The EstimATEor is back! For the first time ever, we interview someone from Azerbaijan! Second-year student Adnan Aliyev tells us about his experience coming to the Netherlands and the effect of Covid-19 regulations, over some exciting Azerbaijani delicacies.
First of all, tell us a bit about yourself and what you are doing right now.
My name is Adnan. I'm 18 and I'm from Azerbaijan and now a second year student here at Erasmus. Currently I'm involved in many things, for example we have a start-up project that we're working on, I'm doing Python and besides that I really like reading books. I've also been playing chess since I was five and played professionally until 2016 when I quit at age fourteen.
So did you win anything in chess and what level did you play at?
Well, I was part of the Azerbaijani national youth team. I participated in world and European cups, and I was doing quite well.
And you also talked about a startup project, what is that about?
So Monica and I, together with some other students, are currently working on a project together. It's basically about employment, our niche is low-to-middle income people, many of whom have been losing their jobs in the past decade due to automation, digitalization, and globalization, etc. We want to help these people with our project.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing in Azerbaijan.
So Azerbaijan is quite an interesting and colorful country. For 16 years I lived in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. It's quite a big, beautiful yet very dense city. I changed schools about four times, mainly because my parents couldn't agree on the level of education in each one. I ended up graduating from the Turkish Lyceum, an all-boys school that focuses on specific fields of study.
Here that is usually the case but is that then rare in Azerbaijan?
Well as you know, Azerbaijan, as well as fourteen other countries used to be a part of the Soviet Union. That education system would make sure that students learned about all subjects, but not in-depth. There was just basic knowledge for everyone and whoever wanted to gain more in-depth knowledge would have to wait for university. Our school was an exception in that they provided an opportunity for us to explore the topics we chose in much greater depth. For other Europeans it might seem very basic to have a school system like that, but for us this was quite different.
Why did you choose to come to The Netherlands?
Should I give a good answer to this question or an honest one? * laughs * No I'm joking of course, but honestly I was just really interested in Econometrics. Especially the Double Degree Economics and Econometrics that they have at the university and I knew that the faculty would challenge me. The country itself was definitely much different from how it is described where I'm from. Thankfully I'm from a family that had already been here and knew that most stereotypes people have are not true. And when it comes to choosing an education in The Netherlands, it's a combination of both quality and price. It's also a very student friendly environment and in that sense, everything kind of fell into place.
So when you came here, did it meet the expectations you had about The Netherlands?
No, it didn't. I was actually expecting something worse. Don't get me wrong but I honestly wasn't expecting such nice people. Most Dutch people have been really nice and helpful. Rotterdam is also not very touristy which is nice, although my favorite city in The Netherlands is still Amsterdam. Sadly, that is of course very touristy.
Off-record we talked a bit about some mosques, are you yourself religious?
I myself believe that there is a God, but I am not religious. It's actually a funny thing, because we are actually recorded in the European database as a secular country, with a majority of Muslims. Most of the population, about 75 percent, is not religious. It's also not forced upon you in any way - whether you believe in God or not is completely your decision. My family is generally not religious, we believe that there is a God, we are Muslims, but we are not religious.
That brings us to our next question, what do you miss most about your home country?
Food. Definitely the food. With all due respect to Dutch cuisine, bitterballen are not it. We've been asking people over and over what on Earth are inside these things, and no one gives me a definitive answer! Only when I came here did I realize how much I was taking my home country's cuisine for granted. I started to miss many things such as the dish we'll be trying later on, Dolma. Azerbaijan really is a meat-eating country and our entire region is also known for all the ways in which we prepare it. My family also rarely ever cooks meat on the stove, but we go outside and grill it. It tastes very different, but I don't know how to find it and I doubt that it exists anywhere in The Netherlands.
Another thing I really miss is tea. Tea over here is much different, we use many leaves and spices and make it a whole experience in itself. Azerbaijan really is a country that is crazy about tea, we have a national tea and many plantations in the country where we grow tea leaves. You probably won't believe me when I tell you that there are days where I'll drink over thirty cups of tea. It's not only me, but also my friends. They might as well include tea, or chai as we call it, as an addiction in Azerbaijan. The funny thing is that even in the summer when it's over forty degrees outside, people will still drink very hot spicy tea. This actually makes you sweat more and consistently cools you down.
On the topic of food, tell us a bit about the food that you serve us today.
This food that you see here is called Dolma. It is meat stuffed in a grape leaf, which you will try and think is the best thing you have ever tried. We usually eat it with yogurt, or as we call it 'Qatiq', mixed with garlic.
Azerbaijani Dolma accompanied with fine Dutch beer
Is it native Azerbaijani food?
There cannot be any doubts about this fact. Dolma is a food that our ancestors cooked for centuries. UNESCO included Dolma as an Azerbaijani Intangible Cultural Heritage. Of course, neighboring countries also cook it; for example, there is Turkish and Iranian Dolma.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how is your Dutch?
Oh, it is actually not that bad. That brings me to another funny event that happened to me recently. About three weeks ago, I signed up for a Dutch course, which required that I take a test before I start classes. Only after I started the test, I realized that I accidentally entered the 'Inburgeringsexamen' - the integration exam usually taken by people who want to get Dutch citizenship. It turned out that my level was between A1 and A2. I was actually close to passing the exam if not for my writing. The funniest thing, however, was the part when examiners asked us to do the IQ test. It was quite late in the evening, and I honestly was a bit annoyed that I entered the wrong exam, so I was not paying much attention when the exam coordinator was explaining things. Suddenly, a Turkish guy sitting right behind me congratulated me in Turkish, saying that my achievements are quite impressive. I was a bit confused, as I did not know what he was talking about. It turned out that the exam coordinator spoke about me all this time and how well I did in the IQ test. It was amusing as I really did not listen to him.
So your genius is verified by the Dutch system :). Besides signing up for Dutch courses, how are you spending your time during the lockdown, given the Covid-19 situation and online education?
Thank God that last year I got to know many outstanding people I frequently meet and spend my time with. Besides, as I already mentioned, I am currently working on our startup project, and I really hope that we will launch it soon. As for online education, I would have said that compared to other universities, the system in Erasmus is excellent, but the latest decisions by the Examination Board of implementing a second camera made me rethink that. It seemed that this decision came unexpectedly, and its implementation is quite raw in the sense that many aspects were not considered by the Examination Board.
How is the Covid-19 situation different in Azerbaijan compared to the Netherlands?
We recently had a 44-day victorious war in Azerbaijan, and during these days, our nation got quite an emotional uplift. However, it also had its negative consequences. As many people went outside to celebrate, safety measures were not adhered to. Hence, the number of Covid-19 cases nearly quadrupled, and later strict measures came into place. Compared to the Netherlands, the Azerbaijani government set a limit of 3 hours (that includes doing groceries) outside a day. Although it may seem to be strict, these measures actually helped stabilize the situation. As the number of cases went down, measures were abandoned.
Finally, why did you decide to accept our interview proposal?
First of all, I really like The Estimator, and I really enjoy reading your articles. I am a big fan of "The Economist." Honestly, I see that Estimator writers can someday write on the same level. Another reason for the interview was to resolve the myth about Azerbaijan. As most people either do not know about the country or think of it according to strange stereotypes. For example, Azerbaijan is a Muslim country. The majority, including me, are not religious, and hence the country is more secular. Another common stereotype is that we are a sexist country; however, we were one of the first countries in the East to give women the right to vote. Women are of the same importance as men. In fact, recent research by the World Bank shows that almost 95% of women in Azerbaijan are working. Thus,
Just to add to that, why do you have such a giant flag in your room?
It is also part of the promotion of my country. Some people asked me whether I am obsessed with my country, but there is an easy reply. As you can see, my flag is directed towards the outside, not the inside. By leaving it that way, I make people curious by making them think, “Which flag is that?”, “Which country is that?”, “What is this country famous for?”. Many times, I heard people talking to each other and Googling Azerbaijan. My message towards them is: try to explore more, try to find new cultures. This will only benefit you. And that's how they get to know Azerbaijan - “The Land of Fire”.
Adnan in front of the Azerbaijani Embassy in The Hague
We would like to thank Adnan for the delicious food and the informational yet fun talk! Good luck with your projects!