This was the main question I received when I told people I was traveling to Azerbaijan. I usually replied, “It’s near Turkey,” but the truth is that it borders Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and the Caspian Sea.
So why Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire? Well, I was invited by the U.S. State Department to share my experiences as a female entrepreneur with women around the country.
When I landed in Azerbaijan, cultural attaché Chris Jones picked me up at the airport and immediately handed me a cell phone and a large packet. I felt like I had parachuted into a scene in Mission Impossible.
He explained the schedule – I would be meeting with groups of young women, female entrepreneurs and media throughout the country for ten days.
And with that, we were off. We started in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
Baku can be deceiving. On the surface it looks like any major city. It’s full of big expensive cars and is very secular. You won’t see many women covered up there. It even has a few bars – which foreigners mostly frequent.
When I first decided to travel to Azerbaijan I didn’t know much about the country and was imagining something akin to news feeds about Afghanistan, so when I found myself in Baku I was relieved. It looked a lot like San Francisco, nestled next to the water.
Then we went on the road. I traveled to Ismayilli, Seki (pronounced Sheki), Ganja (the 2nd largest city in the country behind Baku), Shirvan, Guba, Kachmaz and then back to Baku for several more days.
When we traveled to the regions outside of Baku I begin to understand that Azerbaijan is not what it seems on the surface. It is a Muslim country that speaks Azerbaijani and is oil rich, but in the regions there is no avoiding the fact that it was once ruled by the Soviet Union and has a large uneducated populace (especially women).
In Ismayilli, a mountain town, I spoke to an eager crowd of young girls in a crumbling building with no heat in 40 degree weather.
In Seki, a television station invited me to tour the station and have dinner in advance of a television interview. The channel, I learned, is controlled by the state. A media specialist provided by the U.S. embassy coached me on what I could and probably should not say. That’s when I fully realized, while it’s a lovely country with great food, it’s still a dictatorship.
My schedule was jam-packed with speaking engagements and media interviews. I averaged four speaking engagements a day. I teased Chris that I was in his public speaking bootcamp.
The media interviews concerned me the most. Given that I didn’t speak the language I was worried I would be understood and I know how difficult it can be to come across well in media here in the U.S. where I do speak the language. There were some hiccups but I managed them and even did a brief interview on their equivalent to Good Morning America.
Throughout the trip, though, I had a host of mixed emotions.
I found it difficult to talk about myself so much. Surprise, surprise! Perhaps everyone should be forced to tell their story several times a day for many days. The experience definitely made me see myself in a new way. At first I struggled with being myself, but the seemingly endless repeating of my story helped me to accept myself.
I learned that by being myself I could reach across cultural and language divides and connect. It was definitely easier with younger women – they were more open. But even the hard-looking older women were touched. I was connecting even when I couldn’t tell from the looks on their faces. This I have to remember.
I had a translator, but sometimes it was terribly frustrating. I wanted to understand every little thing going on and I had to constantly nudge her for help. It was more difficult than I expected not understanding a word. I had to pay more attention to body language and facial expressions. I was hyper-aware. Which, of course, I’m good at but it turned up my already sensitive antennae and took tremendous energy.
I also felt pain. I could feel with every pore in my body how much women are repressed in the country – mainly by men but also by their own expectations for themselves. It’s a learned helplessness with which I am all too familiar. It triggered a deep empathy and anger in me that I could only express at night in my hotel room by crying.
It was subtle, but with every day the weight on my soul seemed to grow heavier. I know that sounds dramatic, but really, there’s no other way to describe it. Growing up I often felt like a guest in many homes and as such I never felt like I could truly be myself. And there were consequences to being myself. So an adulthood where I can more freely express myself has been a revelation.
My trip to Azerbaijan really put this into focus for me. It is a country that doesn’t have extreme poverty – no one is starving or homeless per se, but it is sapped of spirit. Meaning many people cannot be themselves or live the lives they want for themselves. This is a country where a man can punch a woman in the face with impunity, and the government jails people for criticizing the president. This suppression is evident everywhere.
It’s a difficult atmosphere to describe unless you’re used to being around depressed people. To make matters worse, few people smile – a remnant of Soviet dominance.
Talking to women, young and old, I learned how much they defeat themselves. They see no use in trying. There is a culture of can’t – even in the face of real life examples of can.
There are successful women entrepreneurs in Azerbaijan. I was fortunate to meet many, including a woman who started the few and largest bookstores, a woman who opened a tea house for women, and even a woman who started her own bakery with another woman friend at the age of 52. Where at least one person has accomplished something, in my mind it means that more can follow – the path is forged and it’s possible.
But I was frustrated to run up against mindsets that were either completely fixed and negative or unrealistically attached to Oprah-isms – dream it and it will come true – without moving to put in the work. Adding to the problem was the general fear of admitting to not knowing something and a very palpable fear of failure.
Though it’s not difficult to see how that might flow from the top. Dictatorships are not exactly known for their creativity. It’s hard to be creative when you’re not allowed to fail. It’s easy to feel defeated when you’re surrounded by corruption.
Still I did my best to convey hope and inspire the women I met to pursue education and consider entrepreneurship.
Many of the women I met were eager to learn and welcoming. Young girls came up to me asking for pictures and easily draped their arms around me. One young girl went to hug me and stopped abruptly, catching herself and sucking in her breath like she had seen a ghost. “Is it okay to touch you?” she asked, “I know that Americans don’t like to be touched.” I laughed and gave her a big hug.
I was moved by the girls and women I met, and concerned for them, but I learned they were more concerned for me. The number one question I was asked at every stop and after ever speech and upon every meeting, without hyperbole, was are you married and do you have children.
Some also asked why I didn’t wear make-up. For the record I do, but not as much as women there. Make-up, it seems, is essential to the main goal of snagging a man.
Older women after my speeches crowded around me, grabbed my hands and very seriously advised that I go home and work on getting married. I said I would.
I already feel a bit like a freak that I’m not married and don’t have children at my age, so the everyday reminder on the trip threatened to send me over the edge. But I was remarkably sanguine. I know I’ve been afforded an opportunity that these women are only now starting to imagine – an opportunity to forge a life of my own. Yes, getting married and having children no doubt enriches a life, but not having the choice surely diminishes it.
Going into the trip I was skeptical about what I could teach women there, but now I see even exposure to another experience of the world can make a difference. I hope I was able to make even a small one.
I’m still unpacking my trip, but overall I am glad I made the journey. It was at times uplifting and others, challenging, but I learned a lot.
I learned how to stand up and give a speech under all sorts of circumstance: when sick, hoarse, too hot, freezing, confused, in a different language. I learned that women are surprisingly similar everywhere. I learned that my fire still burns bright.