Farewell Azerbaijan

So this is the end of the road. I’ve still got some writing left to do and some photos to share that I’ll add after I make it home to New York, but tomorrow at 7:15a it’s wheels up and I’m out of here.

Outside Qebele

Now is a time to reflect a bit on some of my best memories and favorite bits about this program. I remember while we were in Qebele, trying to find the archaeological site we wound up going to and kept getting lost on these back roads. Beyond the fields around us, the mountains shot up out of nowhere. These are some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve gotten to see, just the smallest and outermost shell of the mighty Caucasus Mountains.

Often on the roadside, especially on the longer trips to Ganja or Sheki, there would be such amazing views that flashed by so fast that you can’t whip your camera around fast enough to catch them. Similarly, one night after going to a Georgian restaurant, some of us had drinks on this rooftop bar in İçeri Şeher, the old or inner part of the city. It was a full moon that night which slowly rose behind Qız Qallası or Maiden’s Tower, the city’s most prominent landmark. With the moon at that angle, it glows orange and looks larger than normal. Try as I might with my simple Canon digital camera, I couldn’t get a good shot of it. But I thought that maybe it’s difficult to photograph for a good reason. Some things you need to go out and see for yourself.

One thing that I will never forget about Azerbaijan is the intense pride that people here have of their homeland. As a small country in a world of giants, oftentimes this country must speak loudly and in unequivocal terms to get across its points. They proudly declare themselves a young state but an old nation, rightly so.

There is a great interest in the United States and American culture and I have been very satisfied with how respectful Azerbaijanis are towards Americans. Many young people are now learning English in schools and American TV is beamed into almost all living rooms. While the English spelling or word usage is at times puzzling (see for example the “Health Paradise” moon bounce at left).

I must go to great lengths to thank those behind the Critical Language Scholarship and the US State Department that sponsors it. Thanks to this great program I have been able to learn about a year-and-a-half’s worth of Azerbaijani in eight and a half weeks (though my English probably took some hits along the way). This is an effective and creative tool in our foreign policy that enables young Americans to further their interests in less commonly studied countries, cultures and languages while at the same time sending emissaries to these countries to show a positive image of our country. I must also send out some fruit baskets to helpful professors who helped get me here, both in terms of recommendations and courses on Azerbaijan.

The natural question now is where next. I attempted explaining to one of my Azeri language teachers a few weeks ago that while I wish to return soon to Azerbaijan, I also feel the urge to explore new places. I’ve visited many countries that I love and would wish to return to, but there are so many others out there waiting to be explored. Had I not followed the route of trying something new, I would not have come to Azerbaijan and I’m glad that I did. Azeri could be a bridge to Turkish or other Central Asian languages, and I don’t like getting bogged down in one place for too long. I’ll see what happens, but in the interim it’s back to New York to settle into a job, inshallah.

There are a couple posts that I’ll be putting up in the next week or so, especially Azerbaijani cooking and eating culture, that I feel I owe to certain people. In the meantime, thanks to all who have followed the blog and read even one post.

From time to time I use an Azeri saying for goodbye, that gets Azeris I know to crack up, perhaps based on the weirdness of it coming from an American mouth. Either way, it’s güle-güle, meaning “Go merrily” or “Go smiling.”

Too all of you back home, Güle-Güle!

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On the Road

Traffic is a key part of Azeri culture. Like in many countries there is a deep vein of machismo that is reflected in how men here drive and the condition in which the car is kept.

I had been warned before living in France to be careful of drivers there. Suffice it to say that drivers here in Azerbaijan are ten times wilder than drivers in France, making them a hundred times wilder than American drivers. Very few intersections here have pedestrian lights and those that do are not very effective. Instead of giving street-crossers a fair warning like a blinking “don’t walk” sign, lights here switch directly from green to red, from walk to don’t walk. Drivers will not wait for you to cross, so please cross carefully.

I would say that traffic is one of the most dangerous aspects of life in Baku. It is not uncommon to hear about pedestrians getting killed especially in the larger traffic circles around town like at Genclik or Bes Mertebe. As a response of sorts, Baku has constructed many underpasses over the last ten years. These underpasses are wonderful in that they save you from having to cross the dangerous plazas and that many of them have miniature malls in them, not to mention a Heydar Aliyev quote adorning the entranceway.

Mercedes and Lada side by side

You really get to see a world class selection of automobiles here that spans the entire spectrum. The different kinds of cars here reflect the wide income gap while some people are prosperous, others are pragmatic. There are many Mercedes and BMWs and even higher-end Hummers, Range Rovers, Lamborghinis, Bentleys and Ferraris. American cars are marginally considered luxury cars here in Baku due to their scarce availability. Because of import fees, buying a foreign car will probably run you at least $250,000 on top of the value of the car.

Meanwhile there are Ladas everywhere. The Lada is the archetypical automobile of the Soviet Union, known for its poor quality but cheap cost. A few expat friends of mine here in Baku recently chipped in and bought a Lada to share between the four of them. They made a music video celebrating this purchase, seen here:

While in the US there are laws as to what kinds of customizations you can have on your car, such as the lights that run underneath, there are no such rules here (or if there are any, they aren’t enforced). One of my favorite things about cars in Baku is that they have whatever sounds for horns that they want. Consequentially, you might here a police or ambulance siren and turn around to see that it’s just some asshole in a 4×4 trying to clear people out in front of him. My friend even heard the Godfather theme once as a horn.

Carwashes are everywhere in Baku and around the country. You’ll see signs spraypainted for Moyka’s, which I believe is a word passed down from Russian. By my house there is a street with about fifteen of these Moyka and autobody shops in a row. Azerbaijanis take having a clean car very seriously. So seriously in fact that while we were on our way back from our trip to Sheki, the driver had us stop at a Moyka to wash his car even though we had two hours of driving through dusty dirty roads left.

Women typically do not drive here. Even riding shotgun for a woman is frowned upon. It’s just another part of the male-dominated culture probably inherited from the country’s Muslim tradition.

Last, I should point out the street signs here. Street signs are always interesting when you leave the United States if only for the fact that they are such a critical aspect of driving life that we take them for granted from time to time. Here are some of my favorites from here in Azerbaijan:

Careful, children speedskating

Careful, people sauntering

No wheelchairs!

We have discussed these as being not too far from the standard European exit sign that shows a man running down a flight of stairs and the US sign on elevators for “In case of fire, use stairs” where a man is on fire running down a flight of stairs. Interesting iconography, and certainly a nice distraction that keeps the day moving along.

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American Cultural Exports

One of the more difficult aspects of being an American abroad is the constant cringing when you stumble upon a piece of American culture that has been been misinterpreted or taken out of context in another country. While some may say that cultural exports are a sign of soft power, it has a limited effect when it is misunderstood or misappropriated.

Take for example, the presence of religion in our culture. While the US remains a secular state, there is still a constant force for a greater inclusion of divinity in our national symbols and culture. This is why we have the line “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we Trust” on our money. I think, however, the nuanced role of God in our culture is not well understood here in Azerbaijan. This picture on the right is from the presentations that a group of Azeri youth gave us in celebration of July 4th. Seeing images of “God Bless the USA” is something that I would expect more from evangelicals than 11-year old Azerbaijanis, who think that this is a monolithically appreciated and national symbol.

Our films have a dominating presence here. As I mentioned in the last article, there is not much in the way of Azeri cinema and the older more legendary Azeri films were from the Communist era, complicating their societal impact. This poster here is from The Sorcerers’ Apprentice which is now playing at one of the two movie theaters downtown. While this may be an encouraging aspect of our cultural interactions, it comes with a little baggage. First, many of the films are dubbed into Russian or come in Russian language with Azeri subtitles, effectively watering down the American influence. Second, though there are two movie theaters downtown, 99% of Azeris see recently released films through illicit bootleg DVDs. I was making conversation with my host brother because he mentioned that he liked Twilight. I asked him if he had seen it yet and he ran into his bedroom and came out with the new movie’s DVD. I don’t think they even had it on Canal Street that soon after it came out.

I suppose candy bars are now a worldwide phenomenon but Azeris are still coming to eat them in much different ways than we do. Just like Mr. Pitt, Elaine’s boss for a couple of seasons on Seinfeld, Azeris like to eat their chocolate cut into pieces with a knife and fork.

On Monday, during our trip when we visited a Bakuvian synagogue, we also visited one of Azerbaijan’s many churches, though this may be the only Catholic one. From reading the names on the list of this year’s class of confirmations, we could easily tell that that this church primarily serves the foreign business and diplomatic community. I find the architecture to be a bit of an eyesore, which might not be the sort of attention that the sole Catholic church in the country desires. But then again, I can’t truly say that this building sticks out more than any other one in a rather eclectic cityscape. The light display inside, however, was quite nifty.

Many images, perhaps from bootlegged DVDs, are then taken to advertise for other products, most likely without the copyright holder’s consent. Take for example this poster that I saw just today for an English-language school. Somehow, I don’t think that they got Disney to sign off on this one.

One last bit of cultural misunderstanding worth mentioning has to do with rap music. Many people here in Azerbaijan, and around the world, love rap and it is very common to find the names “50 Cent” “Tupac” and “Snoop Dogg” graffiti-ed on walls around the city.

Admiration leads to imitation: learning rap lyrics and trying to be like rappers. One word that you are likely to find in rap songs is nigger, a word in the English language that is derogatory to black people. Whereas Nigar is a common first name here in Azerbaijan, in terms of pronunciation and usage, there is a clear line of when a person is saying Nigar and nigger. As they also do in Russia, here in Azerbaijan, they refer to black people as “nigger,” not as a way of expressing hate but that is simply what Azerbaijanis use to refer to black people.

There are very few black people here in Azerbaijan, I would estimate that I have seen less than forty since having arrived (not counting Haddaway). Regardless, as I was having a discussion over dinner with my host family about race relations in the US nowadays (prompted by Martha Stewart’s visit to the Native American Museum in NYC that we were watching, ironic perhaps), my host family brought up the word for the first time. “Yes, in the past you did not respect niggers, but today you have much respect for niggers.” Awkwardly, I explained to them that this is a bad word that we don’t use anymore in the United States, but alas I cannot eradicate that word from this vernacular nor can I truly hold my host family responsible. This is just the word that they use as there are so few black people here.

Moral of the story: Once the US creates culture and then exports it, there is little control on what is picked up by others, the good or the bad.

Note: I have gone back to yesterday’s post, as I had some camera problems and uploaded some pictures that go with the post.

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Facing the Past

Azerbaijan’s past has been marked with subjugation and foreign domination. Over the last 182 years, Azerbaijan has only been independent for 20, formerly part of the Russian Empire then the Soviet Union. Without the bitterness, the sweetness wouldn’t taste so sweet, one might be tempted to say. Yet Azerbaijan has not truly grappled with the past, denounced it and moved on.

Heydar Aliyev

One big reason why is the enormous popularity of former President Heydar Aliyev. Prior to being independent Azerbaijan’s president, he served for 24 years as First Chair of Azerbaijan’s Communist Party, akin to a governor in the United States. To criticize the Soviet Union would, in many ways, be to criticize President Aliyev and many people are not ready to do that.

Cyrillic

During Soviet rule, the traditional farsi-based alphabet was outlawed and Cyrillic mandated in its place. After the collapse, Azerbaijan wanted to assert its national identity and shed the Cyrillic alphabet so it adopted Latin characters, common throughout the world by the end of the 20th century and consistent with Turkish’s modernization which had taken place while Azerbaijan was in the USSR.

Derzi - Tailor

As a consequence of all these changes, in one family over three generations the tombstones may have been in three different character sets. One lady we met early in the trip tried to bring this point home by asking us to imagine how much we like the look of our own names written down on paper and being forced to change the way that looked forever.

Cyrillic letters still linger and it is very common to see shop displays, graffiti and handmade signs in Cyrillic script. Sometimes in one word you’ll find a mix of Cyrillic and Latin characters.

Workers Avenue

Many placenames still reflect the Soviet legacy. I live near one of Baku’s main thoroughfares, inşaatçilar prospekti which means in English Workers Avenue. A subway stop not far away is called Workers Station. I have a great photo of the street sign in Cyrillic, a strong and ironic reminder of the legacy but until the camera is back in shape, I’ll have to apologize.

An Unavoidable Cultural Legacy

Think for a moment about your favorite movie. While many of you may have thought of a movie that was made in the last twenty years, I’m sure somebody thought of an old James Bond or the Godfather. For Azeris, the great movies that they remember and their stars and cultural icons of the

A national symbol, the Nizami Mausoleum, while it was still written in Cyrillic

1960s and 70s were from films produced by Soviet propagandists. Oftentimes these movies had an undertone of the evils of capitalism or the importance of dedication to the state.

Many Azeris preferred life in communist times. While capitalism has brought a sense of freedom, it has not meant success for everybody. There was an ease to not having to pay for medical visits, vacations and pension. For those with few belongings today, communism provided more. I feel that the country’s internally displaced persons (idp’s) problem must also add to a nostalgia for the soviet period. Azerbaijan has developed the highest amount of idp’s proportional to its population in the world at 17% following the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 88-94. As this coincided with the crumbling of the USSR many must think that the USSR brought order, stability and peace while transition was less secure.

I have been to Berlin, albeit only once, and when I was there I was absolutely impressed with how Germany has come to terms with its two major past atrocities: the Holocaust and communism. Today Berlin boasts one of the greatest Holocaust museums in the world and the government keeps in great condition and open to the public many of the concentration camps. Checkpoint Charlie is a popular tourist site where you can get your picture taken with a GDR guard and buy pieces of the wall to take home. While the healing process in Germany was certainly not easy and didn’t happen overnight, by addressing past injustices, Germany has come out stronger in the long run and sent the right message about its willingness to confront history. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has some work left to do on this front.

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To be Jewish in Baku

Anyone who knows me knows that Judaism is a large part of my identity. How then might this come into play in a country with merely 30,000 residents among a sea of 8 million?

One of the two synagogues in Baku

The answer is surprisingly well. Most Azerbaijanis that I have met, including my host family, are incredibly respectful of all faiths. The fact that Judaism and Islam share many traditions even enhances this respect. When I dropped the J-Bomb, so to speak, and let my family know that I was Jewish, there were no gasps but moreover questions and intrigue. To underline how non-divisive of an issue this was, last night during dinner, religion came up as a topic of conversation and the host mother began the conversation under the assumption that I was Christian. That shows how little of a preoccupation other people’s religion is to the average Azeri. Later on, we discussed the different holidays from religion to religion and I would say that they were genuinely interested in the Jewish holidays I spoke of.

An Israel-Azerbaijan mural in a local middle school... Click for a higher-res view

A key to understanding today’s warm relations is that a welcoming attitude toward Judaism helps Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. You may recall that I previously posted on Azerbaijan’s filial attachment to Turkey; this extends to the level of foreign policy. As such, Azerbaijan is allies, albeit not as steadfastly as the US, with Israel. The recent flotilla event was a bit of a strain on relations but after some light coverage on the state-backed news here, there was nothing else critical of Israel. You don’t see the sort of plight of the Palestinians journalism that you would expect in a Muslim country which certainly eases Azeri perceptions of Jewish people.

Yet the sheer paucity of Jewish people in the country leads to some misperceptions, most likely from nothing more than ignorance. I would guess that most people don’t ever meet many Jewish people and believe what people tell them. Furthermore, there is a large gossiping subculture to the society here and a sort of obsession with the unknown (similarly, many Azeris claim that more UFOs have visited Azerbaijan than any other county). This leads to some distrust among common Azeris of Jewish people.

Peres in Baku (RFE/RL)

One of my friend’s host mothers warns him about Jewish people and says openly that she does not like them. All the same, she has met me several times and even had me over to her house no fewer than twice. She likes me she says, but the rest of them you can’t trust. She declared to my friend not too long ago that FDR was Jewish; you can tell by looking at his foreign policy, she reasoned.

The Jewish community in Baku, though small is vibrant and attracts attention. Simon Peres and Avi Lieberman are among the Israeli figures who have visited Baku within the past decade. Yesterday we visited a synagogue, one of two in the entire city. It is certainly small, giving you an impression of how many congregants there are though the men who showed US around said that it is filled to the brim Saturday mornings. There are two separate chapels, one for the “Mountain Jews” and one for Georgian Jewish people. Interestingly, the working language of the synagogue is Russian and it seemed like hardly anybody spoke Azeri.

One of the rabbis formerly of the temple worked with some youth to create a music video showing Azerbaijan-Jewish friendship. A GREAT click, check out this somewhat over-produced yet in sum heartwarming video.

This here, is an article on the mountain settlement with a sizable Jewish population that I hope to visit next weekend. Read it now and check back next weekend to hear how my trip went. See also a NYT piece from ten years back on the Jewish resurgence in Baku.

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Mischief in Ganja

In addition to the routine agenda, sometimes it’s worth the students’ while to add some extracurricular activities. After all, these 7-hour bus rides and tours of Heydar Aliyev museums can become redundant and boring if there isn’t the right relief and respite. Thankfully Azeri consumer culture is there to help us when things get sticky.

Before leaving on Friday, at the supermarket across the street from school (the venerable AquaPark), while buying snacks for the road I stumbled upon a great buy: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles walkie talkies. Not only might these be able to help when the group got separated, but they were sure to annoy everyone not holding one. A great deal at 6 manat 85, approximately $8. I must wonder how much they’ll go for on eBay…

I made the silly mistake of forgetting my toothbrush in Baku so on Saturday went out looking for a new one. Only after I got back to the hotel to unwrap the brush did I look a little closer. It turns out I bought a COLLAGE toothbrush and not a COLGATE one. Creatively, whatever group is behind the Collage brushes put it in the same font and color scheme that you would find Colgate in. It also struck me as odd that the two main languages on the packaging were Spanish and Portuguese. Seems like some toothbrushes destined for South America or Iberia somehow washed up in Ganja.

While walking around Ganja, we found a bumper car rally. There’s also one in Baku on the Bulvar but that costs an unreasonable 2 manat as opposed to the Ganja bumper cars’ 60 qepik. We never found the time to go, unfortunately but still managed to have a little fun with it. The morning after my friend and I, on the way to our group breakfast began with a couple comments along the lines of “really shouldn’t have gone on those bumper cars last night…”, “gee, those bumper cars would have been a great deal were it not for the 40 manat cleanup fee” and “at least we know for next time not to get out of the car cause those tracks are electrified.”

Ganja: Home of Europe's Largest Cake

Our goal slowly developed to become getting in trouble for something we had never done. As we were telling this story a sort of legend took on a life of its own. “Gee, it sure was nice of them to serve us tea even after we wrecked that bumper car.” “I can’t believe they let those goats roam around on the track.” “Stephen,” my friend said, “I think you standing on the hood driving it backwards was the real tipping point.” At this point, during breakfast still, I was ready to throw in one more, when as soon as I open my mouth our resident director jumps in “Enough!” Great success.

Sun Flamboyant Power Wheels

On Saturday, I suppose this is a little out of order and I thank you for bearing with me, our tour guide was fantastic if only a little overeager. I made what was later deemed to be a mistake in telling the man my name early in the day. I, as a former tour guide myself at UMich, can understand the difficulties of holding a group’s attention and the creative ways

A Currency Exchange board with the old Georgian flag... which they haven't used for over six years

needed to keep a group engaged. This guide tried a method I had never seen before: latching onto one tourist and trying to become his best friend. At each stop, he would start each shpeel with “Stephen! What do you know about (name of site)?” When we took group photos, he demanded to stand next to me. At the gates of Ganja, though we were not originally lined up next to each other, the guide ran up to me right before the picture was taken. “Stephen, we must be together” said he.

A street sign from a small town outside Ganja once inhabited by Germans

At the historical museum, he got put on the spot a little as one student rightly noted that a map of 18th century Azerbaijan had Şeki marked in the wrong location. Plate tectonics I believed, were the most logical explanation though our guide somehow connected this discrepancy to the aggression. One other great aspect of this guide was when he would tell us about ancient dates. He must have somehow confounded some English words because to him BC stood for “Before Christmas” which he repeated several times. An understandable and endearing, albeit funny, mistake.

If you liked my recent post on the thousand benevolent smiles that shine bright over Azerbaijan, I’ll leave you with a few more:





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Ganja

This past weekend, the group went to Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second most populous city, a six hour drive from Baku.

The similarity of the city’s name to one of the many nicknames for marijuana is purely coincidental, though it is worth noting that a local folk dish is called xaş, pronounced hash (made of sheep hooves and brains, though unfortunately we didn’t eat any).

I think the fact that the Ganja tourism industry does not take advantage of these similar names is a giant wasted opportunity. They could make a killing with I

Just outside the city is the Nizami Mausoleum, the tomb for Azerbaijan’s most revered poet Nizami, who lived during the 12th century. Poetry is an exalted form of culture here, more so than in the US. Children are often required to learn his poetry (along with that of other legendary Azeri poets) by heart! Reciting a Nizami poem to an Azerbaijani is a fantastic way to demonstrate your respect for and interest in their culture.

The Mausoleum itself is a somewhat oddly placed one. The tomb and the garden in front of it straddle a highway overpass! I don’t know if it was poor city planning or that the tomb was dug up after the road had already been built, but this is probably one of the very few monuments in the world on an overpass.

After lunch, we visited the stunningly beautiful Heydar Aliyev Biographical Museum. Oddly, half of the museum was empty save for a giant mural and some scattered desks. There were pictures of the president with all sorts of world leaders including Mr and Mrs Clinton, Al Gore and George W. This was in fact the second Heydar Aliyev exhibit we had seen on the day as the local history museum, though less noteworthy, had a beautiful Heydar Aliyev hall, similar in feel.

In the evening, we got some Georgian wine, which is the sweetest and most delectable wine in the region. We sat on the balcony and drank, the sun set, the weather was cool and in the plaza by the hotel there were local musicians singing muğam, Azeri music. Overall, A+ setting though I may say the balcony, which slanted downwards, was slightly worrisome.

Sunday, we drove to an istarahet merkezi, lit. relaxation center for lunch. Beautiful mountains surrounded US, but we were about 8 km from the ceasefire line and the town was heavily militarized.

Now, as I am writing, we are on our way back to Baku, nearing the end of our 7 hour return trip. This week, as I have only ten days left in Azerbaijan, I will try to deliver some of the blog entries I’ve been holding back on. Expect to read on cars and traffic in Baku, Azeri cuisine, the future of Baku and the Jewish situation. I’m trying to go to a small mountain Jewish settlement next Saturday so check back next week for the Jewish article.

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