Winter 2002 (10.4)
Jubilee - An Interview with Myself as Editor
by Betty Blair
How did Azerbaijan International get
Actually, the birth of this magazine was quite accidental. Ten
years ago, publishing a magazine was the farthest thing from
our minds. You might say the idea was born out of passion. Blame
it on The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
Back in 1992, the war with Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh had
just begun. Whenever the Western media managed to write anything
about the conflict, bias always crept in. Embedded in every article,
down about five or six paragraphs, was the seemingly innocuous
reference to "Christian Armenians" and "Muslim
Azerbaijanis." Of course, such a religious affiliation is
true in the traditional sense, but the implication was absolutely
Religion had very little to do with this war, right?
But for most Western readers, they needed no further explanation
to identify who the "bad guys" were.
But the entire war was being fought on Azerbaijan's territory,
Exactly. And no one was telling "the other side of the story"
- Azerbaijan's point of view. That's when Pirouz Khanlou, an
Azerbaijani American from Tabriz, decided to put together a newsletter
and asked me to get involved. He had attended the First International
Business Conference in Baku back in 1990, before the collapse
of the Soviet Union.
I just so happened to know a bit about computer desktop publishing,
and so you might say the task of editing fell to me quite by
default - another accident. Or, in retrospect, just a case of
being in the right place, at the right time. We started in January
1993 with a 16-page black and white newsletter run off on a Xerox
copier, and since 1996 we've steadily published about 100 pages
in full color for each quarterly issue.
How did you get financial support for the magazine?
Our first advertisements didn't appear until the third issue
of the magazine with BP, Pennzoil (now Devon) and Unocal. Then
others joined them. It would be impossible to produce this magazine
without their support. To tell you the truth, that's always the
toughest part, knocking on doors for advertisements.
What was Baku like in those early years?
Quite different from today. Packing for those trips was so nerve-racking.
You had to remember to take everything. All your film, your batteries,
cassette tapes, and yes, even toilet paper. Nowadays, you can
buy most everything quite easily.
Telephone communication was difficult, too?
Today, mobile phones are everywhere; even school kids carry them,
but back then there was no such thing as a mobile phone, and
trying to conduct business via telephone was a nightmare. Despite
how hard you tried, lines connected to the right party only about
20 percent of the time, and then you could barely hear. Too often
the line went dead.
And what about international calls?
Forget it. Prior to 1995, you couldn't even make a direct dial
out of the country. You had to set an appointment with an old
Soviet-style operator who would place your call hours later,
sometimes in the middle of the night. When direct dialing finally
became available, it was prohibitively expensive, starting at
about $6 a minute in offices, and even higher in hotels.
Thank God for email and the Internet.
Aaaaah! Sweet, sweet Internet. Sometimes, I'm in awe of how we
managed without it? How could we have dared to think about producing
a magazine 8,000 miles from its source when communication was
so unreliable. Naiveté, probably. Our first E-mails to
Baku didn't start until 1997.
Before that, we used to travel to Baku (the only flights went
through Moscow or Istanbul), conduct interviews, get them translated
and head back to Los Angeles with a case full of scribbled notes.
And that was it. Now we have constant communication with Azerbaijan
and a well-trained, committed staff, who can confirm the smallest
detail before it appears in print.
What impressed you about Azerbaijanis?
Their willingness to embrace us. I had grown up during the Cold
War when the only thing most of us knew about the Soviet Union
was that they were our enemies. My neighbor had even built a
bomb shelter in case the Soviets ever attacked. But Azerbaijan
International arrived on the scene about a year after the Soviet
Union collapsed (1991), and we found Azerbaijanis very eager
to build relationships with the international community.
What surprised you the most?
Editorially, I still find it difficult to get used to what might
be called "reverse discourse," so characteristic of
some Eastern cultures. That means that the most important statement
in an article is likely to appear at the bottom, not at the top.
It's been a big headache for us because, invariably, we have
to turn articles upside down to accommodate Western readers.
Also, I didn't expect such an "erosion of memory" in
the society when it comes to events of this past century. I figured
that Azerbaijanis were basically an oral society. I wasn't prepared
for the huge gaps of information that exist, especially among
the younger generations. It's all part of the Soviet legacy that
Azerbaijanis are having to deal with - reclaiming their own history.
When political systems reverse themselves, making it politically
incorrect and even life threatening to discuss certain topics,
it doesn't take long before an immense wealth of communal information
Erosion of memory is evident everywhere, even down to the simplest
mundane things like: "Which Oil Baron built that gorgeous
mansion that you walk by everyday?" Often, they don't know.
Often nobody knows.
What satisfies you most about the job?
When good things happen to people because of our efforts. For
example, Texaco (now merged with Chevron) undertook a half million
dollar project refurbishing Baku's Blood Center because of an
article we wrote in 1995 about the tragic genetic disorder Thalassemia.
Or when we learn that foreign families have chosen Azerbaijan
as the country from which to adopt an orphaned child after reading
our magazine archives on the Web - AZER.com. Or when a music
professor in Sao Paolo, Brazil, includes Azerbaijani music in
his university curriculum because he stumbled across music on
our Web site. Or when a child in Seattle, Washington, sends a
Christmas package to young writer Lamiya upon reading her poetry
in our magazine. Situations like that are immensely satisfying.
That's where the Web sites come in.
Yes, we've created four Web sites so far: AZER.com (launched
in 1996) archives the entire magazine from 1993. It's now the
"Largest Web site in the World about Azerbaijan" with
more than 1,500 articles and 3,700 photos. In essence, it's the
closest thing in English to an encylopedia about Azerbaijan.
It has a great SEARCH engine and a Store.
For art lovers, there's AZgallery.org
(1999) which now features 3,000 works and 150 artists. Then we
created HAJIBEYOV.com (2001),
which features the legacy of Azerbaijan's most beloved composer,
Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948). When America's most prestigious
radio media National Public Radio (NPR) discovered this site
and featured the 7-volume CD set of Hajibeyov's music that we
produced with Statoil's assistance, that was a thrilling moment.
NPR boasts nearly 20 million listeners weekly via more than 680
NPR member stations.
AZERI.org (2000) features Azeri
language and literature. Already we've translated more than 70
articles into Azeri from the magazine, and there's more than
a dozen Azeri writers featured there, too. Finally, the first
full literary book is up on the Web in Azeri Latin-Little Prince
by Antoine de St. Exupery - translated from French. It's another
first for Azerbaijan International and we think it's another
first for the country. It's been an exciting journey this past
decade. We hope that many more "firsts" will follow
in the second decade of the publication of Azerbaijan International
in our efforts to take part in the history of this brand new
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AI 10.4 (Winter 2002)
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