Friday, August 04, 2006

At home in the Old City

One evening last week was one of those rare moments in life, stretched over perhaps a half-hour, when—wandering in the back alleys of the Old City—I felt something akin to peace. No, it was more than peace. That suggests something far too passive. It was a sense of belonging, of being exactly where I wanted to be, as though I had dived into a dream, and the dream was perfect, a quiescent picture in a state of slow but constant motion. It began when I discovered a part of Icheri Sheher (the Old City) I had never visited, something I didn’t think was possible. Surely I had walked down every alley, seen and smelled every meter of brick and plaster and falling cornice, noticed every bit of Arabic bas relief.

But that night, I found a new set of alleyways, and explored them, south and east, turning back onto other alleys, which led to still others.

“How do you find your way in Icheri Sheher?” an Azeri friend once exclaimed. “It is such…a labyrinth!

Yes, that’s exactly what it is.

The precious Old City, with grandmothers sitting and talking and children playing, is surely the best part of Baku, a place that has changed very little in hundreds of years.

The Icheri Sheher offers a glimpse into a pre-modern urban setting that I am sure exists in much of the Muslim world, in places like Morocco and Algeria, and across the Levant.

Unfortunately, the Old City is now being transformed, like the rest of Baku. Despite its status as a UNESCO world heritage site, it is being gobbled up and sold and torn down block by block. It is only a matter of time before the first high-rise is erected here, which would be—will be—a tragedy.

Outside the oasis of Icheri Sheher, it’s too late for Baku. Today, I walked past a large block of former apartments, now burned down, across from the Sahil Metro station. Ugly high-rises are sprouting everywhere in Baku, and it is common knowledge that these new condos and apartment buildings are grossly unsafe, not even meeting the minimal Baku municipal codes. A BBC correspondent told me that he interviewed a German supplier who said that all the Baku contractors mix the concrete he sells them with sand to save money. It also makes the concrete dangerously weak, and when the next big earthquake comes, thousands of Azeris will die needlessly when the high-rises collapse. The mayor does nothing, nor does President Aliyev. Since Azerbaijan is one of the most corrupt countries on earth, it is easy to guess what the reason is for the lack of oversight.

Oh, yes – the burnt-out former apartment building? It was slated to be demolished for a new earthquake-friendly high rise. But several of the tenants, many of whom owned their dwellings and businesses in the building, refused to sell. And—I’m sure this is one of those funny coincidences that are so common in Azerbaijan—a mysterious fire destroyed the building recently. That will teach them…

So here is a glimpse of the Old City, with random pictures of alleyways and kids and the accelerated evolution of this place, fueled by the demands of money. In five
years, it will be unrecognizable.

Outside a bathhouse in the Old City