I fully expected Borat to appear, dingy brown suit and post-modern Groucho mustache and all. Instead, as I walked through the door of the restaurant Jar, I came face to face with Sascha Baron Cohen. The actor who created Borat came out of his self-imposed in-xile to meet his potential Academy voters (and me) and impress upon them the fact that he was, indeed, acting.
I shook Cohen's hand maybe a beat too long -- the man is preternaturally handsome and poised, and I was a bit tongue-tied at first. Then I told him I thought his movie was brilliant satire. And the fact that as Borat, the anti-Semitic Kazakhstani journalist, Cohen spoke Hebrew, was an even higher level of brilliance.
"Ata m'dber Ivrit?" the actor asked me. Did I speak Hebrew?
"Ken," I said. Yes.
And so, amid the high-powered producers and directors, I found myself chatting in Hebrew with Cohen. He told me he learned it on a kibbutz, that he preferred to daven in traditional synagogues and that he was well-aware of the irony that Borat, who once urged the audience of a country and western bar to "throw the Jews down the well," speaks not Kazakh, but Ivrit.
A friend interrupted us: "What are you saying?"
"We were just talking about you," Cohen deadpanned.
As it turned out, the Academy didn't nominate Cohen for Best Actor, or "Borat" for Best Picture. It should have. I can't think of another movie of the past year that was as subversively clever or had as deep a cultural impact. Then again, by the time the Academy honored Charlie Chaplin, the man was near death.
Oscar doesn't do comedy.
Meanwhile, not long after I met Cohen, I met one of Borat's landsmen, so to speak. Consul General Elin Suleymanov of the Republic of Azerbaijan had sent me a column he had written taking issue with some of the stereotypes in "Borat," and he followed up the submission with a meeting. Yes, I know Azerbaijan is across the Caspian Sea and two countries away from Kazakhstan (well, I know that now, thanks to Wikipedia). But at the time, the coincidence seemed too perfect.
Suleymanov is a thoughtful and cultured man, and he would be the first to express his disgust that I'm even mentioning his name in the same paragraph as Borat's. But the deeper message of "Borat" was one that the consul general shared -- American ignorance might be blissful and funny, but it stops us from seeing the complexity of real life, and real human beings.
All of which -- Jar, Borat, Cohen, Suleymanov -- leads me to Iran. Iran has seven neighbors. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I could only name three of them: Turkey, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq.
Iraq is a mess, a cauldron of intra-Islamic conflict. Afghanistan is heading down the same tragic path, as the Taliban assert greater fundamentalist control. All those Muslims are nuts, right?
Then there's Azerbaijan.
It is a majority Shi'ite country -- 70 percent Sh'ite, the rest mostly Sunni. It is a democratic secular state whose religious and ethnic minorities are embraced. Azerbaijan gave women the right to vote in 1919 -- one year before the United States did.
"My teachers were Jews. My doctors were Jews," Suleymanov said. "They have lived with us through good and bad times." (Azerbaijan's most famous Jew? Chess grand master Garry Kasparov.)
When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held his Holocaust denial conference earlier this winter, the Azerbaijani television station aired a debate on it featuring Arthur Lenk, Israel's Ambassador to Azerbaijan (yes, the same man who was Israel's deputy consul general in Los Angeles in the mid-'90s).
"He got one full hour," Suleymanov said. "There was a feeling he won the debate."
It's not just about tolerance. One-sixth of Israel's oil supply comes from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is an economically thriving, moderate and tolerant majority-Islamic nation with great oil wealth -- like the real Kazakhstan, in a way.
Of course, Azerbaijan is small -- 8 million people to Iran's 75 million. But Azeris, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of Azerbaijanis, account for some 20 million Iranians. Mullahs who have tried to gain traction for fundamentalist teachings in Baku have met with little success, and Azeris in Iran have had a liberalizing influence.
"Every revolution in Iran began in an Azeri region, except the Khomeini revolution," Suleymanov said.
So is it possible for Shi'ite Iran to choose to be more like its neighbor Azerbaijan and less like its neighbor the Taliban? The consul general believes one key is to give Iran carrots and sticks to pull it toward the Western orbit, where many of its citizens prefer to be.
Of course, the threat of a nuclear Iran raises the stakes and shortens the amount of time the West can allow Iran to evolve. In the meantime, it's incumbent upon us, as Natan Sharansky has pointed out, to hold Iranian leaders morally and politically responsible for their pronouncements.
But when the Borats of our American pundocracy assert that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with modernity, Israel and human rights, you might ask them -- what about Azerbaijan?
The video of Rob Eshman's interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is now available at http://www.jewishjournal.com/video/ehudbarak.rm. Length 1:18. Format: Real Video (streaming).
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