Saturday, January 14, 2006

Baku thoughts, Pt II

Despite the often dysfunctional manner in which Azeris behave toward others, it is nevertheless true that I have never been showered with so much love and affection as from my Azeri students – many of whom are now close friends.

If I can go on a tangent momentarily, it has always been a mystery to me why so many foreigners (in the case of Azerbaijan, that means Britons and Americans for the most part) seem to want nothing more from their experience in a strange land than to spend time with one another. What a crashing bore.

I have learned that the one thing that is worse than an irritating, loud American in a foreign land is a loud, irritating Brit – and there are many of those here, 99% of whom are in the oil business in one way or another. And they all make large amounts of money and congregate in expat bars. Inevitably there is the contingent of exotic-looking, tarted-up women (i.e. prostitutes) in these establishments who are drawn to the smell of money. The whole picture is unsavory, which is why I stay out of such places. (That sounds sanctimonious, doesn’t it?)

Generally, therefore, when I see an American or a Brit in Azerbaijan, I run the other way. (Admittedly, this diminishes my opportunities to discuss the topics that fascinate these people such as sports, engineering, money, and, um…sports.)

At any rate, my friends in Baku are Azeri, mostly, with a smattering of Dagestanis, Tartars, Russians, and Kurds.

Daily life in Baku can be very stressful for a variety of reasons. Here is an excerpt from some 2004 observations after a dreary, endless train trip from Tbilisi:

The trip back from Tbilisi was undoubtedly the worst train ride of my life – fifteen hours in an oven. The temperature in the car was, oh, 33 degrees (for you celcius-illiterate Americans, that’s hot) with a humidity of roughly 90%. Had the heating system not been turned on, the body heat from the passengers would have been sufficient to keep the coupes warm and we all could have slept comfortably. But no. I asked the porter if he could do something about the heat, and his response was (through an interpreter), “It is my responsibility to heat the car!” It is your responsibility to make everyone miserable? (His compartment, I noticed, was a comfortable 22 degrees or so because he had a window open. Our windows in the passenger compartments were permanently sealed.) The heating system consisted of a blast furnace at the porter’s end of the car into which he fed bricks of coal. It is his responsibility! Even the Azeris were complaining about the heat – something I didn’t think was possible in a country where the heat is on everywhere in every office every day.

Ten hours into the trip at about 0400, as I stood looking out the window in the passageway, a Georgian passenger explained, “It is old Soviet heating system.”

Wrong. It is old attitudes.

For all its faults (consumerism, vulgarity, overthrowing democratic governments, Pauly Shore…), America is a society built on the principle of change, something which I am beginning to appreciate. But change is held in deep suspicion in many countries, including this one. All they have to do is order the damn porter to turn off the heat. And all they have to do to get the dog to stop defecating and urinating on the stairway inside my apartment building is for the occupants to have a tenants’ meeting and give the dog’s owner an ultimatum. Or to chip in and buy a screen door to keep the dog out. (I’ll even donate 10,000 manat!!) But no. People just accept it because they fear change and avoid initiative at all costs.

There are times when I think that it’s no wonder that the Armenians beat the hell out of the Azerbaijani army with all the buck-passing that goes on here. But a woman from Albania I met recently in Georgia said that it’s a Caucasus-wide attitude. “If you took all the people out of the Caucasus and replaced them with people from America, nothing would change. Within a few months, they would act just like Caucasians! It’s something in the mountains and the air here.”

Lest I sound too lugubrious, my day-to-day life here has many delightful aspects, not the least of which is the celebrity status I enjoy in my neighborhood. I know absolutely everyone – the shopkeepers, the waitresses, the children. I can’t stroll down the sidewalk without my wider community stopping me every few feet and asking “How are you?!” or making hilarious sign-language indicating who is doing what to whom. It is doubtful that overpaid BP engineers from Manchester and Dallas who live in $1200 a month “Euro-style” flats (and believe me, I wish I lived in one!!) have any contact with the real Baku beyond the occasional beggar in the street or the weekly hooker from the Coral Lounge. So I’m very lucky.

Here are some translated expressions (from Azeri English to American English):

“No problem” means “problem.”

“It’s so simple” means “It’s so complicated!”

“You forgot” means “I forgot.”

“Hello my friend!” means “Hello stranger! I wish to manipulate you!”

“Yes” means “no.”

“Maybe” means “no.”

“Is Azeri way” means “Is utterly perplexing.”

The photos:

The girl with (my) tie on is Xumar, who was one of my US Foreign Policy students in 2004, and is now my factotum. Xumar and I are compiling a dictionary of the unique dialect (which we imagine is) spoken in Siberia, which is called “Cyberian” (although I wanted to call it “Siberian,” but have lost that battle). Once we have a hundred words or so and a mastery of elementary sentence structure, we will fly to Novosibirsk or some such place and try out Cyberian on Siberians. (Of course, all the words in Cyberian are nonsense and the products of our vivid imaginations.) We will video the entire expedition.

Xumar and I are also planning a trip to northern Azerbaijan in search of the UFO base which supposedly operates along the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Ira is the girl in the white T-shirt sitting under the Dutch door. She worked in a “doner” (Azerbaijani gyros) shop last year around the corner from my apartment. Ira is very young (17?) and playful and funny. As you can see in the pictures, every new photo reveals an entirely different and unexpected aspect of Ira’s personality.

Sevinj was one of my most dedicated students, and currently works for the Azerbaijan Ombudsman's Office. She is destined to become a diplomat or NGO refugee specialist or perhaps a human rights lawyer. In this photo, she's in a chic Baku restaurant that serves paltry espresso.

Shola is the statuesque woman below. Like Xumar, she was one of my students in 2004 and now is a close friend. Intelligent and accomplished, Shola is working on an advanced degree in linguistics and spent several months in Japan last year.

The little girl is my best friend in Baku. She speaks no English and I speak virtually no Azerbaijani or Russian, but whenever we see each other, she will talk non-stop about her life, news, whatever. Apart from being irresistibly adorable, Ulduz (the word means “star”) is amazingly bright.

More on daily life in Baku later...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Baku thoughts, Pt I

My initial post...these are images of Baku, Azerbaijan, where I live from time to time. These photos are from my first soujourn to Baku, where I was an academic Fellow, teaching international relations at two universities.

Since then, I have been back recently to write articles on Caucasus current events for a Swiss web publication, and will return in early February. But more about that later...

For now, I want to give you a sense of Baku and its people - or at least a vanishing Baku, of crumbling facades and aging patinas, and some people who are very special, at least to me.

Baku is three cities, as most Azeris will tell you: the Old City (the Icheri Sheher), the "boom town" and "Baku Soviet." The Old City, where I lived in October-December of 2005, is the original, ancient Baku, founded over 800 years ago, and surrounded by a walled fortification. Thus, I literally lived inside the city walls, which still stand. But in 2004, when I first lived in Baku, my apartment was situated on the confluence between the boom town, which describes the Baku built up during the oil boom of the late 1800's, and Baku (or "Baki," which is how the locals pronounce it) Soviet - the sprawling, infinitely grey Baku of endless, grim apartment blocks and government buildings, typical of virtually any Soviet city. "Modern," classless, worker housing, dotted at the outskirts of the city with factories - many of them abandoned. And the oil derricks on the Absheron peninsula - oil derricks and bubbling pools of petroleum everywhere.

When I didn't have to study for a lecture, I spent a good bit of time just exploring the neighborhoods and side streets of Baki Soviet and the boom town. Carrying my old Nikon, I began chronicling the Baku I knew, which is now disappearing in the fenzy of construction projects as the city reinvents itself as "new" and (there's that word again) "modern."

So, the photos: the cityscapes speak for themselves, for the most part. The fantastic graffito is on the same side street as #197 (see the photo of the wall with 197 on the address plaque). The graffito, delightfuly surreal, is still there, although faded now.