Azerbaijan has always been located between cultural traditions, absorbing words and ideas from the vast empires that have surrounded it. So it is fitting that the only thing everyone agrees about today’s meykhana – a form of poetic improvisation – is that it is a unique product of the Absheron peninsula where Baku is located.Read More
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…
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):
I met Oleg my first week in Baku while roaming around the central shopping district taking photos. The entire area is under construction, with the sidewalks being transformed from potholes to fresh concrete or from perfectly good concrete to tile, and so on.
There is definitely a building boom in Baku. Central locations and government buildings are constantly getting a face lift, providing many jobs for people who have no connection to the country’s oil and wealth.
But Oleg was completely out-of-place with all this. He was singing Russia war songs from Afghanistan, alternating with grim, soviet love songs that never end happily. He had those pre-ripped jeans and wore sunglasses long after the sun set, but his two gold teeth and weathered face showed his age.
I talked with him briefly and we made plans to meet again. He said I could always find him in this same spot, every night from eight to ten. So I tried two days later – no luck, but maybe I just missed him? So I tried again a week later, nothing. And so on, until every time I was out around sunset, I’d alter my route to pass the Targovnaya Street and look for Oleg, to no avail.
I finally saw him two days ago, playing all the way across town and we drank watered down beers at one of Baku’s ubiquitous, but strangely invisible cafes, where local men smoke, drink tea and play cards. These are inexpensive, unadorned and unwelcoming, but Oleg and I were trying to lose the drunks that hang around him toward the end of the night, so we turned a few corners and wound up there. The beer was mercifully cheap, so we talked for a long time.
It turns out the police had chased him off his perch in the center and now he was further out of the way, but he was happy to have avoided jail. Turns out Oleg spent a total of 18 years in jail for one thing after another: he referred to some robberies or maybe muggings from what I could tell - didn't seem polite to ask for details. He doesn’t seem a violent man now, if he was ever violent, but as he explains, “I’ve mellowed with age, if the police tell me to leave, I leave. I don’t fight, I don’t want to get locked up again.”
He learned his songs before jail though, in his boyhood courtyard. He begged his mother for a guitar so he could learn the songs that were always being played there. He clicked his false teeth and got very happy describing it with a sentence I often hear from middle age Baku residents.
“It was an international city then,” he said, echoing maybe a dozen conversations I’ve had with taxi drivers, teachers, and older artists. “We had everyone here: Moldovians, Russians, Kazaks” and so on. Baku may have more buildings today, and more museums and concert halls, but despite what I read in the tourist brochures, its cultural heyday may be behind it.
“I get angry – no, not angry, just unhappy – when I see the music that’s played on the television. Everyone used to play songs on guitar and now no one is interested,” he said.
I asked Oleg about other artists and musicians in the city. He said there was maybe half a dozen musicians he can think of that play on the street, but they also get harassed by the police and struggle.
It isn’t money exactly that Oleg misses. He said it’s hard to support his family – a wife, two daughters, and his wife’s parents, one of whom is sick – but it’s what he called “clean” relations. “I don’t really have friends anymore,” he said, “Many left, some drank themselves out of my life, but really I try not to get close to anyone nowadays, they all want something from me.”
“To be clear,” he added, “I don’t relate to people my own age, to their problems, their worries. I spent almost all of my youth, my best years, in jail. I feel like a young man, or I think like one, and I don’t see that in them.”
As we drank another round, he paused and explained that while he feels like a young man, he is not. “My profession, the way I made money for many years was a welder, so now I wear glasses all the time. I know it’s rude but no one sees me without these sunglasses,” he said and took them off. His small eyes got smaller and even in the dim light of the café, he put them on quickly and said it made his head hurt to have his eyes exposed.
He’s been playing on the streets of Baku for about three years now with what seems to be an endless catalog of songs and I watched the crowd he draws. A few people throw some money into his guitar case and some young guys even linger for a verse or two, but only a few men, usually drunk, linger long enough to hear an entire song.
On a recent night I was on the Caspian shoreline walking for some relief in the summer heat and I saw a few young guys playing some songs in Azeri on guitar. They weren't collecting money, but they had a crowd of maybe thirty around them. It was a welcome sight, but hard to hear because of the boom of speakers from a fountain further down the boulevard.
I walked to see the source: a state-of-the-art laser light show, complete with mist and fire-spewing fountains was entertaining maybe a hundred people, most of whom held their cell phones in the air.
A few days ago I sat on the right hand side of Hussein, the brother of the late Kâzım Koyuncu. The band at the front of the restaurant has been playing for hours. Empty bottles of Raki sit at abandoned tables and the band is beginning to sing primarily in Laz. Half the room is on their feet. The singer asks Hussein’s permission to play something “a little arabesque” and everyone laughs. Hussein sang along with every word and all I could do was put my hand on my heart, since my translator was across the table and we didn’t need to talk about it. I am hearing a song that has been known two, three, who knows how many hundred years ago. Maybe not this song, but many of them. The tulum player holds a note until everyone in the room is clapping. What more can one note do?
The Laz dance in a circle, holding hands, swinging them left, left, right, right, the entire circle synching their feet like a herd, their facial features like a people. Someone later joked that the Laz dance the way a local anchovy-like fish swims. I’m not sure I can visualize it, but I did see a Laz villager catch a much bigger fish with his hands.
The tulum looks and sounds like bagpipes made from a large, black hide. It is accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a kemenche, which can be safely described as a fiddle-looking and fiddle-hearted instrument.
A man is crying, his friend kisses his cheek. Someone is wiping sweat from the faces of the dancing circle that has grown to over twenty people. It’s as though the Irish and the Gypsies eloped to the Black Sea.
The band has finished. The singer kisses Hussein and a huge smile sits under his heavy eyebrows. The tulum player has taken his baby-goat-sized instrument away from the microphone and into the middle of the circle, which is now dancing and chanting louder than ever. Now it’s only pipes, shouts and feet.
* * *
After the Laz performance I went back to Hopa’s center with my friend Mahir. He took me to a hotel disco to show the other side of this border town, located about a half hour from the Georgian border. He said all hotel discos in Hopa are the same – old men and foreign prostitutes. I’m told the girls are from Georgia, Dagestan, Russian, Azerbaijan and everywhere else that isn’t Turkey, although I wonder how anyone really knows.
The girls sit in the middle of the room at a table made of smaller tables pushed together and chain smoke cigarettes. The men dance under the fancy club lights to paper-thin pop music in the excruciating Slavic-techno-English style. The older men greet each other and drink overpriced beer while the middle aged ones dance. The prostitutes seem to be an afterthought – sometimes a man will come up to one of them and whisper something in her unresponsive ear. She will wait until he is finished and say something back. Usually he just leaves.
Mahir tells me that this means she is hired or pretending to be, but the girls just continue to sit at the table, smoking, drinking and picking at food on the table. At one point, a girl threw a paper ball at a waiter to get his attention.
Occasionally there is a slow dance and men of all ages move close and slow with the girls – like an awkward high school dance. It’s a hard concept for me to grasp, but there it was.
Every hotel is like this, said Mahir. I would have preferred to while away the night in a cheaper hotel that couldn’t afford such loud speakers and had to settle for card games and what I was assured was ghastly live music. But it was not worth another ten lira beer and I had to get back to my host’s house.
As for the prostitutes that Hopa is apparently famous for, it was a strange but predictable sight. Some of the girls are good looking, others not, but the atmosphere was not sexual - except for the dance floor, which was exclusively male and remarkably unabashed, with the strobe light selecting one Dionysian pose after another. Maybe going to a brothel is as much as about uninhibited dancing as it is about paying for sex – maybe they need to dance to get themselves in the right mood.
I saw one man leave the dance floor and walk out of the room with one of the girl’s arms clenched in his hand, holding it firmly as she looked out at nothing in particular and he talked to a friend and ordered another drink. He did not loosen his grip and when he whisked her out the door it seemed an afterthought .
Not one person was smiling in the disco and there was a pragmatic air to everything. The girls did not look unhappy or flirty or even bored – aside from their bodies they could just as well not have been there.
* * *
Before I left Hopa, I took a half hour drive to the Panchol village to learn about falconry. It’s a custom as old as the Laz, who say they are descended from hunters and gatherers and were late to settle into an agrarian society. Originally, they trained falcons to hunt birds as a way to get meat into their diets, but today the practice has become a hobby and a business.
Forgive the lack of falcon photos. The season for catching them is in the late summer and the law says a person may only keep one falcon past that time. I guess they kept either none or more than one, because I was told there was no way to see a live falcon until then.
To catch a falcon (the word is Atmaca, which refers to a baby falcon), you need to catch a Hacho, which is another small bird and the Atmaca’s favorite prey. So first you take a Danabutnu (which we could not clarify exactly, but it seems to be an insect of some kind) and put it into this cage:
Then you tie the foot of your Hacho with a string to a stick, where you feed him. The point is to get the Hacho to be calm around humans. They also put leather straps above the Hacho’s eyebrows so it cannot see a potential falcon above it. The point is the Hacho must be calm and minding his business, while he keeper hides behind some bushes and waits.
They know a falcon is coming because it sounds like a bullet when it dives for the Hacho. But at some point it must spread its wings to slow the descent, and it is at this moment that the netting is sprung and the falcon is snared.
Training the Hacho takes a long time time and the falcon is not able to catch it, because one Hacho is used to lure dozens of falcons.
Training the falcon is a process of socialization. The young bird is also tired to the stick and fed when it sits on the arm of its catcher. It can take weeks to get the bird to become calm around people, so it is taken everywhere its catcher goes, includes cafes and fields. Eventually the length of the string is increased to twenty meters, at which point the bird is able to fly and hunt.
Once the falcon has caught a Balgerjan (which I’m guessing is a pheasant of some kind) its catcher runs over and takes the valuable meat, feeding some of it to the falcon “so it remembers how much it likes the taste.” Some falcons are released at the end of the season, while others are sold who knows where.
That’s the process. I have no doubt this is a modern day business, with a wide and varied ethical code, but in the villages themselves, there is an easy attitude about it. Men are proud of their hawks and train them for strength and speed, understanding the animal and its role in the woods of the Black Sea coast. But there is clearly an export market which I sense does not afford the bird 20 meters of string or an end to its captivity.
After this primer my falconry guide invited me on a walk to a beautiful view of the hilly coast. We were standing at grave of Kâzım Koyuncu, who it turns out was born and buried in Panchol.