You may have missed Azerbaijan’s National Day celebration. I would not have been aware of it either except that three years ago I happened to be one of the tourists in Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House on May 28. People flying national flags are not an unusual sight in that setting but quite often they are doing so in anger. This group, however, was totally upbeat, even giddy. Once assembled, around 6:30 p.m., they began singing in their native language what were clearly patriotic songs.
There were other people with messages in the park that hour; one guy with a T-shirt proclaiming that there was “No God But Allah” and another man warning of nuclear doom, but the moment belonged to the Azerbaijani whose flags of red, green and blue with a white crescent and an eight-pointed star in the center were draped over shoulders and swung from poles.
Once the singing was complete a girl in the center, with long brown hair and wearing a white top, black pants and sandals, read a statement to the anticipated crowd about the glory of their country. Only, there was no crowd. There was just me and maybe two other people who happened to be crossing the path. Nevertheless the speech continued. Then the girl looked straight ahead and asked if there were any questions. Suddenly I found myself to be the focal point of the Azerbaijan Independence Day celebration. Not wanting to disappoint I asked a question that was, as we say in America, “a real softball.” “Is your country beautiful?” I asked. She assured me it was and went on to list the sources of wonderment including the Caucus Mountains that define the boundaries of several nations that were once a part of the Soviet empire.
After the very brief press conference I talked to the girl on a less formal basis. Her name was Lola and she was a student at Johns Hopkins University studying international relations. She seemed overjoyed by her American experience and the future of her country.
National Days are numerous in her part of the world, practically one for each conquest that was overcome through the centuries. The particular event being celebrated on this occasion was May 28, 1918, the breakaway day from old Russia; yet only two years later the Soviet Union would begin spreading its tentacles and Azerbaijan would succumb to it. When the USSR fell in 1998 Azerbaijan had another chance at freedom though not without episodes on intramural struggles. Current events in Crimea might give neighboring nations cause to be nervous, still, judging from Lola and her group there is hope. She will be part of a bright new generation. There may even be solace in that her national day IS not a bigger news event. A more volatile political climate would have attracted more global media attention — instead there was just me.
Lola gave out some postcards showing scenes from home, and it does seem like a pretty place. Soon after she and her group dispersed to do whatever Azerbaijani folks do to celebrate. Twenty-seven days earlier images from that very spot in Lafayette Park had been sent around the world when a crowd quickly gathered to cheer the action against Osama bin Laden. Victories come in many ways: Once freed back in 1918 the people of Azerbaijan created a republic. They are proud that their nation established the first Democratic Republic in the Islamic world.
Whatever the sources of national pride will be in the future, a woman named Lola might be part of the story. For the moment though, there were flags to be waved.