Azerbaijan International

Spring 2003 (11.1)
Page 8

Readers' Forum
US: Don't Alienate Your Friends

I recently returned from a two-week trip to Azerbaijan, having served as an agricultural consultant for Volunteers Oversees Cooperative Development (VOCD), a U.S. government-funded program. What I learned in Azerbaijan convinced me that America's war against Iraq is wrong.

My mission was to assist livestock farmers living in the central steppe region near Ali Bairamli that follows the ancient Silk Road, to understand and implement land stewardship practices that could improve their grasslands. The land had been overgrazed and fertility is low after years of wasteful practices carried out by the Soviet collective farms. Some say that the area around the capital city of Baku, the Absheron Peninsula and the western shore of the Caspian Sea, is one of the most polluted places on earth due to years of oil spills, chemical dumping and untreated human waste - quite a mark of distinction for a new republic.

Beginning in the early 1800s, Azerbaijan was under another nation's control, first by the Russian czar, and then more recently by the Soviet regime (1920-1991). Since independence, the people have established an independent, democratic republic. Located on the western shores of the Caspian, Azerbaijan shares a southern border with Iran and lies approximately 150 miles northeast of Iraq. Azerbaijan is a Shiite Muslim country, the only one in addition to Iran where the Shiite sect of Islam is predominant. Azerbaijan was divided into two countries - Northern (Republic) and Southern (now part of Iran) as a result of the redrawing of the country's borders at the conclusion of wars between Russia and Persia in the 1820s.

Unfortunately, most Americans don't have a clue where Azerbaijan is on the map; yet the people in this nascent democracy in the heart of the Muslim world look to America with admiration and trust.

For the entire time that I was in Azerbaijan, the only Western person I saw was one American who directed the VOCD coordinating office in Baku. I spent a few minutes talking with him the first morning of my arrival and again when I was preparing to leave on my last day. For the remainder of time, I was an American party-of-one, traveling across the cold arid steppes with an Azerbaijani driver and a brilliant Azeri interpreter (a practicing physician who spoke four languages). For those two weeks, we visited ancient sheep farms, drank chai (tea), ate mutton and sat on floors covered with hand-woven, colorful woolen carpets. Many of the places where we traveled were not serviced with electricity, running water, telephone hookups or toilet facilities. Roads were often dirt tracks full of potholes and rubble piles.

The overgrazed farms had homes built of cinder blocks and scrap wood, with little or no furniture. Many depended upon dried sheep dung to heat their homes. I found the Azerbaijanis to be hopeful and determined to live free and develop an economy that would provide more for their needs. They were gracious, decent and compassionate; they love America and the free, democratic republic our people have been able to create. Young men stopped me on the street to practice their English. Sometimes they shyly asked me simply to sign my name on a scrap piece of paper, a kind of memento of our visit together. In public places I was always offered the best seat. I can't tell you how often someone seemed to come out of nowhere to open a door for me.

I was bestowed with gracious gifts from people who essentially have no material goods. Grandma Khalilova, matriarch of one of the farm families, knit slippers and mittens from their sheep's wool for my wife Kim and me. At one of the noon meals, a new pair of socks appeared after the shepherd's wife overheard that mine were wet from the rain. I was the recipient of countless tear-jerking toasts over vodka. Total strangers often greeted me warmly. The man in charge of the local Internet cafe with its six computers would greet me warmly on every visit: "You are welcome here - from the depths of my heart."

I learned that in the Azeri language, the familiar expression for "goodbye" is also "thank you." This goes a long way toward explaining the basic nature of these wonderful people that I had the opportunity to meet. People often talked to me about the U.S. government's threatened war against Iraq [prior to the March 20 attack]. The people that I met, without exception, had a sincere disdain for Saddam Hussein, the activities of al-Qaida, and for anyone else who, they said, "could think of using the Koran to justify harm to any other human being."

But on the other hand, neither could they understand why America considered Saddam's Iraq a threat, and more to the point, how America could consider a pre-emptive attack against the Iraqi people. Azerbaijanis told me, "No one likes Saddam. But this little country, our neighbors, they are neither a threat to you nor to us; and the world does not need any more fighting." On this visit I had the opportunity to glimpse the reality of the Islamic world, far beyond the popular image depicted in the U.S. media. I left Azerbaijan with a deep respect for the Azerbaijanis. Whether we deserve it or not, America continues to have friends in places we can never imagine - friends who entrust us with their admiration and affection. But our pre-emptive death strike on Iraq does nothing to fortify these friends' continued regard. Indeed, our actions alienate the very souls we purport to defend. It was from listening to the Azerbaijanis that I began to understand what an incalculable loss it would be for the United States to jeopardize and lose this deep trust among friends.

Richard Cates
Spring Green, Wisconsin

Editor's note: Richard L. Cates Jr., Ph.D., in Soil Sciences, teaches the Grassland Agricultural courses at University of Wisconsin at Madison. Previously, he had done three years of agricultural consultant work in Dubai and Saudi Arabia in the Central Arabian desert, where he worked on the largest dairy farm in the world (at that time, 10,000 head of cattle) these days, he and his family run an Angus beef farm in Spring Green, Wisconsin. This letter was originally published on April 2 in Madison newspapers. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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