Azerbaijan America Alliance chairman Khayal Sharif-zadeh: Washington has friends in Baku

In the capital of a Muslim country bordering Iran, 30,000 citizens cheered into the night in late September at a live concert performance by Jennifer Lopez. If you had to read that sentence twice, I don’t blame you. Americans still have a great deal to learn about their friends and allies from Azerbaijan and the surprising commonality between the two countries on both policy and cultural issues.

For example, our peoples love the same music. Lopez, Shakira and Rihanna all recently performed in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, to massive crowds, and the demand for Western performers, who consciously and unconsciously serve as cultural ambassadors, is insatiable.

The United States and Azerbaijan share many common Western social values, including important social and religious freedoms. Like the United States, Azerbaijan champions equal rights for women — including supporting and promoting women's athletics — and was the first Muslim country to introduce universal suffrage, giving women the right to vote in 1919, one year before the United States!

Azeris today know much about America, but do Americans really know Azerbaijan?

The Azerbaijan America Alliance was founded to build on these common interests and promote a lasting partnership between Azerbaijan and America. Over the past year, the Alliance has striven to educate Americans about our country and its people through academic programming, cultural education and discourse on important and shared policy matters.

However, Azerbaijan still has a long way to go before it is truly known to Americans. Right now, there are still many misconceptions about Azerbaijan and the Azeri people. The Alliance exists to help break down barriers between the two countries, including promoting cultural exchange and increased understanding.

To help in this effort, on Nov. 14 the Azerbaijan America Alliance is hosting a gala dinner and cultural event in Washington. What better way to promote greater understanding and friendship between two countries than through food, music and entertainment? Just as some of America’s greatest talents have recently visited Baku, next month’s gala will bring some of our own “cultural ambassadors” — including Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2012 finalist, Sabina Babayeva — to Washington for an incredible show.

The gala, which will highlight both Azeri food and culture, comes at an important juncture for U.S.-Azerbaijan relations. Since regaining independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has become an important U.S. ally in the South Caucasus, where Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia meet. Our support includes ongoing efforts to combat terrorist groups in the region, supplying troops to the U.S.-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan and maintaining important and constructive relations with Israel.

While the Nov. 14 gala is invitation-only, the Alliance wants to ensure that a broad cross-section of Washington is represented. While Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Rihanna have all been to Baku, many Americans might never have the opportunity to visit. We hope our gala brings Baku to you. Those interested in attending can request one of the limited public invitations by contacting the Alliance directly. It is our sincere hope that U.S.-Azerbaijan relations will benefit from an even brighter future by growing closer together as peoples.

Khayal Sharif-zadeh is chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance.