An Azerbaijani American in Baku

Every morning I pass by an impressive statue on my walk to campus. The protagonist is a commanding figure, riding his horse through the clouds, pointing his scimitar toward the sky. It stands on a tall stone base that pushes the total height to about 23 meters (25 yards).  It commands attention.

The first time I walked past it, I immediately knew what it was. I looked at the base to confirm and read KOROGLU in big metal letters. I should probably have expected to see a giant statue of possibly the Turkic world’s most famous hero in Baku, but I honestly was struck. I’m sure every visiting ethnic Azerbaijani from Iran like myself had the same reaction at some point.

Koroglu literally translates to “son of a blind man.” He’s the main character of a series of folk tales that my father would tell me as a child as I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. By now, I have forgotten much of Koroglu’s adventures, but some of the tales still resonate.

I remember that when my father spoke of the Epic of Koroglu, at times he would get excited and use emphatic gestures. But as he told the stories, he would snicker intermittently like it was something of the past that had been replaced by more civilized Persian stories. As if it were an oral tradition only known to villagers, while the more educated and elite were teaching their kids stories from the Shahnameh. It was the expression of a man who knew that his culture, identity, and national heroes were withering away and had come to terms with it. Koroglu was something of the past.

This nostalgia in some way was passed on down to me. I guess that was the reason that I became so emotional upon first glance at the statue honoring this tale.

I came to Baku for several reasons: to become educated on the region, to perfect my Azerbaijani language skills for which I never in my life had received formal education, and to scout possible opportunities. But I think subconsciously I’m here to learn more about the intricacies of my own culture that I was never exposed to, partially because of the fact that I hail from the ethnic Azerbaijani minority in Iran who are denied cultural expression, and partly because growing up in the States made it difficult to learn about and experience these things. It is as much a journey of self-discovery as it is anything else.

Before I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. On one end, working at the Karabakh Foundation and within the Azerbaijani community in D.C. gave me a grandiose impression of what Azerbaijan would be like. I had seen photos of the beautiful Azerbaijani countryside and the amazing construction projects, witnessed beautiful Azerbaijani dances and musical performances, and had been a frequent consumer of Azerbaijani cuisine. I had kept up with Azerbaijan’s economic, political, and social development. Despite this, I was still quite naïve about the country. We all know that nothing compares with firsthand experience.

I have to admit that after five months living here, I’m still as confused about this city as I was when I came. Baku is a city of contradictions. It’s a city of both excess and insufficiency, of progress and conservatism, passion and stoicism, color and blandness. It’s both European and Asian, simultaneously post-Soviet and modern.

And as such, my feelings about Baku are torn. If I were to say my stay here has been perfect, I’d be lying. I grew in the D.C. area, where I took for granted simple conveniences. And while my living conditions are by no means bad—for many things I was actually quite impressed) as my hosts have done their best to ensure that I have everything I need—there are still bureaucratic messes that one has  to overcome.

But after some reflection, I don’t think that I would want it any other way. I would be bored otherwise. I came here to open a new chapter in my life, start an adventure, and now I realize that this is exactly what I wanted. There is an interesting charm about the dichotomous nature of this city.

I think the only thing about Azerbaijan that doesn’t seem to have an opposing side is the amazing sense of hospitality that is embedded into the people here.

While Baku is a little more Western in orientation and has a colder “big city” feel than some other parts of Azerbaijan, one can still regularly experience the generosity of strangers who are willing to almost give you everything to make sure your experience is nothing short of perfect. I consistently struggle to pay for my own meals and coffee when I’m out with friends. This is, of course, much more pronounced when one visits the regions outside of Baku, where people live simpler lives.

Throughout my time in Baku, I got a chance to see a number of amazing sites. My favorite thing to do by far is to take a night stroll through the city’s gorgeous Caspian-side promenade from the Old City toward the Flame Towers, which dominate the night skyline. On occasion, I’ll take the funicular up to Martyrs’ Alley, which has one of the best views of the Baku. It’s a wonderful blend of old and new.

A quick trip to Gobustan will afford a glimpse into the lives of the regions earliest inhabitants. Other great sites within the Baku city limits are the Maiden’s Tower in the Old City and the Carpet Museum.  Complete the day with a trip to one of Baku’s Turkish-style hamams (bath house) and you’re guaranteed to sleep like a rock.

The restaurants in Azerbaijan are amazing, especially those serving local fare. Anyone who enjoys Middle Eastern cuisine will definitely appreciate Azerbaijani cooking. I especially find it quite nostalgic because it is quite close to some of the foods that my mother and grandmother made at home, but with interesting twists. It seems to be a perfect blend of different tastes for the region, and it is never boring.

I still reminisce about the quantity and quality of the food that I had during the fall apple festival in Quba and the pomegranate festival in Qoychay. Both seemed like giant outdoor all-you-can-eat buffets where you could be indulging on numerous foods made with the particular fruit of choice in one minute and then watching a breathtaking Azerbaijani dance performance the next.

If you’re lucky enough to be invited to an Azerbaijani wedding, which is quite easy actually, you’ll even get to learn some of these dances yourself. The fruit festivals usually end with performances by Azerbaijan’s most renowned musicians.


Azerbaijan is a country that is trying to revive its rich culture yet modernize at the speed of light. The country is simultaneously exploring its past and stepping into the future. While reviving and preserving its age-old music and dance, it’s also aspiring to build the tallest and most innovative buildings on Earth.

For me, Azerbaijan is seeing the statue of Koroglu every morning before attending class at my new state-of-the-art campus.

Post written by Farzin Farzad. Mr. Farzad is a former program officer for the Karabakh Foundation and currently a student at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy and International Affairs. 

A Story of Loss in Karabakh

Although I am an Azerbaijani, I do not know Karabakh as well as my countrymen who were once at home in the region, when Azerbaijani people could safely live in the area before the battle for Karabakh. Although we can study the Karabakh region and conflict, only those who have lived and lost in Karabakh can truly make us understand. For my third blog post I will share the story of one courageous woman who lived in Karabakh and lost her husband in the battle for Karabakh. Through her story, one can begin to understand the depth of human and cultural loss in Karabakh.

I have known this woman for a few years, but never dared to speak to her about Karabakh. I dialed her number with hesitation. Much to my astonishment, she accepted the offer with great pleasure and invited me to dinner. She greeted me with a warm smile and shared her stories openly.

“I left the village later than everybody” she told me. She paused as if struck by the memories of dark days and continues, “I was breeding moths and I couldn’t leave them behind. But, I woke up one day and all of them were dead. They were probably poisoned by dangerous gases in the air caused by the extra use of guns in the zone those times.”

When she finally left it was the summer of 1992. “We were terrified so we left the village,” she shares. “We went to the bank of river Gargar and made a tent there.  We spent the whole night there with villagers. When we woke in the morning, we drank water and ate the food we had. My son Parviz began to cry, missing the tea with sugar we customarily drank in the morning. All of our hearts were broken. In an attempt to assuage his tears and preserve some semblance of cultural normalcy, I returned to the village to fetch him a thermos of tea and sugar. “

“Six of our male relatives were killed and we went to cry for them in the graveyard. We cried for a while and then we just realized we were crying for someone else, not for our relatives.  We found their actual graves and started to cry again.”

Post written by Sevda Salayeva

Karabakh Horses

Karabakh_HorseHorses hold a central place in Azerbaijani culture, serving as both a symbol of social power and providing a vital natural resource for the people of this Caucasian nation. In pre-modern Azerbaijani society owning a well-bred or otherwise desirable horse gave a man particularly important social status. Warriors fought and died with their horses, treating them as fellow soldiers equally deserving of the highest honors in victory or defeat. Evidence suggests that early Azerbaijanis also kept horses for their meat, confirming their fundamental role in all aspects of their society.

The most famous breed of horse found in Azerbaijan is the Karabakh. Native to its namesake region in western Azerbaijan, the Karabakh horse is smaller than most other breeds, but it has a firm body and is remarkably resistant to the often severe Caucasian climate. In addition, it is able to survive on very little food because of its slight stature. While the Karabakh breed was originally famous for its distinctive lemon hued coat, breeders have since developed other color admixtures. Unconfirmed local sources report its existence as far back as one millennium or more.

The history of the Karabakh horse is as deep and varied as that of its homeland and commentators throughout history have noted their special characteristics. Indeed, 8th century Arab invaders found the breed so remarkable that they captured sixty “golden” Karabakh horses and brought them back with them to Abbasid lands as a trophy of sorts. A World War I era Russian military official assigned to the Caucasus region of the Russian Empire noted that “every solider in Karabakh had a [Karabakh] horse” and that they were “very valuable for use in the local climate, as in hot weather they don’t sweat very much in comparison.” By the 19th century, the Karabakh had become a staple of worldwide horse competitions. What was once the prize of Azerbaijan was now the jewel of the world’s eye.

In more recent times, the Karabakh horse has seen triumph and hardship. Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev presented one particularly noble Karabakh named Zaman (Time) as a gift to Queen Elizabeth II during his state visit in 1956, confirming the breeds’ status as an international symbol of Azerbaijan and its people. Despite such renown, war and turmoil have taken their toll on this icon of Azerbaijan: Karabakh horse is currently endangered and threatened with extinction. Regardless, it remains the national symbol of Azerbaijan and a unique reminder of the enduring culture of this Caucasian nation and its Karabakh region.

Post written by Sevda Salayeva

The Meaning of Mugham in Karabakh

I grew up in a small town in south Azerbaijan, called Lankaran, where modern music and culture has largely replaced traditional Azerbaijani mugham music and culture. Mugham is a form of traditional Azerbaijani music that combines elements of Persian, Turkish, and Arabic music. I feel that Azerbaijanis in Karabakh have retained their traditional culture to a greater extent than people in the rest of the country. This difference was clearly apparent when I traveled to Karabakh in the summer of 2012 to work on a project.

While growing up in Azerbaijan I had heard stories about the beauty of Karabakh. However, when I arrived in the partially occupied city of Aghdam I felt as if I was entering a war zone. The day I entered Aghdam, July 23, was the twentieth anniversary of the city’s occupation, which made me depressed and despondent over the plight of Karabakh. The oppressive heat and the stress of not having a place to stay did not improve my mood.

When I eventually found a place to stay I explored the city and I was thrilled to find that every night there were informal mugham concerts in a public park. One evening I stopped to listen to the music and I saw an old man slumped against a wall crying. I tried to speak with him but he did not respond. I wanted to return another night to find the old man but my host brother refused. He said that it was not wise for a woman to visit the park, especially at night.

In retrospect I believe the old man was crying because the music evoked bitter memories of Karabakh. Shusha, the cultural center of Karabakh, was a major center of traditional Azerbaijani mugham music in the 19th Century. The city is still referred to as the “conservatory of the Caucasus”. The greatest composer of Azerbaijani mugham, Uzeyir Hajibayov, was from Shusha. Even today most mugham singers are from Karabakh. Thus mugham is inextricably linked to Karabakh and the longing all Azerbaijanis have for their cultural homeland. The song that the man sang that night was called “Garabagh shikestesi.” One of the lines from the song that drove the old man to tears was “Karabakh won’t be forgotten”.

Post Written by Sevda Salayeva

Black January

Though it was 21 years ago I clearly remember everything what happened that day. I was 23 years old. Among with thousands other people in the streets of Baku, my friends and I were determined to defend our city.

We all knew that a large number of military forces have arrived to Baku. And we all new their mission was to suppress, to put down the movement for national freedom.

The movement that through out several months gathered hundred thousands of people on the Azadlig squire in front of the Government House, was a threat to the Soviet Regime. Especially, just months before the parliament election in Azerbaijan.

We could not possibly expect that military tanks would run over unarmed people, the citizens of USSR, that people would be killed. Just several months before the events of January 20 in Azerbaijan, in April 1989, Soviet military troops beat to death by shovels 16 civilians during a demonstration in Tbilisi, Georgia, mostly women. The Soviet Government condemned these actions and declared that these kind of actions against the own people were unacceptable. This response from the Government gave us a confidence that nothing like that may or will happen in Baku. The most violence that people would imagine would be a baton beating.

So when that night militaries attacked the demonstrators with gun shooting, people could not believe their eyes. That was a nightmare, a shocking cruelty.

My friends and I were in front of the Central Committee Head Quarter that night. We knew that Soviet army troops brought from outside of Azerbaijan were killing people in the streets of Baku. Rumors had it that thousands, ten thousands of people were killed. In those circumstances those rumors sounded true and were convincing.

We knew that sooner or later the militaries would come to the hottest area of the movement, to the Squire in front of the CCHQ. Thousands people gathered there. With my friends we decided to stay there no matter what. We didn’t leave. When about 5am in the morning the military forces approached the squire, people stood in line in front of the approaching tanks and BTRs . We didn’t run away. We held each other’s hands and shouted “AZADLIQ! AZADLIQ!” “FREEDOM! FREEDOM!” Unexpectedly, the military vehicles stopped. We saw solders getting out of BTRs and aiming at us their guns.

I do not know what stopped them. Maybe they didn’t want to shed blood in front of the CCHQ. May be they couldn’t shoot into the crowd of thousands people. Though I doubt it as lives of Azerbaijanis didn’t mean anything to these solders. In any case, for some reason they didn’t shoot that morning.

The second time my friends and I were close to death that day was around 12 noon. Several military vehicles were trying to disperse the demonstrators away from Azadliq squire. Though by that moment we had no doubts that these solders and officers would dare killing civilians, the crowd didn’t move. People blocked the way, and the solders opened fire. But they shoot into the air. All of a sudden, the vehicles turned around and left.

We didn’t sleep through that night. From different witnesses we heard stories of crimes conducted by Russian army. We all were depressed. Our dignity was crushed. With friends, we decided that before dark we’d kill at least one solder, get a gun and kill more military enemy. That was the only honorable way we saw for ourselves, unarmed and defenseless – to die for our Motherland. But before we wanted to destroy the enemy that killed women and children.

It was 5.45 pm (I remember the time because just a few seconds before I checked the time) we were standing in front of the philharmonic theater. The people blocked the street with two trucks, naively believing that this would stop the tanks of the enemy. There were many people sitting in the backs of the trucks. Suddenly I detected a BTR speedily approaching towards the trucks. Those people sitting on the trucks wouldn’t even have a chance to jump off the trucks and save their lives. Without thinking I ran and stood on the way of BTR with my arms up. A second later I realized that it won’t stop but I didn’t move. The only thing upsetting me was that didn’t kill any of these murderers. Without stopping BTR just ran over me.

My friends were telling me later that it all happened within a few seconds. For me it was a very long time, long enough to recall my entire life. I remember my last thought was that my mom would not live through it. Somehow God felt sorry for my mother that day and let me live. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. My friends couldn’t tell me either as they themselves were shocked.

I remember I heard people screaming, “He’s dead! He’s dead!” I couldn’t move or speak; fighting pressure and pain, I just opened my eyes so they understood that I was alive. Some young men moved me into a car and took me to the hospital.

Later when people were coming to visit me in the hospital they told that after what happened to me, someone from the tribune announced that BTR just drove over young man (which was me) and killed him and in order to prevent more killings and shed of innocent blood, they called people to disperse.

When I recall that day, I think that my deed probably has saved lives of few people. This hope eases the painful memories of those black January days. But most importantly to me, after that day Azerbaijan was no longer a Soviet Azerbaijan. Though formally we gained the independence 21 months later, it was from that day Azerbaijanis were no longer Soviet people, and it was on that day that Russia lost Azerbaijan forever.

May the memory of those who died for independence of Azerbaijan live forever.

Allah onlara rəhmət eləsin!

Post Written by Anar Garibov, Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador and Videographer

You are on my mind Shusha!

What are my memories of Shusha?

Some of my memories about the last days in Shusha is about how dangerous it was to stay in the city. Almost every day there was shooting and attacks, unexpected missiles and artillery shelling. I remember my father warning us almost every moment to be careful and stay indoors, not to go outside especially in the afternoon. We would spend most of the time in the basement sitting against the wall, because in case of a missile attack at least these walls could probably save us. And then one day, when we woke up, I heard my father saying to my mother that the day before a missile hit our relatives house which was almost next to us, down the street. But, I have to say, after a while we didn’t feel scared any more, just because it was happening so often.

At some point, my father decided to take us out of the city. First, we moved to our relatives house in Barda, which is in the unoccupied part of Karabakh, and then to Baku. But, Dad, still went back to Shusha couple of times. It was hard for him to believe in what was happening. Actually, he told us we would be going to stay in Baku for a couple of weeks and then go back home. But, unfortunately, 20 years later we are still waiting!

I started school in Shusha, when I was seven years old at the time. My first day at school was very exciting for me. Despite the war, we were happy in our city. Every time I would forget something in the class when my parents came to pick me up. And when they didn’t see me at the door, they would get worried as all parents do. Me and my friends would play football (soccer) in the gym. When we were at school, our instructors would also tell us – in case of a missile attack to stay close to the wall in the class and not to go outside until our parents would come. I didn’t even finish learning the alphabet there. We learned till the letter “Y” and then we had to move, and become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

What does this day – the Day of occupation of Shusha mean to me?

Really sad and upsetting, for my entire family. This is obviously a very bad day for all of us. But we always believed, and continue to believe, that we would be going back soon. That’s how my parents used to calm me down. In Shusha, we lived in a very big single house with a large orchard – most kinds of fruit grew there. It was unusual for me as a child and really upsetting to have to move from that place to a different environment, leave behind the town where you came to this world, where you made your first steps, where you started school for the first time. Lots of memories, lots of important family moments are left there. I don’t really know how to explain it in words. It is hard. I think, until a person experiences it, it’s hard to explain what it was like. And I hope, no one has to go through that.

What do I tell my American friends about Shusha?

I talk about this special flower named “XARI BUL BUL” that according to local traditions is believe to not grow anywhere in the world but in Shusha. Interesting thing about that flower is that if you take it outside of its natural environment to some other place, and it would not grow – or at least won’t look as stunning.

I make a comparison with Washington, DC and Virginia. In DC you have buildings, universities, shopping centers. But when you get outside of DC area you have nature, places to camp, relax and walk around. Shusha was like that. The city of Shusha was very cultural, had busy downtown area with historical buildings, markets. But when you drove outside for a little, all this natural beauty would open up for you. Especially famous water springs like “Tursh Su”, “Isa Bulagi”, “Cidir Duzu”, and “Dash Alti” which were always packed with tourists. And I talk about the weather, how it was stable for the most part of the year – sometimes rainy, sometimes sunny, but weather was really stable. My father often compares Shusha to Davos in Switzerland because of its nature and culture. I tell my American friends that Shusha was a famous resort in Soviet Union. People would come from many countries in the area to get treated for cardio-vascular diseases, for stomach illnesses. I talk about Shusha being a “musical conservatory” of the Caucasus region since so many known musicians, both classical and traditional mugham, were born there. Music was everywhere in Shusha.

Do I believe I will see Shusha again?

Of course I believe and I know we will go back again. My country and my government is working on it. We are doing what we can to get our lands back peacefully. No one wants war.

Every soldier is someone’s son, someone’s father and if the war breaks out, it doesn’t matter which side looses – it is a human life. And we would not want anyone to go through the same pain my country is going through for the past 20 years. Even today, the military conflict is not over. A lot of families are waiting for their loved ones to return from the front line, because despite the cease-fire, there are almost weekly losses.

We want peace. I don’t believe that people in Armenia want war either. I would go back and live together with Armenians in Karabakh, but with civil, tolerant people who don’t promote racism. Not those who murdered, raped and destroyed my home, who support hostilities.

I talk on-line with some of my fellow guys from Shusha and other regions of Karabakh who have been displaced from their homes. Most of them say we still don’t fully understand how it has happened. We don’t have problems living like neighbors. But the politics of occupation of Azerbaijani lands by Armenia must stop! Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis who at the moment are displaced in less-than-wonderful conditions have a right to return home. I do hope we are going to resolve this problem peacefully. War should be the last resort. But, one way or the other, we will go back. Because I want my motherland back, I want my son to grow up where my family belongs. I am waiting for the day when I can kneel down and kiss my land once again.

And I am ready to do anything for that. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I do, if there comes a day when my government says we have to get Shusha back, I am just going to drop everything and run as fast as I can to be there and help restore justice and fairness.

Post Written by Panah Ibrahimov, Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador and Student in the USA

What Does Karabakh Mean to a Turk?

Overview of Turkish Views on Karabakh

There is one common belief regarding the Karabakh region among most Turks: that the Karabakh region is a part of Azerbaijan that has been occupied by Armenian forces. Turks are aware of the fact that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been polarizing nearby nations based on their traditional and ethnic prejudices, interests, and goals, thus hindering the relations of these nations. Put another way, many Turks recognize that problems stemming from this conflict dim the chances to create political, economic and cultural cooperation and unity among the nations in the area.

However, there is a wide range of thoughts among Turks about how this conflict should be solved and what role the Turkish government should play, since they have different understandings and perceptions with regard to the role of nationality, religion, and cultural and political interests, in the conflict.

To begin with, not all Turks agree that the religious, historical, and cultural identity that most Turks share is sufficient to unite nations. Not even all of those who recognize unity among Turkic nations believe that this bond is strong enough to merit action across national borders on the Karabakh matter.

Also, whereas some Turks think that Turkey should play a larger role in the Karabakh problem and support Azerbaijan in their needs, others believe that Turkey should not meddle in the problem and should instead focus more on its own domestic problems. Moreover, whereas some Turkish citizens think that Turkic nations should increase their economic and political cooperation with one another in the East, others think that Turkey should turn toward the West and instead increase its efforts to enter the European Union. With all of this in mind, it is clear that there is not a common “policy” regarding Karabakh among Turks.

Personal Views on Karabakh

I have found that people respond in a variety of ways when asked what they know about the Karabakh region. They might think of the long history of settlement by various empires and communities. Or perhaps they think of the culture of the region, which is very rich in music, cuisine, and art. Or maybe they think about the political turmoil of the region, especially in recent times. Historians argue that the Karabakh region has been the cradle of many civilizations and empires. Caucasian Albanians, Romans, Armenians, Persians, and Turks, among others, have moved to, settled in, fought wars, and lived in the region (The European Azerbaijan Society, 2012).

Most Turks believe that the region is mountainous and hardly accessible with any agricultural production whatsoever. In fact, Karabakh has an abundance of natural resources and beautiful landscapes with rivers, forests, and mountains that allow the region to provide a large part of the agricultural needs of the people of the Caucasus. Moreover, many think that Karabakh region has remained as an underdeveloped area not only in terms of infrastructure but also fine arts. However, The Karabakh region has enriched world art through its rich music, dance and handicrafts, such as carpets and kilims. Carpets and kilims from this region are still highly valued throughout the world for their quality in material, colors, and design. Similarly, mugham music and various Azerbaijani poetic traditions have their roots in Karabakh, and the cultural influence of these traditions is felt to this day.

However, I can see that the region has been suffering from the political and military rivalry between Azerbaijan and Armenia that affects above all those who live in the region, as many have been forced to live in a state of emergency for more than two decades. A solution to the problem, however, has yet to be found.

Why Should Turks Care about the Situation of Karabakh?

There are many reasons why Turks should know more about the Karabakh problem than only the sole fact that Karabakh has been suffering under the occupation of Armenian forces. Ever since I started my higher education in Germany and the United States, I have regularly come across issues relating to the Karabakh region in my research and in class discussions. This has made me understand that simply knowing that the Karabakh region was a disputed land between Azerbaijan and Armenia without knowing details of the conflict was not enough to be able to engage in discussion of the issue.

In order to delve deeper into the conflict, I decided to do some research about the history of the region to be able to better comprehend the present situation. I understood that Turks should know the history of their own region better, especially the political, cultural, and economic situation before, during and after the Cold War. By doing so they will better understand the reasoning used to explain the occupation of Armenian forces of the area, as well as the stances of those in the international community, including those of Turkey and Russia. Equipped with a deeper knowledge of what has happened in the region, more people will play larger roles in demanding the needed actions to end the conflict. Turks in this case–especially those traveling abroad—could play a larger role in illuminating for the international community the situations of the occupied region and perhaps in asking for the world community’s support.

As Turkey has maintained its high GDP every year in recent years, the country is getting more prosperous, which enables and encourages more and more Turkish people to go abroad for touristic, work, and study purposes (Ogret, 2009). Those going abroad and becoming entangled in discussions about the Karabakh problem could actually become cultural and political ambassadors representing the needs and interests of those of the Karabakh region. This way they could increase an international call for a peaceful solution of the problem.

Today’s Realities

Unfortunately, whenever Turks get involved in the discussion relating to the current political relationship of the Caucasus, the focus of many of such discussions have skillfully been diverted to the incidents that happened almost hundred years ago. In other words, rarely do the “recent” topics of Azerbaijanis being oppressed or killed and their territory occupied receive much needed attention, although many alive have been suffering immensely from the current conflict.

Turks should know the current Armenian “Nagorno Karabakh” (the name the Armenians have given to the illegally occupied territory) policies to be able to speak more accurately on this critical current-events topic. For example, they should know that through successful settlement policies of Armenia, the number of Armenians in the Karabakh region has increased, despite having been in the minority throughout the history of Karabakh. Armenian officials have used the recent population statistics to construct the thesis that Karabakh belongs to Armenia. If Armenian officials were to conduct a referendum in Nagorno Karabakh, with these population statistics in mind, they easily could “demonstrate” the “willingness” of the population in Karabakh to become a part of Armenia. In other words, that Azerbaijani claim that Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan might become an inadequate fact that solely relies on historical evidence and does not represent the current situation.

Unfortunately, the education system and the school curriculum in Turkey do not cover this topic in depth, so people are not aware of the situation or have to conduct their own research to increase their knowledge about the Karabakh region.

Turkey’s pursuit of a neutral policy toward the tense relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has resulted in Turkey distancing itself from Azerbaijan. In fact the Turkish Foreign Ministry, under the leadership of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has declared its “Zero Problems with Its Neighbors” initiative, so both Turkic nations have remained without any strong ally in the region until the last decade. However, Turkey’s economic success in the last decade has compelled Turkish foreign policy to apply more “hands-on” approaches to the events happening around its borders (Falk 2012). Although Turkish officials have aimed to maintain a good relationship with Turkey’s neighbors to sustain its economic success, Turkish officials were forced to get involved in the international matters due to recent wars, uprisings, and political unrest especially around its borders and throughout the Middle East. Turkey has been working hard to find ways to mitigate the problems and to stabilize the nations around its borders so that the countries can maintain healthy economic relations with each other.

In this time of unrest, Turkey has come to rely more heavily than ever on Azerbaijan and its rich energy supply. Thus, Turkish officials have increased their relations with Azerbaijan to secure a safe energy supply and work together to provide Europe with natural gas and oil through the Nabucco pipeline (Daly 2012). This enhanced relationship will most likely bring the two nations together, and they most likely work will together more closely to solve the problem related to the Karabakh region.

Moving Forward: A Call to the Turkish Community

The Karabakh problem cannot be solved on a sole political level without proper support from their populations and from the international community. Since Turks are not properly educated about the problem, they cannot make their own informed opinions about the relationship, which also hampers the chances for Turks to act in a unified manner. Thus, in order to increase the support of the population and international community, Turks should seek out more and precise information about the problem to let them become ambassadors for the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

They should seek out reliable history books, documents, and articles from reliable sources where they can learn social, economic and political developments of the region before, during and after the Soviet Union in order to be able to comprehend how the current situation has evolved. It would also be beneficial for any Turk to participate in conferences, panels, and talks related to the problems of the region. It is also important for Turks to be aware of the claims of the Armenians to the Karabakh region to be able to examine the rightfulness of both sides. Once they build their own mind based on historical facts, people will be free of blinders and biases. This way they will understand what needs to be done for the solution of the problem and actively participate in the process of the solution.

Post Written by Emre Elci, Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador

Additional Resources

Daly, John. 2012. “Azerbaijan & Turkey Deepen Their Energy Ties” Oil Price. Available at Accessed on June 13, 2012.

Falk, Richard. 2012. “Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Zero Problems with Neighbors Revisited” Foreign Policy Journal. Available at Accessed on June 12, 2012.

Gafarov, Vaisif. 2012. “Territorial Integrity of Azerbaijan at the Turkish-Russian Talks of 1921 (The Moscow and Kars Conferences)” International Conference. Available at Accessed on June 7, 2012.

Ogret, Ozgur. 2009. “Turkey will enter EU, there is no other way” Hurriyet Daily News. Istanbul. Available at Accessed on June 7, 2012.

Taskiran, Cemalettin. 2010. “Karabakh” Turkish World Research Foundation; Turkish Union. Translated from. Available at Accessed on June 13, 2012.

The European Azerbaijan Society. “Karabakh: Ancient History.” Available at Accessed on June 7, 2012

Impressions of an American High School Student in Azerbaijan

I have long had a sincere fascination with the Caucasus. With well over fifty ethnic and linguistic groups, and nearly all of Earth’s existing climate zones squeezed into an area about the size of the northeastern United States, the region represents a profound patchwork of geography and anthropology. I have always been deeply impressed by the area’s rich diversity of people and places: from the chivalry of the Vainakhs of Chechnya and Ingushetia to the mud volcanoes of Qobustan and the complexities of the Georgian language. Therefore, I was thoroughly excited to visit the Republic of Azerbaijan in June of 2012.

In the spring, I won a national high school essay contest jointly sponsored by the World Affairs Councils of America and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. The two organizations challenged students across the United States to craft a mock briefing report on Azerbaijan for Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, highlighting Azerbaijan’s history, culture, and politics. This included analyzing the legacy of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-1920, and the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. I spent February researching the New York Times archives, the CIA World Factbook, and my school library to draft an essay designed to present myself as a junior policy expert.

Azerbaijan is in many ways an unexpected nation often overlooked and unknown to people in the West. It is a country of contrast between the traditional and the modern. Baku, with its crowded highways, intricate architecture, and designer boutiques rival any city in Europe. However travel outside of the bustling metropolis little has changed. Shepherds still guide their flocks across bucolic mountain vistas as they have for hundreds of years.

Even before the contest, I had developed a fascination of all things Caucasian through careful research and inquiries of the region. However, no amount of reading, could replace visiting the Caucasus and, before winning the contest, I had not traveled within a thousand miles of the Caucasus. For me, landing in Baku, and simply being on the ground among actual Azerbaijanis was in itself a remarkable experience. As we touched down at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, I was filled with expectation and excitement.

Our group was kindly hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and British Petroleum along with other government agencies and businesses. The oil industry dominates the local economy and is as much a part of Azerbaijani culture as dolma (a traditional dish made of stuffed cabbage). Frequent oil spills in the Caspian highlight significant issues between the oil industry and sustainability.

Politically, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a focal point of Azerbaijani politics and dominates public discourse. Enmity for Armenia is ever present and is sanctioned by the government. The specter of war looms ominously with no apparent resolution in sight.

On many occasions during the trip, I heard Azerbaijan’s economic development being compared with China. However, one of the key differences I see between the two is the emphasis Azerbaijan places on cultural reinforcement as it attempts to grow in the post-Soviet era. Whether talking with our tour guides, university students, government officials, or carpet vendors in the old city, most everyone in the country seems to have a passionate and overwhelming sense of optimism and pride in their nation. I admire Azerbaijan for its ability to supply key commodities (i.e. oil) to world markets, as well as the centrality of the Azerbaijani identity to the country’s future. There is indeed a fierce pride in their Caucasian roots, and from the national Mugham center, to the Flame Towers, to the iconic streets of Iceri Seher, it is apparent that economic growth is not displacing historical identity nor heritage in “The Land of Fire”.

Azerbaijan, is a young country demographically and politically. Nearly forty percent of the population is under thirty years old and the country achieved its independence only twenty years ago. While Azerbaijan continues to struggle with unique, regional problems in a post-Soviet world, I agree with the Azerbaijanis that I spent time with when I say that the future nonetheless seems bright. With their new place on the world stage (helped greatly by Eurovision, by the way!), I believe that the Azerbaijanis are in a fine place to assert themselves independently and proudly amidst changing global circumstances I wish them all the best, and hope to return soon. Sag ol.

Post written by Matthew Miller, Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador. Matt spent this summer traveling in Azerbaijan with nine other students from across the US. He is in the 11th grade at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, PA.

Weddings in Azerbaijan

Summer is finally here, and so the most popular season for weddings has arrived. While the weather is warm, couples are exchanging vows in countries all over the world and Azerbaijan is no exception.

Azerbaijani weddings are known for having unique traditions, festive ceremonies, rich decorations, and of course, delicious food. Typically, Azerbaijani wedding ceremonies are of a very large scale, with guest lists of approximately 300 to 500 people. At the ceremony the décor is elaborate and ornate, featuring glamorous textiles, crystal chandeliers, and rich white tablecloths with countless delicacies covering the tables.

Some of Azerbaijan’s wedding traditions, such as the custom of having the bride’s face hidden from her groom till after the ceremony and a lengthy engagement process that took up to seven days, were mocked by filmmakers in the 20th century. Through their comedic critique, the Azerbaijani movie and music industry played a big role in speeding up the transformation of customs in Azerbaijan. Today, many historic traditions are still practiced, but most have been greatly simplified so as to be more practical.

Traditionally, a couple can only being dating once the boy’s parents visited the girl’s parents and receive official permission for the couple to date. Today this is enforced less strictly. However, many young couples hide their romance from their parents in order to avoid conflict. Even if the man and the woman are seeing each other before receiving approval from their parents, it is not considered “official” until they do. When the couple is ready to take this step, the groom’s parents come to visit the bride’s parents at her home. The parents are introduced to each other and the groom’s parents are seated at a purposefully empty table where in the absence of their children they discuss the potential groom and recommend him to the bride’s parents. If the woman’s parents agree that the couple should be together, they serve tea with sugar at the end of the conversation, sugar being the key ingredient symbolizing their agreement. Unsweetened tea is a sign of rejection. After tea, the young couple is invited in and introduced to each other’s parents. It’s important to note that this meeting does not symbolize an engagement; it is simply a formal acknowledgment that the couple may date and a promise to continue forth towards an engagement.

After this meeting, the couple continues to date for several months while discussing the engagement and possible wedding arrangements. During this time, the groom and his family usually try to “show off” as much as possible before the bride. The groom does this by showering the bride with various presents. One common gift is called the “honcho,” which consists of a variety of glamorous baskets filled with fancy sweets. The trays of the honcho are usually overflowing with various sweet pastries, chocolates, national sweets, and many others. Today, the honcho has become even more extravagant than it was in the past, including additional decorations such as flowers, ribbons, and fancy wrapping. Another common gift is a large sugar cone that is wrapped in colorful ribbons and is brought to the bride’s household as a symbol of a sweet and easy life. The groom continuously brings these gifts to the bride, in addition to clothing, flowers, and small jewelry. During this gift-giving time frame, the couple decides on a wedding date and continues planning for the big day.

The day before the wedding, women get together and usually paint henna on the bride. This is an ancient tradition that originated in a time when the henna herb was believed to wave off evil spirits and bad luck. The modern henna designs are a lot more elegant than the rough patterns of the older times, and are usually done only for aesthetic purposes.

On the wedding day, the groom and his relatives pull up to the bride’s house in a fancy limousine decorated with ribbons and flowers that are made to look very festive. The groom comes into the bride’s home with his closest relatives and friends, some of whom carry a mirror and candles that sit in rice to represent well-being and happiness. The groom is additionally accompanied as a small troupe of musicians who play lively music. As this loud procession nears the front door of the bride’s home, a woman within the house opens the door and pretends not to let the groom in until he gives them some money. This tradition is fun and playful, as the women put on a little show and the groom is forced to donate a symbolic sum of money in order to gain permission to enter. As the groom and his party enter, it is traditional for the groom’s brother, or closest male relative, to tie a red sash around the bride’s waist to symbolize purity and innocence. Then the bride and groom usually take photos at home and the groom “takes” the bride away for the wedding ceremony after receiving a verbal blessing from her father. The couple, along with their families and friends, then drives to the place of the wedding ceremony, which is usually a large ballroom or restaurant. After the official wedding ceremony, the party begins. Azerbaijani weddings are full of lively dancing, singing, eating, and drinking and go on for hours, often all the way through the night.

Sometimes, two separate wedding ceremonies are held: one for women and one for men. These types of weddings are rather old fashioned and rarely seen today. In the separate weddings the women dance all out without having to hold back in front of the men, and the men also have fiery dance competitions. Many say that these separate parties are a lot like dance competitions as the women and men engage in dance offs without having to hold back and be reserved in front of the opposite sex.

Full of traditions intricate in detail, an Azerbaijani wedding is the most important event in the lives of most Azerbaijani people and it is definitely worth attending if you are ever lucky to receive an invitation.

Post written by Anastasiya Filippova, Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador. 

Additional Sources

Eurovision 2012: Looking for the Payoff

In February 2012, Azerbaijani cabinet ministers announced the official state budget for expenses related to Azerbaijan’s hosting of the Eurovision song contest, which will begin May 26. The budget, composed mainly of construction costs of new centers for Eurovision, is approximately 50 million AZN, which is roughly US $63.5 million.

$63.5 million tops what is believed to have been the most expensive Eurovision hosting to date—Eurovision 2009 in Moscow. That event exceeded $45 million for the first time in contest’s history. Other countries have spent respectively as follows: Greece €12 million (US$15.8 million), Serbia €9.3 million (US$12.2 million), and Germany €25 million (US$32.9 million).

Azerbaijani authorities have had less than a year to prepare the city for the contest. Government and industry have worked to enhance the city’s ability to accommodate the anticipated influx of tourists, primarily from Europe.

In a recent post, I estimated the revenue of Eurovision 2012 for Azerbaijan at about $40 million. The estimated revenue is significantly less than what government is actually spending on contest preparations. The question arises, what are the benefits of hosting such an expensive contest?

Russia, like many other Eurovision host countries, did not gain enough revenue from the contest to cover all the costs. This is how Russian officials see the benefit of the contest: “The income from ticket sales was nothing compared to the money spent on the competition. It is the external political effect, not revenue that matters.”

Mr. Vugar Bayramov, founder of the economic think tank Center for Economic and Social Development (CESD) is more optimistic about the contest. According to Mr. Bayramov, the contest will boost cultural and tourism development in the country.

Even though the Azerbaijani government will not gain direct revenue from the contest in the short run, the country will benefit culturally and economically from the contest in the long run. So, we can assume that Eurovision’s greatest benefit for Azerbaijan will be promotion of the country’s rich culture and history primarily to Europeans.

Many Europeans have never even heard of, not to mention visited, Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani team of Ell & Nikki’s victory at the 2011 contest changes that fact. Clearly, tourists’ first impressions of the country will determine whether or not they will return. As such the Baku government and local businesses are taking necessary steps toward a successful celebration.

Businesses and government agencies are training customer-service employees throughout Baku. In addition, the government is ensuring strict regulation of prices to avoid any off-putting artificial price increases.

Clearly Eurovision 2012 will open European minds to Azerbaijan’s rich culture, heritage, and history. Not only 60,000 tourists visiting Baku but also 125 million viewers throughout the Europe will be fascinated by the modern look and intriguing culture of the country. These numbers suggest that a country that was unknown to many Westerners now will be “on the map” as a potential tourism destination for Europeans.

Statistics related to the economic impact of the Eurovision cultural experience will provide a much-needed baseline for Azerbaijani planners. The Eurovision experience has the near-future potential for doubling Azerbaijan’s annual tourist number, which has never before exceeded two million. The emerging numbers and statistics may reveal a shift of the Azerbaijani economy away from an economy based on oil and gas toward one based on cultural tourism. Observers will do well to keep track of the impact of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Post written by Elchin Abdullayev, Karabakh Foundation Analytical Economics Intern, Senior Undergraduate Student of Economics at George Mason University, and president of Azerbaijani Youth of America