The Persistence of Pirs

The Persistence of Pirs

These are the markings of a pir, a holy site usually associated with the grave of a holy person. While the tradition predates Islam, the pirs in Azerbaijan have grown rapidly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in both the Sunni north and Shiite communities in the rest of the country. Religious scholars say their popularity is as much a product of the country’s secular orientation as they are monuments of faith.

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About a week before Eurovision I went to see some Azeri Rock & RollAbout a week before Eurovision I went to see some Azeri Rock & Roll About a week before Eurovision I went to see some Azeri Rock & RollAbout a week before Eurovision I went to see some Azeri Rock & Roll

When Azerbaijan won Eurovision I was drinking with a Meskhetian Turk somewhere in the flatlands of Central Azerbaijan. I had gone to see the night livestock market, which isn’t exactly at night nor a market. But the point remains, instead of covering the biggest story of the year about Azerbaijan in the Western press, I was feeling sorry for sheep on a roadside in Sabirabad. Figures…

Even the sheep were thrilled!

I didn’t think it would be such a big deal (and maybe it’s not), but it has sparked a good deal of self-reflection here. So I’d like to offer a little metaphor I recently heard from my friend Hasan in Sabirabad. It’s a good short hand for me – I find it more than a little patronizing, limited and slightly offensive – everything a metaphor should be. Azerbaijan is big on animal metaphors – there’s the bunny on the back of the lion, the pack of wild dogs, “you can’t have a forest without a fox,” etc… etc… but my favorite was about an adolescent boy.

After the night market, Hasan helped me to translate for a group of local activists who were organizing farmers after last year’s devastating floods. He kept adding his own extremely positive assessments of the government, the president and so on. Then I stayed on at his house for a second night, after reporting in the flood zone one year after the face and the conversation was completely different.

Hasan has lived for years in Moscow, Uzbekistan and Turkey, so he has access to an outsiders perspective. But once he started explaining his own understand of How Things Are, it was preceded with “let’s talk as neighbors.” He explained that the first night, I was a guest, so he had no interest in speaking about politics or the problems of everyday life. Everything was fine, he insisted and poured another round.

But the second night I was no longer a guest, I was a friend, so we could talk openly. And we discussed into the night about where he say the country going. He explained the local nuances, distrust, corruption, solidarity, pragmatism, optimism and inertia that usually only enter my conversations with outsiders or activists. In short he knew which way the wind blew.

His analogy for “Azerbaijan and Progress” was that of an adolescent boy seeing a beautiful woman. At first, he is shy to look, but he cannot help it. When no one is watching him, he is watching her. He looks her up and down and longs for her. He is overwhelmed with desire, but he has no idea how to approach her. He can walk over to her, but he’d lose his speech, he’d become unsure and shy or babbling, talking over his own words.

So he sits and the desire only grows. But he won’t get her. Maybe he will try, but it will be a failure. Only when he is older, more experienced will he see her, but by then she will not be the most beautiful girl in the world – she will be an attractive woman, one he can read, understand and maybe even woo. He will have a chance with her because he has had years of watching other men fail and succeed. He has learned how to take risks until they are not risks anymore but decisions.

So according to this analogy, the adolescent is Azerbaijan, the beautiful woman is European style progress and Eurovision is a batting of her eyelashes – or was that a wink?

And now, for your viewing pleasure,  the wedding singer, basketball all-star, scholar, scientist, historian, warrior, mourner, good-for-nothing jack of all trades, Hasan (and the Volga he swears he bought off a minister):

20110515-0719This is the only pose he knows


Flower Day, Aliyev Style

On May 10 Heydar Aliyev, the former president and current billboard favorite in Azerbaijan, would have turned 88 years old. So naturally, the government pulled out all the stops. Like last year, thousands of flowers from 50 countries literally covered the park between the Heydar Aliyev Palace and the statue of Heydar Aliyev as two hot air balloons were inflated in front of the giant flower mosaic of Heydar Aliyev, ensuring that his unmistakable Kremlin-Mona-Lisa smile would soar above the city already covered by his portraits.

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Carved Rock and Flowing Mud

Should you decide to take in the more-tourist friendly, less rusted-tanks sights of Azerbaijan, here's the next thing I found heading southwest from Baku. First the Gobustan petroglyphs, which the guide said are from 23,000 years ago. Yes, thousand. The internet says, 12-8th century BC, but honestly who even knows? There’s a couple hundred of these and they really cool in real life. Apparently, they put tooth paste inside the crevaces to make more contrast in the photos. I didn't even try to do that - they already demand a 2 AZN fee for taking photos. But here’s a pretty holy site from long before there was an Azerbaijan, an Armenia, a Georgia, a Russia, a Persia – before any of that. Plus, look at that cool boat they made:



Next we have some sheep near the railroad tracks. This is the kind of thing to look for to properly appreciate what’s so lovely about Azerbaijan. In the future I will have a post devoted to animals standing next to concrete blocks.


Finally, after a slow drive on a very bumpy road, you park the car and walk up a large hill. There’s oil coming right out of the ground and not a soul for miles (although there was a cow on the hillside that looked like a deity). In the distance are a couple of lunar looking mounds. They gurgle! And leak! And get mud all over your clothes and camera if you through something at them. What a weird site – it’s like you founding one of the earth’s internal organs.