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  

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  

From the Sea to the Mountains, and back again

After breakfast we got on the bus and headed out of Baku, to the north-west. Our destination was the mountain community of Sheki or Saki, or Seki, various spellings of the same place. We spent the night in a new resort hotel higher up on the same mountain.
Our drive led us through new and not so new suburban areas around Baku. As we got farther from the city, the arid landscape was more evident and patches of salt deposits shone white against the light brown earth. Few if any trees grow here, the soil is not fertile. Evidence of attempts to plant trees and the work of irrigating them was visible.
As we went higher in elevation, the surrounding landscape became greener. At a switch-back in the “highway” the bus pulled over so that we could climb down and look out at the panorama of the mountains out ahead of us. It was International Women’s Day, which is celebrated here with gifts of flowers to all the women in one’s life. At breakfast in the hotel every women was handed a bouquet of paper white narcissus, lovely to look at but, in my case, a noxious smell! I guess it is something in my personal chemistry, but I was very pleased to leave then behind!
However, Elchin, our tour manager, had lovely pink roses for all of the women in our group and that I liked very much!
At the spot where our us stopped there were several young men trying to sell flowers, as we saw all through the countryside in our trip today.Even in the restaurant where we stopped for a buffet lunch, the female kitchen staff walked through the dining room holding red roses!
Our next stop was for a bathroom and tea and jam break at a outdoor dining pavilion on a lovely/windy hillside. Outside of hotels, most of the toilets we are encountering are of the squat over the ceramic “hole” in the floor variety. This works just fine for most of us, although some women object vigorously each time there is no option. Leaving home means learning about how others live, including how they handle their bodily needs. It’s always interesting to experience the world as others do, at least for me!
The next time we stopped was to visit one of the few churches of the Udi Christian sect. I’m really not sure exactly what sets them apart from general Christianity but the style of their cross was fascinating and I wish I could figure out the photo to blog issue! It seems to have tulip shapes on the ends but they are actually meant to be crescent moons, reflecting something about their relationship to the moon. Two men met us and answered some questions about their faith and the structure which was rebuilt after the Soviet era where many houses of faith were damaged or destroyed and thousands of believers were killed.
The air was heavy with the smoke from fires burning up the fallen branches and trimmings from the winter. Being a Californian and very aware of air pollution it was really shockingly smoky everywhere we traveled as the practice of burning was prevalent all across the rural areas. Many of us felt our breathing impacted just a bit by the smoke.And the visual impact was also significant as the landscape was blurred by the smoke.
After a bit of a long drive through increasingly green and hilly countryside,past many small and some large flocks of sheep, we arrived in Sheki so that some of the group could attend late afternoon prayer in one of the city’s mosques. While they prayed I wandered around a bit and took some pictures,including a trio of taxi drivers who loved posing for me. I’d include it here, but I still can’t figure out how to connect the camera and the iPad. Total frustration!
There is a lovely river that flows through the center of town, with bridges crossing it. Very nice place.
Our hotel was not in town but up higher on the mountain, it wants to be a “resort” and maybe it is, in ski season. Although I didn’t see the usual ski lift apparatus or any other sign of that sort.
We went to our room, on the 6th floor, through an elevator lobby large enough for a wedding party and down a hallway so wide 8 people could walk abreast, easily! Who designs these places?
Dinner was up the hill at the related restaurant that is not actually in the hotel. Another feast, but it’s all fine and this time we went around the table introducing ourselves. We were encouraged to talk a bit about why we joined the Sisterhood which was a fascinating listen.
The room was so hot that we had to open the door to the balcony to allow for some cooling-wasteful but what can you do?
After breakfast ( we arrived too early, just moments before they agreed to be open at 8am and confusion reigned in the breakfast room!) we dropped our luggage on the bus and hopped into 3 small vans for the ride to the near-by village of Kish to see the other Armenian Christian church. Getting there was part of the adventure. Heavy rains earlier in the year had washed out the only bridge over the now dry and very wide river that separates Kish from our hotel. So the vans had to negotiate a temporary dirt dam full of potholes and then the very narrow steep cobblestone streets of the village. We got out and wandered into the courtyard of the restored church. It was one of the victims of the Soviet era


Published in: on March 8, 2017 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Get Ready! Traveling again soon to…

Another trip coming soon! Azerbaijan!

On March 3, Bill and I leave SF for NYC, then on to Baku, Azerbaijan. We will return home March 23, Inshallah!

This adventure to a rather obscure vacation destination is the result of my becoming involved with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization dedicated to improving Muslim-Jewish relations, one woman at a time. Azerbaijan has a long history of good relations between Jews and Muslims and we will be visiting groups of both faiths.

The Azerbaijan part of the trip is 9 days, but we will be in NY 3 nights on the way. Then we are going to spend 8 nights in Berlin. I was last in Berlin in 1971 and, as we all know, lots has changed. People have been telling me how much I will love Berlin for years now and finally I’ll get to see it for myself. Seeing things for myself has been the underlying theme of my travels for some time now, and I realized that became my goal back in 1971.

That summer I traveled for about 3 weeks with a group of mostly English people, with a few Aussies, in a 15 passenger van from Germany to Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Soviet Union, Poland and Germany and into West Berlin. And back to England.

The trip really opened my eyes. Standing in lines to buy food for our breakfasts in the campsite north of Leningrad ( now St. Petersburg, again) and going into nearly empty department stores and seeing women plowing their fields with oxen and wooden plows caused me to re-evaluate what I’d been told by our government about the great danger that the Soviet Union represented to our way of life. While the geopolitical realities are quite different from the lives of ordinary people, the wide gaps in quality of life between the US and the USSR led me to question how big of a threat this country really was to us. Yes I was naive, and in many ways I still am, but I do think I was a little bit right. The arms race was unsustainable, especially for the USSR but we didn’t hear much about that. At some point the needs of the people for material goods and greater connection with the rest of the world won out. And the USSR is no more, at least for now. Putin seems determined to rebuild it, but that’s not my concern at the moment.

So, I plan to resume writing when we are in Azerbaijan and I invite you to read and comment. I’ll try to get photos into the blog because they really do make it better. I recently upgraded my iPad to a new lighter weight Air2 and I’m trying to figure out the photo part before I leave.

I’m very excited about this trip – the other travelers will be a big part of the interest for me. I’ll meet SOSS members from all over the country and from both faiths. I will bring my experience back to San Francisco and I hope that it will enrich my efforts to build a local Chapter of the Sisterhood.

More after March 6.




Sent from my iPad

Published in: on February 25, 2017 at 12:42 am  Comments (1)