A Baku Celebrity

I chose to buy two pairs of large sunglasses today, so that I can really look like a celebrity! And I need it. Our two weeks language course has been quite a lot in AZTV.

15 minutes of fame

Firstly, we appeared at a press conference, where all of us had to tell why we had chosen Azerbaijan and how we liked it so far! Later on, a television crew came to our language course to film us while having class, and afterwards I was chosen for an interview. Some of the other participants have been interviewed for the radio or been at the live morning show on tv.

This has resulted in most of Azerbaijan knowing that we are here by now! At that means that we have been recognised on the street. The most amazing experience was in the small refugee village south of Ganja where a lot of young men and boys were sitting outside a house. Suddenly they started pointing, laughing and trying to make conversation with us, because they had seen us on television!

 

Celebrity style
Celebrity style

Today, a Hungarian girl and I went to the pharmacy to get antibiotics for her cold. By complete coincidence a camera crew was also visiting the pharmacy and whatever they had been doing they soon forgot as they started filming our visit. My poor co-traveller with her blotchy red nose was not given much choice.

But the camera crew also proved helpful as we were at a loss understanding the way it worked at the pharmacy. The girl holding the microphone was kind enough to explain to us where to go, what counter and so on. I have no idea whether our pharmacy visit ended up being the evening entertainment on the telly, but as we were about to leave, they asked me if I was really the girl from Denmark.

Men Azerbaycanda mehsuram

 

View of oil fields
View of oil fields

Gobustan and the mud volcanoes

Today we’ve been on an excursion to Gobustan south-west of Baku to check out the famous rock carvings as well as the immensely strange mud volcanoes. Gobustan has been settled since the 8th millennium BC and the more than 6000 rock petroglyphs which are dated as far back as the 12th millennium BC and show life and nature through little stick men and women as well as animals. The carvings are beautiful and we saw both bulls, pregnant women and ships.

The carvings were discovered in the 1930’s but made famous with the writings of Norwegian ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl, who argued that the area used to be the home of an ancient civilization. So far so good, but here is where I find his theories a bit far-fetched. According to Heyerdahl, the ship carvings are similar to Norwegian carvings and the fact that they point north indicates that the people from Gobustan immigrated north to settle in Scandinavia. Thus, his conclusion was that Scandinavians originally came from Azerbaijan. Not surprisingly the theory has been heavily critiqued.

What I found fascinating was how these rock carvings were dated all the way up to when Azerbaijan became Muslim. Amongst the carvings is the inscription by a Roman soldier. It is the easternmost recognised Roman graffiti to date. The idea that a Roman soldier once wrote a message here probably because he himself knew of the carvings which at his time were still ancient.

 

Viking ships?
Viking ships?

It also makes me wonder if the Vikings ever made it to the Caspian Sea. While I don’t buy in to Heyerdahl’s theory it is not preposterous to think that the Vikings made it here. They travelled on the Volga and the extensive system of rivers in Central and Eastern Europe and through the Black Sea to Constantinople. So could they have made it all the way to the Caspian Sea?

After our guided tour of the area with the many rock carvings, we went to see the much spoken of mud volcanoes not far from Gobustan. I don’t think many of us re-entered the bus after our meeting with these volcanoes without having stains of mud all over. At the same time I discovered that the mud was actually an excellent cure against the itching of my thousand mosquito bites.

The mud volcanoes are a definite must! They might not seem of much from far away, but this strange phenomenon is rather intriguing and quite fun to watch! Plus the surrounding area with the Caspian Sea in the background is absolutely stunning.

 

Mud Volcano in Qobustan
Mud Volcano in Qobustan

Stories From Azerbaijan

Hanging around locals is a fountain of fun and interesting anecdotes and stories about those things which connect the Azeri people and help create a common identity. Here follows three of my favourite stories from Azerbaijan

The first Azeri Quran

The first Quran in Azeri was sponsored by a rich business man in the oil industry in the beginning of the 20th century. I believe his name was Ilham. There is a story that during the translation there was one line in the Quran that Ilham tried to delete. It is the sentence that you can loose all your possessions, all that you own in an instant. But after speaking to the wise men who carries knowledge of Islam, he chose to translate it anyhow, as you cannot choose among the prophets words.

Then entered the Soviet Union and Communism. And the Soviet leaders went to Ilham to confiscate all that he owned. When he didn’t want to give it up, they placed the Quran translated into Azeri under his nose and pointed at the sentence. He then had to give up everything he owned, losing it all in an instant.

 

Parking on the beach
Parking on the beach
Valentine’s Day

Another story vivid from the Soviet era is the story of Valentine’s day. In difference to most other countries who celebrate in the month of Interflora – also known as February – the Azeri celebrate Valentine’s Day on the 30th of June.

The reason behind this date is the story of a young couple in love who got married on this day in 1989. Half a year after their marriage, on the 20th of January 1990, the young man was amongst the 189 people (unofficial numbers claim 300) who got gunned down by the Soviet Army during Black January.

The woman, afterwards, committed suicide. This is usually a sin according to Islam, as you are not allowed to take away the life that Allah has given you. But in this case the anger towards the Soviet and the sadness of the story overshadowed the holy words, and to this day the wedding day of the couple is celebrated as a day of love.

Martyr's Lane in Baku
Martyr’s Lane in Baku

 

Ali and Nino

Another love story from Azerbaijan is the story of Ali and Nino. Anyone travelling to Azerbaijan with an interest in culture, religion, tradition and the differences between the Caucasian people should read the book Ali and Nino. It is a truly beautiful story about the love between the Muslim boy Ali and the Christian girl Nino. While he is from Azerbaijan, she is from Georgia.

The plot takes place during WWI and focuses on the historic events and massive changes in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus region during the war.

Reading it will gain you an appreciation of Azeri culture and history and several brownie points with the locals. They all know and love Ali and Nino. It is their classical love story, the same as Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice is for England, yet with more similarity to Moby Dick – or so I’ve heard.

According to the book: “a woman has as much sense as an egg has hair”. For some reason I can’t get this sentence out of my head. I find the comparison between eggs and women to be rather bad, but still I love the saying and, trust me, when I come home I will use this phrase as often as I can – though probably switching woman to man.

 

Water lily in Baku Botanical Garden
Water lily in Baku Botanical Garden

Well this was all from Azerbaijan

Next time I write will be from Tiflis, the home of Nino.

Zofka

Baku – Culture Shock

Baku, where East meets West, where Islam co-exists with capitalism and where Ladas and Mercedes fill the street. A place of contrast.

I have arrived in Baku and am currently participating in an AEGEE-summer university, where I get to learn Azeri, which is related to Turkish. We are approximately 13 participants and at least as many organisers from the universities in Baku.

 

Russian Orthodox church in Baku
Russian Orthodox church in Baku
Cars

The first thing I noticed as I arrived in Baku was the noise. The streets are full of honking cars and police indicating through speakers that they want a car to pull over. It seems that car drivers will honk at anything; when they are about to turn a corner, when they stand still for red light, when they have to slow down – all the time, honk honk. The very first night all the honking had me going crazy, but after a little while I have become so used to it that I hardly notice it anymore.

A pale yellow Lada
A pale yellow Lada

 

Even with all the honking and all the making-sure-that-everyone-knows-your-here, accidents still happen. On our way home from the beach one day, after having had a marvellous swim in the oils of The Caspian Sea our bus hit a blue Lada which was parked around a corner.

Don’t worry mum, no one was hurt – except the Lada off course, which was severely smashed in on the side. As sorry as I feel for the proud Lada owner, it was the way the incident was handled by those involved which fascinated me.

They fled the scene! Together!

They rendezvoused in a back alley to handle the finer details. All the way through, in the back of the truck sat 13 or so young westerners with a very surprised look on their face. All of us wondering: why did they flee?

It seems that very often there is no such thing as a car insurance in case of an accident like this. Instead the norm is to handle this at the scene and for the driver, who’s fault it is, to pay up or offer to have someone he knows repair the damage.

The reason that this is handled quietly and not turned into a great deal is that no one is interesting in the long arm of the law to get involved. The police is corrupt and if they catch you out it will cost. Police means bribery or court or something else much more expensive than a visit to the cousin’s auto shop. Therefore, the matters on hand are handled as soon as possible and preferably down a back alley. And with the scare of police involvement they also seem to be handled relatively unproblematic.

 

Conflicting norms of behaviour
Baku rooftops
Baku rooftops

In Azerbaijan the culture of gentlemen persists. The man holds the door, carries the bag, pays for the drink. Though this is not completely uncommon in Western Europe, it is nonetheless seen as a real treat. In Azerbaijan it is custom. Personally, I have always prided myself that I could pay for myself, carry my own stuff and even open the door for a guy once in a while.

Therefore, I wont be late to admit that it took some time getting used to. However, letting go of my own feminist independence, it felt nice to be surrounded by observant and considerate guys.

However, I never came past the discomfort of physical helpfulness as I have chosen to call it. It is not an unknown fact that in the North where I come from we tend to be less physical in for example our greetings. We do not kiss and hold hands, but instead hold an invisible line of respect for each other’s personal space.

In the South and also in Azerbaijan people are much more physical in the platonic sense of the word. Though I attempted to be open to the difference in culture, I felt incredibly uncomfortable when each time I went into a store to buy water (which is basically every half an hour due to the heat) or every time I got a little behind from the group, someone would grab my shoulder and lead me as if I was a child.

This shoulder grabbing was particularly terrifying when I had to cross a street. I know they mean well and only want to protect me from the wild driving of the Baku streets, but it only lessened my possibility of reacting to a car.

Fortunately for me, the Azeri guys have also been taught that one shall be open to other cultural norms of behaviour, and after a talk or two, I have been given a bit more space around me.

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Another difference which I observed is in communication. I often asked questions out of curiosity or in order to get some basic ‘just in case’ information. But it took me a world war to get them to tell me the name of our closest metro station. The first answer I got to the question was: “but you have our number, you don’t need the name!”

It seemed a personal insult to them that we didn’t trust that they would take care of everything and find us and bring us home in case we got lost. In this way, I often find myself insulting them without even knowing that I do so. On the other hand, I find it ridiculous that if I get lost they imagine that I will be able to call them on my mobile and if that succeeds then to explain where I am. It seems so silly.

But time is the best friend with such cultural differences, and as the days go by we seem to adapt to the circumstances and each others understandings of the given context. The accident with our bus is a perfect example of this. The situation to me was extremely odd and asking what happened I got the standard reply of not to worry. But after a bit of fancy communicative action à la Habermas; they came to understand that I was only curious and I came to understand why the bus driver acted as he did. We have now agreed that I should start all my questions with a “I find this culturally interesting, so please explain…”.

 

Friends in Baku
Friends in Baku
Young people in love

It is rather common to see men kiss and hug each other as greetings in the streets. But you rarely see a man touching a woman for other reasons than to protect and guide her.

Question: “What about all the young couples in love?”

Answer: “They seek out the dark corners of Russian cafés!”
At least that is where I met them. Walking around for a coffee one day, I and some other girls from the language course happened upon a small and dim Kafe in the basement of a larger building.

The Kafe, it seemed, was run single-handedly by a grand babuska, speaking Russian and looking very authoritative. The room had red lamps and hearts in various sizes all around. It was in every way a place which screamed “secrets”, and around at the tables and behind large Soviet-style curtains couples were having their little piece of privacy. Here they could hold hands, sneak a kiss and just be together for a little while.

I have a feeling that these two weeks are going to be a clash of cultures.

 

Greetings from friendly locals
Greetings from friendly locals

Zofka