It was not until last year that I made my first friends from Central Asia, Afghanistan and even far-flung Mongolia. Born in Azerbaijan, educated in the West and later employed by a large national energy company, in mapping out countless trips both for business and pleasure, western destinations always seemed like an easy extension from my country.
I never imagined that an experience I would have in March of 2016, as a Fellow of the Central Asia-Caucasus Fellowship Program sponsored by the Rumsfeld Foundation, would suddenly propel such a strong desire within me to seek out a deeper understanding of the people and cultures of other post-Soviet countries whose histories I had only read about in school books. Further, beyond being interested to better understand them, I also found a shared history and identity among them. The Fellowship Program unlocked this amazing part of the world for me.
For six intensive weeks in Washington, D.C., I was surrounded by brilliantly-minded people from all the “CAMCA” (Central Asia-Mongolia-Caucasus-Afghanistan) countries. As the saying goes, “To really know a person, you have to travel with them,” and the entire journey of the Program created an optimal environment for interesting discussions, debates and unforgettable moments that inspired deep friendships and connections. The culmination of time spent sharing stories and experiences, enjoying lighthearted discussions over meals together, as well as participating in the rigorous yet dynamic scheduled meetings with top leaders and professionals from across all sectors, resulted in a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not to mention, the “virtual country tours” I received from fellow participants, as we eagerly shared the best travel tips and hidden gems of our countries, hastened my desire to experience these countries firsthand.
I had been living and working for many years in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city, but had not previously considered visiting neighboring Georgia, a friend and strategic partner to Azerbaijan, before attending the 2016 CAMCA Regional Forum the summer following my Fellowship Program. I had heard of its stunning panoramic landscapes, renowned dishes and generous hospitality, but it had yet to make it to the top of my travel plans. Fortunately, the Fellowship provided me the perfect opportunity through its annual convening, the CAMCA Regional Forum, which was held last year in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.
The annual CAMCA Regional Forum was established as a platform for the Fellowship alumni, and other distinguished international guests interested in the success of the broader “CAMCA” region, to come together to network and discuss important regional issues. Those few days during the Forum were spent enjoying fantastic conversation, lively debates, old and new friendships, as well as spectacular traditional food, wine and dancing. Needless to say, Tbilisi had piqued my curiosity, along with a number of other first-time visitors from around the region, as to what adventures and experiences the rest of these CAMCA countries may offer. Since that summer, I am pleased to say that I have already been back to Georgia six times for both short and long-term stays, including for the New Year’s holiday with my family and friends.
After the official announcement that the 2017 CAMCA Regional Forum’s location would be in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I began to count down the days until my next CAMCA adventure and the chance to reunite with my inspiring colleagues. Despite many attempts to organize visits with friends from the Program, other priorities and demands arose as they always do, and a year had quickly come and gone since the last time we were together. Unlike Georgia, whose culture and geography were somewhat familiar to me given its proximity to Azerbaijan, Tajikistan was a wholly unknown destination. All I knew was that it was a small and mountainous country, but given that it was my first visit to Central Asia, I was very excited.
Finally the day came and I started packing with some uncertainty, not entirely sure what I might need or what to expect. After a long flight due to limited (albeit improving) airline connectivity across the region, I arrived in the Dushanbe airport very early in the morning alongside a number of other Fellows from across the region who had to connect through Istanbul (including Fellows traveling all the way from Mongolia!). The 5-star hotel where we stayed and where the Forum was hosted provided an impressive backdrop for the events to come. The 2017 CAMCA Regional Forum brought together well-known guest speakers, business leaders and professionals from across all sectors to engage with the Fellowship alumni in attendance.
It was fascinating to watch the exchanges between these current and rising leaders throughout the entire Forum and the dynamism that ensued from their interactions. You could feel the positive energy that flowed from each of the participants not only for the futures of their countries, but for the region as a whole, united in their efforts and inspired by the progress they have each made. Each former Fellow also took particular delight in having the chance to reconnect with their own Fellowship session participants from their time in Washington, D.C. I was amazed to see the number of participants who were still connected and participating from the very first Fellowship sessions back in 2008 and 2009.
Outside of the engaging Forum discussions and formal sessions, Dushanbe itself surprised and impressed me at every turn. The weather lacked the humidity of Baku, and while hot during the day, brought cool and tranquil evenings. On a trip outside of the city, we witnessed the vast natural water resources and it was easy to envision the country’s great potential for development of the hydropower industry. National dishes like “plov” and beautiful homemade baked breads, as well as platters teeming with fresh, organic fruits covered our dinner tables. Following our splendidly long dinners, thanks to some of our local hosts, we were able to explore the city by night and its lively and buzzing afterhours. A bit of a night owl, getting a feel for a city after the sun has set has always felt like a way to truly get to know the heartbeat of the city. The evenings were memorable enjoying new and different types of music, observing local customs and meeting new friends.
It was a whirlwind visit trying to take in so many new things in just a few short days, but I was truly awestruck with all that I had come to know and experience in my first visit to a Central Asian country. It was an unforgettable trip with memories to last a lifetime. I am already planning a return trip to Tajikistan – this time to explore its beautiful lakes and mountain ranges outside of the capital. Following my experience attending these two excellent CAMCA Regional Forums, I eagerly await the opportunity to be able to bring together my friends and many others to my home country for next year’s 2018 CAMCA Regional Forum in Baku. Our team of Azeri Fellows and local partners look forward to sharing our unique culture and traditions with our CAMCA neighbors and friends and returning the hospitality they have graciously shown to us.
Thanks to the Fellowship and the great people behind it, the names of the other CAMCA countries are now noted in my list of priority places to visit and explore in the coming years. More importantly, it is an amazing feeling to know that, waiting in each of those countries there are, not one, but many familiar friends and faces. Friends with shared values and understanding who are ready and eager to greet you at a moment’s notice, just like a family with over 170 members and growing. A CAMCA family.
- Emil Gasimli participated in the Rumsfeld Foundation's Central Asia-Caucasus Fellowship Program in Spring 2016. He currently works as the Head of Business Development for the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR). He also serves as the Fellowship Program's National Coordinator in Azerbaijan.