Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2006 (14.3)
Pages 18-22

Lessons in Life That I've Learned as Editor for the Past 14 Years
by Betty Blair

This is an edited version of the speech that Betty Blair, Editor of Azerbaijan International, gave at the First Annual Azerbaijani American Youth Forum at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on October 21, 2006.

This scholarly event, the first of its kind in the United States, was organized by the Azerbaijan-American Council of California (AACC) in collaboration with the Consulate General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce (USACC), and the Azerbaijan Society of America (ASA).

I'd like to share with you some of the things that I've learned about life while working on this magazine "night and day" for the past 14 years starting with our first issue back in January 1993. Let me mention a few things that might be relevant to you as a young person as you begin to make decisions that will determine the direction of your own lives.

Typically, Youth Forums are supposed to be what one might call "pep rallies" - speeches to cheer one on. To challenge. To inspire. I wish I could paint a rosy picture of the future for each of you. I wish I could promise that all of your dreams would come true if you just work hard. I can't. Nor would it be honest to do so.

Let me begin by saying that I think it's tough to be a young person. Those ages - 20 to 35 or so - are extremely challenging and unpredictable. It's like being on a perpetual emotional roller coaster.

Society tries to convince us that the years of youth are the best in life. I'm not so sure. You might be surprised to hear me say this, but I wouldn't want to trade places with you. Why? Youth is the period of life when there are too many question marks, too many uncertainties. You don't know your capabilities or your potential. You haven't really tested your strengths. Nor do you know your stamina in dealing with hardships in life. You don't know how you'll deal with the bumps in the road. And when you don't know these things about yourself, it's easy to drown in a sea of questions like: What profession should I pursue? What will I be able to achieve? Where should I live? What city? What state? And many of you are even pondering: What country should I live in? Who will be my companions in life? What will it be like if and when I have the responsibility of children in my life?

So let me start out by saying: I think it's extremely difficult to be a young person. And let me add: in my opinion, your generation has it even tougher than ours did. We are living in extraordinary times - dangerous times - especially after the aggressive and quite ill-advised and misdirected response by the U.S. to the events that have now entered into our vocabulary simply as a number: "911" [September 11, 2001 when planes deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City].

Left: "We are Baku" by Sabina Rashtiyeva when she was 8 years old.

Instead of the world becoming a more congenial place to live, and instead of countries joining together to deal with the enormous issues related to our basic survival - issues such as poverty, adequate shelter, water, food, chronic and epidemic diseases, environmental challenges such as global warming and basic human rights for all. Instead of solving these problems together, what have we done?

We've wasted enormous resources and created a world of animosity with even more unpredictability with even more things for us to cope with. Today, we cower in fear, suspicious of others and are content to withdraw into the isolation of our own narrowly defined world. This is a period marked by uncertainty and terrorism on a scope and intensity that is unprecedented and which could never have been imagined when I was your age, which really isn't that long ago.

Unfortunately, such conditions are becoming the norm and they're not likely to go away soon. Youth of your age will have to expend an enormous amount of energy, time and money, to regain personal freedom that my generation took for granted. Without a doubt, the volatile political climate has already had an enormous impact on your life and it will continue to do so. These issues will continue to seep into the nooks and crannies of your lives and affect most of your future decisions: personally, professionally, socially, economically and spiritually.

So this is the context in which I would like to share a few things that I've learned these past 14 years editing Azerbaijan International.

1. Life is Unpredictable
In truth, life is quite unpredictable. Sometimes this unpredictability is accompanied with a streak of luck; other times, with misfortune. There's no more vivid example than the life of Azerbaijan's Oil Baron Taghiyev who had built what truly is regarded as the most elaborate palatial residence in Baku [now the National History Museum]. When the Bolsheviks took control of the government in 1920, according to stories that have trickled down to us today, when they came to confiscate Taghiyev's mansion, they didn't even permit him to put on his jacket. "You won't need that anymore," they told him. Indeed, it was an incredible moment straight from a movie scenario of "rags to riches" and then back again since Taghiyev had been very poor in his youth until oil had been found on his property.

Or let's consider what is probably the most determining historical event in each of our own lives - the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Azerbaijan as an autonomous state.

Above: Heydar Aliyev holds a press conference with International Election Observers, Election Day, October 1993, in the President's Aparat. On the right side of table is Heydar Aliyev who was elected President. On left side (left to right) International observers from the United States: Rob Sobhani, (an Azerbaijani artist from Germany), Betty Blair, and Pirouz Khanlou. The President had just cracked a joke. This trip to Azerbaijan in 1993, the second for Blair and fifth for Khanlou was the catalyst that clinched their decision to try to make a go of Azerbaijan International as magazine.

I still remember when I heard the news. It was a morning in December 1991. It was about 7:30 in the morning and time to get ready to leave for work. Pirouz Khanlou, my husband, had been listening to the radio: "They've just announced on the radio - the Soviet Union has collapsed," he told me.

We were stunned. What did it mean? Here in the United States, few of us really knew what was going on behind the "Iron Curtain". The Soviet Union had collapsed? But how could that be? Those were the days before instant global communication via emails, instant messaging, blogs, Blackberries, IPods, Web sites.

Below: All articles from Azerbaijan International magazine are archived from 1993 on the Web site Launched in 1996, it includes more than 2,000 articles and 6,000 photos. Google for the term "Azerbaijan", and is up near the top of the list. Wikipedia also has recently included Azerbaijan International in its online encyclopedia.

I remember the flood of emotions that came over me. Maybe you felt them, too. Elation, confusion, uncertainty. To make a long story short, that event totally led to the redirection of my life - as I'm sure it has for you.

In the following year - 1992 - a devastating war broke out between Armenians over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in western Azerbaijan. Occasionally, articles appeared in the U.S. media, particularly the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.
And you could always count on it. There was always a short, rather innocuous-looking statement dropped into the article - about four to six paragraphs down - which read: "Armenians are Christians and Azerbaijanis are Muslim". A true statement, yes. But, in this case, it was absolutely irrelevant to the discussion of this war, which was a war of aggression - essentially "a land grab".

But for readers in the U.S. who only a few years earlier in 1981 had watched the Iranian students take over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on TV, that seemingly "factual" statement provided an essential clue as to how those who create the news intended those events to be regarded. Basically, it served to define who the "bad guys" were.

Below: Web site created by Azerbaijan International to feature Azerbaijani artists. Launched in 1999, presently in 2006, this Web site features 170 Azeri artists and more than 4,000 art works.

But if Azerbaijanis were the "bad guys", then why was all the fighting taking place on Azerbaijan's territory? We felt that people deserved to hear the "other side of the story". And that concern gave rise to what eventually became a magazine called Azerbaijan International. Actually, my husband and I never really intended to create a magazine. From that point of view, the birth of Azerbaijan International - one might say - was quite accidental.

Azerbaijan International's first issue in 1993 consisted of 16 pages run off on a Xerox machine in black and white. The second issue contained 32 pages. The third, 48 pages. This was the first issue with advertisements - three of them - BP, Pennzoil (which has since been absorbed by Devon), and Amoco (which was bought out by BP).

Then the magazines expanded to 64 pages, then 88, and now on average, we publish about 100 pages each issue or about 400 pages per year. This issue - Autumn 2006 (AI 14.3) - is our 54th issue. All together now we've published more than 5,000 pages. All those magazines together weigh a hefty 50 pounds.

We didn't set out to create a magazine. But here we are, nearly 15 years later, with what is regarded by many as a world-class publication. So indeed, life is unpredictable.

2. Learn, Learn, Learn
On the other hand, one can't say that the magazine just appeared on its own out of nowhere. That brings me to the Second Lesson: Learn, learn, learn.

These years are critically important for you in terms of expanding your horizons. You've been cheated in Azerbaijan. The Soviet system cheated you when they denied you the chance to study the milestones of your own independent history, literature, art and scientific investigation.

Left: was the third Web site created by Azerbaijan International. It features Azerbaijani language and literature. More than 55 authors and nearly 350 works are featured in Azeri and many works have been translated into English.

But these days, let's be frank, the education system in Azerbaijan continues to cheat its youth. It happens all the time when administrators foster conditions or, at the very least, turn a blind eye to a system of bribes that causes students to end up paying for their grades instead of studying.

This robs Azerbaijan of its future in three ways: It denies Azerbaijani youth the chance to excell in specific fields at a time when they have the interest, energy and time to do so. Secondly, students don't get in the habit of doing hard work to achieve their goals honestly. Thirdly, and most importantly, this practice robs youth of the love of learning - the personal satisfaction of becoming a person with both broader and deeper dimensions.

And in my book, that's criminal. Let me add, learning doesn't necessarily mean formal education, sitting in classrooms with professors - especially these days. What a marvelous tool the Internet has become - this brand new invention, created and developed within the short span of your own lifetime these past 15-20 years. When I was studying here at UCLA in the early 1990s, we were just beginning to hear about this new phenomenon called the Internet and about email.

In terms of my own education: I did four years of graduate work including two years in doctoral studies, here at UCLA in the Graduate Department of Folklore. I quit before getting my doctoral degree, and not so long afterwards got involved with the magazine. But those four years of graduate work equipped me with what I consider to be quite an incredible education. Those years taught me how to do research. And Folklore provided an incredible background for journalism because it enabled me to explore how beliefs are transmitted - historically and geographically.

Left: was the fourth Web site created by Azerbaijan International magazine after they produced the Hajibeyov Classical Music set of seven CDs. It was launched in 2001.

This Web site includes a sample of Hajibeyov's own voice and nearly 40 samples of music. It also includes biographical material and eight librettos (about 30 pages each) in Azeri Latin script with translations into English.

Nor should one ever underestimate experiences gained through travel. I had lived abroad in Greece and Iran - nearly 8 years - and traveled to about 25 countries - including China, Japan, Thailand, and South America including remote tribal areas in the Amazon jungle.

Incredible memories. Without a doubt, all of these experiences, zigzagging across the planet, helped to prepare me to do work related to Azerbaijan. There's a Chinese saying: "Keep your tree green and maybe a bird will come and nest in it someday." So prepare yourself. Learn, learn, learn!

3. Don't be Afraid. Dare!
When we first started the magazine, I was holding down three other jobs, teaching classes at two community colleges as well as Adult School at night. In addition there were always administrative tasks around home. Then in October 1993, Hafiz Pashayev who had just been named Azerbaijan's Ambassador in Washington at that time [see interview in this issue], invited Pirouz Khanlou and me to go to Azerbaijan as Election Observers for the Presidential campaign.

But how could we do that? It would require my taking a leave of absence for a few weeks from teaching. School had just started again and administrators don't smile lightly at such requests. Nevertheless, we decided to go.

But that trip in October (my second to Azerbaijan) eventually led to our making a decision about the magazine. Were we going to take this publication seriously or what? And that's when I quit those other jobs so that I could totally dedicate myself to the magazine. Remember we only had three advertisers at the time. No backing. No promises. And the magazine was being created on a single computer - a Mac, so simple that by today's standards it would be considered pre-historic. We had no office, no staff, only a home phone and a fax machine, and we worked out of the spare bedroom of our home. It was scary to step out like that - to dare to face the unknown - to walk away from known safety nets.

In life, along the way, occasionally you chance to meet someone who ends up having an enormous impact on your life. Though your path may only cross for a short while, that person may end up having a profound effect on you.
One such person that influenced the magazine was someone I had met in the 1980s. He has since passed away - Dr. Kenneth Pike, a world-renowned linguist, and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was in his early 70s at the time.

I was interviewing him about quite complex theories related to language and human behavior, and how they all fit together to make what he considered to be a Unified Theory of the Universe. He called it Tagmemics. Trouble is, I didn't know linguistics - and, frankly speaking, I was in over my head. Somehow, Pike understood my dilemma and kindly took pity. He let me in on a little secret. "Betty," he said, "Never be afraid to tackle any topic. If you manage to find the right person, you'll be able to understand the major principles of any issue within two hours." And you know, he was right.

The trick, of course, is being able to track down the "right person". To write a good article, of course, takes much longer than two hours. But to grasp the basic principles, it seems he was right.

But for me, those words have had a profound effect in shaping the magazine. It made me not to be afraid to explore all kinds of topics-all very new to us. Today, we organize each issue of the magazine around one general topic. We've tackled such a wide range of topics, from literature and art to music, architecture, health, lots of history. You name it. We've written about so many subjects that were new and fresh to us. So I challenge you. Dig deeply. Don't be afraid to step out into the unknown.

4. Follow Your Heart!
The luckiest people in life are those who find a way to follow their own hearts. Take two people - one extremely brilliant, and the other of average intelligence but driven by passion and strong beliefs. Chances are the one with passion will accomplish more in life. It's sometimes called "emotional intelligence"- the drive that gives the energy to get things done. Lucky, indeed, are those people who succeed in finding a way to make a living, pursuing their own passions. I consider myself to be one such lucky person.

I love my work with the magazine. It enables me to be who I really am. My career is based on getting to being curious and in opening new worlds to other people as well. Our greatest satisfaction comes from two things: (1) when good things happen to people because of what we publish, and (2) when the content of the magazine, not only informs our international readers, but when it also sheds new light on subjects for Azerbaijanis. That's when I consider us to be the most successful.

Several magazines fall into that category. For example, the one we did about the decipherment of the Caucasian Albanian manuscripts that date back to the fifth century that were discovered at monasteries in Mt. Sinai, Egypt by Dr. Zaza Alexidze (See "Pathfinders: Decipherment of the Caucasian Albanian Script," AI 11.3, Autumn 2003).

Or there's the issue we did about the booming construction industry in Azerbaijan with 500 towers going up in the last five years. We pointed out questionable building practices, especially given that Azerbaijan is in a seismic region. We expressed our concern about the lack of planning related to infrastructure in Baku, not to mention the destruction of turn-of-the century irreplaceable jewels that were built by the Oil Barons (See "Construction! Destruction?" AI 13.3, Autumn 2005).

And then there are the four issues where we featured Azerbaijani Literature in English translation (Spring issues of 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2006). In addition, we did immense research, interviewing people who had been repressed and imprisoned in the Gulags (See "Remembering Stalin," AI 13.4, Winter 2005).

After that, we went on to locate a few existing memoirs that had been published about the camps and we translated them into English ("The Literature of Repression: And Always Voices Will Ring Out," AI 14.1, Spring 2006). Such magazines, I'm convinced, make a significant contribution to Azerbaijanis themselves.

We're hoping that this issue, too, will bring some serious research from archaeologists to unravel some of the mysteries around Maiden Tower and the phenomenon of Winter Solstice. If it does, that will bring enormous satisfaction.

5. "Knock on 30 Doors!"
Passion requires a lot of work. It's not always fun. We have a saying at Azerbaijan International: "Knock on 30 doors and one will open." I can't tell you how many letters we've written, how many late nights we've spent sending faxes and emails to ask companies for their support for this magazine.

I'll never forget back in 1993 when we wrote our first letter to UNOCAL. That letter took us seven hours to compose. We had never done anything like that before. We were addressing the company's president and, frankly speaking, we were afraid that he might trash the letter before he got to the second sentence. Lucky for us, he didn't, and UNOCAL turned out to be one an incredible steady rock for us until it was bought out by Chevron a couple of years ago.

So be persistent. "Knock on 30 doors." You have to believe strongly in what you are doing to be able to convince others to support you. Not giving up, even if it takes "Knocking on 30 doors" helps to clarify and solidify your own goals.

6. Turn Weakness Into Strength

If you observe human nature closely, you'll discover that a person's strength is also his weakness. But the opposite holds true as well: a person's weakness can be his or her strength.

Myself, for example: I don't know Azeri. That's an enormous weakness on my part. It's not something that I'm proud of. Learning Azeri is something that I keep postponing. I'm at a point now that if I never manage to learn Azeri, I think I'll consider it to be one of the greatest regrets of my life.

Well, I could give you thousand excuses why I don't know Azeri. I could tell you that I've had bad experiences throughout my life when I tried to learn languages. I could easily convince you that there aren't many books written instructing English speakers how to learn Azeri. Or I could excuse myself by saying that Azeri is a very difficult language. Even the U.S. State Department considers it difficult. As I understand, they list Azeri in Category Four in terms of complexity in world languages. "Five" is considered the most difficult. Chinese and Arabic are categorized as "Fives". Russian, Turkish and Azeri fall into Category Four.

I can also remind you that I'm very busy. That when I go to Baku 10 to 12 weeks each year that I'm extremely busy from morning to night. But the bottom line is: I don't know Azeri well enough to get around on my own.

But this handicap that continuously haunts me can also become an asset, a strength. Fortunately, most Azerbaijanis are extremely tolerant of the translation process. They cherish friendships and realize that sometimes patience is the only way to acquire them.

Not knowing Azeri requires me to take staff along on most interviews. Such exposure and experiences provide excellent opportunities for our team to grow professionally. If I could read Azeri books, what need were there be for our Azerbaijani staff to translate so many interviews or books just to satisfy my own curiousity. This, in turn, becomes the first stage in the preparation of articles for our readers to gain access to these materials. It also enrichens the lives of our staff.

So don't run away from weaknesses. Identify them. Admit them, and learn how to transform them into strengths.

7. One Person Can Make a Difference
One final point. One single person really can make an enormous difference. You as an individual-one small frail person, can make a positive impact. I'm not saying that Azerbaijan International is the result of the efforts of one person. Far from it. There's a very hard working team behind the magazine and our projects. News doesn't simply fall from the sky. It requires hard work and long hours.

Azerbaijan International has a wonderful staff of young people who assist us. And there are many, many people along the way that get involved, as well. But one person can be the driving force, the catalyst for others, for action and progress. One person can be the impetus to create. One person alone can initiate the engines that start the wheels turning that eventually move mountains.

Advice From Rustam Ibrahimbeyov

In closing, let me share with you some advice that Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, one of Azerbaijan's most famous filmmakers, offers to youth. We interviewed him for our Winter 1999 issue (AI 7.4): "Youth of Yesteryear". Rustam wrote the screenplay for "Burnt by the Sun" which was directed by Nikita Mikhalkoff that won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film here in Los Angeles in 1995.

When we asked Rustam (born 1939) what advice he would give to young people as they enter the 21st century, here's what he told us:

"When my son was graduating from high school, I gave him the following advice. It's the same advice I would give today's youth. I told him that the happiest days of his life were just about over. Get ready to meet another side of life. Get ready to cope and overcome the troubles of life.

"At school, you were always told that love, a career, and other good things in life were within your grasp. You were led to believe that you would get the best things of life - that you would love and be loved. You thought that if you worked hard, you could make a career for yourself.

"But don't be surprised when the opposite happens. Be prepared to deal with it. Get ready never to find the woman you will love. Get ready to be betrayed by your most faithful friend. Get ready to be treated unjustly by your native land. Get ready to be denied the things that you deserve.

"And in truth, it is absolutely possible to fail in life.

"Despite all these disappointments, never lose faith in the good things in life. Be assured that Love and Truth and Goodness do exist. If you don't meet the ideal woman, it doesn't mean that there is no love in life at all. The most terrible tragedy of life is cynicism or despair, so never lose your belief.

"When you are on difficult terms with your Motherland and your government, don't get discouraged and think that you shouldn't love your nation. If one of your friends betrays you, it doesn't mean that all your friends are traitors, and that there is no such thing as friendship.

"If your beloved betrays you, it doesn't mean that all women are unfaithful.

"A man can try to do his best, and yet circumstances may turn everything upside down. For whatever we manage to achieve, only a small portion depends on us; the rest is circumstance and fate.

"God gives us paths to walk upon, but we have to choose our own route. Many things depend upon us, but a lot of other things are determined by God, by fate, circumstances. something or somebody else. That's why you should never generalize or get disappointed. Despair is the most fatal tragedy of life. Whatever happens, life is life?"
Extraordinary insight, thanks to Rustam.

And for those of you here today, I challenge you: "Go out- and no matter what you face - no matter what life tosses in your direction -"Go", and as they say, "Fight the good fight!"

They say: "The Measure of Man is what he does with what he has." That means no matter what your situation is, no matter what your circumstances are, go out and walk tall. Walk very, very tall.


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