The Caspian Sea is an enigma. Technically, it should be called a lake because it is an inland body of water, but then it is not really a lake because the water is saline, and the size is much too large for a lake.
As a political scientist, I am fascinated by the Caspian Sea because of its geopolitical importance. Inhabitants of its shores – Russians, Azerbaijanis, Iranians, Kazakhstanis and Turkmenistanis—make it an intriguing yet complex region to grasp.
When I received an invitation from the Baku Higher Oil School, a subsidiary of SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic), to establish a partnership in petroleum training, I accepted it. My university colleagues and I arrived in Baku in the middle of the night (1:40 a.m. to be precise), we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a welcoming committee led by the Vice Rector of the University. I knew immediately that this trip was going to be anything but ordinary. Sure enough, for the next four days we were escorted, educated and entertained by the University Rector himself, who took great pride in his institution and even greater pride in his country.
Our busy days began at 8 a.m. (we were supposed to have already had breakfast by then) and lasted until midnight. We visited five universities, hundreds of students, dozens of faculty, countless administrators and quite a few civic and political leaders. In between our scheduled visits, we found time to visit four museums, an ancient temple, a mosque, Hayder Aliyev Hall, Martyrs Lane, old town and a modern day marvel, the Flame Towers. Of course, we did not have to make any effort to see oil rigs; they were everywhere.
As interesting and enlightening as all that was, it was enough to tell only half of the Azerbaijani story. I put together the other half by wandering aimlessly around town and having casual conversations with natives, even if mostly by hand gestures (I realized that my Urdu vocabulary gave me at least 100 words of local language).
My eyes constantly searched for the real Baku, the real Azerbaijan. And in this search, I noticed many things.
I noticed elderly couples holding hands and walking in the tranquility of a very cold night, their faces showing traces of life lived but also anticipation for the life yet to be lived. I noticed young couples completely oblivious of the world around them walking in piazzas when the clock signaled midnight. I noticed groups of women laughing openly and telling tales under the moonlit sky in public parks. And I noticed young men humming American pop tunes walking out of an Italian restaurant.
Life was just what it is supposed to be – jubilant, progressive and upbeat. Baku could have been any city in Europe.
Our hosts took great pains in telling us how free and strong Azeri women were, and I listened politely. But, I had to see it myself. And I saw women—young and not-so-young—flashing latest Western fashions in clothes, shoes and hair styles. To see traditional Azeri dresses, I was advised to head to a museum. I also noticed male colleagues giving due respect to their female counterparts, not only in universities but also in private companies. In the largest and oldest university, Baku State University, more than 60 percent of the students are women. The young woman who asked the first question after my remarks at Baku Higher Oil School left me speechless. She said, “Obviously you are not stopping where you are, so what is next in your life?” Her question was more telling of her own horizons than of mine.
Knowing that 93 percent of the people in Azerbaijan are Muslims, I purposefully searched for mosque towers. However, there were more temples of knowledge—colleges and universities – than mosques. While people talked openly about the oppressions of the Soviet era, I was also proudly shown the new campus of Moscow State University, which had only recently opened (2008!). One of my colleagues asked an administrator, “You decry the Soviet domination, and yet you have a new university that could be a reminder of that history. Why?” The response from her came without pause: “Moscow State University has been a home to world’s greatest scholars…that is what we see in this name, not the memories of oppression.”
Baku became a sister city of Houston in 1976. I am convinced that it was not a coincident. The two share the same spirit of entrepreneurship and optimism. At night, Baku felt like another Dubai in the making – glitzy, vibrant and bold! During the day, it was obsessed with turning its black gold (oil) into human gold while it can. Baku understands that oil won’t last forever, but people’s spirit will.
Anyone keeping up with the news in the Caspian region knows that there are serious challenges there and uneasy issues in Azerbaijan. But that is a subject for a different debate, a different discussion.
For now, let us acknowledge that beyond all political conflicts, economic systems, social preferences and religious doctrines, Azerbaijanis are dreaming their future and, just like the enigmatic Caspian Sea, they are not allowing their aspirations to be minimized by the categories and definitions imposed on them by others.
So, I offer a toast to the people of Azerbaijan and to their dreams in the making!
[PS: We signed two bilateral agreements and one trilateral agreement with universities in Baku, Azerbaijan.)