How We Vote... Not

I voted only once in my life.

In March 2009 Azerbaijan had a referendum. Its results would decide a number of issues, including whether or not to lift the two-term presidential limit.

Everyone knew what the outcome was going to be: the Parliament proposed the referendum on Dec. 19, quickly sent it to the Constitutional Court, which approved it five days later on Dec. 24, which also happened to be President Aliyev's birthday. The judges spent only 37 minutes approving 41 amendments to 29 articles of the constitution - less than a minute for each.

It was a no-brainer, but I still decided to vote.

The voting poll for our district was in a local school less than a mile away from my house, so it took me only 10 minutes to get there. The yard was empty - no lines of voters, no post-voting discussions, just a depressing Soviet-style school yard. The main hallway was not too lively either. School desks were connected into two long tables along the walls on both left and right sides. The school's teachers (mostly women in their 50s and older) were sitting along them, chatting loudly and sizing up the incomers. At the far end of the hallway were voting booths and a plastic see-thru ballot box in front of them.

I approached one of the tables to ask for my ballot. Before I had a chance to say anything, I noticed what one of the ladies at that table was doing. With unruffled composure she was filling out a pile of ballots, checking Yes boxes for each amendment. Once done with a ballot, she would fold it and put aside, into another pile - the ballots she has already filled out.

Very carefully I took out my smartphone and took a picture. The woman who was checking my ID saw what I was doing and elbowed the "ballot filler." The latter looked at me, and, obviously temporarily, put the pile of empty ballots under the table on her lap.

The "ballot-filler."

The "ballot-filler."

I grabbed my ballot, went to the booth and checked No on all of the proposed amendments. I came back home and uploaded the picture on Facebook. Later that day, dozens of other pictures and videos of this and other kinds of violations flooded news feed.

The amendments were accepted "with the percentage of “Yes” votes between 87.15% and 91.76%."

Smoking No More

Not so long ago, I heard that by doing something for 21 days in a row, one can form a lifelong habit. It sounded doable to me, so I decided to give it a try... and quit smoking. Exactly three weeks ago in the late evening of September 23, I sat in my "smoking" chair on the backyard of our house and smoked my "maybe the last" cigarette, while chatting with my roommate. She has quit awhile ago, after smoking almost as long as I did. In her case it was seven years, in mine - eight. She had the same problems with will power and lack of motivation as I did, so it was comforting and encouraging to learn that I was not alone in my misery.

I finished the cigarette, went back inside and sat on the couch. As soon as I felt the next craving, I stuck the first NicoDerm nicotine patch, which I bought in advance, on my right arm and waited for it to kick in. After five-ten minutes of itchiness, the patch started working. Suddenly, the craving was gone, and so was the irritation.

In the first few days I could feel the impact nicotine has had on my nervous system:

  1. My sleep was completely messed up. I would fall asleep late, wake up several times a night and see vivid dreams, often with negative content.
  2. My left eye started twitching right away and, in fact, still continues to do so. Apparently, many former smokers experienced the same issue, mostly with their left eyes. They all say that eventually it passes. I get it much less now.
  3. Sometimes, to see how my body reacts to the absence of cigarettes, while not fooled by the patches, I would give longer breaks, and not put on the new patch for hours. At some point, I would start feeling irritated. Every sound felt louder, light - brighter, and usual habits of people around me seemed incredibly annoying. I would then put the next patch on and 10-15 minutes later, I was back to being myself.

The thing most of the smokers are uncertain about is how to replace the habit itself. For many like me, smoking is mostly a calming method. We are convinced that it helps us think, be creative, and even overcome our breakdowns. Well, as a highly unstable person, who has to do all kinds of writing and creative work for her classes, I can assure you - it's crap. It's not the cigarette we need, it's the nicotine and the sense of a reward.

For this purpose, I have armed myself with electronic cigarettes. Here, I have to say to whoever invented e-cigs - let peace be upon him and his family. There is a variety of types available online, or in any smoke shop in your town. My roommate made me a wonderful gift - the rechargeable e-cig she has used to quit and didn't need anymore. The brand she used was Safe Cig. You buy the first package that includes the cigarette, its charger and re-fillers, and after that you only need to keep ordering the latter. They come in different flavors, there is no shipment fee, or additional cost. You can also choose the level of nicotine (18 mg to 0 mg).

Besides, I discovered "pocket hookas," disposable e-cigs, also available in smoke shops. They usually last for 500-600 puffs and have amazing flavors. The one I treated myself with the last time, had mocha latte flavor - a pleasure for coffee'n'cigarette lovers.

Another major excuse that smokers use is the fear of gaining weight. Well, I've not only avoided gaining weight, I have actually lost at least four pounds. And this part of quitting is directly correlated with your reasons. One of the top two of my reasons, was health. As soon as I quit, I did two major changes in my life:

  1. Watching what I eat. No, I don't restrict myself. In fact, I eat everything I love, but in reasonable amounts. Besides, I have stashed my fridge with fruits and vegetables, only the ones that I like, and eat them as snacks. If I need something sweet, I usually go for low-calorie ice creams by Weight Watchers, or other brands. You can have a couple of those a day without harming your figure. And by the way, your senses of smell and taste increase in the FIRST week. At least mine did. On the third day I got my favorite Italian BMT in Herb and Cheese Bread with avocado spread from Subway and ate it before the class. It felt like, hands down, THE BEST SANDWICH I'VE EVER HAD IN MY 26 YEARS.
  2. Working out at least twice a week. It is a GREAT motivation. As a smoker I could only do cardio exercises for 10 minutes straight, and then get off the machine barely breathing and seeing black dots. Now, only three weeks later I do 25 minutes on maximum mode on my favorite elliptical machine, without stopping, experiencing any problems with breathing, or wanting to die. If you can, do yoga at least once a week. Trust me, you will thank yourself for quitting after each session.

I've done lots of reading before I decided to quit. I went through the brochures I took from the Campus Health, read all the possible tips and forums online and used 90% of them at one point or another during this period. Eventually, I only stuck with the ones I needed. Since I've never thought I would be able to quit, but did it in a blink of an eye, without regrets, depression, or slipping, I think I can share some tips of my own:

  1. Know your enemy. Read as much as you can about the methods of quitting and pick the ones you think will work the best with your personality. You don't have to follow all of the recommendations. For example, most of the web sites tell the quitters to write down the reasons they quit and re-read them every time they have cravings. I wrote down my reasons, about 20 of them, but haven't used them once in three weeks.
  2. Ask people who live with you, or the ones you interact with most of all, to be enthusiastic and supportive. I am lucky. My roommates are very supportive of me. They pat me on the back when I do good, and do the usual "yays" when I announce every new week I have lived without cigarettes, or spend time around smokers and stayed strong.
  3. Don't forbid yourself. This might be the best advice my former smoker roommate gave me. According to her, for some people it's best not to forbid themselves from smoking. Every time she had a craving, she would say: "Well, okay, go and buy a pack." Both her and my experiences show, that you never do. Because once the demanding "cry baby" in you realizes that it's not a forbidden fruit, the conscience kicks in to remind you - there is a reason why you quit on the first place.
  4. Download apps! I now have a full batch of apps on my iPhone, and it's called Health. The batch includes seven workout applications, one yoga, a calorie-counter diary and two smoking apps. Yes, you heard me, there are apps to help you quit! Livestrong will reward you for each certain period you haven't smoked. I have got rewards for not smoking for one week, two weeks, and now - three weeks, as well as the ones for saving $20 and $50, and not smoking a whole carton. QuitIt will count how many days and hours you have been smoke free, how much money you've saved, how many cigarettes you haven't smoked and what your benefits are. The latter is the best part. For the last week it's been telling me that now my circulation is improving, my walking is becoming easier and my lung function is increasing 30%. Next major update will happen in nine days and I can't wait for it.
  5. Reward yourself. Do you remember how in previous tip I told you how QuitIt counts the money you've saved? Well, in three weeks I saved $124 and quickly exchanged them to new clothes and long-time needed kitchen appliances.
  6. Get a teeth whitening kit. Nothing will stop you from having white and shiny teeth anymore. Get them cleaned at the dentist's if you can afford it, if not, just buy Crest whitening products at the closest pharmacy and enjoy your smile.

There are many other upsides of quitting that I only understood once I did it. There's no need to run around airports or college campuses looking for a place to smoke, no need to think when and where you will be able to buy the next pack, or panic when it's 2 a.m. and you only have one cigarette left. Stashing packs when flying to cities where cigarettes are more expensive and sitting impatiently through a class or a meeting, waiting for the break are now in the past. Oh, and the terrible hacking cough that tears up your chest and makes you sound like an ancient beast is also gone.

The past three weeks didn't go nearly as long and painful as I've expected. Instead, I learned a lot about my character and my body, and experienced the pleasure of making a life-changing decision.

Today, I can confidently say that after eight years I am no longer a regular smoker. I feel happy, healthy, and very proud of myself. There are still many things about my life that I cannot control, but smoking is no longer one of them.

Exploring, Dreaming and Discovering America. Part II. Tucson, AZ

Sunset on University Blvd. at the University of Arizona in Tucson. © Nigar Fatali

Sunset on University Blvd. at the University of Arizona in Tucson. © Nigar Fatali

I have an awful memory, I have to write down almost every important thing I have to do. However, I will never forget the first days in each new city I've lived.

Tucson wasn't an exception - I remember every minute.

The moment I got on the plane to Tucson, I realized that for the first time in my life I was tete-a-tete with myself. Grown up in Baku, where everyone I knew were a phone call away, I was now on my way to a place where I didn't know anyone and was supposed to figure everything out on my own.

I thought I should begin connecting with locals and looked around for a potential conversation object. However, my attempts to chat with passengers next to me were not successful at all. A hip guy on my left lazily replied to a couple of my questions about Tucson and buried his face in a book. The man on my right fell asleep before I even had a chance to start a conversation. For the rest of my flight I stared in the window, waiting to see my new home from a bird's eye view. Finally, the desert ended and there, behind mountains, lay Tucson - spread, sunny and strange.

My graduate adviser Paul Johnson was supposed to meet me at Tucson International Airport, which was unbelievably small, even for the post-Soviet standards. Several months later, when my roommate Kelly was taking me to the airport for my flight to Chicago, she made a joke, that the airport got its "international" name only for occasional flights to Mexico it offers.

My adviser was being late, and I went outside to breathe Tucson air for the first time. One things was a relief - the weather was amazing. It was sunny, hot and dry - the perfect combination for the sun-loving, humidity-loathing me. I sat in the shade and watched people pass by. Most of them were white and elderly.

Mr. Johnson turned out  to be a nice man with old-school manners. He dragged my luggage to the car apologizing for being late - he was babysitting his granddaughter. He reminded me of my grandfather, the one who passed away when I was six, and, feeling six again, I started asking questions.

While we were passing by Tucson's run down neighborhoods, Mr. Johnson was telling me all about the city. He told me that its population was a little over 500,000; that Arizona used to be a part of Mexico and joined the United States 100 years ago; that the weather is really THAT good throughout the year, except for a short very mild winter and monsoon in the end of summer and early fall. "You'll see it for yourself today," he added.

As we drove I my first glimpses of Tucson - they weren't particularly impressive. Although I kept reminding myself that I was happy for my dream to study abroad to come true, it wasn't going exactly how I imagined it. I admitted to myself that I did expect a bigger city, maybe in a different state, with a bigger school. I was still a little bit in love with Washington, D.C. and the image of me studying and living in New York was too dear to let go. Above all was the feeling of having to be alone in this exotic new place. Probably feeling my mood, Mr. Johnson asked if I wanted to see the campus: "I can drive around it and show you our building." I nodded, appreciating his offer.

Slowly, the road changed into a city view - small colorful houses and wide roads. When we drove into the campus my jaw dropped. Beautiful buildings, all in similar styles and made of red bricks, with fountains, big lawns and bike racks in front of them, were exactly the way I imagined American universities (like the ones in movies) and even better. We drove further to the University boulevard, where, as Mr. Johnson said, young people would go out on weekends. The street, which was right next to our building, consisted of brand clothing stores, cafes, bakeries and bars, and was filled with people. Right in the middle of it laid a tram road - the street apparently had a tram, which picked up people from the corner of University boulevard and Park avenue to take them all the way to the 4th Avenue, a central street with all the fun, Mr. Johnson explained.

I was happy. I fell in love with the laid back and diverse environment of my university from the first sight.

We drove along the boulevard and towards my hotel. Five minutes later we were driving in the parking lot of a motel-style Best Western hotel on North Stone street. In the park in front of it, De Anza Park, as I learned later, I saw a small crowd of homeless people. The person, who later told me the name of the park, also told me that, apparently, the park was one of the points where "they fed the homeless."

Mr. Johnson dragged my luggage to my room, told me he will pick me up the next day to take to the Marshall building (where the journalism school was) and explained me where the hotel's cafe was. He left and I fought the urge to go to the pool and fall asleep in the heat. Instead, I opened up my laptop and told the world, and my parents, that I arrived to Tucson safe and sound. Then I ordered some food, watched my first 10-minute monsoon rain and fell on the bed unable to move.

I thought about my week reliving every day, moment by moment: I was in Baku, enjoying my favorite beach, having several farewell parties (most of them at Emin's house) and last-at-least-for-two-years conversations with my dear friends. I was going to the airport, surrounded by close friends and my mom. I met other Muskie fellows and watched the video my friends made about me on the plane to Washington. Here I saw Pentagon's wing on the way to our hotel, then I met my roommate for the three-day stay in the capital city - Aytaj, who later became my derdleshme (Azeri for sharing each other's sorrows) buddy and a dear friend. Here I met Muskies from other post-Soviet countries, made new friends and went out for the first time in my American student life for shots of tequila and some dancing with Aytaj and other guys from the group. Here we toasted for America.

I thought about the people I will most probably not see for two years, about my parents and my first impression of Tucson. I reminded myself that it's not about where you live, but about how. I knew then that I was going to live these two years to the fullest. This city was supposed to change my life in ways I never imagined.

I fell asleep and woke up 14 hours later at 6a.m..

Related posts:

Exploring, Dreaming and Discovering America. Part I. Washington, DC

FPA Blogs: Peace Activist Threatened in Armenia, Azerbaijani Film Festival Cancelled

When I first met Georgi Vanyan back in 2009, I couldn’t hide my excitement. For me that middle-aged man who smoked one cigarette after another and had sadness in his eyes, even when he smiled, was equal to a rockstar. I couldn’t believe I was talking to the person who organized Days of Azerbaijan as well as Turkish Film Festival in Armenia, despite regular threats he received and a very little support he had among the Armenian public. He was also the only Armenian I knew, who publicly called Nagorno-Karabakh region an “occupied” territory, not “liberated.”

Our meeting was completely random, we just happened to have common friends in Georgian capital Tbilisi. Nevertheless, we talked for three hours straight, sharing our insights on Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict and possible scenarios for its resolution. He told me about his future project – Azerbaijani Film Festival in Armenia. I said he was out of his mind, but he explained it was “a logical continuation of the previous events,” and that it was worth a try.

So he’s been trying ever since.

Read more...

FPA Blogs: Baku Protests Foreign Policy’s Assertion of Airbase Access for Israel

It’s just so hard to launch an international bash these days. Everyone’s a critic. Just ask Azerbaijan.

Preparations for Eurovision, one of Europe’s biggest song contests to be held in May in Baku, are regularly sidetracked either by criticism of the country dismal human rights record, or allegations of the country’s silent involvement in Iran-Israeli nuclear crisis, though the government continues to deny any role.

Last week, Foreign Policy published an article by foreign affairs analyst Mark Perry that suggested Azerbaijan has expanded its military cooperation with Israel. The article quoted anonymous U.S. officials saying that Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to its airbases, or, as one of the author’s high-ranked sources phrased it: “The Israelis have bought an airfield, [...] called Azerbaijan.”

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Aserbaidschan startet Kampagne gegen Frankfurt

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German Berliner Zeitung has put together a piece about the anti-German video report broadcasted on Azerbaijani AZTV channel on March 5, and linked my blog post on this topic. Here is the article:

Vor dem Eurovision Song Contest prangerten deutsche Politiker Menschenrechtsverletzungen in Baku an. Nun wehrt sich Aserbaidschan mit einer Schmutzkampagne gegen Deutschland. Besonders Frankfurt kommt schlecht weg.

Arbeitslose hausen in Zelten im Schatten der Bankentürme, Frauen müssen in Sex-Shops arbeiten, die nichts weiter sind als getarnte Bordelle, und die Zahl der Drogenabhängigen, die durch die Straßen wanken, steigt stetig.

So berichtete das aserbaidschanische Staatsfernsehens AZTV kürzlich in einer Reportage aus Frankfurt am Main, unterlegt mit Bildern vom Occupy-Protestcamp vor der Europäischen Zentral Bank und einer Kamerafahrt durch das Bahnhofsviertel der Mainmetropole.

Continue Reading...

FPA Blogs: Peaceful Activists Arrested, Amnesty International Reports The Torture Fear

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My first post for Foreign Policy Association Blogs as a regular blogger:

The sanctioned peaceful protest that took place in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on Saturday, Mar. 17 resulted in arrest of three activists. Members of Bulistan band Jamal Ali, 24, and Natig Kamilov, 24, and another activist Etibar Salmanli, 25, were arrested after a fight that broke during Ali’s performance. The singer has used strong language in his song, displeasing some protesters. During the fight he has also insulted President Ilham Aliyev’s late mother. Young men were sentenced to five to 10 days of detention on charges of “petty hooliganism” and are allegedly subject to tortures under custody.

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The Empire Strikes Back: Anti-German Video Report Presented on Azerbaijani State TV

Due to the upcoming Eurovision contest to be held in Azerbaijan in May, German media has been paying a lot of attention to the country lately. A number of major German outlets like Der Spiegel, NWZ Online and ARD have published and broadcasted pieces on human rights violations in Azerbaijan. Today Azerbaijani state AZTV channel decided to strike back. That is what I call Azeri media at its best.

The anchor presents the piece, saying: "Even though Germany is the most powerful country in the EU, homeless and unemployed people there demand bread from their government. The number of drug addicts is increasing."

Then we see AZTV's correspondent in Frankfurt - business capital of Germany.

"This is Frankfurt, and this is the building of the European Central Bank," the reporter starts and promises to show us the other side of the European economic crisis - the one that "hit ordinary citizens in the face."  The guy points out to several tents in front of him (which is actually the Occupy Frankfurt movement, which was never mentioned in the video), explaining that people from all over Europe and Germany in particular, come there to demonstrate their life conditions to the employees of the ECB and European financial institutions.

Then he interviews one of the "protesters". The first guy says he has a degree and a job, but his salary is only enough to afford rent and, occasionally, new shoes. The young man claims he requested financial help from the government, was sent to different institutions and, eventually, denied in one. He finishes his speech by threatening to leave the country if nothing changes any time soon.

Next we see the conditions the interviewee lives in: his tent, his chair, personal belongings.

The next person interviewed is another young German, complaining about Germany's attempts to help other European countries, while the country itself remains in "this condition." "One of our main concerns as protesters is Germany's readiness to help out other countries," he says and mentions the case of Greece.

Once the "super-reliable" and "credible" vox populi proves the inhumane conditions German youth lives in, my favorite part of the video report begins. The editor didn't hesitate to use the same shot three times, probably because there was more text than footage.

Anyway, back to the point.

The reporters hop in the car and start driving around the block with a dramatic background text: "While preparing this video about Frankfurt, Germany we have witnessed scenes, that would drag anyone's attention to the city's streets," promisingly says the journalist. And now, my favorite sentence: "Look, these people are drug addicts. Right in the middle of Frankfurt," says the reporter while the footage shows ordinary people walking the streets. "We had no other choice but to do this filming from our car because it's not even possible to approach them." Then he goes on describing how dangerous these people are and how the journalists were actually going to approach them and ask how they got to this condition, or how they manage to buy, sell and use drugs in the middle of Frankfurt. However, a nice policeman who was hanging around the violent drug addicts and scared Azeri journalists, told them he cannot guarantee their safety. Apparently, not so long ago another group of journalists wanted to interview "them" and got "seriously injured."

Then the journalist ends the "drug" part of the video saying they've been told that nowadays one can even buy drugs right in front of German middle schools and that the age of users is sometimes as little as 13-14 years.

Now we're moving to the next part. The reporters shows us sex shops, calling them "undercover brothels." And even though they have been told that these places are completely legal and even pay taxes, highly upset Azerbaijanis ask the "Azerbaijani viewer": "But who is exploited in these undercover brothels? Women, of course. And let's say these women do what they do voluntarily. What about their freedom, human rights and gender equality that Germany talks so much about?"

The End.

Throughout the report, we neither hear any statistics or opinions of officials, nor see people using drugs, women sell their bodies, or even the policeman advise the journalists. All we see is a couple of dudes riding around in their car, making assumptions and interviewing two random guys.

And that is pretty much what Azerbaijan state media is about.