The Virtual Nomad is slowly approaching the end of the A territory with its last sovereign entry being Azerbaijan — the other half of the neighbourly tensions with a former Virtual Nomad stop, Armenia. At this stage it is also healthy to acknowledge that the time between Virtual Nomad stops seem to have increased, as has the amount of text. With this stop we are trying to return to a more compact format, whilst doing justice to the destination by providing the attention it needs, of course.
So, back to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan sits by the world’s largest (saline) lake, the Caspian Sea and has as its neighbours Russia, Iran and Georgia. Its capital is the ancient city of Baku, famous for being the lowest-lying national capital. The exclave of Naxçıvan (Nakhichevan) is bounded by Armenia, Iran and Turkey. And then there is of course, Nagorno-Karabakh, that has been the heart of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia since 1988.
The landscape is varied from lowlands to mountains. Winters are mild and long, summers hot. Azerbaijan has 14 economic districts with the Baku region being the most populated. An interesting fact about Azerbaijan is that about half of the world’s mud volcanoes are found in the Gobustan region of the country.
Azerbaijan is one of the six Turkic states. The name Azerbaijan was first used officially in 1918 when a short-lived independence was established. The Soviets invaded the area in 1920 and from 1922 until 1991, Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union.
90% of the population are Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanis. The Turkic strain is said to have arrived in Azerbaijan in the 11th century. The Arabic script was in use until quite recently (20th century). The Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in 1939 and since 1992, Azerbaijan has had a Roman alphabet as the official orthography.
The tricolour Azeri flag includes a blue line (symbolises the Turkic heritage), red (progress and social democracy) and green (Islamic civilization).
The Azerbaijani food services in Sydney are another victim of the global pandemic and this sad fact forces us to prepare the food ourselves. This time I recruit the Virtual Nomad Chief Editor and fellow nomad, JK, to help me with the ‘fooding’ as his talents are not limited to proof reading overlong texts. He has an excellent understanding of the order in which ingredients are introduced in cooking. Virtual Nomad Special Advisor (who has been to over 140 countries) CH joins us in the preparation of the Azerbaijani night.
We reserve a warm autumn Sunday for five delicious dishes from Azerbaijan. A (9) is away but L (16) and FK (13) join us for dinner but leave cooking for JK, CH and the non-Master Chef, me.
The menu includes:
- Toyug kebabs
- Lamb pilaf (national food)
- Dark greens with noodles and yoghurt
- Azerbaijani herb-filled pan cakes
- Yoghurt and herb soup (we leave that for another day).
Preparing the food includes leaving Toyug Kebab meat to marinate overnight. Toyug is made of chicken thigh fillets. The marinade includes lemon, oil, salt, pepper and sugar. I manage to do that and the result looks awesome.
The preparation for the Azerbaijani night involves a lot of chopping and coordination. While JK prepares the lamb pilaf, I make the dough for the noodles and pancakes and CH prepares the chicken skewers. JK knows how to cut (almost) perfectly shaped noodles so I hand it over to him once the dough is ready and I turn to herb-filled pancakes. I struggle to make the pancakes crispy and thin but am having more success with dark greens.
Then after a couple of hours of cooking we are ready for dinner. FK (13) says that this might be the best Virtual Nomad so far as the meat is so good. As I am the only vegetarian of the group, I cannot verify this statement personally but the rest of the party agrees with FK (on the quality of meat, not necessarily on the order of the Virtual Nomad dinners). The lamb dish is particularly well received as are the skewers. Dark greens are very good and have an exotic taste but they are noodle-heavy and the greenness disappears as the floury taste dominates. Nevertheless, the home made noodles are excellent. The least successful dish is the herb-filled pancakes as they are a bit too thick. The traditional Azerbaijani pan cakes are much thinner.
We have another wonderful Virtual Nomad night. CH tells about her four month sole-woman trip along the Silk Road that included Azerbaijan. Her experience of Azerbaijan is a tale of friendly people and an interesting mix of a very modern capital with heavy nightlife and traditional slow-pace life in the countryside.
We have a second part of the dinner a few nights later as the ingredients for the yoghurt and herb soup are still waiting to be cooked. FK (13) and A (9) are both away so JK, L (16) and I decide to do two versions of the soup; the traditional one with mince balls and a vegetarian-friendly one for me. The result is a delightful combination of unusual taste that is surprisingly fresh and interesting. This might be my personal favourite of the five Azerbaijani dishes.
Keeping it in the family
Who were the first people of Azerbaijan? No one seems to know except for the fact that they lived in places like the Azock Cave. There are records of Scythians and Caucasian Albanians living in the area around 8 BC, with the former building the large empire of Scythia. In the area that is today Azerbaijan also lived Persians who left a permanent mark on the culture and gave the area the name Atropatene, named after Aturpat, a ruler who served many military leaders (such as Alexander the Great) and then founded his own kingdom.
Christian faith became the official religion around the 4th century. The Arabs invaded the territory in the 7th century and ruled for some time. Then came the Turkish tribes that brought their language with them. But there were other invaders and rulers as well — Mongols (13th century, and they were not nice to the locals), Turkish Mongols (14th century, also not nice), Ottomans, Russians and then Persians again until the Russian rule in the 19th century. The Russian rulers had a clear preference for Armenians which the Azeri population resented. Economic recession led to violent conflict between the two (Armenians and Azeris, who else.) The 20th century brought little respite to the country. Following the declaration of independence, Russians came again in 1920 and invaded, attracted by the prospect of oil wealth (Azerbaijan was the world’s biggest provider of petroleum). In 1922, Azerbaijan was incorporated in the Soviet Union and it was not always an easy ride. It became a constituent republic in 1936. Azerbaijan went through economic hardship in the 60s and became an independent state in 1991 —which then led to conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan, that is majoritarian Armenian.
The market economy made an entrance in the 1990s and oil remained the primary export. The first president, Hyedar Aliyev (ruled from 1993 – 2003) was followed by his son Ilham Aliyev, who was so charming that he decided to get rid of the presidential term limitations in the constitution and limit free speech and the press. The 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018 elections that Ilham won with over 80% of the vote have all been declared fraudulent. The election app in 2013 showed the election results before the election had even taken place. Political corruption is rampant (Transparency International scores Azerbaijan as low as 30) and the Aliyev family has enriched itself with public money and placed it in offshore accounts. Human rights activists are persecuted (such as Anar Mammadli), LGBTQ rights violations are severe and bribing of international politicians and business leaders is standard practice.
Love across boundaries
Azerbaijan has an important literary tradition. Nizami Ganjavi is Azerbaijan’s most influential author. Despite the fact that he died 800 years ago, his influence is far reaching in the development of poetry in Azerbaijani, Arabic, Turkish and Persian. His main work is called the Five Treasuries (Khamsa). Part of this masterpiece is the famous story of Layla and Majnun which has been compared to Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, but written a thousand years before. This tragic love story has inspired literature and music for centuries, including the song Layla by the disgraced musician Eric Clapton.
Another important figure in the Azerbaijani literature is Mikayil Mushfig, father of the new Azerbaijani poetic style in the 1930s.
I decide to read the most famous novel placed in Azerbaijan and maybe, or maybe not, by an Azerbaijani author.
Ali and Nino is a love story between an Azerbaijani Muslim, Ali, and a Christian girl, Nino, from Georgia. The author, Kurban Said, is a pseudonym whose true identity has never been completely revealed. Different theories attribute the authorship to different people including Austrian Baroness, Elfriede Ehrenfels, who signed the publishing contract. Other potential authors include Muslim-turned Jew, Lev Nussimbaum, Azerbaijani author, Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli, or a Georgian author, Grigol Robakidze. Published in 1937, the book is now considered a modern classic. It was out of print for three decades.
Ali and Nino meet at school and fall in love. They are devoted to each other while being products of their religions, customs and traditions – two vastly different worlds that, in the end, provide the underlying landscape of the novel. What makes Ali different is that he falls in love with a girl that “has a soul”. Older Muslim men, including his father, teach him that women are empty vessels for child bearing and they do not have a soul, but Ali wants to marry for love and wants to marry a woman of a different faith. The beginning of their courtship — despite barriers of beliefs and cultures — is fairly carefree as they both come from affluent families and Baku is a city of cultural diversity and has an active culture life. The first interruption is the kidnapping of Nino — an ancient tradition that brings not only shame but also the burden of tradition through blood and sacrifice. Then World War I breaks out and brings uncertainty, worry and hardship. Their world is pushed into turmoil and now includes finding a balance between loyalty and personal freedom, nationalism and security, loss and devotion. War becomes a reality, as does Azerbaijan’s very short independence before forming part of the Soviet Union.
“if the Russians despise me, Nino will not take me as a husband. But I must marry Nino, even though she is a Christian. Georgian women are the most beautiful in the world. And if she refuses? Well, then I’ll get some gallant men, throw her across my saddle, and off we go over the Persian border to Teheran. There she will give in, what else can she do?”
And then, much later in the book when reality bites…
“then she made plans for the Toy’s future [their child] in great detail, with tennis, Oxford English and French languages courses, all European. I did not say anything, for the Toy was still very small, and there were thirty thousand Russians at Jalama”
The story is definitely compelling and a wonderful read from the start. The author gently smiles at Ali’s youthful energy and his blossoming masculinity while Nino grows from a girl with big eyes and slender figure — who is a victim of her own gender and therefore always inferior to Ali — into someone of her own mind and desires. Their love and commitment goes through several trials, not only due to their different backgrounds but also their different sense of belonging between the Asian and the European worlds, modernity and tradition. Their worlds and backgrounds clash, not the least regarding the role and place of women but they are able to overcome this through nearly unbreakable love. But the world is changing and challenging around them and that weighs on them both and their destinies.
In 2010, a Georgian artist, Tamara Kvesitadze, built a kinetic sculpture in the Georgian city of Batumi of a nameless woman and a man. It has been nicknamed Ali and Nino. The statue has the two figures kiss each other every ten minutes only to be torn apart again. The statue is said to symbolise love despite nationality or belief but also the fleeting nature of everything in life.
As the mystery of the authorship of Ali and Nino remains, I decide to read another book by an Azerbaijani author. Ali and Nino finishes with the ending of the Azerbaijani independence in 1918 and the looming Soviet occupation. The book by Rustam Ibragimbekov, an award winning screenplay writer, Solar Plexus: A Baku Saga in Four Parts commences in the 1940s, deep into the time of Soviet rule. The story is told from the perspective of four different characters but they share the same origin — a courtyard where they grew up in Baku. The story spans several decades and generations from the 1940s through challenging times to the dawn of independent Azerbaijan and the violence of the early 1990s.
It is a long book that is interesting in parts but generally quite uneven. The first part relates to the weight of family pride and sacrifice, and how carrying that family pride can have devastating and life altering consequences. The second part feels like a filler and has very loose connections to the first story, or maybe it just was not compelling or engaging enough for me. The third is interesting again as it returns to some of the events of the first part but from another perspective. The fourth pulls the childhood friends together around a violent event and describes their life stories and destinies. Life in the Soviet Union is not easy and the Soviet rule mixed with traditional manly pride does make the courtyard, and the life after that, a complex place to live. Women in the novel all seem crazy in one way or another and their life purpose is related to the men around them. The societal changes and events push through the story from Stalin’s purges to the war with Armenia in the 1990s. Baku is one of the characters, even more important than some of the five friends (as some of them are more defined than others) and its changing nature from a more multicultural and accepting human landscape into more narrow-minded, exclusive and nationalistic is well portrayed.
“What made him follow all the others? Certainly not courage, he knew that now. He was probably driven by fear. Not the kind of fear that can be overcome with an effort, but a different kind, more powerful – the fear of losing people’s respect.”
Pomegranate Orchard is said to be one of the most successful movies of independent Azerbaijan, representing the ‘new’ wave of Azerbaijani cinema. Filmed in 2017, the movie was subjected to some censorship in the home front. Directed by Ilgar Najaf, the movie is very hard to find on streaming platforms. Najaf was born in Armenia but became a refugee in 1988 when his family was expelled and they moved to Azerbaijan. He is winner of two Asian Pacific Screen Awards, one of which was granted for this movie.
When I finally find it, the movie promises but does not fully deliver. The story is not unusual – a prodigious son who abruptly left 12 years ago returns to his native rural village to meet the family and the wife + son he left behind. His old man is suspicious him while fighting the interest of others to buy him out of his farm surrounded by pomegranate orchards. There is some family trauma, of course. It is the story of the clash of modernity and tradition again, the duty and the free will, the family and the individual, and the little choice that women have when tradition, authority and expected sacrifice hold a hard grip on them. The willingness of the wife (who looks much younger than the husband even if they are meant to be the same age) to forget and forgive no questions asked makes me almost angry. The pace is slow and the resolution somewhat unsatisfactory. There is of course beauty in the rural Azerbaijan and great effort in the symbolism and unspoken dialogue.
Due to the fact that I have read Ali and Nino, I decide to watch the movie of the same name, based naturally on the story that I have just read. It does not achieve the magic of its material and falls flat. If a word of advice is allowed, I would not waste time with this movie but would read the book. And yes, one of the producers is the perpetual president’s daughter.
I decide to watch another Azerbaijani movie and I am glad that I do. Steppe Man (2012, available on youtube), a fascinating, minimalistic story of a literally nameless young boy/man living in a steppe with his father. They live far away from the civilisation and hold their livelihood by raising camels. The slow rhythm of his life changes at the
sudden apparition of a young woman escaping from her past. The movie is filled with stillness and very little dialogue. The shots are long and the pace is slow but there is certain effectiveness. It is an interesting movie with raw and unfiltered take on human nature and the clash between the life styles and forms of traditional and modern way of living, the innocence and betrayal, the gain and loss of hope.
Finally, whilst I cannot get hold of a movie ‘Dolls’, I place it on my watch list and hope to see it one day. The reviews are very good and the description of the movie states that the “powerful anti-war message was not welcomed by Azeri authorities, who found it embarrassing to depict their soldiers crying. Despite the censorship, however, the film remains a solid portrayal of life in those turbulent years and demonstrates how quickly peaceful relations between different communities can degenerate into awful sectarian violence.”
World heritage and Eurovision
The Azerbaijani night invites to put on the Spotify playlist of Azerbaijani music but the result is lukewarm and forces us to find Azeri music elsewhere. The Spotify Azerbaijan top 50 (May 2023) is dominated mainly by Russian pop and recent Eurovision entries.
British musician Sami Yusuf has strong Azerbaijani roots. He was born in Teheran in 1980 to Azerbaijani parents – the family left Iran after the Islamic Revolution. His grandparents had left Baku at the dawn of the Soviet rule. His music has strong spiritual and ethereal nature. He plays multiple instruments and sings in Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Arabic, Persian, Turkish among several other instruments. Here is Ateshgah and his song Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani folk music instruments include balaban (cylindrical obie), nagara (drum); tutek (flute); Tulum-zarna (Bagpipe) and zurna (a type of shawm). The folk music styles include Ashiqs, Meykhana and Mukham, all different styles. In 2009, the Ashiqs was declared as part of the UNESCO intangible world heritage. UNESCO describes Ashiqs as:”
The art of Azerbaijani Ashiqs combines poetry, storytelling, dance and vocal and instrumental music into a traditional performance art that stands as a symbol of Azerbaijani culture. Characterized by the accompaniment of the saz, a stringed musical instrument, the classical repertoire includes 200 songs, 150 literary-musical compositions known as dastans, nearly 2,000 poems in different traditional poetic forms and numerous stories. The regional variations may include other musical instruments, but all are united by a common national language and artistic history. Ashiqs take part in weddings, friendly parties and festive events throughout the Caucasus and appear on concert stages, radio and television, sometimes synthesizing classical melodies with contemporary ones as they continue to recreate their repertoire. Their art is considered an emblem of national identity and the guardian of Azerbaijani language, literature and music. Even as Ashiqs represent the consciousness of a people, they also help to promote cultural exchange and dialogue: Kurds, Lezhins, Talishes, Tats and other ethnic groups living in the country often perform the Ashiqs’ art, and their poems and songs have spread across the region.
Next stop: ‘Bonus A’