Summer 2003 (11.2)
- Best Kept Secrets
by Betty Blair
It's Oil Show time again. Our summer
issue of Azerbaijan International is always geared to coincide
with the annual Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition - now in its tenth
year. Accommodations in the city are, once again, quite full
as this event continues to attract the greatest influx of foreigners
to Baku during the entire year.
I'll soon be boarding a plane myself - for the 24-hour, door-to-door
journey between Los Angeles and Baku. I'll have to admit that
since 9/11 (September 11, 2001), traveling these long trans-oceanic,
trans-continental flights, isn't quite the fun it used to be.
In the time it takes to check in and go through security at LAX
airport; the plane used to be half way across the United States.
Not any more.
Admittedly, there's something quite degrading and humiliating
about those security checks. There you stand, arms outstretched,
in a pose reminiscent of Christ crucified, in total obeisance
to a stranger patting you down, and passing a Geiger counter
over your body to check for concealed weapons. To add insult
to injury, they can ask you to take off your shoes to x-ray for
any bombs that might be hidden in the soles. What a sad day for
humanity - that we've been reduced to such scrutiny as this -
that these processes are accepted as everyday routine in what
is defined as a hostile world.
Last week, the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System, again,
announced "Code Orange" (High Alert), fearing that
terrorists might be planning an attack on American cities. Orange
is the fourth highest color-coded alert in the rainbow spectrum
of warnings: green, blue, yellow, orange, and red. Code Red indicates
such serious concerns that major governmental offices are likely
to shut down. This is the fourth time since 9/11 that the U.S.
government has identified the danger as "Code Orange"
and call out the national peace-keeping authorities for duty.
All the while, television commentators blabber on about hypothetical
terrorist scenarios that could occur, as if our imaginations
needed any prodding.
Left: The newly renovated Philharmonic Hall,
originally designed by Ter-Mikalyan in Italian Renaissance style
in 1912. Closed since 1997, it is finally ready for the new concert
season! Photo: Elman Gurbanov.
Whether these alerts
are well-founded, based on paranoia, or merely orchestrated for
political advantage, they have succeeded in making all of us
who live here quite apprehensive and fearful of everyone that
we don't know personally. In urban settings, already characterized
by anonymity, that means that deep down in our psyches, we're
suspicious of virtually everyone. Our personal defenses are up.
Especially troubling is how fast people stereotype "Middle-Easterners",
since they have been blamed for the 9/11 attack.
Governmental authorities are now soliciting U.S. citizens to
inform them of any unexplained activities they see. Even parks
are being set up with hidden cameras. Already, if your neighbor
is under any suspicion, authorities can attach a "roving
wire tap" to their phones - which monitors his conversations,
as well as yours and the rest of the neighbors. In the past,
approval from the courts was required before authorities could
tap into conversations for a specific phone.
In addition, these days, people can be arrested on suspicion
alone and held without charges and without access to a lawyer.
Paper trails can be followed - credit cards, checks, emails,
titles of books that you've purchased or checked out at libraries.
All these new restrictions are justified under the broad, catch-all
phrase - "war on terrorism".
These developments are particularly troublesome to those of us
who have spent the last decade witnessing, day after day, hour
after hour, how people are beginning to gain hard-earned, new-found
freedoms, in countries like Azerbaijan, and other republics of
the former Soviet Union.
How ironic that the people of the former Soviet Union, who once
lived under authoritarian regimes and who aspired to the freedom
and democracy that we proclaimed in the West, are actually gaining
their personal freedom at the same time that we are coming under
closer scrutiny and surveillance ourselves. Have the tables been
Our Web site - AZER.com, "the World's Largest Web site about
Azerbaijan" - often receives inquiries from people seeking
advice about traveling to Azerbaijan. Especially since the U.S-led
invasion of Iraq in March 2003, people are asking: "Is it
safe to travel to Azerbaijan, especially given its close proximity
to Iraq?" Families, who are hoping to adopt children from
local orphanages in Baku, are worried: "What is the attitude
of the Azerbaijanis toward foreigners, especially Americans?"
Azerbaijanis are not xenophobic. They pride themselves in international
friendships and language learning. It's common for an educated
person to be fluent in at least three or four languages. But,
take note, neither are Azerbaijanis as naïve as they once
were, back in 1991 when they had just gained their independence.
Perhaps, "cautiously optimistic," would best describe
the pervasive attitude that Azerbaijanis hold towards foreigners
today. Ten years ago, when the West was perceived as a substitute
Father-figure to replace their reliance on the Soviet Union,
just appearing on the scene as a foreigner generally guaranteed
Our hope is that the Oil Show will continue to be a catalyst
for foreigners who are interested in Azerbaijan and that relationships
will continue to be mutually beneficial. For Westerners, especially
Americans, at this point in history, may this be a time of healing
and reassurance that strangers can, indeed, reach out to one
another and become genuine friends. To
Azerbaijanis, may it be a time of reassurance that their traditional
gestures of warmth and hospitality will not be abused.
For centuries, Azerbaijanis have known the benefit travelers
can bring, enriching their economies and providing opportunities
to exchange ideas and create new possibilities. Above all, may
this be a time for the reaffirmation in the goodness of mankind
and genuine belief in international relationships.
Locks on our doors, guards, guns and even nuclear bombs are not
the answer. As citizens of the world, we must tirelessly commit
ourselves to building relationships, based on genuine care, trust,
a sense of fairness, justice and mutual benefit. We hope that
the articles included in this issue: "Best Kept Secrets",
which describe places in and around Baku that are often overlooked,
will go far to facilitate international relationships and contribute
to this amazing, journey of reaffirmation, so fundamental to
our survival, called friendship.
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AI 11.2 (Summer 2003)
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