Spring 2003 (11.1)
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
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.
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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AI 11.1 (Spring 2003)
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