, 2001, when planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and governments used this tragedy to instill enormous fear into grown-ups and kids alike - all over again.

At first the walls and barriers were only mental and psychological, observable on a personal basis whenever anyone new or different stepped across imaginary boundaries into our personal space. Then visas between countries started to become more restrictive.

But now the building materials for the walls - the concrete, barbed wire, electronic cameras, and watchtowers are starting to appear. Just recently, the U.S. Congress approved legislation to erect "the most advanced technological wall ever built by humankind". It is to be erected for at least 300 miles along the 1900-mile border that separates the United States and Mexico.

Again fear has generated the initial building blocks for constructing these barriers. And that's why events such as the annual Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition - now in its 13th year - provide incredible venues to counter such global trends and to reinforce the spirit of friendship, trust and internationalism.

Even a quick look at this issue of Azerbaijan International reveals that so many people are eager to share in this spirit, starting with world-renown cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a Chinese American born in France, who recently spent nearly a week in Azerbaijan offering his time and talent in teaching Master Classes to young Azeri musicians and giving concerts.

Art collector Anne Visser of Holland found us on the Internet and shared his impressions about his collection of post-Stalinist paintings featuring Lenin.

Anna Tatti, a photographer from Sardinia off the coast of Italy, generously offered her exquisite photos of saffron crocus so that readers might become more conscious of the medicinal properties against cancer that Dr. Fikrat Abdullayev, an Azerbaijani is carrying out in laboratory studies in Mexico City.

And then there is Tomoko Imura, a young Japanese scholar, who came to Azerbaijan a decade ago in search of Caucasian art. She now translates articles about Azeri culture into Japanese, publishing them on the Web.
Truly, the spirit of internationalism is alive. All of us should commit ourselves to fostering venues in which it can flourish.

As the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) once penned so profoundly, as he reflected upon the imagery of New England orchards where he lived and where stone walls had been built to separate his neighbor's property from his own:

"Before I built a wall, I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down!".

Enjoy the Oil Show. Tear down a mental wall or two, reach out and delight yourself with making some life-long friends. Make this exhibition, once again, another milestone in the spirit of Internationalism.

From Azerbaijan International (14.2) Summer 2006.
© Azerbaijan International 2006. All rights reserved.

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