On our way to meet some “Mountain Jews”, with a hijacking, of a sort

Quite a long day I had, but over-all pretty interesting. We got on our bus around 9, and instead of leaving for the 150km drive to Quba, or Guba, our destination for the day, we drove all over the central part of Baku looking at statues and a monument to a spy. You could call it frustrating, but that would not be quite accurate. It felt like our agenda had been hijacked, but why? Our guide for the day, Fouad, the fellow with the acccordian folder full of old photographs that he uses to illustrate his history walks/talks, just decided that that was the way to start the day. No one seemed able to challenge him.This was only the first hijacking of the day

The consequence was that we arrived in the town of Quba, or Guba or several other spellings, where a community of unique Jews lives, at least an hour behind our stated schedule and a nice elderly man from the Jewish community was waiting to take us around. We met him at a prearranged spot and he joined us on the bus to escort us to one of the 4 Jewish cemeteries in this tiny community. “Mountain Jews” are a unique subgroup of the Jewish people who have lived in the Caucasus Mountains for thousand of years. It is believed that they may have migrated from Ancient Israel into Persia as early at the 8th century Before the Common Era. They now live in a few villages in Azerbaijan and Georgia and in parts of Russia.They speak a language known as “Tat” or “Jude-Tat” which comes from Iran and has aspects of ancient Hebrew. Most also speak Russian and Azeri. They are known to live in harmony with the surrounding Muslim neighbors and that is why we want to meet some of them.

The cemetery is high on a hill over-looking the whole town and the river. The first reaction I and many others had upon seeing the first set of graves was “Oh, my God! How weird!”. Nearly every headstone was tall and large and had a photograph of the person in the grave staring out at you. Some of these photos are 4 ft tall, some larger! It’s the strangest feeling to see dozens of faces looking back at you,literally “from the grave”. I posted some photos on Facebook. As one man said, “well, it’s not in accordance with Jewish tradition as we know it, but it means that my grandchildren and their children could know what I looked like.” True, but still a strange feeling to see them all.

Onward to find the local Purim festivities. Because we were so late arriving in Quba, we missed the performance of the reading of the Megilla and whatever the youth of the town were doing in celebration. We did run into the woman who is the president of the Jewish Women’s Association who told us that the biggest issue she is concerned about is the lack of recognition of the murder of thousands of Azeris in Korobach in 1992 at the hands of the Armenians. The evil Armenians is a theme often repeated by officials from all different disciplines. Hearing it from this woman in the Jewish town was really kind of strange. Is that really the most important thing in her community today?  She was just about the only person we saw.

In fact, we wandered around the town trying to figure out where everyone was! We went to the largest synagogue to see it and then our guide got a call summoning us to the Yeshiva, or Jewishschool, to see what the Purim celebration was like. We walked a few blocks and up the steps to the Yeshiva’s main hall.There were 3 really long tables set with many plates of food and lined on both sides with what looked to be the entire Jewish community! Little kids, elderly men, teenagers , mostly segregated by sex, but not all. In we all walked, more than 25 people, obviously not from around there. At first mostly we got stares, then we spotted the woman we had just been listening to down the street, then our leader was speaking into a microphone about the Sisterhood, and then a man was making a speech about the importance of Jewish- Muslim relations and the obnoxious TV camera guy was filming it all and the journalist was writing notes.

Everyone stopped eating and watched the show. The musicians started playing and some of our group proceeded to start dancing and then a few people from the local community joined in and pretty soon the scene was kind of amazing. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. On the one hand, we barged into their party and took it over. On the other hand, at the very least it would make a good story. “Remember that Purim when all those strange people showed up and talked and danced and then left?” Maybe we gave them a good memory at least.

By this time it’s nearly 3pm and we haven’t had lunch. The food at the Purim party smelled really good, but there were too many of us to take up the offer to join them, so we declined. The plan was to go to some restaurant in a hotel.We got back on our bus and headed out of town to a new resort hotel that looked like something Trump would build. The lobby was more than 2 stories tall and well, it was all just too much. We had lunch in a downstairs dining room, used the rest rooms and left feeling very out of place and vaguely unhappy.

Our agenda called for us to go to a local mosque and a carpet factory before returning to Baku for a sea-side dinner. However, the second hijacking was about to occur. Instead of the carpet workshop we were taken to see a Memorial to the Martyrs of the Armenian Atrocity,or something like that, a ways out of the city again. I admit that I chose to stay on the bus, with one or two others and take a bit of a nap rather than see it and it’s Museum up close. Bill came back and said it was pretty depressing, not only in content but in the cold concrete physical space. This ate up another 45-60 minutes. Why was this added to our agenda? What did it have to do with our goals and mission? Who decided it was a good idea? No one took responsibility, some of the group developed a theory that the government wants to push the Armenians are bad idea from every possible angle at every possible opportunity. Can’t argue with that theory, it certainly felt that way!

The day had been very chilly and very gray all day and now it was getting late and starting to be dark. Nonetheless we drove back to Quba and to the mosque where our co-founder explained some aspects of Islam to a group of us who were interested. And then on to the carpet workshop for an explanation of the craft of hand-tying carpets and some time in their sales place. It was after 6 by the time we arrived and about 7 by the time we left.

Our “agenda” had called for leaving Quba around 4pm with dinner at around 6. That was never realistic, but the delays and alternate activities pushed our timing back more than 3 hours! By the time we neared Baku and the restaurant that was chosen for dinner, many of us were too tired to go. It was 10pm when the bus dropped off about half of the group at the restaurant and then took the remaining tired travelers back to the hotel, and then returned to the restaurant and them back to the hotel. Poor driver! At least the traffic wasn’t bad at that hour. I understand that the late night diners got back to the hotel after 12. Bill and I had a light meal upstairs and crashed well before midnight.

We are seeing a lot of this country, and I do like it and the people very much. Tomorrow we go to a Fire Temple! I saw Zoroastrian’s in Iran in 2008 so I’m excited to see this. More tomorrow, Inshallah.



Published in: on March 13, 2017 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

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