The World

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%."

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

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


Living in the U.S. was something I dreamed of ever since I was 14 and never thought would happen. Against all odds, I'm here, on the other side of the Earth and 50 years into the future from where I lived before. I left Baku late night on Tuesday. Surrounded by the closest friends and my mom, I came to the airport to join 12 other excited and frightened Edmund S. Muskie fellows from Azerbaijan. After months of preparations and hundreds of ways we pictured this moment, that was it. It was time to say goodbye to everything and everyone we knew. So we did. I crossed the border and called my dad, who decided not to take me to the airport. We both decided. I knew it would be a special conversation, the kind we don't usually have. After all, we're too alike to show emotions. This time, we made an exception: he told me he believed in me, I told him I loved him. I hung up and allowed myself to cry just a little bit. Then a little more on the plane.

Setting my foot in Washington, DC's Dulles Airport, I looked around to find America be the same as I left it 7 months ago - a different world I already knew so much about. However, this time something was different and I knew exactly what it was. This time I was coming home, even if only for two years.


Washington greeted us with rain and surprised with its European aura. Whether it was the architecture, lack of sky-scrappers or just the way people looked that gave it such a non-American look, was uncertain. The only thing definite to us from first minutes was its own special spirit, which we were very eager to feel.

We joined the rest of the group - 120 other Muskie fellows from all around the post-Soviet area for a 4-day-long orientation conference prior to our departures to the cities of stay. As interesting and informative the conference part was, the anticipation of going out to the city of American history clouded everything else, at least for me. As soon as the official part was over, we were gone.

Walking around the city in smaller groups, almost all of us looked like a 9-year-old in Disney World - agape and curious about every little thing. Of course, the first thing to do was seeing the memorials - glorious Lincoln, inspiring Franklin Delano Roosevelt, historical Washington, Korean war, Vietnam war, Air and Space Museum, Capitol, White House, quotes to remember, phrases to facebook (yes, I'm using it as a verb), hundreds of pictures and miles of walking made us barely alive but absolutely happy by the end of both sightseeing days.

Then came what we called "a celebration of achievements", or, in other words, we went out to drink and observe. The best description of every city is its people: they way they're dressed, the pace they walk with or even the food they eat. Washington fashion is as descriptive as possible: young people in suits with heavy backpacks atilt and obvious great political ambitions all looked the same - worried and in a hurry; young girls had one thing in common - work heels in their hands and comfortable flats on their tired feet. On weekends they join endless flows of tourists in crowded pubs to drink up the fear of undefined future. Observing that, I felt them, after all, we were all in the same boat.

Moving to America was the first time I have ever left home for more than two months. Drinking for it in Washington three months ago, I had no idea what to expect. The fear of unknown was mixed with excitement and anticipation. I was about to start a completely new life in a strange place, where I could only count on myself. No friends, no parents, nothing I knew or was used to. On the other hand, education, independence and completely new world to explore seemed (and proved to be) so worth it.

After 4 days in Washington, I felt like leaving a huge plate of delicious food unfinished and promised myself to go back there the first chance I get. On August 7th another plane took me hundreds of miles away and several degrees hotter - to laid back and southern Tucson, Arizona, where the new chapter of my life was beginning.

To be continued...





Related posts:

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

Fatalin in Berlin. Part I

"Hello, can I have a seat next to the window, but far from the wing?", - I asked. "Sure! No problem!", - a nice lady at Aeroflot's registration answered me.

When I got on the plane I saw my seat: next to the walkway, on the same line with the wing, in the emergency exit row, with a chair that doesn't lean back...

"The front row is empty, can I sit there?", - I asked the flight attendant.

"No, no, no, we don't even sell tickets for these seats. The oxygen bag's tier is broken and can fall off and hit you in the head!", - was the response.

"Thank you for choosing Aeroflot", - a voice came from the speakers.

After three hours in Sheremetyevo airport without Wi-Fi, ability to buy coffee or magazines, since they only accept roubles (yes, in an international terminal of the airport... and there are no currency exchange points), I kind of felt nostalgic about Baku airport. And was even more happy to get on the plane that was going to take me to Berlin - one of the cities I would have in my "visit-while-alive" list... if I had one.

And I wouldn't be mistaken.


What does it mean to be a blogger? Does/Should a blog carry the responsibility traditional journalism does? Should it be censored or "limited in freedom of speech"? These and many other questions were answered today, at the first day of Bloggertour - a get-together of bloggers from around the world, organized by the Foreign Office of Germany. The geography of the participants spreads from Costa-Rica to China. It's 15 of us - chosen by the German Embassies in our countries.

During our first day we had 4 equally interesting and informative meetings. Morning, or "where-can-I-get-coffee" part of the day has started with Robin Meyer-Lucht's lecture on German blogs and statistics. The afternoon was about German laws and how they affect or protect bloggers, presented by Jan Mönikes, expert in online law, or how he calls himself - blogging lawyer. After lunch Jens Berger, a political blogger and a jury member at the Deutsche Welle Blog Awards told us more about German blogosphere and political blogging here. The day has finished with Matthias Spielkamp and his presentation on relations between citizen journalism and traditional journalism in Germany.

So, today I've learned that:

  • One is not allowed by law to offend or criticize the president of Germany in his blog. Not because he's the best or wants to seem so, but because he doesn't decide anything. He's a symbol, just like the flag.
  • It is allowed to discuss Holocaust, but one goes to jail for denying it. One will also get detained for 5 years for wearing or in any way carrying swastika or any of the SS attributes.
  • "Mein Kampf" is not prohibited to own and keep at home, but can not be sold in Germany.
  • It is actually legal to drive or walk absolutely nude.. Unless someone is disturbed, then it becomes a case. A very funny one, apparently.
  • Bloggers have all rights the journalists in Germany have: they can join press unions, get the journalist social security and etc., while their articles are protected by copyright law.
  • Bloggers also carry the responsibility journalist have and also get sued.
  • Baku sells more vodka than Novosibirsk.
  • Croatian and Czech people can be surprisingly tall. Very tall.
  • Egyptians and Azerbaijanis should live together.
  • Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan understand some Azerbaijani. Or at least Tolkun does.

And, well, should I say how great the crowd is? Oh, I will.

I also will talk about Germany and smoker rights.

Because I'm a blogger.

And we criticize.

To be continued...