New Azerbaijan Cultural Center Shows Why Baku Was the Houston of the Soviet Union

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Irada Akhoundova remembers when the Soviet military rumbled outside her house. It was late 1991, post-perestroika, pre-independence, and Akhoundova, a principal of one of the schools of the Azerbaijan Republic, heard the four-wheelers and hard-tops tossing gravel outside her house. It was an early morning, and she had to get to the school in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital. She still had to teach in the midst of Moscow's attempts to tamp out the secessionist movement that was rippling across the Soviet Union.

After cajoling a young soldier to give her a ride to the school, Akhoundova promptly corralled the students in the middle of the gymnasium. It was for their safety, she told them. Only a few hours before, the Soviets had raked down a handful of peaceful demonstrators. The military was still patrolling the corners, was still commandeering local armories, was still arresting and cordoning those they found calling for an independent Azerbaijan. And Akhoundova's students, these high school boys who'd taken to the nationalist movements, were eager to contribute.

"You could see them ready to fight," Akhoundova told Hair Balls. The 16- and 17-year-olds were restless, They were angry. "Some of the kids were cutting others' hair, like they do in the military. They were saying, 'We're ready to go to the Azerbaijani Army!'"

Of course, there was no way Akhoundova would let them leave -- nor was there an Azerbaijani Army for them to even join. As Akhoundova shares this story at Houston's newAzerbaijan Cultural Center in Montrose, open for but a few months, it's clear that she would have done anything in her power to dissuade either side from fighting.

Even when the discussion turns to the Armenian-Azerbaijani War that followed independence -- the one in which the much smaller Armenian military embarrassed its eastern neighbor, and which still presents the most dangerous tinderbox in the former Soviet Union -- Akhoundova reveals a side that prefers dialogue and discussion to the blank militarism that both governments whipped up.

"We were there for that war, too -- that's when Baku was fire," says Akhoundova, who moved to Houston shortly after the war. Akhoundova said she remembers seeing the refugees swarming Baku. Tent cities were set up. Ad hoc hospitals sprang up throughout the city. Mothers young and old mourned their sons, sons of any ages, dead for a swath of land caught between Azerbaijan and Armenia that is still left undecided.

All of these marks -- this move for independence, this move against former Soviet neighbors -- shifted Akhoundova's views. When she got to Houston, Akhoundova said, she'd come to know that, no matter how mawkish it sounded, "We're all the same. All people. All of us have these emotions -- we're happy or sad or with love or hate. We all have this inside of us."

Which is why she wants her Azerbaijan Community Center, an offshoot of the Houston-Baku Sister City Association, to be more than a repository for the traditional dress and handcrafted artwork native to her nation. The art is there -- and it's beautiful -- but this center, opened last October and located on Avondale and Taft, isn't meant just to examine the pictures of oil derricks and tsarist architecture that made Baku into a city that everyone from the Nobel brothers to the Nazi hierarchy to modern energy executives have prized. It's also to create a dialogue about what Azerbaijan's experienced and what the diaspora community in Houston can share.

The Azeri population of Houston is still relatively small -- only a few thousand, with most coming here within the previous decade. Many of them will be coming together Monday evening at City Hall, beginning their Republic Day celebration with food and festivities at 5:30 p.m. "There still aren't many of us ethnic Azeris here," said Togrul Mamedbekov, a 25-year-old computer programmer who helps out at the Cultural Center. "But a lot of us come here to volunteer. We want to help share what Azerbaijan is like. We want to put on these events."

And for a relatively small diaspora, this new Cultural Center has put forward an outsized program. Cooking classes, held every few weeks. Arts courses. Chess instruction. Viewing parties for the Eurovision song contest, the largest of its kind in the world, and which Azerbaijan hosted last year. (For those still stuck on The Voice, remember: That's limited to America. Eurovision brings contestants from over 50 nations to the stage.)

"We just finished a joint art project with the Holocaust Museum," says Zuma Khalilova, eliding the symbolism of an Islamic diaspora supporting such an institution. "But we do a lot of things out here. The cooking classes do all kinds of things -- doma, plov, gutab. And it's all delicious!"

And it likely is. Caucasian food, Turkic food, has as fine a reputation as you'll find in the post-Soviet world, and doesn't receive nearly the praise it should.

But the center's not simply about these cultural trademarks. It's there to welcome those unaware into a bit of Azerbaijan's lifestyle. Of the similar histories Baku and Houston share, energy bastions around which an entire nation can revolve. Of the travel and trade opportunities Azerbaijan and America can share, with these two cities hosting diplomats and delegates from either nation. Energy realities have created the framework for relations, but it's the members of the diaspora, like Akhoundova, that solidify the links.

Because, as Akhoundova is quick to note, it doesn't matter if you're Armenian or Azeri or American -- we're all looking for the same thing.

"We won't think anything about you, wherever you are from," she said. "I just want to have a discussion with you! And you look around, and you see these people placing hate in their hearts, and in their children's hearts. You cannot do that. We want to bring some of the Azerbaijani culture here, but we also want to show that we are all so, so similar."

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