More than six years and counting. That’s how long Ambassador Elin Suleymanov and his striking wife, Lala Abdurahimova, have resided in Georgetown while representing their country, the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Now seemed an appropriate time to sit down with this impressive diplomatic couple to talk about their experiences in America and to learn more about their distant but important nation.
Slightly smaller than the state of Maine, Azerbaijan is located in a challenging part of the world: Russia to the north, Iran to the south, Armenia to the west, the Caspian Sea to the east.
No stranger to the United States, the ambassador first came here as a student at the University of Toledo in 1993. He later studied at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy near Boston. After postings in the president’s office in the capital, Baku, and later as first secretary at the embassy in Washington, in 2005 he was named consul general in Los Angeles — Azerbaijan’s first diplomatic presence on the West Coast. (The country also has a United Nations mission in New York and an honorary consul in Santa Fe.)
The ambassador and his wife got to know each other while they were both working in the president’s office — she as protocol counselor, he as senior counselor in the Foreign Relations Department. A diplomat herself, Abdurahimova was formerly the cultural attaché at the Azerbaijani Embassy in Brussels.
When Azerbaijan became independent in 1918, it was the first republic in the world with a predominantly Muslim population. It granted equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation, and equal voting rights to both men and women. After being absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1920, Azerbaijan finally regained its independence when the U.S.S.R. imploded in 1991.
On May 28 of this year, Azerbaijan celebrated its centennial with a glittering extravaganza for 1,000 guests at Washington’s Mellon Auditorium. Azerbaijani music, dancing and costumes made the evening very festive. “Washington can be rather stressful,” Abdurahimova commented. “I wanted this evening to provide an atmosphere of joy and relaxation, and to reflect our country’s culture.”
Suleymanov and his family love living in Georgetown. “Walking is important to us,” he said. Noting that Baku is also a walking town, he exclaimed that “Georgetown is the perfect place to live, as you can walk everywhere. The children love to go shopping in its many stores and we can also walk along the waterfront.”
I asked what changes the ambassador has seen since first coming to the United States 25 years ago. Without hesitation, he pointed to the enormous growth of diversity, whether it be in architecture, food, culture, music or art — even in regional ways of speaking. He specifically mentioned the culinary explosion in D.C., with areas formerly considered a bit dangerous and off the beaten path now part of an exciting buzz of cuisines from around the world.
Having travelled to 44 U.S. states, the ambassador observed that each one has its own particular culture and pace of development. He has a special affection for the Far West: Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Montana. During a recent trip to Boston, he was struck by the growing focus on biotechnology and an overall feeling of innovation.
He proudly noted that Azerbaijan has “state partnerships” with both Oklahoma and Houston. After Hurricane Harvey, resident Azerbaijanis raised funds to repair damage done to a Houston synagogue.
Suleymanov went on to stress the importance of respecting local cultures. Arriving in Hawaii dressed in a suit and tie, he was told that it gave the impression he was a lawyer on a legal case and that, if he wanted to connect with the Hawaiian people, he should wear the local colorful Hawaiian shirts. Hawaiians take their shirts very seriously, he said, adding that he has a significant personal collection.
“I am not sure I would love America as much as I do if I hadn’t started in Toledo,” the ambassador reflected. “It is as mainstream as it gets — the real America. Everybody opened their doors and embraced me. It just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
To illustrate his point, he recalled arriving at the university on a Friday when the dormitory was closed. To his great relief, a woman in the crowd popped up with an offer to stay with her family over the weekend, an offer he fondly remembers to this day.
I asked what were the things about America that the couple would most like to take home. They called America “the most open country in the world,” saying that Americans “reach out to foreigners and make them feel at home.” They also commented on Americans’ strong work ethic and commitment to family.
On the international scene, the long-standing dispute with Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh continues to be of great concern. To help solve this problem, France, the United States and Russia have formed the “Minsk Group.” But, according to the ambassador, to date there has been no real progress. As far as relations with Russia are concerned, the best thing for Moscow, he says, is to have Azerbaijan as an independent, stable neighbor. He feels that it is in everyone’s interest to have good neighborly relations, even if there are some issues on which they disagree.
Farther afield, Azerbaijan considers itself to be Israel’s best friend among Moslem nations. It has shipped fuel to Israel for years. He went on to say that Azerbaijan was similar to the U.S. in its openness to all religions.
To those who would compare Baku to Dubai, another oil-rich city on the Persian Gulf, the Ambassador said, “It is true — there are similarities. But Baku has its own unique character. Along with its modernization due to oil, it is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the world.”
I asked Abdurahimova if it was difficult adjusting to being “wife of” after being a senior diplomat herself. She said that, as long as Suleymanov was head of mission, she was unable to work officially, but she could plan events and help promote Azerbaijani culture as she moves in Washington circles. She also said that women in Azerbaijan are in senior positions throughout the workforce, and receive equal pay for equal work. All women are entitled to three years’ pregnancy leave, receiving full salary during the first year. And they may return to their position anytime during the following two years. When Abdurahimova returns home, she hopes to resume her work in protocol.
The first lady of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, is also vice president and a former member of Parliament. An ophthalmologist by training, she is active in many charities. Suleymanov’s sister is the deputy ambassador in the U.A.E. His former deputy in Washington, also a woman, is now the ambassador to Bulgaria.
Responding to criticism that dissent is often discouraged in his country, Suleymanov pointed out that Azerbaijan is still an emerging democracy, coming from a totalitarian state, the Soviet Union. “It is in an evolving place,” he explained. He added that he envies the current generation, who never had to experience the prior conditions.
The ambassador suggested that I watch the film “Ali and Nino,” a love story portraying Azerbaijan early in the last century, to gain a better understanding of his country’s struggle for the independence it now enjoys. I did so (thanks to Netflix) and was emotionally gripped by the story.
“Oil is Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan is oil,” said the ambassador. Azerbaijan drilled the first oil well in the world in 1848. The Rothschilds, Rockefellers and Nobels were original partners. He pointed out a little-known fact: the money to endow the Nobel peace prize came from Azerbaijan’s oil. There is still a Nobel House in Azerbaijan.
An important recent development is the opening of the Southern Gas Corridor, which, bypassing Russia, pipes Azerbaijani fuel to Europe via Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Italy.
Azerbaijan is America’s largest trade partner in the southern Caucasus, helping to support more than 11,000 jobs throughout the U.S. The country’s flag carrier, Azerbaijan Airlines, operates a direct flight between Baku and New York and has long been a Boeing customer, last year ordering an additional five Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
As Azerbaijan’s diplomatic couple continue to find their time in the United States a rewarding adventure, Suleymanov remembers what he said when they were married and set off together for Los Angeles: “I can’t promise you many things, but what I can promise is that you will have an interesting life.” The two agree that he has kept his promise.