Monthly Archives: June 2019

Azerbaijan 2: Baku, the Incomprehensible

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On the promenade by the Caspian, everything seems to be made of marble, even the underground passageway that leads to it from underneath the boulevard. Once you emerge, Russian ballet music is coming from somewhere: speakers mounted in light posts, it turns out. A sparkling white fountain is populated by statues of swans. All along the promenade runs a grassy park shaded with trees and lined with benches. One section of the promenade is called “Little Venice”: you go up and down over more marble steps above a network of canals where gondoliers row visitors in the twilight. At the far end of the promenade is an enormous, flower-shaped architectural wonder known as the pearl. Beyond that, around a bend, is a giant, glittering ferris wheel.

At nightfall, around nine o’clock, the promenade is at its most crowded, especially around the fountain of swans. The open plaza yields a good view up and away from the Caspian toward the “Flame Towers.” Once it’s dark, these three high-rises light up in undulations of red-orange, then sea-blue. (Or is it gas-flame blue? This is oil-rich Azerbaijan, after all.) Now each tower takes on its own color: one blue, one red, one green, the colors of Azerbaijan’s flag. After another minute, the image changes to a giant white-on-black silhouette of a heroic figure waving that flag. All around the fountain of swans, people are taking selfies with these images as backdrop, the music as soundtrack.

It’s something else (really, check it out), which I mean not as a figure of speech but as literally unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Baku might be the city of the future, yet perhaps the future it’s the city of will never come to be; if it does, it will have no America in it, because no American city has even begun to remake itself in the twenty-first-century image that cities like Baku are shaping. More and more, America seems to me a place caught between two eras: detached from the traditionalism that gives durable cultures the lifeblood that sustains them through epochal change (for example, in the part of Georgia we’re in now, they’ve been making wine the same semi-primitive way for hundreds if not thousands of years); but lagging way behind the innovation and reimagining that mark the vanguard of civilization. It sometimes seems plausible that the US is so stuck on and in itself, so paralyzed by its divisions and addictions, and still so pitiably longing for the late twentieth century (i.e. the time before 9/11 that we will wake up one day to find that the world we thought we were leading has taken an alternate and faster route to some completely different destination and left us still driving our cars to nowhere while civilization is soaring up and away to heights undreamt.

Meanwhile, as Baku leaps, probably too quickly, toward the future, there are so many metaphors for/symbols of its paradoxes of simultaneous obviousness and indecipherability, of novelty and backwardness, of stylishness and awkwardness, authenticity and counterfeit, wealth and poverty, that you’d have to be asleep not to notice them. Here are a few:

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Azerbaijan 1: The Caspian Sea

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I’ve gotten way ahead of myself: between Albania and Baku, I was reunited with Heather (my wife, if you should happen to be reading this and somehow not know me); we spent time in Greece, traveling all the way across its northern stretch, and then Istanbul, where we met up with a couple of her best friends, big-time jet-setters. From there we flew to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

For now, my travelogue is flying over Greece and Turkey. This is mainly because there has been no time to write until now—Heather and I were first telling stories to each other of our independent experiences (she was in Ireland while I was in Albania), and then we were on the move from Paxos to Ioannina to Meteora to Thessaloniki to Istanbul to Azerbaijan. In fact, we’re not even in Azerbaijan anymore but actually Georgia, so I’m both ahead and behind.

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Albania 8: Apollonia

IMG_1964My determination to see Apollonia was a bit like my attraction to Përmet when I read about it in my guidebook. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but simply gazing at a single picture convinced me. A week ago Friday morning, I went to the Berat bus station with my daypack, filled with a surprise bag of snacks courtesy of my guesthouse hostess, Theodhora, whose generosity and thoughtfulness never failed to catch me off guard. I caught a minibus to Fier, a rather drab slab of urbanity that would seem to be utterly skippable; Gillian Gloyer’s Albania guidebook completely omits it except in very occasional mentions as a place from which to connect to other buses elsewhere: it’s a place you go in order to get out of it. (Part of me can’t help suspecting that guidebook authors will sometimes omit a country’s less obvious gems out of protectiveness or possessiveness, concealing them from overuse by tourists, but I don’t think that’s the case with Fier.) From Fier it’s a short ride to a village called Pojan, and from Pojan you can walk to Apollonia in less than half an hour.

I arrived in Fier and quickly found the bus stop for Pojan/Apollonia. It was at a busy street corner, with a sign listing departure and arrival times, instead of the usual gas station lot with its motley assortment of conveyances and impatient men selling tickets to them. I was glad for the forthrightness of the sign and schedule, but not for the discovery that the next bus to Pojan wasn’t due for nearly an hour and a half. Looking around, I saw no appealing options for plunking myself down for a coffee and waiting for the customary sixty-three-year-old to start talking to me and pouring me raki. Nor was I in the mood or market for that, to tell the truth, fun as it can be. I had only Apollonia in mind—and in body: I decided to walk. Keep moving! Never change!

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Albania 7: Berat

It occurred to me that I was really in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation—even if it wasn’t a part I relished […] But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, a sailor—landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before.

I came across the above lines quoted in a piece of writing I’m revising. They’re from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. No question there’s a fundamental part of the sentiment I can’t connect to, since Coates is describing what it feels like to be African-American and, for the first time in his life, not in America: the “garden” is the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris. But when I came to those lines today, I instantly recalled the feeling I had when I arrived in Albania three weeks ago: landless, disconnected, alien.

How much longer than three weeks ago it seems! I feel quite at home in Albania now. Most of the initial uncertainty and anxiety are gone. It’s not to say I know much of anything at all about this country, but the condition of not-knowing has changed. I’ve settled into my ignorance and I’m fine with it. I just am who I am here: a gentle, clueless hippie.

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Albania 6: Gjirokastra

IMG_1837Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from just after World War II until his death in 1985, was born in Gjirokastra. So was Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most famous writer—but to call him that is to undershoot by miles. To the rest of the world, Kadare is Albania’s only famous writer, although that doesn’t make him beyond compare. Think of someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s only well-known literary export.

Think of Vargas Llosa too because he and Kadare have some similarities. They were both born in 1936, are both still alive, by and large expatriates (Vargas Llosa in Madrid, Kadare in Paris), and both have made their careers by speaking truth to political power. (It was Vargas Llosa who, on a prominent stage, made the indelible comment about Mexico that it was “the perfect dictatorship” because it was camouflaged not to look like one.) Kadare’s early books, written in the 1950s and 1960s under Albania’s nominally communist boot (in fact a fascist regime), were banned in his home country. But as Kadare’s international reputation grew, Hoxha was shrewd enough to recognize the cultural and thus exchangeable capital Kadare embodied, and didn’t entirely censor him. Kadare even became an occasional writer for the state, traveling to China on diplomatic missions and going to Vietnam during the American war, where he reported from the side of the Vietcong, via Albania’s alliance with Mao’s China.

Kadare’s writing continued to run him afoul of the government, and at least one of his manuscripts had to be smuggled out of the country for publication, but he didn’t claim asylum in Paris until 1990, just before the dismantling of the political regime in Albania. Hoxha himself had been dead five years by then, and there’s something almost poignant about Kadare staying in Albania all through the dictator’s life, as though he couldn’t bring himself to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere until its ruler had left it, too. Later, Kadare was offered the Albanian presidency (he declined, twice). They’ll be forever intertwined, these two famous Gjirokastrans: a symbol of oppression and a symbol of freedom.

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Albania 5: Përmet, or Corrections

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Some corrections:

First, I don’t know anything about religious icons, or the schools that painted them. I went to another icon gallery yesterday, in Berat (to get a little ahead of myself), and there were those same long noses and bulging foreheads. What struck me as unique in Ohrid may not have been at all. Clueless! I shouldn’t have been so sure of what I was seeing, and remembered Stasiuk’s observation that unfamiliar objects can be perceived as no more than what they are in fact. (But I do think the Ohrid pieces, which were older than those housed in the Onufri Museum in Berat, were technically superior and more full of feeling. And none of the other saints look as sad as poor St. Clement, except perhaps for Onufri’s rendering of St. John the Baptist, into which it seems he poured most of his tears.)

Second, returning to Nell Zink’s line in The Wallcreeper about Albania, “Single mothers there dress and live as men”: I called Zink inclined to glibness, and she sometimes is, but this line is not an example! After reading the post, my sister sent me a link to pictures of Albanian women who really do dress and live as men. According to the artist Jill Peters’ statement:

“Sworn Virgin” is the term given to a biological female in the Balkans who has chosen, usually at an early age, to take on the social identity of a man for life. As a tradition dating back hundreds of years, this was sometimes necessary in a society that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. The Kanun states that women are the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. A family suddenly without a patriarch or male heir would find themselves in jeopardy of losing everything. As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha,” elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name.  Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. She became a “he”.

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