Autumn 1999 (7.3)
Growing Up "To Be"
by Jonelle Glosch
When I was a child, I used to hear people say:
"If you want to find life, first you have to lose it." I really didn't know what that meant until I got older. Such a paradox! How can you gain by losing? Now I understand its meaning everyday in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has lost itself so many times throughout the ages, most recently in this century under the Soviet system. But after gaining its independence in 1991, it seems slowly to be discovering itself again.
Young students playing with their dolls at a Baku kindergarten, 1951. Photo: National Archives
The "Contract of the Century," a term that Azerbaijanis use to describe the major oil contract signed in 1994, promised untold wealth. People scrambled after the potential, only to be thrown into confusion when
everything downshifted late last year.
What seems to be emerging now is a new
way out of the old.
Now I find that Azerbaijanis are thinking more realistically about development in their country, not just in terms of oil. Offshore project Shah Daniz seems to have abundant gas reserves. Azerbaijan is beginning to think about its new role as a gas-exporting nation and establishing a new type of infrastructure.
Azerbaijan has committed to establish a permanent secretariat in Baku for the TRACECA Project (Transportation Corridor for Europe-Caucasus-Asia) - the rebuilding of the Silk Road, which used to connect Europe with the Orient via Central Asia. The ambitious highway upgrade between Baku and Tbilisi now underway demonstrates Azerbaijan's commitment to a new dimension in travel. So there are new signs of life emerging from the rubble of the old ways.
Learning to Wait
For myself, I've been experiencing a transition as well. I came to Azerbaijan four years ago to start a new business. I was determined to set things right-in a hurry. I was full of energy to succeed at all of the good things that I had in mind. I wanted to teach students English, to train them to get good jobs and set them on a new path to independence and freedom of choice. I was a typical American - I was in a hurry for results!
Photos top to bottom:Evolution of movie cameras throughout the century: filming of "Ismat" (1934), "Koroglu" (1960) and "Chords of Long Life" (1982). Photos: Cinema Archives.
Here I am, four years later, still waiting for all those good things to happen. Waiting seems to be the key. If you want to find life, lose it. As an American, I felt like I had to be in control of my surroundings, but now as a "Bakinka" (Russian for "a Baku lady"), I see how little I really do control. Only by letting go of my old approach can I accomplish any of the goals I have in mind.
Take even the simple act of business registration. In 1995 businesses were told that there were certain procedures to follow. Then in 1996 new procedures were introduced that promised to "streamline" the process. Well, that "streamlined" approach has taken me a year and a half to complete! In the process, I learned a lot about patience and networking. In the meantime, I have met some very good people and developed lasting friendships. And the revelations continue.
When you have time on your hands, you tend to think a lot. During these past few years, I've thought a lot about what I wanted to do with my life and what I hoped to accomplish. In America we grow up with people constantly asking us, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" Every child learns to reply with a clever answer naming an occupation that will satisfy the adults around him.
But now I see that they answer the wrong question. The question should be: "What do you want to be?" not, "What do you want to do?" I didn't discover what I wanted to be in life until I was 40 years old. Now I know that I want to be an encourager, a catalyst for change. I want to give young people a chance to think of new things.
To do that, I teach a class to students about how to work in a company. I always ask them, "What is your passion? What really drives you?" The answers to those questions tell me who they are, not what they want to be.
Sometimes I get discouraged when I think that I'm not making any progress with these kids, especially when they seem so passive. Sometimes I think I can't fight the old system all by myself. But then, like a beacon in the dark, a small glimmer appears in their eyes or an expression like "Wow!" escapes from their lips and I see new ideas taking the place of the old.
Leaders of the Future
Recently, I accompanied a group of Azerbaijani exchange students to a weekend retreat with the more than 50 students who have been selected to go to the U.S. as part of the Freedom Support Program.
This program is designed to expose future leaders to the culture and customs of the United States, with the goal of having young people evaluate what could work in Azerbaijan. After their year abroad, these students are encouraged to return home and become leaders in their community, using skills that they've learned abroad.
The idea is not to make these kids into Americans or anybody else. It's to make them more aware of the changes going on in their own world and equip them with new tools for dealing with these changes. These kids don't remember much of the old ways, and yet they are the products of that system. It's a critical time in their lives because they are having to answer a new set of questions. They are having to discover, "What will I be?"
Like me, they are learning to be patient and watchful. Observing and absorbing. Time reveals the paths that should be taken, but you have to be looking to see it. I hear kids complaining that progress is not fast enough, while they also see that their traditions are slipping away. So it's gratifying to see young people taking up dance and music, learning Azerbaijani literature, not for the national university entrance exam, but because they want to know the ancient epic "Dada Gorgud" so they can tell it to their children the way it was told to them.
On our bus ride at this orientation weekend, the exchange students were singing the Azerbaijani national anthem. The national anthem! Have you ever heard your own kids sing the national anthem in the car on the way to Grandma's? These kids love their country-in spite of its growing pains. These kids know that times are changing. They know the future depends on what they want to be when they grow up.
New roads are being paved and trees planted along the road that leads to the sea. The reestablished Boulevard and promenade area is delightful to walk along at dusk. The new international airport has finally opened and meets high standards. The Park Hyatt has just opened a world-class hotel and fitness complex with Olympic-sized swimming pools and a disco comparable to few others in the world.
Investors don't just put money down and walk away. People know that change takes time. They know that to have life, sometimes you must lose it and find it anew.
Like my friends who have taught me to be patient and relax, life is teaching us from centuries of Azerbaijani history to relax and let the changes reveal themselves slowly. Like a wise old woman, Azerbaijan rocks on, calm in the knowledge that this, too, shall pass. We may lose life, but we shall surely find it again, bringing us a new vision of who we are and what we will become when we all grow up.
Jonelle Glosch founded Azerbaijan Business Services (ABS) in 1997 to train young people in English and international office skills. She has lived in Baku for the past four years.