When I announced to my summer school students that I would be abandoning them for a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, there was silence and blank looks. Were they displeased, pleased, neutral?
“Where’s that?” one finally asked.
Ah ha! They wanted to play Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? I offered clues. “It’s got a lot of oil, and British Petroleum just finished a new pipeline that runs from there to Europe.”
No one ventured a guess.
“It used to be part of the Soviet Union.”
“Oh, so it’s near Kazakstan!” Everyone giggled; but, though they might love Borat, they didn’t know where his supposed home actually was.
On the white board I drew a vertical lump. “Here’s Greece. Across the Aegean Sea is Turkey.” (A horizontal lump.) Up from Turkey is the Black Sea. (An oval) Go right, you’re in the Republic of Georgia, where I was last summer. Next door is Azerbaijan, right across from Iran on the Caspian Sea.”
From the nearby Social Studies classroom I absconded with a globe, figuring two visuals were better than one. “You mean it’s that little pink spot?” asked Jeff on my return.
Exactly. I forbore mentioning that it was also where Putin had proposed that Russia and the U.S. locate a joint missile defense system for protection against Iran.
And why was I going so far to see oil derricks and a potential missile site? they wanted to know. Because my son was marrying an Azeri woman, whose family lived in Baku.
My fears, though, were not of the geopolitical variety; they were communicative and cultural. What did Azeris expect of the groom’s mother, and a non-Russian speaking one at that?
My first hurdle was a gift for the bride’s mother, whom I had not met. Perhaps something typically Minnesotan: moccasins, mukluks, wild rice? My son nixed those ideas; for one thing, Baku never got cold enough to require mukluks. A book would be nice, he thought. But the bride’s mother, Vera, didn’t speak English. A picture book of Minnesota then. So I purchased my favorite, Jim Brandenburg’s Chased by the Light, and hoped someone would be around to translate my explanation of how a very famous wildlife photographer had decided to take but one photo a day for 90 days during a Minnesota autumn.
Transportation turned out to be a huge headache, since none of the American guests wanted to pay $2,000+ for an airline ticket, the price quoted by my agent. The cheapest tickets were with Azal Airlines, which partners with Delta, and the best prices were to be had by purchasing in Azerbaijan, rather than with the Azal’s one ticket office in the U.S. This meant Vera took many a weary trip to its Baku office, as those of us traveling from the U.S. all requested different itineraries, and some (myself) changed theirs several times. The hand-written tickets then had to be physically carried to the U.S. and mailed.
When we arrived for the dinner hosted by the bride’s family on our first day in Baku, we found the table laden with numerous dishes. Although I was warned not to fill up on them, as more courses would follow, it was hard to do since I didn’t want to be rude and refuse the proffered dishes. My son seemed particularly fond of one item, an orange spread on crackers, so I asked him to pass the apricot jam—which turned out to be caviar.
While the bride and her friends took a catamaran cruise on the Caspian, I was to do the mother thing with Vera. This turned out to be a pleasure, since she brought along Asa, a friend who taught English. Over tea I learned a bit about Vera’s background (she had served in the Soviet military) and shared mine (war protester), but you’d never know the difference by looking at us. Photos show us as rather well-preserved middle-aged blondes enjoying the view of the Caspian from a café situated next to Martyrs’ Alley, a hilltop park dedicated to the citizens who were massacred by the Red Army in 1990. Any irony was unintended.
Our rambles gave us a look at the country’s economy. Spotting our cameras and water bottles, beggars besieged us with hands out. As in the Republic of Georgia, construction dust was a constant, although the building boom is even more extensive in Baku due to the oil boom. (Azerbaijan’s economy expanded by 34% in 2006.) The government is using some of the profits for physical infrastructure improvements, (the roads are far better than in Georgia), but other necessary improvements haven’t occurred in rural water and electricity supplies and financial institutions.
Consequently, with inflation on the rise, (a 14% jump in January, 2007), and oil production expected to decline by 2012, Azerbaijan’s economic future looks cloudy. Meanwhile, democratic process is iffy; when old Soviet-era ruler, Heydar Aliyev died in 2003, his son inherited the presidency.
The city’s numerous parks were pleasant oases on our walks—thanks to the Nobel brothers and other nineteenth century entrepreneurs. (The Nobel Prize was created from the proceeds of the brothers’ explosives and oil enterprises.) When the Nobels’ oil investments began to pay off, they arranged to have their newly-designed tankers return from deliveries with soil and small trees in the empty holds. Thus, the arid city soon began to sprout greenery. To water the greenery, a canal was dug all the way to the Russian border to bring fresh water from the Samur River to Baku, where it was, and continues to be, stored in a great reservoir.
A ferry ride on the Caspian revealed the detritus of the oil boom. Alongside the boat, the water’s surface was festooned with rainbow arcs of oil. This did not bode well for the proposed trip to the beach planned for later in the week. A carpet-purchasing expedition, de rigueur for any tourist, was comical. The New Yorker in our party was particularly taken with one carpet, which the shopkeeper assured him was 60 years old. (Old is good.) I piped up with information I had gleaned from my tourist guide, Azerbaijan, with excursions to Georgia by Mark Elliott: no carpet over 30 years old could leave the country. “What about that?” we asked the shopkeeper several times. From the response we could only infer that if the shopkeeper paid the inspectors a bribe, all would be well. (According to an Economist piece of 3/8/07, “rampant corruption on the part of state officials, particularly in the tax and customs departments” makes business success in the private sector close to impossible.)
The most colorful of the pre-ceremony outings was the dinner held the night before the wedding celebration in a Russian restaurant, its décor intended to evoke a village dining pavilion. Again, the dizzying display of appetizers, including several varieties of salad and pickled veggies, and second and third courses that included chicken, fish and lamb. An accordion player and songstress performed clap-along, and for the Azeris sing-along, Russian folksongs. In between songs, toast after toast was offered with shots of vodka, the drinkers lifting their glasses and saying “davaj,” just as Americans might say “cheers.” I toasted with sips of white wine, for trying to keep up would be disastrous. Cross-cultural experiences shouldn’t go as far making a fool of oneself.
The wedding cerebration was held in a caravanserai, one of the old forts along the Silk Road where travelers and their animals could bed down in safety. Its courtyard, covered with a white awning, featured trees, a fountain and pool scattered with rose petals and circled by votive candles. Each table for the 150 or so guests was laid with an array of appetizers and adorned with white rose bud centerpieces. The chairs were covered with white satin drapes. In keeping with tradition, a mirror rested on the wedding party’s table. Its purpose was to reflect their wedding day’s happiness forward into the couple’s future.
The wedding ceremony itself was performed on one of the balcony’s arched alcoves, presided over by an American judge (the groom’s father), who read a meditation on peoples of diverse backgrounds coming together in celebration. Indeed that was the case; guests had come from the U.S., the Republic of Georgia, where my son works, and as far away as Thailand. Four flower girls in pink organza, albeit a little unruly since all were under five, sprinkled rose petals on the guests after the vows were exchanged. Entertainment during dinner included a vocalist, ethnic dancers and a belly-dancer. After the meal, the rest of us got to dance, first to live music, and then to a disk jockey’s choices. Anyone who felt like dancing joined in, with or without a partner. I was hoping for circle dances a la Fiddler on the Roof or My Greek Wedding, but in that I was disappointed.
The next morning a bleary-eyed group assembled for an hour’s drive north to a private beach club. We Americans were wary, having seen the condition of the harbor water. However, the Caspian shone a clear aqua at the beach. After basking on beach chairs for hours, it was time for a tour of a Zoroastrian fire temple site, Suraxani Ateshgah. Situated over a natural gas pocket, it was the object of pilgrimages from the Indian subcontinent by Zorastrians who saw it as a holy place, due to the spontaneously burning flames. Unfortunately, the museum displays of monks engaged in penitential rites tended toward the revolting.
The drive back to central Baku took us through “Black City,” the peninsular site of the nineteenth century oil boom. Its debris was omnipresent: the smell of oil in the air, rusting oil derricks, piles of gravel, pools of oily gunk, all presided over by tiers of concrete block, Soviet-era housing for oil industry workers on the hillside above. It has been suggested that a large chunk of the state’s oil profits would be consumed by any clean-up effort. Our drive into the city then followed the yellow pipeline, a foot in diameter, bringing fuel to the city and beyond. I was fascinated by its 90-degree turns from the horizontal to the vertical as the pipeline formed doorways over roadways intersecting its path.
Our departure from Azerbaijan the next day didn’t go smoothly. Exiting required three security checks and a mysterious, but required, visit to the Visa desk. (Entering the country cost $100.) The final security check, just before entering the pre-boarding holding area, was significantly delayed by a group of conservative Moslem women wearing head scarves and light coats. When the first of the group was asked to remove her coat for the security guard’s manual body check, she appeared hesitant, but eventually complied, as did several behind her. However, trouble was brewing, as one of the women had stepped out of the line-up and was gathering others to her. Sure enough, soon there was a stand-off; the unchecked women apparently arguing that coats must not be removed, the guards remaining obdurate. Eventually, when everyone else was seated on the plane, the remaining coated women entered. Someone must have blinked.
So besides oil derricks and a potential missile site, in Azerbaijan I found new friends, interesting insights into a part of the world I knew little about, and best of all, participated in an international wedding, which, according to one of my new friends, “brings together the best of two cultures.”
Next stops on my touring? Andau, Austria, and Istanbul, Turkey.