Azerbaijan International

Winter 2002 (10.4)
Page 11

Ten Year Jubilee - An Interview with Myself as Editor
by Betty Blair

How did Azerbaijan International get started?

Actually, the birth of this magazine was quite accidental. Ten years ago, publishing a magazine was the farthest thing from our minds. You might say the idea was born out of passion. Blame it on The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

How's that?

Back in 1992, the war with Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh had just begun. Whenever the Western media managed to write anything about the conflict, bias always crept in. Embedded in every article, down about five or six paragraphs, was the seemingly innocuous reference to "Christian Armenians" and "Muslim Azerbaijanis." Of course, such a religious affiliation is true in the traditional sense, but the implication was absolutely wrong.

Religion had very little to do with this war, right?

But for most Western readers, they needed no further explanation to identify who the "bad guys" were.

But the entire war was being fought on Azerbaijan's territory, wasn't it?

Exactly. And no one was telling "the other side of the story" - Azerbaijan's point of view. That's when Pirouz Khanlou, an Azerbaijani American from Tabriz, decided to put together a newsletter and asked me to get involved. He had attended the First International Business Conference in Baku back in 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I just so happened to know a bit about computer desktop publishing, and so you might say the task of editing fell to me quite by default - another accident. Or, in retrospect, just a case of being in the right place, at the right time. We started in January 1993 with a 16-page black and white newsletter run off on a Xerox copier, and since 1996 we've steadily published about 100 pages in full color for each quarterly issue.

How did you get financial support for the magazine?

Our first advertisements didn't appear until the third issue of the magazine with BP, Pennzoil (now Devon) and Unocal. Then others joined them. It would be impossible to produce this magazine without their support. To tell you the truth, that's always the toughest part, knocking on doors for advertisements.

What was Baku like in those early years?

Quite different from today. Packing for those trips was so nerve-racking. You had to remember to take everything. All your film, your batteries, cassette tapes, and yes, even toilet paper. Nowadays, you can buy most everything quite easily.

Telephone communication was difficult, too?

Today, mobile phones are everywhere; even school kids carry them, but back then there was no such thing as a mobile phone, and trying to conduct business via telephone was a nightmare. Despite how hard you tried, lines connected to the right party only about 20 percent of the time, and then you could barely hear. Too often the line went dead.

And what about international calls?

Forget it. Prior to 1995, you couldn't even make a direct dial out of the country. You had to set an appointment with an old Soviet-style operator who would place your call hours later, sometimes in the middle of the night. When direct dialing finally became available, it was prohibitively expensive, starting at about $6 a minute in offices, and even higher in hotels.

Thank God for email and the Internet.

Aaaaah! Sweet, sweet Internet. Sometimes, I'm in awe of how we managed without it? How could we have dared to think about producing a magazine 8,000 miles from its source when communication was so unreliable. Naiveté, probably. Our first E-mails to Baku didn't start until 1997.

Before that, we used to travel to Baku (the only flights went through Moscow or Istanbul), conduct interviews, get them translated and head back to Los Angeles with a case full of scribbled notes. And that was it. Now we have constant communication with Azerbaijan and a well-trained, committed staff, who can confirm the smallest detail before it appears in print.

What impressed you about Azerbaijanis?

Their willingness to embrace us. I had grown up during the Cold War when the only thing most of us knew about the Soviet Union was that they were our enemies. My neighbor had even built a bomb shelter in case the Soviets ever attacked. But Azerbaijan International arrived on the scene about a year after the Soviet Union collapsed (1991), and we found Azerbaijanis very eager to build relationships with the international community.

What surprised you the most?

Editorially, I still find it difficult to get used to what might be called "reverse discourse," so characteristic of some Eastern cultures. That means that the most important statement in an article is likely to appear at the bottom, not at the top. It's been a big headache for us because, invariably, we have to turn articles upside down to accommodate Western readers.

Also, I didn't expect such an "erosion of memory" in the society when it comes to events of this past century. I figured that Azerbaijanis were basically an oral society. I wasn't prepared for the huge gaps of information that exist, especially among the younger generations. It's all part of the Soviet legacy that Azerbaijanis are having to deal with - reclaiming their own history. When political systems reverse themselves, making it politically incorrect and even life threatening to discuss certain topics, it doesn't take long before an immense wealth of communal information is lost.

Erosion of memory is evident everywhere, even down to the simplest mundane things like: "Which Oil Baron built that gorgeous mansion that you walk by everyday?" Often, they don't know. Often nobody knows.

What satisfies you most about the job?

When good things happen to people because of our efforts. For example, Texaco (now merged with Chevron) undertook a half million dollar project refurbishing Baku's Blood Center because of an article we wrote in 1995 about the tragic genetic disorder Thalassemia. Or when we learn that foreign families have chosen Azerbaijan as the country from which to adopt an orphaned child after reading our magazine archives on the Web - Or when a music professor in Sao Paolo, Brazil, includes Azerbaijani music in his university curriculum because he stumbled across music on our Web site. Or when a child in Seattle, Washington, sends a Christmas package to young writer Lamiya upon reading her poetry in our magazine. Situations like that are immensely satisfying.

That's where the Web sites come in.

Yes, we've created four Web sites so far: (launched in 1996) archives the entire magazine from 1993. It's now the "Largest Web site in the World about Azerbaijan" with more than 1,500 articles and 3,700 photos. In essence, it's the closest thing in English to an encylopedia about Azerbaijan. It has a great SEARCH engine and a Store.

For art lovers, there's (1999) which now features 3,000 works and 150 artists. Then we created (2001), which features the legacy of Azerbaijan's most beloved composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948). When America's most prestigious radio media National Public Radio (NPR) discovered this site and featured the 7-volume CD set of Hajibeyov's music that we produced with Statoil's assistance, that was a thrilling moment. NPR boasts nearly 20 million listeners weekly via more than 680 NPR member stations. (2000) features Azeri language and literature. Already we've translated more than 70 articles into Azeri from the magazine, and there's more than a dozen Azeri writers featured there, too. Finally, the first full literary book is up on the Web in Azeri Latin - Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery - translated from French. It's another first for Azerbaijan International and we think it's another first for the country. It's been an exciting journey this past decade. We hope that many more "firsts" will follow in the second decade of the publication of Azerbaijan International in our efforts to take part in the history of this brand new nation.

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