Autumn 2006 (14.3)
in Life That I've Learned as Editor for the Past 14 Years
by Betty Blair
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
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].
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
Below: AZER.com: All articles from Azerbaijan
International magazine are archived from 1993 on the Web site
AZER.com. Launched in 1996, it includes more than 2,000 articles
and 6,000 photos. Google for the term "Azerbaijan",
and AZER.com 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
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: AZgallery.org. 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,
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
Left: AZERI.org 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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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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