Summer 2000 (8.2)

Baku! Baku!

by Betty Blair

On one of the recent episodes of the American TV quiz show, "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?", one of the contestants was moving along quite successfully, doubling his money at every question only to be stopped dead in his tracks at the $250,000 category.

For anyone even remotely familiar with the Caucasus and the Caspian region, the question that had been posed was embarrassingly simple: "What is the capital of the Republic of Georgia?"

Rules of the game permitted the contestant the chance to consult with anyone he wished by telephone. He did. But that person drew a blank as well. They even allowed him to eliminate two wrong choices from the original list of four. Still he wasn't certain, despite his 50-50 chance. In the end, the question ended his pursuit of that coveted million. He even refused to "take a stab" at the answer for fear of jeopardizing the substantial earnings he had already accumulated.

Geography Lessons?
No doubt, the guy is still kicking himself for not knowing that the answer was Tbilisi. Perhaps, it's not entirely his fault that he didn't know. Blame it on the media. Blame it on our educational system. Here in the States, we have a tendency to focus our cameras on foreign countries only when they're in the midst of crisis - when people are being violently wrenched about by war or natural disasters. Nor is our educational system exactly a paradigm for instruction when it comes to world geography. No doubt this guy grew up when Georgia was lumped together under the rather ambiguous category of the Soviet Union. Often our teachers used the terms "Russia" and "Soviet Union" interchangeably, leaving us with the impression that only Russians lived in that vast expanse.

Above: Nizami Literature Museum in the center of town, adjacent to Fountain Square. Six writers are featured in the arches.

But the quiz show gave me pause. I wondered, what would happen if the same question were posed about the capital of Azerbaijan? Would most contestants be stumped? Hopefully not, but maybe that's only wishful thinking.

Of course, awareness of Azerbaijan today is much greater than ever could have been imagined in 1991 when Azerbaijan gained its independence and began its courtship debut with the world. I can remember telephoning Baku back in 1993-94 and having to place calls through local U.S. operators. Invariably, they had no clue where Baku was. Baku what? Where's that? And Azerbaijan? You might as well have told them it was on the moon!

And how many times have we all had to spell "Azerbaijan"? I've even had airline ticket agents ask me where Baku is, despite the fact that their own company makes regular flights there. Once in 1997, I logged on to one of those generic world travel sites on the Internet and saw that it listed Hyatt Regency Baku as being in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, Africa!

Encyclopedia on the Web
Here at the magazine it's no exaggeration that we've been working night and day for the past eight years, pounding away on our computers in an effort to counter the information blockade that began when Azerbaijan was hidden behind the Soviet Union.

As a result, foreigners now have access to an enormous amount of information about Azerbaijan in English. We can attest to the fact that they are making use of it. For example, back in 1996 when we first started our Web site - - we used to get excited when we attracted 1,000 hits per week. Nowadays, our site has become the closest thing to an encyclopedia available on the Web concerning Azerbaijan. Our 29 issues have been posted, providing 970 articles, 1,700 photos, and 70 samples of music. This past week alone, our site registered 30,087 "hits" from visitors all over the world including the U.S., Canada, UK, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Turkey and Azerbaijan. We passed the millionth "hit" eight months ago in 1999.

Cultural Inquiries
It's exciting to see interest grow. Often, our office becomes a clearing house for information about Azerbaijan. Numerous inquiries cross our desks on a daily basis. This week, for example, a Japanese person wrote in search of musical scores for some of Azerbaijan's most exemplary operas, ballets and symphonies (Hajibeyov, Amirov and Garayev). He's hoping to arrange these pieces for woodwinds and orchestra and perform them in Japan. "I very like Azer music," he wrote us. We found the scores for him. A U.S. graduate student busy with writing her dissertation on the environmental conditions of the Caspian sought contacts in Baku. A Frenchman wanted to know more about Azerbaijan's traditional musical genre called mugham. And the list goes on.

More and more, world-class libraries are requesting the newly compiled Azerbaijani-English dictionary (compiled by Musayev) that Exxon has sponsored. Already this volume can be found on the shelves at Harvard, Oxford, UCLA, the New York Public Library, Berlin University and Texas Tech, to name a few. We're proud to have helped facilitate the process. All these cultural touchstones are serving to put Azerbaijan on the world map.

Does it matter?
One might ask: does it really matter if Azerbaijan is known internationally? We're convinced that it's critical. It's important on an everyday, personal level to counter the rumors, misperceptions and lies that always rear their ugly heads. In the political arena, it's important for world leaders to make informed decisions. Accurate knowledge and understanding serves as a protectorate of Azerbaijan's independence, a safeguard for Azerbaijan's pursuit of self-government, which in turn becomes the best insurance policy for facilitating economic development and stability.

Some analysts suggest that if Azerbaijan had been better known in 1992 when the U.S. Congress was passing the "Freedom Support Act", the infamous "Section 907" restricting aid to Azerbaijan would never have been included. But the damage is done. And Azerbaijan's refugees, numbering nearly one million, have been among the first casualties to suffer the consequences.

These days, as Azerbaijan comes under scrutiny for consideration for membership into the Council of Europe, perceptions will make or break their chances. This is just one more reason why we're convinced that it's critical for Azerbaijan to become known universally. But that means the job has just begun. There's still so much to do.

And by the way, should the question ever arise about the name of Azerbaijan's capital, we hope you'll remember this Summer issue - Baku! Baku! - even if there's no chance to pocket an accompanying $250,000 for the right answer!

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