Experiencing Azerbaijan

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Location: Kansas, United States

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Day of Knowledge

This is a very big moment in Azeriland. I am sending this email from home and I am about as excited as I can get. Last night I began this letter at my favorite Internet Klub.

I began by saying: I am inside my favorite Internet Klub and outside the generators are humming. The door is shut, almost tight and on the television is yet another program of live, traditional music--my favorite three culture ingredients: noise, heat and exhaust. And that is about where I got to when the generator failed, again, the computer crashed and with it, my momentum for writing. Along with those feelings came the realization that it was time to get it together at home. I went along today to someone who helped me get my "first time internet user" card installed, got the value installed and here I am. Some time has passed since I last wrote.

There is no one big reason but many small reasons that seem to erode my determination. I have been in Lenkoran for seven weeks, two days, fourteen hours and thirty seven seconds. Just kidding about the seconds. We have moved from the dregs of summer to the approach of autumn and as in Lawrence, the change was signaled with rain, damp and a radical drop in night time temperatures. The days are still slightly muggy. The university here is not quite what I expected nor hoped for. They have a markedly different attitude toward classes and schedules. And, I have to say that many of the students have achieved 4th level (senior) through the standard means of bribes to the teachers. This is perfectly acceptable here. It is ingrained, inseparable from the culture. Fortunately, I am not subject to this system because I apparently do not have to give grades.

For the two weeks preceding the beginning of school, I made occasional inquiries as to my schedule. It’s OK. Don’t worry. Next Monday. Or Tomorrow. Or Probably next Friday. The word from the Rector was that I would teach 4th level speaking. Great. Exactly what I would have chosen. Each week, Professor Kamal told me, through an interpreter, The Rector says you will teach 4th level speaking. On the Tuesday before the Wednesday of the first day of classes, I asked again about my schedule and Kamal said they had to learn what I was teaching. I said, The Rector said 4th level speaking. Ah, yes. He said that over the phone but he has to come here and say it. At last the Rector arrived and said in person I would teach 4th level speaking. Good. Can you give me my schedule? Relax! Later we will go down the hall and you will know your schedule. This is the day before school is to begin. Sure enough we went down the hall to see the man who creates the schedule. He works in pencil and paper and creates the schedule for all the teachers and students in my division--English. And, he creates this schedule on a weekly basis and sometimes on a daily basis.

In the two and a half weeks of classes, I have been in three different rooms, had four different schedules, and had my classes cancelled twice, without any notice, because of ‘special’ speakers who came from the capital city to lecture, in English, for three hours. Both times, I began my class on schedule. The first time a student popped in and said they all had to go for an English lecture. OK. The second time, the speaker himself popped in looking for someone to lecture to. I gave him my classroom and students.

But these disorienting events occurred after the opening Day of Knowledge. School began on September 15 with the Day of Knowledge assembly led by the Rector. The Rector belongs to that class of old men often described by a word that personally, I don’t use, but the word rhymes with Bart. The Rector couldn’t decide if he wanted to have the assembly in the open area at our classroom building or in the large auditorium next door to his office, one mile from the classroom building. At least that was the game. Just in case, we were to report to the classroom building and if the rector didn’t show, we would all hustle into taxis, or for those without funds, walk to the auditorium. At 9:00, the word came that we should go to the auditorium and when we arrived, we found the place in full meeting regalia - flowers, chairs for the distinguished whomevers, podium, sound system etc. In other words, there was never any conflict as to the location. It was intended to be held at the auditorium all along. There is talent and knowledge among the teachers of this university but you would never know it from the attitude of the Rector. Two teachers arrived late. Actually, everyone arrived late because of the Bart’s fickleness. But, the Rector broke off his speech to chastise, publicly, over the loud speaker, the two teachers who arrived late: How can you expect our students to arrive on time when even you can’t arrive on time; you should be more responsible!

The Rector opened the assembly with a full minute of silence in remembrance of the former president, Heydar Aliyev. The memory of this man is reaching epic proportions and billboards with his smiling face are everywhere. The bus route to Baku passes through a very small town that has a brand new Heydar Aliyev museum. The stucco is painted a very unsuitable bright yellow; I don’t look for the brightness to remain in this humid, dirty area. There are three billboards of Aliyev in this town,and there are scores in Baku and across the country side.

After the minute of reverence, the sound crew pushed the cassette button to begin the national anthem. The cassette must have been quite old and dirty because from the beginning, the music sagged and lagged. It is a very long song. After about two minutes, the sound crew began exchanging glances. You know how it is when we Americans are listening to our anthem being sung in person, and the tune is getting ready to switch to that impossibly high part? You know we share questioning looks and when the singer deals with the leap by changing keys, we waggle our eyebrows and have a moment of silent sympathy? Well, the looks were flying. The audience was still trying to appear somber, after all, the Rector was at the podium looking somber AND looking out at the audience of teachers, but some of us were losing it. I was losing it. Finally the music reached a stage where it no longer even resembled its original self. The Rector gave an evil look at the crew, and one brave man reached across and abruptly switched the machine off. We were about ten minutes into the assembly and I needed to lean back and have a good laugh but I couldn’t, I really shouldn’t.

After some speech making with the woman next to me trying simultaneous translation in my ear and my finally saying, please don’t bother, I was distracted by the arrival of the press. The press, in this case, was one man with a rumpled suit, a large video camera, and a big behind. He was very late! He hustled to the front, and right right in front of the stage, he launched the camera onto his shoulder, shaped himself into a rigid form, and focused on the Rector. Incredibly, this made the Rector nervous. He previously ran through the words with obvious practice but now he stumbled and referred to his notes and appeared disconcerted.

I swear the mind boggles when I think of watching a video of this loony production. Watching in person with all the pleasurable distractions of cell phones ringing, complaints, grunts and sneezes was barely endurable. To watch a video, taped from the shoulder of a late and penitent pressman simply could not be done. I imagined a small dusty room where the sacred videos were kept and the old Bart casually entering on Saturdays after a week of work, pulling down a black grimy case and slipping it into the VCR. But, save your sympathy. There is no electricity; there will be no rerun.

And speaking of electricity, I am definitely pressing my luck. Happily I woke up early today. I heard the 6:22 call to prayer, and when the electricity came on, I grabbed the laptop and powered up. It is only the two or three hours in the morning that the electricity is strong enough to run the computer or charge my cell phone. Still, am not sure how I will get this into an email but at least I will have a letter to send when I figure out how to send it. I can see now, in the light of the next day, that this letter ends rather abruptly. I wanted to talk about the busses and how many sheep and shepherds we almost ran over and how many ducks we almost ran over and the cars we almost crashed into-I don't include the semi trailer we almost bashed into because that would have been a GENUINE accident--that was almost caused by the bus driver when he leaned over to light a cigarette and check the cassette--whereas the other accidents were almost caused by maniac drivers. I also wanted to talk about the delicious cherry preserves I was enjoying and delicately spit out what I thought was a piece of stem but it turned out to be a complete honey bee, legs and all.


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