Monday, July 19, 2004

There and back again: a few stories about stories

I'm stuck in the Baku office, waiting to cruise on out to the border town of Imishli. It's great to have the new hobby of writing meandering blog postings during my limited free time. I'd recommend it to anyone. Part of the fun part is coming up with various names for postings, or the website, in general. I could rename this blogsite to 'why I do the funky things I do.' Perhaps I could call it 'Road Trips to Nowhere: da Return.' I'm probably the only one who chuckles at my jokes, anyway, so I shouldn't expend too much brain-time thinking about it. But there are always more fun stories to tell. Unfortunately, some things aren't for general public consumption, so you'll just have to ask me when I get back.
Anyway, I ran into my friend Tarlan, this weekend. I actually should admit that I've kind of been looking for him since my first day, here. I would go to the local basketball venues on the shore of the Caspian Sea at night to see if he was hoping it up with his buddies. Unfortunately, he was never there. I found him on Sunday at the little downtown Lutheran church where various non-denominational Christians meet for services. So Tarlan is one of my heroes, and I need to explain why. He's a year younger than me, and was born in Chechnya. For those who don't know, one might want to avoid being born in Chechnya for various reasons. Tarlan told me last year how when he turned eight years old, he went through the ritual where a boy becomes a man. The Chechans do this by putting an automatic rifle in a kid's hands, teach him how to shoot things with it, and tell him he's a warrior. Without making any cultural judgements, I must say that this is a tough way for a kid to grow up. Tarlan remembers when guerilla fighters knocked on his family's door and recruited his Father to join their ranks. He never saw his Dad again; he died in the war with the Russians, over a year later. His older brother abandoned him and his mother, and they were forced to flee their war-torn town when he was 14 years old. They came illegally to Baku, and Tarlan's mother died shortly thereafter, and he was left with no family, home, or even official living status in either his native country or country of residence. He was, essentially, dead to all the world. At about this time, he tells me that he became a little bitter and even angry with life in general. I can’t imagine why. Why would God let his Father and Mother die? They had been good Muslims, had tried to raise him the way they thought was right. Such were the thoughts that ran through his head.
I must point out, here, that I've heard a lot of sob stories in my life. There are lots of people who want to kind of feed off other people's pity; it's like priming the pump in preparation for solicitations for those things that life has robbed them of. Tarlan is no such person. He tells me these things without exaggerating or sugar coating his experiences. I ask, so he tells me straight. He says that during this time when he was feeling lonely and forgotten, he found some non-denominational Christians who took him under their wing, took him to Bible studies, and gave him a place to stay. Since then, he became a ‘reborn’ Christian, and very active in the local Christian community. Now he spends his time living with different friends, working various jobs, and just generally trying to improve himself. He does not imbibe in the normal societal ‘bads’ including alcohol, tobacco, or narcotics. He now speaks 6 languages like a native, including Azeri, Chechan, Russian, Turkish, and Dagestani. He’s worked for British Petroleum, ABC Computers, and various Internet Service Provider companies.
I’m not making a pitch for born-again Christianity in this blog, although I do see a lot of positive benefits in the lives of born-agains (Mormons are not even considered Christians by most people in the born-again flock). All I’m saying is that my friend can find real solutions to problems that would completely destroy the lives of most people. I really feel that this guy is a completely unique character who survives and succeeds because of his positive attitude, realistic view of the world, and ability to have faith in good things in spite of the bad that swirls around him.
My partner Kris and I met Tarlan last year when we sat in the back of one of the services at the Lutheran Church. After the service, a smiling young man walked up to us and introduced himself in perfect English and asked if we enjoyed the sermon. We spent that Sunday hanging out with Tarlan, and he showed us the best places to eat and relax. During our stay in Azerbaijan, we spent hours hanging out, playing hoops, going to the Turkish spas, and having religious discussions. I lost contact with him about 5 days before I left, and so was unable to maintain contact, over the last year, although I have thought of him rather often.
I went back to the Lutheran Church on Sunday, and was delighted to see my friend on the back row a few minutes before the sermon started. Tarlan was also excited to see me, and told me that this was only the second time he had attended this church in the last year since I saw him. He’s had a few more disappointments in his life, since then, but he’s still just as buoyant and good-natured, as ever. He even told me that he has all kinds of questions and a whole page of notes to talk with me about in the Book of Mormon (which he’s read 5 times, over the last year) that we left behind for him, but had no idea how to get a hold of me. If nothing else, I was excited to talk about those things, as if I was a young 19-year-old missionary, all over again.
So I’m sure I’ll have more to tell about him later, but that’s that, for now. What a guy.
Now, for work. The difference between our project in this office and that in Armenia is like describing the difference between driving a Lada (the local ‘automobile,’ made in Russia) and a Honda. Click here for a good picture of a Lada. The problem with driving a Lada is it’s made specifically for the local ‘needs.’ This doesn’t mean that it better fills the local needs, it just means that it falls apart ten times as fast if you don’t know how to drive it just right. Driving it just right means that, among other things, you drive around all pot-holes deeper than 3 inches and always keep your speed under 110kph. Even given these requirements, there are some things that you just can’t expect a Lada to do, given the ‘differences’ in the way it’s put together. The Honda, on the other hand, handles the potholes, and can generally get you to where you’re going as quickly as you need to.
I don’t want this to sound like unfair criticism, but I got really tired of the excuse “you don’t understand, we just can’t do that, here, the Armenian people are different.” Just because your road is not as smooth as you expected, doesn’t mean you can’t still get to where you’re going. It’s much easier to get to where you’re going with a dependable machine. This staff in Azerbaijan doesn’t imply that there are no pot-holes to get over, but they are very pro-active in proposing solutions to solve the cultural difficulties. The staff here actually told me that they would like to try two different alternatives to see which one is better. First of all, after training the credit officers to conduct the questionnaire, they will incorporate it into their regular credit meetings. The clients will take the questionnaire home with them, and be required to bring it to their repayment meeting, the following week, where the credit officers will check for completeness. They are confident that each officer will be able to collect 25 questionnaires in a week’s time. This is different than the Armenian office, because the Azeri office actually took time out for me to train them, they asked questions, and then each credit officer took upon him/herself the personal assignment to collect administer 25 questionnaires. If they do not prove successful, then we will organize a large meeting in a café, next week, and invite approximately 100 clients to complete the questionnaire. The credit officers asked me whether or not I would treat THEM to dinner in a café if they are able to complete the surveying themselves. I conceded this quicker, funner, and less expensive option. They all smiled.
When I told the country director, Jeff Flowers, about my promise to treat his staff to dinner, he was actually somewhat disgruntled. He told me to not encourage the staff to do their jobs piece-meal. They should just do their jobs without extra incentives because that’s what they get paid to do. I just feel happy working with people who agree that working with me is part of their job.
So I’m off to the regions. Take care, y’all. I might not get back to the computer until Friday. In that time, my little sister will head off on her mission. If any of you out there in Utah see her before Wednesday, giver her a big hug from me. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

_Five times_ reading the Book of about 1 year? That's pretty incredible. Most Mormons never read it that many times in a _lifetime_ ;-) It would be very interesting to hear more about Tarlan, this unusual young many from Chechnya!

Also, loved the Lada at the side of the road photo...and the Armenian analogy that accompanied it. Sounds like a "union mentality"...

Very nice turns of phrases throughout this post, Jeremy...very compelling account. Rock on Russian rover...