Summarizing some thoughts on my week in Azerbaijan

I last wrote about the long day trip to Quba, and the feeling of being hijacked. More about that in a bit.

Monday the group went to see the Fire Temple and its surrounding Zoroastrian Museum, of a sort. The place is a bit out of central Baku and is quite a large complex. The Zoroastrians who are still a practicing minority in several countries,but probably not in Azerbaijan, are adherents of the earliest kind of monotheism, which exalts a deity known as Ahura Mazda, known for wisdom. The place itself is a large courtyard with small rooms, or cells all around the outside and, in the center, a kind of temple with a fire burning constantly. The Zoroastrians  see fire as the way to spiritual wisdom and fire is always burning at places of worship, as I saw on my trip to Iran in 2008.

I don’t think there are many Zoroastrians in Azerbaijan today, certainly none were in evidence at the Temple or Museum and I forgot to ask. But there was no mention of them in the present tense.

Our lunch was in the restaurant on the compound and it started with a cooking demonstration of making a kind of stuffed pancake, with either herbs or ground lamb. Small balls of dough were ready to be rolled out, filled and folded in half before being cooked on a very hot dome shaped metal grill. The results were delicious! Another filling lunch followed the demonstration and then we were off to meet some more official types.

The bus took us back into central Baku, but this time to a different type of neighborhood. Very steep streets with broken sidewalks and litter led us eventually to our meeting with yet another government official. First we visited a beautiful, large,colorfully decorated mosque which is unique due to its origins as a donation from a woman. She was an “oil Baronness” and gave the money for this mosque from her earnings. The meeting was supposed to be with the woman who is the highest ranking female in the Moslem religious hierarchy, but actually most of the talking was from a man who is her superior. A great deal of yawning went on, and I did some interesting doodling on the allocated pad of paper at each seat around yet another huge conference table.

We walked down hill again and eventually back to our hotel. The streets in this area were not the perfect, European-looking white stone structures we had seen so much of. Here the buildings were old, gray, chipped and graffitied. They had the overhanging wooden balconies on the upper floor, some with laundry visible hanging where there are the most breezes. More young women wearing hijab, too. This was what I imagined Baku would look like, finally!

That evening our dinner was at a lovely restaurant on the top floor of a commercial building in the pedestrian shopping area not far from our hotel. The food was good, as usual. Afterwards I left a bit early with a few other women, before the tea was served!! Bill was staying behind, not feeling well and I wanted to see how he was doing. He is a stoic guy and seldom admits to physical infirmity, but he had been experiencing abdominal discomfort. He seemed better and I was relieved.

Tuesday morning we met our new friend Arzu for breakfast and we went to a place very near our hotel, along the wall of the Old City. It specializes in tandir cooking, very much like a tandoor in the north of India. At breakfast, we had freshly cooked bread straight from the tandir, along with cheeses, an herb and egg frittata like dish, eggs with tomatoes  and eggs with honey, both egg dishes were unusual and excellent.I had never liked eggs with tomatoes before ( like in Greek omelette) but this was different and delicious.

The conversation was even better and I believe that we will remain friends. She is a lawyer in Baku but went to graduate law school in the US . With 3 children and a very demanding job, she is a busy but warm woman who is very aware of the politics in the US and the impact of it on the rest of the world. I look forward to maintaining a correspondence with her.

The highlights of the rest of the day were a lunch in a place which, in the warmer months, must be magical! A high wall surrounds a large garden with small cabins and covered pavilions where families come in the summer for delicious lunches cooked over open fires. We enjoyed our lunch indoors, but the concept of the place was inviting. Then on to the Zaha Hadid designed Heydar Aliyev Expositon Center. It is an extraordinary work of design, swooping up and down with curves supposedly inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s famous photo of her dress billowing up over a subway grate. Inside, it feels very disorienting with uneven stairs and hard to find elevators to many levels. The first level is dedicated to the life of the “great leader of Azerbaijan independence” Haydar Aliyev himself. Other exhibits, especially one of musical instruments were more engaging.

One last stop of the day at the enormous new Heydar Aliyev mosque ( seeing some patterns here?). It is impressively large and I mean BIG! The portico at the main entrance must be 60-80 ft tall and that is half the height of the dome. Inside it is all white, with patterns in the plasterwork. Impressive, yes. Emblematic of a need to indicate power and control, maybe.

That night was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It was the first of the big public celebrations of the start of Nowruz, the ancient Persian Zoroastrian New Year- Spring holiday. Right outside the gate of the Old City, nearest our hotel, workers had erected a large platform. I just arrived in time to see some camels ridden by people in costumes pass through the gate into the Old City and continue up the steep street past the restaurant where we had breakfast that morning. Just outside the gate several horse drawn wagons passed by in the opposite direction. By then a huge bonfire was sending sparks and cinders and smoke out over the large crowd gathered around the platform. Fire is central to the Zoroastrian belief system and is an important part of the Nowruz ritual. Music was played loudly and various groups performed traditional dances, sang traditional songs ( I’m assuming the traditional part here, having no one to consult). I observed  many young adults in the crowd spontaneously breaking into traditional ( again I’m assuming) dance – men with men- in small groups in the crowd. And families with young children, some women in hijab, most without. Maybe I’m an optimist, but what I saw gave me hope the the younger generation in this country will hold onto some of the traditions of their ancestors. All too often “western culture” arrives and dominates and pushes out more traditional values and rituals. I hope it will be different here. It felt like a 4th of July party, but in March and without the patriotism. Nowruz seems like everyone’s favorite time of the year and everywhere I went I saw decorations – hanging over the pedestrian areas, in store windows and on street corners. All hotels are booked for the next week with tens of thousands of Iranians, and I’m sure many others, coming to really “get happy” in Baku for Nowruz!

So, what was this trip all about? The idea as I understood it,was to observe how the Jewish and Muslim communities co-exist in Azerbaijan and to learn from this. What I learned was that yes, in this small country bordered by three powerful countries, Iran to the south, Russia to the north and Turkey to the west, religion seems to not be the greatest concern to the people or to the government. Consistently I heard, from official sources and from individuals, that no one cared what religion anyone else followed. For the first time in a Muslim majority country, I did not hear the call to prayer . ( maybe once, to be honest, but that was not in Baku but in Shecki). Relatively few women wear hijab. Education from K-12 is compulsory and free, if not exactly up to the contemporary standards of individualized educational planning. Getting along with their neighbors is very important, since they could not defend themselves from any of them militarily. Learning to accommodate is perhaps the “secret sauce” of Azerbaijan.

Still, despite the assurances of the nice guy at the Diplomatic University, I had a feeling that free speech was not easy in this country dominated by one family. The current president is the son of the first president and he recently named his wife a first vice-president. The guides we had all refer to her frequently in adoring language, referring to her talents in everything from politics to cooking. No one openly comments on the government’s policies on anything. Even the woman representing the Jewish women in Quba spoke what sounded like a government pleasing complaint about Armenians rather than anything about her own community’s concerns.

Our detours to take in monuments to Armenian atrocities and the repetition of the complaints about the 1991-92 “massacre” by them in Karabach felt like an imposed narrative. It did happen and it was a terrible event, but there must be other things to talk about. Oil prices? Iran and Russia and Turkey as neighbors, how does that feel?

So why did we get this slant on our trip? Was it simply the way that the country deals with tourist groups from western countries? We had as one of the tour organizers a woman from Azerbaijan who has lived in Houston for many years. She is a passionate promoter of all things Azerbaijan. Her contacts made the trip possible- she seems to know everyone. I learned that she has developed a “sister city” relationship between Houston and Baku and helps to bring people of different sorts to Houston to meet locals there in similar businesses. One of the young women who came to the Shabbat dinner was a lawyer who had spent some time in Houston thanks to our friend. She in turn invited several other women, including the woman we had breakfast with on Tuesday.

At times, as I understood more of her role, I began to feel that our group was, in a way, pawns in her larger plan -To increase her importance in Houston somehow and in the Azerbanjani community of wealthy oil business related people, or something like that. Her insistence that we meet with lots of government institutions puzzeled me. What really did they offer us, other than modest gifts of books, tea, a tee shirt and a scarf?  Platitudes was what we heard from them, one after another.  How did that further the goals of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom? I don’t believe that anyone from our group actually learned anything about religious acceptance and inter-faith  cooperation that was new. Since that is not a problem in Azerbaijan, they did not offer us examples of how they dealt with it.

But a group of Americans whose presence could be interpreted in any way that was useful to the government, that is more interesting. We were photographed, filmed and written about by a variety of guys during the trip. No one explained who the guy was who appeared on the bus for our trip to Quba. “A journalist” he told me, free lance. He was nice enough and I chatted a bit with him at our late lunch that day, but really how important was our visit to Azerbaijan to the government? We represent only ourselves, not in any officially sanctioned manner. But given that the media is controlled by the government, what spin they put on our visit is anyone’s guess. Lending legitimacy to a government known for exceptional corruption ( ranking 123 out of 176 countries in 2016 according to Transparency International) may have been our lasting legacy in Azerbaijan. I don’t know that this is true, I’m speculating. Any other interpretations of our trip are very welcome and I may be corrected by anyone who has another viewpoint. This is only my opinion based only on my experience in Azerbaijan and in other countries with less than free press ( Iran, Cuba, Libya, way back in 2005 under Ghadaffi). I just don’t like being used, and that is how I ended up feeling.

Given all that I have said, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and am grateful to the organizers of the trip from the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and all the others who worked so hard to make everything go smoothly, most of the time. But a perfect trip would be boring and who wants that? Go to Azerbbaijan and see for yourself!


Published in: on March 19, 2017 at 8:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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