When I arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan in November, after an invitation to attend the International Theater Conference, all expenses paid, it was the culmination of a 5 year journey adapting Kurban Said's world famous Azerbaijani novel, "Ali and Nino" for the stage. Highlighting the cross-cultural romance of Ali Khan Shirvanshir, a young, passionate Azerbaijani patriot from Baku, a Muslim, and Nino Kipiani, a bright, witty, Christian girl from Georgia, the stage adapation, like the novel, is prophetic and relevant to events in the near East today. Similar mistakes, confusions, and an ethnocentric bias today painfully reveal how history often repeats itself. The romance of the novel highlights the drama of Ali and Nino's quest for cross-cultural understanding. How they go about achieving it, often against odds.. Cross-cultural understanding was the reason I was attending the conference.
Azerbaijan is an oil rich country run by powerful financial interests. Interests that govern the proceeds of Azerbaijan from top to bottom. Downtown Baku competes with New York City when it comes to loud honking and fierce competition to get around the traffic. "OldTown" with its splendid historical buildings, long time residents, working people and artists, is central to the history of Azerbaijan and was a major focus on the Silk Road between west and east. An historical marker, a reminescence of the past, and most important, true to its roots.
The conference lasted 4 days. It attracted a wide variety of theater people and journalists from Azerbaijan, the U.S., Germany, Austria, Belarus, the UK, Czech Republic, Beijing, Estonia, Finland, Iran, Switzerland, Canada, Korea, Kazakhstan, Litvia, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tajikistan, Tunisa, Turkey, Ukraine, and Greece. An array of theater people who maintained an equilibrium of prescence and mutually shared curiosity throughout the planned activities of the conference.
The opening ceremony with greetings from Azerbaijan dignitaries was done with carefully ordered precision, a lengthy affair, including introductions and media presentations about Azerbeijan theater, and comments by theater people from around the world about their work. What we had done on stage, what we were doing now, and how we were going about it. In the lobby of the theater a display of past Azerbaijani productions of plays, musicals, and folk performances reminded us that Azerbeijan has a history of theater well worth paying attention to. Many people at the conference did not know what that history was; the well placed visual introduction in the lobby was seminal to the conference.
Wearing headsets with instant translation into English and other languages also helped us cross bounderies. We were wined, dined, and fetted at local restaurants with superb hospitality. Azerbaijan boasts the largest flag I have ever seen. It bucked and snapped in the wind with an impressive sweep; a commemorative reminder of Azerbeijan's quest for national identity. Tellingly somber was a visit to a war memorial dedicated to Azerbaijani martyrs. Patriots who fought and died in Azerbaijan's struggle for independence; first with the British and then later the Russians. Not unlike Washington's war memorials, it has a similar monumental configuration, following a trail of military graves of martyrs laid out in stone, and highlighting a memorial to Azerbeijan's first president.
War remains a divisive and horrendous option with all sides honoring their dead. The powers-that-be everywhere know how to play patriotism to the hilt. In many ways national interests use patriotism to generate financial opportunities. Azerbeijan is no exception to the rule. It seems at times that only the dead know the crux of the matter: the rest is silence.
On the lighter side, especially memorable was dining at a restaurant with fiery, rapid fire Azerbaijani music orchestrated by a violinist who knew no bounds. Since I had been listening to recorded AzerbaijanBaliban music on black walnut flutes, as well as Azerbaijani classical music, opera, and jazz, I found myself dancing with two Azerbeijani professional dancers at once. Assuming your knees hold up (mine did), the experience was a delightful change of pace, especially when the crowd joined in.
The conference, in short, was a gamble on the part of Azerbaijan authorities to make a good impression through the arts; and it did. We were treated with infinite hospitality.
Yet there was also a tightening of the reins: everything planned in lock step. You were either on the bus or off it, waiting for the next attraction, whether be another memorial or monument, a dinner at a restaurant, or a theatrical presentation. At times the planning became rigid – with little free time.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of the conference was meeting the Azeribaijani theater youth who filtered in and out at the fringes of the conference. There is no end to the pleasure I feel when surrounded by honest and bright young people loaded with questions about international theater. I didn't have the answers. What I did have was a shared sense of asking the right questions. Their presence and talk was up beat, generous, friendly, and full of laughter. If these young people are the spirit of Azeribaijan in the future, I'd hold on to them for dear life. There is no other choice.