Meetings, meetings, meetings and Shabbat dinner

The organizers of this trip have done amazing work, and I give them a tremendous amount of credit. They convinced a number of Azerbanjani government ministries that the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom was worth their time to meet. We have no real status, no authority and no power and yet, there we were in the conference room of the Minister of Education discussing the Azerbanjani  education system and how it deals with issues of bullying! Everyone was very nice and seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say, after telling us about how the country inherited a Soviet style education system which valued a more rote style that they believe is not what is best for their country. They are working to change the system, little by little. They built a great many new schools in the past few years, with the oil money that drives this economy. The downturn in oil prices must be having a big impact on many projects. One question that was raised by our group concerned the role of religious schools in the country. There are a few, but they are totally separate from the public schools. I am getting the impression that here in Azerbaijan, religion really does live separately from government. The information we are getting from different sources seems consistent. This is surely the only majority Muslim country where religion really is not the focus of the country. Very few women wear hijab, we don’t hear the call to prayer and there is alcohol everywhere!

From the Education Ministry we took our bus to the quite new campus of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy University.The campus is on a hill and currently consists of 3 gorgeous buildings, all with “smart” technology as well as echos of some of the more traditional elements of the local architecture. We were escorted and interacted with a smooth and worldly young-ish man who is a vice-chancellor and in charge of the foreign students. The programs include international economics, business and computer science among others. Our guide showed us through a classroom building where the floor of the central atrium space was designed out of different marbles in imitation of a traditional carpet pattern. The library has all of the most up to date technologies and a cafe in the lobby. In the student center building, with fast food and a coffee shop on the ground floor and faculty offices and some meeting rooms upstairs, we had a chance to ask our guide a few more questions. Pointing to the window, he said “that building with the curved side is the Trump Tower, but the letters have all been removed”. He had read the New Yorker article ( seems like everyone here has read it) and agreed that the company Trump was in business with has some shady dealings in it’s background , but he did not believe that there could possibly be any connections with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, as described in the article. Me, I figure that the New Yorker has been right about so many things – remember it broke the Abu Ghraib story- that I’ll wait to see if anyone can actually disprove the connection. 

We chatted and chatted some more, then eventually headed for the bus only to encounter the Chancellor of the 2000 student institution, a former long-term Ambassador to the US from Azerbaijan. He seemed quite happy to chat, too. by this time, we are running really late, and there is one more meeting on the agenda. It cannot be moved, so we are delaying lunch again, until after we meet with the State Committee on the work with Religious Institutions. Another conference room, another long table, photographer and this time a video camera. Most of us are pretty burned out on meetings and really need lunch, it’s now around 2:30pm. We finally leave and are waiting on the sidewalk, blocking other pedestrians waiting for the main organizers, Sheryl and Irada and Attia when we learn that they are being interviewed for a local television station! More delays before lunch! Finally we can head back towards our neighborhood and lunch was quick and delicious.

Some down time, but not too much because it’s Friday night and Shabbat services will be held at 6:30 in the hotel, followed by dinner. 

I haven’t been to a Friday night Shabbat service in many many years. While I was raised in a Conservative synagogue, my adult life has been with much more liberal institutions of Judaism, if any. This evening the service was led by our leader Sheryl’s husband, a rabbi in the conservative tradition. There was lots of unfamiliar Hebrew, the Kaddish prayer for the Dead was recited twice ( I don’t understand that at all) and in general it was mostly a frustrating experience. There was a short Amidah, or standing silent prayer, during which I tried to ask myself why I felt so alienated from so much of the tradition I was supposed to be a part of.I didn’t come up with an answer, but I learned later that I was not alone in my feelings. Religion is a complicated aspect of life and so personal. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is trying to bridge the gap between Islam and Judaism through increased understanding and exposure. That is a great idea, but we need to find ways to learn more about each other’s traditions in open and frank discussions. It’s not easy, that much I know just from trying to do the same with other Jews about our religion and the variety of ways there are to be Jewish.I am looking forward to more experiences of shared traditions.

Irada, the Azerbaijan/American woman who is an unpaid, self-motivated booster in the US of all things Azerbaijan from her home in Houston, had invited a few women who she knew here who might be interested in  attending the service and the dinner after upstairs in the hotel. One or two of the 6 women had Jewish backgrounds, the others were Muslim to varying degrees. One woman ended up sitting across from me at dinner and we engaged in a lively conversation covering topics from religion to politics and freedom of the press. By the end of the evening we exchanged cards and as of this afternoon, I think we might be able to meet up before we leave Baku. She is a lawyer/consultant for a large international firm and extremely bright and worldly. I have a feeling that we might become friends, at least via email and Facebook!


Published in: on March 11, 2017 at 1:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: