Grateful 17

I’m beside myself this week at what has happened with the Armenia/Azerbaijan/Hungary fiasco. For those of you who haven’t been following it, let me give my rather simple synopsis. Azeri kills Armenian in Hungary with an axe. Azeri tried and sentence to life imprisonment. After some years served, Hungary ships Azeri back to Baku on the understanding that he will serve at least 25 years before being paroled. Instead, he is given a hero’s welcome, eight years back pay, a new flat, and a promotion – all for killing an Armenian.

In the meantime, the Hungarian government, having failed to secure funding from China and Saudi Arabia, and not wanting to be any more indebted to the IMF or the EU, is considering a bond buy from Azerbaijan to the tune of 2-3 billion euro. Coincidence? Perhaps.

I visited Baku last year around the anniversary of the 1992 massacre and was horrified to find that school kids are being taught, in school and at home, to hate Armenians. They write essays about growing up and killing Armenians. What hope do both countries have of ever settling their differences if this is the legacy that’s being handed down generation after generation.

I don’t for a minute profess to fully understand the situation. I’m eons away from being able to talk about it with any degree of insight. But surely there comes a time when we need to move on. This is not about the past – and I don’t know enough to take sides anyway. This is right now. I can’t for the life of me see how any government, in this day and age, could so publicly reward a cold-blooded murderer and still expect to participate in global politics and policy-making.

The Internet Governance Forum is scheduled for Baku in November this year. Apparently Armenia will follow remotely but will not come to Baku for the proceedings. I’m wondering how many other countries will do the same?

This week, I’m really grateful that I can still get upset about what is going on around me. I’m grateful that I can still recognise an injustice when I see one. And I’m particularly grateful that I’m not one of the apathetic masses,  divorced  from what is happening in the world to the point that voting in elections has become an inconvenience and protesting a wrong has become someone else’s job.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Both eyes on me

Of all the phobias I’ve come across (not to mention the choice few I have cultivated myself), statue phobia has to rank up there as one of the ones I have the most difficulty in understanding. I say this as a statue lover –  I use Jozsef Attila as a resident shrink and have spent many an hour in his company, seeking solace and advice (Let’s face it: perched in perpetuity on the side of the Danube, he ain’t exactly going anywhere…and a woman couldn’t ask for a better man to listen to her). I say this as someone who waves and greets the moving effigy of Bajcsy Zsilinszky on Erzsebet Tér every time I pass, often going out of my way just to say hello! And we won’t even start with Karinthy and his bespectacled head! I have mild obsessions about a lot of things, but statues … they rank right up there at the top.

I can understand automatonophobia  – the fear of wax statues (and ventriloquist’s dummies and animatronic creatures) as they leave me cold. I can even understand a fear of statues when classified as large objects and falling into the realm of megalophobia. But real statues, on their own? I’m mad about them. So much so that the only thing on my list of things to do in Baku was to see the ‘big brother’ statue in Zorge Park. And when I did, I began to see why those of fainter heart might go weak at the knees. 

This memorial sculpture commemorates the Baku-born spy Richard Zorge.  Most of his spying was done in the guise of journalism. When in China, he developed quite a reputation as an expert in Chinese agriculture. When undercover in Nazi Germany, much of his intelligence gathering was in beerhalls, and fond as he was of a drop, he gave up the drink in case he said too much while under the influence!  But his main claim to fame was blowing the lid on Operation Barbarossa – informing the Soviets that the Germans intended to attack on 21 June 1941 (information Stalin chose to ignore). Such a scoop was a hard act to follow, and later, when working in Japan, he was found out and summarily executed in 1944. His lover, Hanako Ishii, apparently continued to visit his grave until her death in 2000.

Ian Fleming reckons he was ‘the most formidable spy in history’. Tom Clancy has him down as  ‘the best spy of all time’. Le Figaro  called him ‘Stalin’s James Bond’. Me? I’m fascinated by his eyes.

Baku bits

Baku at night is a city bathed in light. No matter than many residents have their electricity cut off at some stage during the day or night, there is plenty available to light up the museums and buildings in the city centre. It’s also a city of water – fountains everywhere. And again, how do you marry this apparent plenty with stories of locals having to do without for days on end. Baku is indeed a city of contrasts.

Practically every man I’ve seen (and I’ve seen lots of them) smokes. And yet it is frowned upon for a woman to smoke in public. I know when I lit up my first night here, it drew some strange looks from the waiters and yet Mr S quite happily puffed away without a bother. I’d ordered a beer, to see what the local brew was like, and again, this, too, is something women tend not to do in public. It’s not that it’s forbidden – little is – it’s more that it’s frowned upon.

Leaving a shop one night, I made to walk on the pavement. It was under construction, as most of the city is. Instead of pointing me towards the road, this chap literally shooed me away – like my granny would shoo the hens from the kitchen in the summer. The look he gave me spoke volumes and a rough translation was probably somewhere along the lines of ‘stupid woman’.  It rankled. But at least he saw me!

On the edge of the old town sits the Qiz Qalasi, Maiden Tower, which has become the symbol of Baku. It is to Baku what the Eifel Tower is to Paris or the Charles Bridge is to Prague. It’s beautifully situated looking out over the Caspian Sea. Apparently built in two phases in the 6th and 12th centuries, it’s an odd-shaped tower standing about 28 metres high. It has a solid stone flange attached to the eastern face of the tower, the function of which is not quite clear. Not much is known about it and legends abound. One legend has it that a maiden threw herself from the top when her father (the Khan of Baku) wouldn’t let her marry the man she loved. Another story tells of a man who fell in love with his own daughter. She was so horrified at the incestuous prospect that she put a halt to his gallop by asking him to build her a tower. Once he’d done so, she threw herself off it. There’s a stone at the bottom – the virgin’s stone – where brides-to-be sometimes lay flowers on the morning of their wedding day. A less interesting translation of Qiz Qalasi is ‘virgin tower’ referring to its military impenetrability.

Taking the bus out to the Binә market, I was again reminded of the vast divide between rich and poor. Settlements dotted the roads – rocks weighing down the tin roofs on breezeblock houses. We were in Lada country now – with few fancy cars to be seen; just Lada after Lada after Lada. (And no wonder – gas/petrol is a mere €0.55!) I’ve become quite fond of these nifty little cars and take a ridiculous amount of pleasure when I see one winning a territory fight with an SUV. Were I to live in Baku and fancied taking my life in my hands every time I got behind the wheel, I’d go for dark green or mulberry and spend my Saturday afternoons washing it and then polishing it to within an inch of its life. The market itself is massive – acres and acres of warehouse full to the brim of some of the naffest stuff I’ve ever seen. The clothes come in two sizes – small and XXL. You can buy everything from a sink plug to an ankle-length fur coat. One-stop-shopping at its most extreme.

BKV could take a lesson or two from the public transport authority in Baku. You cannot buy single tickets or daily or weekly passes for the metro (which looks like a replica of what we have in Budapest). Instead, you buy a prepaid card that you can top up. Each journey is just €0.15 which is deducted from your balance every time you swipe your card. On the buses, you can’t buy a ticket or a pass of any sort. Instead, as you leave, you pay the driver  – again, it’s about €0.18 per journey. Same price no matter where you go inside the city limits. And although the doors open and close regularly and it might appear easy to slip away without paying, no-one does. Everyone pays. How novel is that Budapest?

Pleasure on your faces…

…is our success. So reads the front page of the menu of what has quickly become a favourite restaurant for me in Baku – L’aparté. It reads like a book, translated into three languages: Azeri, Russian, and English. Hours of reading pleasure can be had in simply deciding what to eat for dinner. And, interestingly, I came across the exact menu in another restaurant – Port – and there’s also a third of the same suite – Baku Restaurant. Same menus, same prices, different ambience.

The name of each dish is followed by a complete list of ingredients in parentheses; so complete, in fact, that lists include the basics, such as vegetable oil. It’s so comforting to know what it is you’re eating. My favourite is:  Coffee (coffee, water, sugar). The phonic translations to English are amusing. Qat-qat xәmirdә şatobrian – translates as Shatobrian (the French must be having palpitations at the thought!)

Dishes like Yeralaş (which translates as Muddle) might at first glance look similar to colcannon (the Irish dish of potatoes and cabbage) but I have it on good authority that it’s literally whatever is left in the fridge. My particular favourite is mimosa salad – a mix of potatoes, chicken, mayo and sometimes fish – a little fish called ‘sprat’. I’ll be attempting to add that to my dinner repertoire back in Budapest.

Eating out in Baku is quite the experience, one I’m thoroughly enjoying. If you’re in the know (or have people with you who are in the know) it’s as cheap as… well… chips…even if the chips are not quite chips! Anywhere you can get lamb cutlets (quzu antrekota) for €3 or çakapuli (lamb in wine sauce with tarragon) for €2 is quite all right by me. Mind you, I’m not at all sure that there’s a clear line of distinction between lamb and mutton. One dish – assorti quzu içalati – was just a little too adventurous for me. Inside allsorts mutton is an experience I’m saving for my next visit.

Along with Azeri and Russian food, I’ve also ventured a little into Georgian cuisine. Xarço supu – kharcho soup is an exotic blend of beef, rice, spices and verdure (the herbs on the top!) Cviştari are pellets of corn flour and cheese fried like potato cakes. Gürcü xingali are Georgian dumplings which come steamed or qizardil miş (baked).

I’ve learned, too, that the food has hidden depths. Out at Binә market, in what appeared to be an Uzbeck restaurant, I ordered what I thought was kharcho soup. While it looked just the same, the beef had morphed into worm-like noodles and the taste wasn’t anything like in Georgia.

Navigating the vineyards is a little different. Dry white wine seems to be universally absent from the menus. And while I’ve dallied a little with the reds, they’re just not for me. I did find one I liked – Ivanŏka – and the search is on to find it on a supermarket shelf.

So Baku, when you finally get on the tourist map, I suggest you tout your culinary prowess and tempt those travellers with your food.

Fire mountain

Saturday night in Baku. Very cold, too cold for snow but a definite hint of rain in the air. We’re going to see Yanar dağ, fire mountain. It’s about a 30 minute taxi ride from the centre and thanks to Ms M’s impressive command of Azeri, we negotiate a return fare of 30 manat – about €28. For this, our man in his lada will take us to the mountain, wait for us to warm ourselves by the flames, and then drop us back to town.

The journey out amidst the Saturday evening commute (and yes, Saturday is a working day for most people) could have been filmed for TV. Weaving in and out of traffic, avoiding potholes, and snaking around buses and trucks, our nifty lada ploughs ahead at bone-rattling speed. It’s quite the journey. We drive for what seems like ages into the hinterland, passing settlements and villages that are a far cry from the flash new apartment buildings in downtown Baku. Earlier that day I’d seen the new Hilton (not quite finished but nearly there) which is practically next door to the new Marriott and within walking distance of the new Four Seasons. Add to this concoction of starred accommodation, the Fairmont, the Park Inn, and many others and you can’t but ask yourself who’s coming to stay. Is it a question of ‘build and they will come’ or does the Azerbaijani government know more than they’re letting on? It seems like an inordinate number of beds for a city that has yet to produce a commercial-grade postcard. But hey, what do I know?

Back to the fire… and the mountain.

As far back as the thirteenth century, Marco Polo mentions fire spouting from the Abşeron Peninsula. When the drilling of oil wells reduced the pressure underground, most of them burned out. According to folklore, the fire at Yanar Dağ was started by a shepherd in the 1950s, who carelessly tossed aside a cigarette butt in the vicinity of a natural gas vent. The ten-metre stretch of ground has been on fire ever since.

It’s quite surreal. Picnic tables have been set up alongside it and a little çayxana (tea house) perches close by (it was closed the night we went but I am sure that in ten years’ time, this will be quite the tourist attraction; some entrepreneurial mind might even supply marshmallows!)  The heat is intense. Tiny blue flames flicker on the edge of the path working up to full flame as they slowly climb the hillock. We’d actually passed it in a the taxi thinking that it looked as if someone was burning rubbish in their back yard. Its grandiose pretensions to mountaindom are reminiscent of the movies starring Hugh Grant – The Englishman who went up a hill and came down a mountain. But it has a certain charm and the fact that it has burned through rain and hail and snow for nigh on 60 years is a miracle in itself. Definitely worth the journey.

Don’t confuse Armani with Armenia

Shopping, like most things I’ve found in Baku, comes in two extremes: very cheap or very expensive; Turkish tat (a change, albeit not a marked one, from Chinese tat) or designer labels. And it’s mostly very expensive. Every designer worth his or her salt has a shop, or two, in Baku. From Armani to Vuitton; from Tom Ford to Yves Rocher. And interestingly, these shops are not concentrated in one area – as they are in Budapest on either Andrassy or Fashion Street. Nope, they’re all over the place. On main streets, back streets, and high streets. And there are even designer shops for children.

Oil money is big money and translates in to fancy cars (did you know that Lexus makes a very posh-looking SUV?), fur coats, and fashion. The guide map lists a part of town that’s home to the oil millionaires’ mansions. I’ve yet to come across it but am half-thinking that it might be  a good day to see how the other half live. For your average Azeri, though, the good news is that the monthly gas bill will be just a couple of manats – less than €2. Electricity, of course, is another matter entirely.

I walked along Park Bulvar, along the coast of the Caspian Sea. No expense has been spared. It’s beautifully finished; every detail from the heavy ornate rubbish bins to the bronze sculptures and landscaped footpaths has been carefully accounted for. It was empty on Saturday, partly because of the day that was in it: the nineteenth anniversary of a particularly bloody massacre in Azerbaijan’s history – the massacre at Khojali.

No matter how you look at it, what happened in 1992 was bad. Very bad. Six hundred Azerbaijani innocents – men, women, and children – brutally murdered byArmenians.  It will probably never be known with any degree of certainty what instigated the massacre or what individuals were responsible for it. (I found an interesting site offering a view of both sides.) It would be practically impossible to forget about it, no matter how hard you tried. It was brutal. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.

What discomfits me though, is the perpetuation of xenophobia; rearing children to believe that all Armenians are evil. I’m not proposing a simplistic forgive and forget – that would be humanly impossible, given the brutality of what happened. But what is accomplished by fomenting hatred, I wonder? What do we accomplish anywhere in the world by passing our hatred and our prejudice from generation to generation without allowing them to make up their own minds?

I’m reading the famous Azeri book – Ali and Nino – written under the psuedonym Kurban Said in 1937. In the early chapters, Ali’s father counsels him: Do not forgive your enemies; we are not Christians. While I’m as far away as ever from understanding how Bakuvians think or how the Azeri people as a whole see life, I’m considerably closer to realising that there isn’t a simple explanation.

The juxtaposition of East and West; the gaping divide between rich and poor; the tug of war between Asia and Europe are underscored by a complicated past and an even more complicated future. On the edge of Fountain Square stands a beautiful old Armenian church. It’s boarded up, no longer in use. A daily reminder of what once was and what is looking less and likely to ever be again.


A couple of months ago, I thought Azerbaijan was a country on the other side of Serbia. Geography was never one of my strong subjects. I’m quite famous for my appalling sense of direction, so my faux pas is quite understandable, at least given my peculiar logic.

It was only last week that I realised exactly where it is – nestled close to Georgia and Armenia on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Steeped in history, religions, and rulers, and a former member of the USSR, Azerbaijan is now one of those fascinating places that seem to hover on the brink of that imaginary line between east and west. Fuelled by oil money, the capital, Baku, is undergoing a major facelift. Health and safety is non-existent. At best, you might have a lookout on the scaffolding that checks for pedestrians before his mate empties shards of brick and glass down on to the street, presumably to be swept up later.

Kerbstones are nearly a foot high – you literally climb on and off the footpath – those you can find, because they’re few and far between once you come off the main streets. Walking along the sides of the roads, competing with the traffic for space, is quite the battle, one I’m losing badly. I remember being in Bangalore some years ago and being terrified of the traffic. Lakshminaryana made me walk back and forth across a very wide and busy road six times without running. He told me that no-one would run me over. Pedestrians ruled. Not so in Baku. It’s a constant game of chicken. Quite the adrenalin rush. Current score: Vehicles 27. Mary 1. And that particular showdown left me reeling!

The Lonely Planet has this to say about Azeri mindset: Muslim yet beer-loving, Turkic yet Eurocentric, overwhelmingly hospitable yet plagued by a strong vein of Soviet-era suspicion. mmm…I can only assume that it was written by a man, or else the pendulum has swung towards suspicion rather than hospitality since that particular book was published. The minute I enter a shop, an assistant approaches and sticks to me like velcro. Hovering at my elbow, just looking. Always beside me. My smiles and ‘I’m just looking’ have no effect. I’m obviously not to be trusted or else customer service has been taken just a little too far along the attentive line.

While walking around the city yesterday, I was struck by how many men there are in Baku. And more peculiarly again, the women I did see all seemed to be carbon copies of each other. Ok – it’s bloody cold here and it could well have been that they all shopped in the same place, but there was an unsettling similarity between these heavily made-up, hennaed, long-coated women – a hardness that I’ve not come across before.

I keep thinking of Bangalore… walking down Mahatma Gandhi street one night, I commented to Lakshminaryana about men urinating on the side of the street. He told me that only foreigners notice because no man, while in the act, will make eye contact with anyone, and no self-respecting Indian will look his way, either. So, in effect, the peeing man is invisible. This is how I felt yesterday afternoon. Invisible. I had to pinch myself a couple of times to make sure I was awake and stopped longer than usual looking at my reflection in shop windows to make sure I was actually there. It was most peculiar. No-one made eye contact with me and I soon stopped trying to make eye contact with them. It was quite surreal. In the underground malls, those shop-lined passageways beneath the roads, people walked straight at me. I don’t think I’ve walked a straight line since I arrived in Baku.  This weaving and dodging at least keeps the blood flowing.  Did I mention how cold it is?

Baku beckons

I am awake when I wake up. My usual sleepy headedness is noticeably absent. I check my watch – 9 am. I’d slept in later than usual. And then I remember where I am. Baku. Azerbaijan. Three hours ahead of Budapest. I am still on schedule. I decide to get up but as I move, I feel the force of some invisible hand pushing me back onto the bed. And then I remember that I’m on my holidays. I don’t have to be anywhere until 3pm later this afternoon when I am to visit the Diplomatic Academy. Anyway, the lovely Ms Meddaugh doesn’t have Internet connection in her flat. And it’s raining. So what’s my hurry?

The drive in from the airport last night had reminded me a little of Bangalore and its chaotic driving. Battered Ladas complete with shiny new designer-brand SUVs for roadspace, in an amusing East meets West fight to the finish. They make Budapest’s rush-hour drivers look like pensioners on a Sunday drive. I counted three separate accidents and held my breath for minutes on end as the driver fast-forwarded through the mêlée. What struck me was the complete lack of any apparent order or system and yet, as in Bangalore, everyone seemed to know his place.

I lie still, listening to the noise outside. My room faces out onto a narrow, one-way street into which cars and trucks are released at traffic-light intervals. Somewhere down the road, they bide their time, waiting for the green light’s permission to move. And then, as if released from a starting box, they roar into Başir Safaroğlu Küg, pounding aggressively on their horns hoping the noise will somehow clear the road in front of them.  I time the intervals of quiet, strangely reminded of labor contractions. I am soon lulled back to sleep by their regularity.

I awake a second time to loud voices having an argument. I remember that there’s a market on the corner and imagine a delivery truck blocking the traffic and everyone in the vicinity adding their two cents worth. The language is strange. I know that people speak Azeri, Russian or English with those over 30 more likely to speak Russian and a little Azeri while the younger ones are more likely to have Azeri and English but little Russian. Such are the generations divided. The chap who drove me in from the airport last night has seen more than 60 Azeri winters and yet he speaks only Russian. As the voices drift through my window, I think its Azeri. Not that I know enough to tell the difference – it just doesn’t sound like Russian. They eventually sort it out and the blessed quiet resumes.

I awake a third time to the sound of music – a strange type of music. The muezzin is issuing the adhān, the Islamic call to prayer. It is both pervasive and haunting. I finally get out of bed and venture out on to the balcony expecting to see a series of mosques dotting the skyline and crowds heading in their direction answering the call. I look up and down and can’t see anything that remotely resembles a church of any sort. The tannoyed music seems to be seeping from the walls. And then, in the distance, I catch a glint of gold. It’s dark and dreary outside, overcast. But to my right, way in the distance, I see what might just be a minaret. Baku beckons.

Diplomatic persons

The flight from the Ukraine to Azerbaijan was about half full. The first transit bus had disgorged its passengers and we had taken seat, expecting the doors to close at any minute. The overhead compartments were full, not of suitcases and bags, but of heavy winter coats and big fur hats. It was -12°Cin Kiev that afternoon.

I had one of the back rows all to myself and had my laptop out ready to boot up. Flights are no longer an opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep. Until I learn how to say ‘no’ and mean it, I will be forever looking for a few extra hours in a day.  The flight to Baku was earmarked to copy-edit a couple of a chapters from a book written by a gal from Belarus… a favour.

One more bus pulled up outside and about a dozen men in greatcoats and hats came aboard. I immediately pegged them as oil workers. It may well have been that flying into Kiev that morning from Budapest, I had been forcibly reminded of Alaska – of Valdez – and the oil industry and its accompaniments were on my mind. The white expanse of snow punctuated by wooden houses and bright flashes of colour as pick-ups navigated the icy roads. It was very similar to Valdez – without the water and the mountains and the trailer parks…

I had no doubt in my mind. The men were big and burly and dressed and pressed in street clothes that looked as if they’d been carefully closeted until now. Huge hands, broad shoulders, and loud voices – the sum of the parts was greater than the sum of the whole. They were oil workers and they looked as if they were heading home on leave. As they tried to fit their bags and coats into the already crammed overhead compartments, it became clear that they operated as a unit. One elderly, rather distinguished man, pointed to various compartments with a beautifully carved walking stick, instructing two of the men as to what could go where. Another was sent off to check with the cabin steward if they could use the empty back rows for their bags. A fourth was set to work repacking coats already stored.

They were carrying huge boxes that looked as if they contained 5-litre bottles of some unpronounceable liquor. So, maybe they were going on rather than coming off.  Yes, it made more sense that they were going back to work. The Azeri economy runs on oil and they were heading towards Baku. Happy that I’d figured it all out, I went to work.

We had no sooner taken off than most of the empty back rows had been claimed. The shortest of these giants stretched out and promptly fell asleep. Loud snores, grunts, and heavy breathing melded into one and took on an almost orchestral note that blended nicely with my percussionist keyboard tapping.

Later, as I entered the immigration all at Baku, I saw three signs: Foreign Passports, Azerbaijan citizens, Diplomatic Persons. I took my place at the back of a long, slow-moving queue, wishing, not for the first time, that I had a diplomatic passport. Then, as if from nowhere, my boys appeared en masse, and stood in the Diplomatic Persons line. I did a double take. Yes, all 12 of them, including la director with his wonderfully carved stick. Diplomats? Surely not! No way.  As a host of illusions shattered noiselessly around me, I wondered… mmmm, one doesn’t have to be a diplomatic person to be a diplomat!