Winter 1999 (7.4)
Youth of Yesteryear
by Betty Blair, Editor
Well, it looks like we made it to the "Turn of the Century". No major mishaps. No Y2K crisis. No devastating natural disasters nor terrorist acts marred the grandest global celebration known to humankind though, no doubt, most of us were holding our breaths as the fireworks ushered in the New Year. Let's hope that such calm civility and camaraderie is a good omen for the years to come.
I remember when I first heard about this thing called the "Turn of the Century". It was in the late 50s.
Photo: Editor Betty Blair - smelling roses. Career path determined at age 2.
I don't remember whether my grammar school teacher mentioned the Millennium or not. Maybe she did, but I was too busy trying to figure out whether I would be around. How can a kid measure out years and decades when just waiting for summer took an eternity and anybody older than 30 was classified as "ancient"? Time is always such an elusive concept. But I finally figured out that, with any luck, my chances were pretty good that I might welcome in the New Century. My grandma had already lived as long as I would have to - to reach 2000.
Of course, as U.S. President Bill Clinton reminded us at the countdown to the Millennium, this thing we call Year 2000 is an artificial construct that depends on when one starts counting. For Muslims this year is 1420; for Hindus, 1921; for Buddhists, 2543. Mayans honor the year 5119 and the Hebrew calendar reads 5760. Let me just add to Clinton's list, that in Iran, where an estimated 25 million Azerbaijanis live, the year is observed as 1378. To the north, in the Republic of Azerbaijan, CNN panned its television cameras for the world to catch a glimpse of the large digital clock announcing 2000, towering over the promenade. In the background, fireworks lit up the Caspian.
Regardless of which calendar we follow, two other phenomena have occurred this century that will never be repeated in any future century or millennium. The first was Man's quest in space - especially, Man's walk on the moon in 1969. Though the Soviets put Yuri Gagarin into earth's orbit in 1961, the image of American Neil Armstrong, lumbering across the cratered moonscape was unforgettable. His words transmitted back down to Earth still echo in our minds: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It made us believe that unthinkable quests were achievable.
Space exploration, of course, was inextricably linked to the propaganda and arms race between the West and the Soviet Union, each side claiming superiority for its respective politico - economic system.
The second phenomenon was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was unimaginable for most Soviets, including Azerbaijanis, even among those wishing for its demise [See "Unthinkable - The Collapse of the Soviet Union", Autumn 1999, AI 7.3]. In an interview published here, President Aliyev recalls his amazement that the disintegration took place so quickly, "virtually overnight". This historical event proved the fragility of political systems, even those seemingly deeply entrenched.
With the advent of the New Century and New Millennium, most of us have been reflecting on our past as we anticipate our future, like the Roman god Janus facing backwards and forward at the same time. What are the biological, cultural, economic, political and social forces that have shaped us? Where will these paths take us in the future?
We've devoted numerous pages in this issue to asking Famous People from Azerbaijan what their own childhoods were like, wondering what influences shaped their own distinct careers.
Again and again, people told us that the most compelling influence in their lives could be summed up in one word - Kindness. They acknowledged the untiring concern and support of a parent, a teacher, a family friend that nudged them down a particular path. "I chose history, not math, because I liked my history teacher more than my math teacher who was so strict," reminisced Ramiz Abutallibov, who went on to develop a career in diplomacy.
Neither poverty nor privilege seemed to be the most determining factor. That's an encouraging sign, given that hundreds of thousands of young people in Azerbaijan have been thrust into the unwanted status of homelessness this decade because of the conflict with Armenia. These days refugees are totally occupied with inching their way into new communities, new identities, new sources of income, new access to education and opportunity. Undoubtedly, their paths have been immensely frustrated and difficult. But clearly, if history has anything to teach us, the damage does not have to be irreparable.
Many of those we interviewed mentioned the power of reading in their lives, crediting books with expanding their minds beyond the limitations of geography, politics and history. Most mourned the fact that young people today are not reading as much as they did.
Nearly everyone implored youth to keep their optimism and faith. As Filmmaker Rustam Ibrahimbeyov noted, "Be assured that love and truth and goodness do exist. If you don't meet the ideal woman, it doesn't mean that there is no such thing as love in life. When you are on difficult terms with your Motherland and your government, don't get discouraged and think that you shouldn't love your nation. If a friend betrays you, it doesn't mean that there is no such thing as friendship. The most terrible tragedy of life is cynicism or despair, so never lose your belief."
We agree. And so as we step out into the uncertainty of the New Year, the new Century and the new Millennium, may that ageless friend of mankind - Optimism and Hope - continue to be our strongest Inspiration and Confidante.
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