Monday, August 8, 2016

Rio and Beyond: Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is another country about which I know very little. I know that there are pipeline issues, that there is a conflict with Armenia, and that their human rights record is atrocious, particularly when it comes to journalists. Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist, was recently released from prison after more than 500 days for the crime of journalism. (The government made up charges, each more ridiculous than the other, until international pressure made it impossible to keep her locked up without looking the fool.) She exposed corruption in the government, which ranks among the most corrupt in the world. So I guess I do know something about the country.

The country is ruled by the Aliyev family. The current ruling Aliyev is Ilham, who was named Corruption's Person of the Year in 2013. Ilham is BFFs with Putin and Rouhani and has formed a little BFF axis with Russia and Iran. Oh yeah, Ilham was named in the Panama Papers, too. And he's head of the National Olympic Committee.

Azerbaijanis (or Azeris) are Shia, but for the longest time, Zoroastrianism dominated the region. The people of Azerbaijan are a Turkic people with some Iranian and Caucasian mixed in. (For those who don't know, Caucasians come from the Caucus Mountains. I don't know why people use the term "Caucasian" to describe white people. All Caucasians are white, but not all white people are Caucasians.) There are more Azerbis living in Iran than there are in Azerbaijan, and there are significant Azeri populations in Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, US, and others. The land itself has been overrun by basically every Asian empire from the dawn of time, so what is called "Azerbi" must include a little bit of everyone.

Petroglyphs of Gobustan
The country has a lot of problems, but there is a lot of great stuff. There are some petroglyphs (rock carvings) that date back to 10,000 BCE! Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site that I have to see. Palace of the Shirvanshahs, Maiden Tower, Bay of Baku, the medieval city...and those are just buildings and drawings. What about the people, the food, the culture? I am not sure I have ever met an Azeri, so let's talk.

Capital: Baku
Major cities: Ganja, Sumqayit,
Population: 9.42 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 56
Medals in history: 26 (6 gold, 5 silver, 15 bronze) (first participated as independent nation in 1996 - competed as part of Soviet Union prior to 1992)
Languages spoken: Azerbaijani, Russian, English, Armenian (Nagorno-Karabakh region only), Avar, Budukh, Georgian, Juhuri, Khinalug, Kryts, Lezgian, Rutul, Talysh, Tat, Tsakhur, and Udi. Those you've never heard of are spoken by dwindling groups of people and are in danger of extinction.
Heroes: Khadija Ismayilova (investigative journalist), Leyla Yunis (human rights activist), Rasul Jafarov (human rights activist), Intigam Aliyev (human rights activist)
Bad guys: Ilham Aliyev
Persecuted groups: anyone who doesn't agree with Aliyev
Current conflicts: Armenia
Must read: I have never read any books on Azerbaijan or by Azerbaijani authors. Please recommend some!

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