Azerbaijan 2: Baku, the Incomprehensible


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:

  • Before we visited the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, we stopped into a convenience store to get a little food. I found a sandwich and Heather chose a turnover. We sat on a bench and enjoyed our late lunch while agreeing that neither of us could identify what was inside the bread.
  • Azerbaijan’s chauvinism and pride in its carpet-making tradition is intensely strong and self-protective. If you want to buy and take a carpet out of the country, you have to get governmental permission for your particular specimen from the Carpet Museum, whose secondary official function is as an authorization agency. In Old Town, we spent some time in a retail rug shop whose dealer repeatedly and conspicuously referred to Iran—from whence come the more famous Persian rugs, of course—as “South Azerbaijan.” He had very clear and firm opinions about the relative quality and value of different rugs from all over the region, and he rolled out numerous examples for us to admire and put aside for possible later purchase. His prices were very reasonable. After we went to the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum and spent some time looking over the carpets for sale in their gift shop, we understood that the dealer’s rugs were almost certainly factory-fabricated imitations, probably from Pakistan and China.
  • The Azerbaijan Carpet Museum is shaped and designed like a giant, half-rolled-up carpet. Its interior is beautiful, and its thoughtful, centuries-spanning collection, spacious layout and descriptive plaques give the visitor a detailed history and ethnographic appreciation of the country’s outstanding and rich textile heritage, which we deeply appreciated while also agreeing afterward that after two attentive hours in the museum we left not understanding anything about Azerbaijani carpets.
  • In the museum gift shop, I watched the polite young man whose job it was to watch people browse briefly step aside, where he thought he couldn’t be seen, and furtively sniff his armpits.
  • Heather observed that my beloved and reliable old black pants had really gotten too old. We went into one of Baku’s gazillion boutiques, although not one of the very high-end ones, like Caroline Herrerra, Fendi, etc. (which are another way in which Baku resembles shopping-crazed Singapore). I found a pair of Brioni chinos that fit me well and were on sale for just 25 manat, about $14. A pair of Brioni pants will usually cost, let’s say, a hundred times that much. After careful inspection of the pants inside and out, with its many tags attesting to the garment’s authenticity and marred by only two typos (“manufature”), I decided that it had found its way from Brioni’s production studio in Italy across Europe and the Caucasus, shedding a little more retail value at each and every stop along the Silk Road, before coming to rest in the store in Baku where I found it (called Aliqator, doing a deft verbal hopscotch over “A Liquidator”). This was unquestionably the genuine article, with an admirably long history of mercantile travel to the very end of Europe. I bought the pants. I really like them.
  • On the promenade two of the three nights we were in Baku, there was a large and merry “Organic Food Festival” going on. We were pretty interested, having eaten a fair amount of starchy, processed fare over the last few days. (I’ve managed to add some flab despite all the keep-moving exercise). The party end of this festival was a big outdoor stage setup where a DJ was spinning autotunes while bellowing into a microphone; the business end was a state fair-like arrangement of vendors selling their comestibles. One of them handed me an individually plastic-wrapped and brightly labeled confection that tasted like a Girl Scout cookie. Another was cranking out fried potato spirals on a stick. There was a food truck doing out the usual döner and other Turkish fast-foodstuffs which are popular in Turkic-speaking, Turk-influenced Baku. (Our hotel had a hamam.) Almost everyone else was selling sweets. In short, there was not only nothing much organic at all; the festival didn’t even seem concerned with appearing organic: it was a more or less random collection of food and drink that included one of the very worst wines I’ve ever tasted. The fried potato sprial ($1.25) was pretty good.
  • I had pretty bad stomach cramping the day after we arrived. I worried that I might be suffering from some sort of serious health issue—possibly diverticulosis. But the cramps mysteriously went away on their own after about twelve hours. I’m fairly certain it was just jet-travel gas pressure.
  • The flower-petal/pearl building is actually a new mega-mall under construction.

IMG_2312Baku is a cosmopolitan city. One report likens it to “Paris meets Dubai,” which seems like at least a good introduction to ways of thinking about it (although I’ve never been to Dubai). The city reminded me a little of Singapore: newly and expensively laid out and manicured, but on a much huger Soviet scale, so that it takes ten minutes to walk from here to the end of the block; chock full of fun but flimsy touristy things to do, like take a sixty-cent funicular lift up to terraced lookout points done in more marble (you can also visit Baku’s “eternal flame” up there, powered by endless natural gas); lots of fast food; and wildly expensive luxuries sharing space with dirt poverty. But perhaps the most arresting thing, not Singaporean at all, was how few people spoke English at all. For the record, I don’t expect English to be universal, and I’m still endlessly grateful that I can walk into almost any country, start speaking my language, and find someone to understand me within a few minutes. But I was quite surprised that a place as international as Baku could barely speak the international language. Even the name of the city was mired in language confusion: they spell it Baki, laying heavier emphasis on the other side of the difficult-to-utter final vowel.

Baku quickly began to seem strange in so many ways. I decided that its appeal went exactly as far as this strangeness went, as far as its incomprehensibility: on the surface, nothing much was really compelling save for the occasional garish but basically empty spectacle; it was how the surface interacted with what was beneath it that commanded attention. Which is to say: what was this place, exactly? From the upper terminus of the funicular, we kept walking higher toward the eternal flame monument. The marbled walkway was lined with the macabre images of many dozens of national martyrs who died at the hands of the Soviets in 1990, when border tensions resulting from insurgent nationalism led the Kremlin to send the military into Baku. (The date, 20 January 1990, is infamous in Azerbaijan.) Walking by this long, grim memorial on the way to the city’s brightest sign of eternal life was jarring.

The 20 January Memorial

We kept going up the steep hill from the eternal flame until we reached a place where the marble staircase simply ended at a scarred crevice in a slab of ugly pavement. Above it was an apparently abandoned building, grafittied and roofless, whose upper perimeter was strapped with razor wire. Our map apps told us we were standing on the site of an Azerbaijan TV installation. Heather speculated that the building was deliberately made to look derelict so that no one would want to go inside—but if they tried, they’d be cut to ribbons.

On one of the grand terraces we were approached by an American. It was clear that this was mainly because he had seldom heard American accents or seen Americans in Baku. He was visiting his father, who was teaching at the university. We plied him for suggestions for interesting sights and activities in Baku, and he replied cheerfully that this very terrace, awash in people taking selfies from the heights over the Caspian, was easily the best sight he’d seen since his arrival.

Had he not been, I later wondered, to Heydar Aliyev Center? The next day, our last in Baku, we visited this landmark, although first we walked an hour out of Old Town—a pleasant and well-restored medieval enclave huddled beneath big modern Baku—up to the market in Nizami. It was my idea to do this, largely because I’ve found that markets tend to give a clearer sense of what a place is really like. The walk to it was itself revealing: once outside the main tourist ambit, we saw examples of deep poverty, and walked on long wide boulevards empty of life. It was as though Baku had been built for five times as many people as were in it, like there had been an evacuation, a national emergency, or a deep, crippling collapse.

The bazaar in Nizami is, according to reports, not quite as touristy as a couple of the others, Sure, enough, right inside the entrance there were the big bloody sides and quarters of lamb, like I’d seen all over Albania and elsewhere, pungent and gamy; chickens crammed into cages, eggs for eight cents apiece. Rows and rows of beautiful produce: Azerbaijan grows some of the best herbs I’ve ever had. Behind the food, there was a warren of stalls selling knockoff clothes, miscellaneous household stuff, and the sort of random commodity junk that finds its final resting place in unvisited corners like these.

It was a powerfully hot day—a heatwave was engulfing Europe and had spread all the way to Baku—and sweltering back there among the stalls. I almost bought a shirt and then stopped: what was I thinking? I could get t-shirts for the same price or less back home. I returned to the food section where I found a vendor selling gooseberries. These are hard to find in the US, so I bought a half-kilo—two bucks—and they were delicious. When I found Heather again, she was chatting with a vegetable purveyor whose son lived in the US. He showed us pictures of the young man in Colorado, and then a shot of his father posing at some official function with an apparent member of the Azerbaijan political elite. Other people came over to listen in on the rudimentary conversation in halting English. It was clear that our presence at the bazaar was sort of the event of the day.

When you’re a tourist, especially an American tourist, an aura sometimes appears around you. It’s hard to resist the surge in ego that accompanies this sensation, which can make you feel like a visiting prince(ss), blessed with inexhaustible wealth, power and charisma, as though almost anything you ask for will be yours at the slightest command: all the gooseberries in the bazaar, all the carpets in Azerbaijan. It is a dangerous feeling, because it is false, of course, and because even the portion of it that is true is to be distrusted.

Inside Heydar Aliyev Center

On a cooler day, we might have walked from the bazaar to Heydar Aliyev Center. Not an appealing option (especially not after we saw the heavily trafficked route we’d have had to take). We tried to use the local bus system—Heather is an intrepid city bus user—but that would have meant quite a bit of walking, too, just to get to the appropriate stop, and it clearly wasn’t worth it. So we approached a cabbie, who drove us the two miles for the equivalent of about $3. (A fair price, and in absolute terms about as cheap as anything gets in American life; but we agreed to it while pushing out of mind the price of the next day’s bus ride all the way across Azerbaijan: $6.)

Words fail in multiple ways when attempting to describe Heydar Aliyev Center. It is part event venue—international conferences, etc.—part exhibition gallery, part history museum, and mostly one of the most extraordinary buildings I (and probably you) will ever see. It was designed by the legendary Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British architect who died in 2016, eulogized as one of the greatest architects of her time. I’d vaguely known about the building before we got to Azerbaijan, but it wasn’t inked on my list of sights to see until the ride into central Baku from Heydar Aliyev Airport, which goes right by Hadid’s building. Seeing it from the road, there’s no question that you have to visit.

Heather descending a staircase

In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell called Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, which was still fairly new at the time, “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.” I prefer Dalí’s assessment of Gaudí’s “spectacularly creative bad taste” in designing something so “terrifying and edible”: both responses deal both a high compliment and a descriptive complaint (both of which I happen to agree with). I was prepared to have a similar reaction to Hadid’s extravagant monstrosity in Baku; but immediately upon getting up close to Heydar Aliyev Center, which we did by picnicking under one of its enormous folds before we even went inside, I found the building totally wonderful, amazing, breathtaking. It’s both coolly magisterial and invitingly curvaceous. All that whiteness draws you into it, hypnotically. You have to be careful not to trip and fall on the contoured stairways: the whiteness obscures the places where one step leads to another. Inside you feel dizzy, delirious, and under the divine.

As for the stuff inside Heydar Aliyev Center, of course its contents included a green 1929 Packard 645 Dual Cowl Phaeton, one of the most expensive cars of its time. his particular specimen was ordered by the president of Guatemala, which as you know is very nearby Azerbaijan. There was a ghastly exhibition of resin sculptures of humans in positions of torture, abuse, perversion, corporeal and psychic devastation, and other horrid awfulness that achieved its apparent goal of being nauseous to the eye. There was a dizzying gallery of dolls from the nineteenth century to the present, so extensive that I didn’t even attempt to enter it; a show of colorful and wonderful paintings by one of Georgia’s most illustrious artists; and art and artifacts from centuries of regional history, including paintings rescued from a venerated castle that was destroyed by the Russians. (This part of the world is bitterly contested between the Azerbaijanis, the Armenians, and the Georgians, all of whom are at each other’s throats for territorial possession; but one thing they can pretty much all agree on is Down With Russia.)

IMG_2383Heydar Aliyev Center is so massive, so enveloping, that it can contain nearly anything and lose no focus, no power. Of course its largest exhibition, which is permanent, is itself a display of power, the biggest power in all Azerbaijan. Three floors of one of the building’s sides (if it can be said to have sides) are dedicated to its namesake, Heydar Aliyev. Aliyev took control of newly independent Azerbaijan after its liberation from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. He had risen through the Soviet ranks (including a stint as the head of the KGB force in Azerbaijan) until he landed a deputy minister seat in the Politburo in the 1980s, the highest position any Azerbaijani ever held in the Kremlin. He was forced to resign by the reform-minded Gorbachev, and after the USSR dissolved he returned to his native land, where after assuming the presidency of the chaotic post-Soviet government he eventually made himself into an autocrat.

Like a lot of his ilk, Aliyev is officially revered and often privately reviled. If there is something large and important in Azerbaijan, like Baku’s international airport, it probably bears his name. One informational plaque we saw somewhere in the city featured the phrase, “Heydar Aliyev, leader of the Azerbaijani people” three times in one paragraph. Anywhere you go in the country, you are never very far from an image of his face paternally beaming out over you. He died fifteen years ago.

No surprise that there is a Wikipedia page called “Heydar Aliyev’s Cult of Personality.” No surprise that when you sniff the armpit of his body of work (granting that he stabilized a country on the verge of collapse), it reeks of the usual corruption, repression, nepotism, and so on. No surprise that he installed his son as succeeding president. I thought of Enver Hoxha in Albania and Ali Pasha Tepelena before him; all the strongmen and dictators who pock history and leave scars exactly as wide and deep as the world allows, even after rescuing their corners of the world from death. Today, in a town in Georgia, Heather heard a Chilean woman sing the praises of Pinochet. We spent the afternoon in the company of an intelligent, American-born artisan winemaker of Georgian and Russian heritage, who has taken root in this oenological paradise of his ancestry, laud Donald Trump at length, on multiple reasoned grounds, with calm and confident assessment. Trump might well make himself into another despot if only he weren’t so fecklessly stupid and inept. What to do with these men? And what to do with our accommodation, even approbation of them?

After a day or so in Baku, you begin to see past its flag-waving, eternal-flame-raising, Aliyev-beaming, UEFA Cup-hosting, Caspian-lapped marble to its razor wire of surveillance, threat, and distrust. It’s actually there before arrival: an Azerbaijan tourist visa isn’t hard to obtain, but it’s rigged with restrictions and you have to register with your hotel in Baku. In the gift shop of Heydar Aliyev Center, Heather picked out a few postcards and walked them toward me because I was carrying our money. She was chased down by the cashier, who demanded payment before Heather made it to where I was standing, just a few feet beyond the gift shop’s perimeter, in full view of the cashier and everyone else in the open-plan shop. The cashier then took photos of the postcards before completing the sale. Everywhere except inside the Nizami bazaar, people (especially older ones) were unsmiling, suspicious, sometimes sneering in a glum, fearful Soviet way, beaten into cheerless submission by forces far greater than Azerbaijan’s pittance of self-governance, Heydar Aliyev notwithstanding: all this in the enfolding gorgeousness of Zaha Hadid’s masterwork, the seaside attraction of the Caspian’s promenade, and the gushing capital geyser of big oil.

As I said, Baku is interesting insofar as it is strange. But you get used to strange more quickly than you think you will, and then it is by definition no longer strange, no longer changing before your eyes. And as soon as things are no longer changing, it is time to keep moving.





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