At least two flights separate Portugal from Azerbaijan, a country on the Caucasus region, facing the Caspian Sea, which once belonged to the Soviet Union, and got its independence since about two decades. During the flight from Frankfurt to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, I had the opportunity to see a great movie in the plane, Alice in Wonderland, by Tim Burton, staring Jonhny Depp, a fantastic actor.
I just could not imagine that to some extent I’d feel like Alice in Wonderland in this journey into a brand new country for me. In fact, many things simply don’t work under the same logic as I’m used to, but it is still a wonderful country with fine, warm, welcoming people.
Azerbaijan is an independent Republic since the early 90’s, when it detached from the Soviet Union. Coming from a western democratic country, Portugal, whose frontiers were set in XII century, I had never felt, never have had close contact with such an expressive and visible “cult of the leader”. Messages and photos of former President Aliyev everywhere! Starting by the airport it self, which is named after Pres. Heydar Alyiev, and passing by numerous outdoors on the roads into the inner mountains of Azerbaijan. Rachad, the Azeri man I spoke more with, referred to the President very naturally as “our leader”. To be honest, in a way I wish I could feel like that in Portugal. Other people to whom I spoke seemed to feel the same. I was also told the first lady of Azerbaijan, the elegant Maridan, is beloved by the people and called “mother of all orphans”.
MEN & WOMEN
Something that becomes obvious – at least in the interior Azerbaijan villages, such as Gabala, where I was the most part of the time – is the abundance, the prevalence, the concentration of men. Men, men, men everywhere. Few women on the streets, few women doing things, at least outside, very few in hotel jobs. The relations between men and women in Azerbaijan, are very strange for westerns. A married woman is something the man values and protects as much as he can. If someone insults your wife, you may kill that person and that can be quite acceptable, Rachad said. Though many women are mostly doctors and school teachers, in general they do not work and the man is supposed to work and provide for his home and family. Men control their wives and keep them safe. Women are in fact supposed to act low profile. Men dance, clap, express themselves. Women, in a concert, keep quiet while lads stand up clapping and dancing. For me, as a Portuguese that was quite odd and I could not hold myself for much time without starting clapping and waving enthusiasticaly. For the rest, I was extremely well cared, as well as the other women I was with in the same hotel, by a team of Azeri men from the environment Ministry.
Its incredible how almost all musics I heard in two live concerts, either sang by men, women or children, mentioned so many times the name of their country, Azerbaijan. It looks people are still living the joy of being an independent country, rid of the Soviet Union, and stressing such statement in their cultural expressions.
At the end of the concert, like a hammer, the word “Azerbaiçan, Azerbaiçan” was definitively nailed into my mind for the next day. In Portugal I only experienced such a national widespread feeling during the European Championship in 2004.
At the capital Baku, hotels seem to work at equivalent patterns of most western ones,but at a four star hotel in the interior of the country don’t expect room service such as changing towels, adding toilet paper when its finished, cleaning the full garbage bin, or getting your bed done. Probably its because there is not yet the desired level of professional training at the hotel industry in all Azerbaijan, or maybe its because of too many men doing things that normally women are more used to do? Perhaps this is an extremely sexist judgement, but women are home managers worldwide. Anyway I’ve heard it was no worse than in some other countries of the region. But I believe that Azerbaijan’s fierce will of development and the wish to present the best to visitors will certainly make things get better in future.
NO COFFEE! Samovar instead.
This is something Portuguese, Italian and probably other Europeans miss for sure in Azerbaijan. The morning coffee is a must for us. The “cafézinho” (little coffee) gives us a second soul breath to start our day. No. Don’t expect it; it wont be there in your breakfast table.
But, instead, there will be for sure an elegant Samovar, with tea and hot water to add. Wonderful! I brought a big pack of “made in Azerbaijan” tea to Portugal. Unlike most teas it seems not to get bitter. I saw people doing morning pic-nics in the forests with their Samovars spreading white vapour into the air.
Azerbaijan seems to want fiercely to be a modern country. I felt it for several times, in several details. It seems the government and the official structures want to get the pace and “catch the train” of the outside world. Azerbaijan is assumed to be a “moderate Islamic” country. One of the first things I asked Rachad, our Azeri guide, was how should I dress. Short trousers? Could I ware t-shirts without sleeves? Azerbaijan is a modern country, he answered!
Any way, Islam fascinates me. One of the first things I asked my guide Farida to do, was entering a Mosk at Baku. In Gabala I had heard the call for prayers from a minaret (or a virtual one?) as it was in fact a recorded call, echoing in the streets.
So, once in Baku we headed into the Mosk entrance. But two men standing at the door did not alow us in and indicated another way. To be honest I was expecting women could enter, considering the so-called “moderate Islam”.
The other way led in fact into a much smaller, much less decorated division, the women’s mosk. Inside only a girl, probably the most beautiful I saw during my stay in Azerbaijan, confirming what I red before in the informative site www.azerb.com “Azeri women are astonishingly beautiful”. She welcomed us and let us try the typical head covers women use to pray. when I said I was catholic, she enthusiastically replied we all must pray to God. Fierce about her religion, she regretted the loss of some traditions, including women’s traditional wear. She let us take photos with her and said she as an English teacher. We said good-bye wishing her the best for her upcoming marriage.
Later in the evening I had the opportunity to attend — and I could almost say — to participate in an Islamic Shiite ritual. Shiites, unlike Sunnis, believe in the holiness of some families and individuals belonging to descendant generations of Mohamed, the Prophet. So, I visited the house of an holy man, where people go respectfully (women must cover them selves) to make their prayers, to express their wishes or to thank for any favour received. People leave there money and after the pray, take candy and sugar pieces which they are supposed to eat after.
Outside the house, a pleasant atrium with a fountain pouring “holy water”. On a corner, a clean place with two columns to sacrifice animals in some festivities, and surrounding all the atrium a stone bench where people – mainly women – sat i n silence, like in praying, or talking in low voice, such as me and my guide. A young girl, in a modern pink dress and high hills, sat near the fountain, crying most of the time as much discretely as she could under her fashion dark sun glasses. A small female cat stood peacefully on the floor at the feet of a fat lady; I was told it is a cat of the house, her kitties always get a owner very quickly, as people believe the holiness and the good luck pass to the house pet and her puppies.
A SAFE, LIVING CITY
When coming to the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, I had no idea of how it would be. I had been worried if I could be safely walking alone in the city or not. My worries vanished, when my colleague Farida kindly offered to a guided tour. I had the opportunity to see the pleasure of the walking zones of the city. So many women and children, families walking by, relaxed and simply enjoying the city. So many water games and fresh gardens, and by night so many people walking by the long water front of the calm Caspian Sea. I had the opportunity to attend to a concert of the Russian speakers community at a local theatre. I felt the beat of a city that moves and breaths collectively, where people truly enjoy their own city.
I wish I can go back one day and stay longer in Baku and if possible visit some of the natural Protected Areas Azerbaijan has created and doubled last years.
Note: this article was last updated in August 2nd, 2010
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