Azerbaijan International

Winter 2000 (8.4)
Pages 22-24

A Two-Way Street
France's Cultural Diplomacy with Azerbaijan

by Jean-Pierre Guinhut, French Ambassador

Jean-Pierre Guinhut first became fascinated with Eastern culture decades before his appointment as French Ambassador to Azerbaijan in August 1996. His interest led him to become fluent in Arabic and Persian. Along with English and French, he also speaks some Spanish, Turkish, and even some Azeri.

Guinhut's appreciation for Azerbaijani culture runs deep and reveals itself in the array of programs and projects that he has supported during his tenure as Ambassador. While seeking to bring Azerbaijanis closer to Western methods of education, he also believes that the world has much to gain from being exposed to Azerbaijani culture. Here Guinhut explains the French Embassy's focus on cultural diplomacy, whether it be through improvements in French-language instruction in Azerbaijan, training for journalists or artistic exchanges between Azerbaijan and France.

It's obvious, at least for open-minded foreigners, that there's a great deal of culture in Azerbaijan. You're not always able to know where it comes from, or exactly how it works, but there's lots and lots of it - most likely because we're in one of the most ancient parts of the world.

When France first established diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan, we knew from the very beginning that cultural activities would be fundamental to our presence here. According to General [Charles] De Gaulle, cultural diplomacy should rank extremely high among the Foreign Ministry's primary affairs and activities abroad.

Above: Guinhut with world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (pictured here with the French ambassador, left) who was born in Baku and has been returning to Azerbaijan annually since 1998 to give Master's classes to young talented musicians. French Senator Jean Boyer (back to camera) and French Embassy Press Attache Gulnara Karimova look on.

De Gaulle used to say, "The life between two countries is somewhat like that between two individuals. Even if things aren't going so smoothly in politics or the economy, don't do any damage or harm to cultural relations. They should remain on the same level, regardless of what happens." Here at the French Embassy, we try to be very faithful to this ideology of promoting peace and good will through cultural relations.

These days at our Embassy, Gerard Neraud, who has a genius for organization, is our Cultural Counselor. This enables us to be active in many cultural realms from French-language education to cultural exchanges, including artistic contacts and cultural activities in both countries. In fact, since January 1999 - nearly two years now - we've been organizing some sort of artistic or cultural event every other week. That's more than a hundred programs.

We place all of these activities in the framework of fair and balanced cooperation - state to state. We are trying to go deep inside the reality of things, not to change them - because Azerbaijan will change itself. Our goal is to share with Azerbaijanis a few of the things that have worked in our own country.

Teaching French
Azerbaijanis are very gifted at learning languages. You can tell, because they are extremely good at speaking Russian. The quality of Russian in this country is extraordinary. Even average people in Baku speak Russian well, like you would hear in St. Petersburg or Moscow.

Above: The French Embassy has been sponsoring a cultural event in Azerbaijan every second week for the past two years. On the occasion of the grand opening of the personal art exhibition by Faig Gambarov [see AI 6.4 cover, Winter 98 about Architecture] (right to left) Guinhut, Gambarov, President of Artist Union Farhad Khalilov, and Italian Ambassador Alessandro Fallovollita. Khalilov just received the esteemed medal "Les Arts et Lettres" by the French Ministry of Culture in December 2000.

As far as the French language is concerned, our goal is to foster an effective pedagogical system to teach the language properly. When you ask a student a question like: "What time is it?" you don't need to have them recite lines from a famous play by Jean Racine or Pierre Corneille. They don't need to know verses of poetry to tell what time it is.

That may sound a bit ridiculous, but when I was teaching French in Egypt, I came across some students who had been learning French for years, but when I would ask them: "What time is it?" or "What's your name?" they would respond with verses of famous poetry because they didn't understand the question.

Literature and poetry, of course, have their place. But first, students must master a certain number of practical patterns so that they can carry on basic conversations with other French speakers. That's what we want to do with Azerbaijanis - give them the capability to communicate.

Two years ago, we began French programs here in two universities: the University of Foreign Languages in Baku (previously known as the Institute of Foreign Languages) and the University of Nakhchivan. Students who are training to be teachers have now begun their third year studying French. Afterwards, the best will be selected to study in Grenoble or Strasbourg [France] for another year to complete their training. This initial group of 30 teachers will enter the Azerbaijani teaching system in September 2002.

Above: The French Embassy sponsored the perfomance of a mugham group at the Palace of the Khans in Shaki, Nov 11, 2000.Soloist Samir Shirinov (gaval), Namig Rezayev (tar), Elton Naghiyev (kamancha) and Maestro Marc Loopuyt (French Oriental oud / lute).

Every student we send to France signs an agreement promising to return to teach French here for a certain number of years. If they don't return to teach, then one of the fundamental aspects of our system is flawed. We don't budget money for foreign students to learn French so that they can simply go out into the world and make money on a private basis. We need some return for our efforts.

Western Exams
Of course, we're only at the beginning stages of our contribution to French instruction in the public teaching system here. On the French side, the University of Marc Bloch [L'Université Marc Bloch] in Strasbourg is very involved in this project here in Azerbaijan. Strasbourg is an important city for international connections because it is the capital city for the Parliament of the Council of Europe and the Parliament of the European Union. This University, named after the distinguished French historian Marc Bloch, supports the programs in the Azerbaijani universities.

For the past two years, a team of professors from Marc Bloch has come to Azerbaijan each June to organize final examinations. This means that, in Azerbaijan, these university exams are organized completely on a Western standard.

We have posted French instructors in various cities throughout Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan, Lankaran, Ganja and Shaki as well as two schools in Baku: the University of Foreign Languages and the Nasraddin Tusi Pedagogical University. The French program has been organized in full cooperation and mutual understanding with Azerbaijan's Ministry of Education.

Not Just English
Right now, Azerbaijan has about 700 French teachers and 70,000 students learning French. For a country with a population of more than 7 million, that's not too bad.

Above: Evening visit to Zoroastrian landmark Yanardagh (Burning Mountain) on the outskirts of Baku. Far right: Guinhut with Kader Belarbi, Star Ballet dancer of the Opera de Paris, French Embassy Cultural Assistant Azelma Hasanova, and dancer Celine Talone also from the Opera de Paris. April 24, 2000.

When Azerbaijan first became independent from the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani parents were keen to have their children to learn English. They said: "Forget about French, German, Persian and Arabic. We want English."

Well, I don't blame them. After being abandoned by a Russian "Big Brother", they felt that they needed another Protector. Where was another one? Perhaps, America. Today Azerbaijanis have a more realistic understanding of the world, but at the beginning, there was a tendency to only study English.

Of course, English provides access to the West, but it's not enough. It's not the only language; the world is much more democratic than that. If you know English and French, or French and German, or English and German, such a combination provides more choice. These days, Azerbaijani parents want their children to learn several foreign languages - not just English. I think that's the right attitude.

French is the first or second language in at least 50 countries, so it can be very useful to Azerbaijanis as well. Take education, for example. At the University of Sciences in Ankara, there is the possibility to study sciences such as geology or seismology in French from A to Z. Similarly, instruction at the famous Galatasaray University in Istanbul and the Marmara University in Istanbul is all in French and Turkish.

New Methods
We are encouraging Azerbaijanis to experiment with new teaching methods - ones that they have helped develop themselves. Up to this point, we've been using methods that are completely French. Now we want experienced Azerbaijani teachers to create their own new methods with help from our specialists. The first new book should be available by the end of December [2000].

We want the emphasis to be on the spoken, not written, form of French, just like most other modern language-learning methods throughout the world. However, this is the first time that an Azerbaijani method emphasizes the students' ability to speak.

In this new method, the dialogues, which form the core of each lesson, will coincide with the Azerbaijani culture and mentality. The grammar examples should not be explicit and didactic at the beginning. You do teach grammar, but you don't inform the students. They absorb grammatical principles unconsciously, like Monsieur Jourdain in Molière, who was speaking in prose without realizing it. The students learn grammar through real-life situations. After a while, these patterns become automatic.

In the classroom, direct word-for-word translation is not permitted. This means that teachers have to be well trained; otherwise they won't be able to teach without translating themselves.

We're proud at the Embassy to have facilitated the first French-Azeri dictionary in the new Latin script, which Total Fina Elf helped to sponsor. Of course, a French-Azeri dictionary already existed in Cyrillic, but this is the first one in the new official script of independent Azerbaijan. Now we're waiting for the reverse volume - Azeri-French - and hope that it will come out in December 2000.

I really hope that Azerbaijanis will create an academic center for translators, especially interpreters. I believe that our new methods in French could fuel this possibility. Interpreting is such a wonderful career, as it puts people in contact with each other and helps them understand one another. It also offers one of the best-paying salaries in the world.

To become an interpreter, you need to be fluent in at least three languages; if you added a fourth language, that would be even better. For the Azeri language, it's nearly impossible to find interpreters any other place in the world. Nor are there very many interpreters for the Turkish language. Azerbaijanis who are gifted in languages could add the Turkish language to their repertoire without much effort.

Press Training
Another aspect of our activities at the French Embassy relates to journalism. There is a genuine press here, and the people are very interested in magazines and newspapers. As soon as there are financial opportunities, we see new publications cropping up like mushrooms after rain. Those that manage to get published are extremely interesting and extremely free. But the journalists in Azerbaijan need training.

Of course, we Westerners have this sort of dogma about freedom of the press. Sometimes we are bound to say, "Well, isn't it too much?" But not if the press is framed by a good deontology - a code of ethics or moral behavior that determines the rights and duties of the journalist. In France, we often refer to it as the "American classification".

When you speak with a journalist, you have to clarify the status of your talk in advance: if it's "on the record", "off the record", "background" or "deep background". This creates a special relationship between the source and the journalist. If a source agrees to speak with the journalist, he knows that the journalist as a professional will honor that relationship. In turn, the source is obligated to tell the truth.

Two years ago we began asking Azerbaijanis - students, teachers, young journalists and the Ministry of Information - "What can be done?" We then decided to organize an Institute of Permanent Training of Journalism, which we hope will eventually become a regional institute for young journalists from the North Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia, Georgia and Armenia.

We're committed to training the press and creating a new generation of journalists through a new method of journalism - exactly as we do for teaching French. This official, systematic training system is being organized by the High School of Journalism [l'ÉSJ] in Lille, in north France. Beginning in December 2000, we'll have teachers permanently based in Azerbaijan to train professional journalists.

Cultural Exchanges
In terms of the arts, Azerbaijanis are very gifted, and at the Embassy we try to show that we care about their unique traditions. We look at our exchanges in this field as good opportunities for us to create relationships. For instance, by having dancers of the Paris Grand Opera come to Baku, we wanted to give training to dancers - an exchange experience. It will happen in December again.

Another success for us was La Fête de la Musique, which has been held on June 26 for the past two years. We hope that next year the mayor of Baku will organize this international festival; of course, we will provide help, along with the Americans, Russians, English, Germans, Italians and so on.

Recently Jean Boyer, president of the French Senate's Friendship Group between France and Azerbaijan, arranged to have the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Azerbaijan as one of the main features at the Berlioz Festival in August 2000. This Festival was created by the Senator himself ten years ago. Now it has become a major music festival, held each summer in the birthplace of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) - La-Côte Saint-André, about 45 km from Grenoble.

Farhad Badalbeyli, Azerbaijan's most renowned pianist and the rector of the Baku Music Academy, was awarded the medal of Les Arts et Lettres (Arts and Literature) on that occasion. This is a decoration that we present to very esteemed artists in France and the world. It was awarded in the name of the Ministry of Culture and presented by Senator Boyer.

Last July a group of young Azerbaijani mugham singers had enormous success in west France, performing at the Festival of Young Talents in Traditional Music. These young ambassadors of Azerbaijani culture were invited by the former Foreign Minister of France, who has himself visited Azerbaijan a number of times.

We've also organized joint cultural operations with the Germans and Americans. For instance, two years ago we worked with the TUTU Publishing Group to host a delightful exhibition of illustrations from children's books.

From time to time, we have the opportunity to host art exhibitions here at the Embassy. From the very beginning, we decided to only display works by Azerbaijani artists.

There's so much that we would like to do. I wish we could form a trust group or a syndicate of music-lovers here in Azerbaijan in order to take a few operas and musical comedies out of the country. It may be costly and rather difficult to create portable sets and provide all of the translations, but it's worth a try.

If I fulfill my dreams, I would choose works by Hajibeyov like "Koroghlu", "Leyli and Majnun", "Arshin Mal Alan" (The Cloth Peddler, presented in Paris in the 1920s) and "Mashadi Ibad" ("O Olmasin, Bu Olsun,")(If Not This One, That One). These are tremendous performances and, without a doubt, could compete with international productions.

I've mentioned a few of the ways that we at the French Embassy have contributed to the cultural field here. We care about Azerbaijani culture and want to make it known in our own country. As a representative of the French government, I'm the one responsible for the use of our money in this country. I'm quite satisfied. I mean, whenever two countries are able to reach a level of understanding between each other, then we have fulfilled our duties. Our goal is to continue with such efforts and even to increase them - through culture, of course.

To read Ambassador Guinhut's comprehensive analysis of the Leyli and Majnun legend, see
"The Man Who Loved Too Much" in AI 6.3, Autumn 1998.

Azerbaijan International (8.4) Winter 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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