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James in Azerbaijan

James is volunteering in the Salesians’ Maryam Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan. The below extracts from his emails give some of his reflections and opinions on his experience…


Azerbaijan Week 1 and 2
Hello! привет (privet)! Salam!
I am afraid that this will be a little brief!
The Internet connection is not too reliable. Fr Stephen says you can only have two of the three – electricity, water or phone lines. And so there is no Internet connection, but we have electricity and water so that is good.

It is a fantastically interesting place though, and fantastically hot, and despite the fact that I go to bed sweating and wake up sweating, shorts are more or less forbidden for men in public…so me and my jeans have developed a close relationship….

Anyway, we are now teaching a five day week, Tuesday to Saturday, and when we have no lessons there is the youth programme to join in with. Although I have to admit that I have learnt much more Russian than taught English. Right now it is a free day, and I have been gradually getting more and more frustrated since eight o’clock trying to get into my emails. And I still have to plan four lessons for tomorrow, and hang my washing up before we go to the beech! And I have just realised that I have forgotten my sun cream! You know they just don’t use sun cream here – really quite strange. They just seem to accept getting burnt….

The first week we spent pretty much as a holiday. We arrived, slept and got up at 11.00 a.m and went to The Centre (This is where we work) and there was a birthday party, and so I spent the first few hours dancing to Lady Gaga and ‘Come on rude boy boy boy get it up…..’ which I think has been somewhat censored in translation.

Then we went to the summer house and spent the weekend swimming in the sea and trying to decipher team building exercises in Russian.

By the way, if you have ever wondered what tea is used in Lipton’s Ice Tea, it is the same tea that they drink here – and they drink a lot of it. It has a slight rose water taste and is very nice. They have at least five cups a day… It’s prepared by boiling the tea leaves in a tea pot on the stove, then you dilute little of this with boiled water. Very nice. And to make Ice Tea you just put cold water with it and put it in the fridge. They have the tea with sugar, syrup/jam, lemon…anything sweet which will dissolve…

Anyway I must hang my washing now! I will try to write again soon!

p.s. ‘Mama’ Angela and ‘Papa’ Leo have a lasting presence here, they are talked about often.

p.p.s. And if anybody can find a piano tuning hammer and send it to me you will have my undying gratitude!! I spent a very hot day yesterday trying to find one in Baku centre and the only one I could find cost 100 manats!! and the manat is stronger than the Euro…Roma Catholic Church, Teymur Alieva 69b/1, AZ1069, Baku
Спасибо!! (Spicyba – Thank you)!!

Around about week three/four…in Azerbaijan
So – what does rarely talked of place look like? It is not pretty or picturesque by any stretch of the imagination. Baku is emerging from a brutal industrial past. Life here is still heavily imprinted with the utility of the U.S.S.R and a historical plundering of its fossil fuels and nine out of the twelve geographical zones it hosts. It is a naturally wealthy place. What isn’t a road, a building or a park (for, from or owned by the president) is covered with sparse grass or gravel which looks suspiciously like it has been weathered out of rubble.

There are chunks of concrete everywhere, shells of buildings under construction and waiting for demolition on every street. Every morning I wake to the sound of drilling or hammering somewhere in our own nondescript tower block. The skyline is dominated by these identical soviet tower blocks – a practical and stoic Le Corbusian realisation of architecture. In fact they are so identical that last week, when I was walking home in the evening, I ended up on the wrong road.

Not realising I went up to the second floor and tried the lock (even the door was the same, with the handle hanging at the same limp angle). I thought something was wrong when I heard a rather agitated throng of Azeri women inside the priests’ flat – this was followed by a rather one-sided ‘conversation’ from their balcony as I was standing in the street looking very puzzled. Even the men playing narde (нарды – a game played like backgammon that is very popular here) under the tree, puffing on the same 30p a packet cigarettes fused to their little wooden chairs looked the same. There was even the same little garage half-way up the street on the second rise which had been converted into a small handyman/engineering workshop, with a similar group of men playing dominoes outside it.

There is an unmistakable post-Soviet resourcefulness which is too easily mistaken for austerity, for lack, for depravity, but it sits uncomfortably with the message projected from the government and the insinuation of an American Dream system of values. There is a Coca-Coal factory but no dentists. Wealth is a synonym of success and waste a measurement of wealth. We measure our wealth not on what we have but what we can afford to waste and such are a people straddling this new-era of western wastefulness while trying to reconcile it with a historical resourcefulness. Half the city goes without water while a host of fountains illuminate the boulevard and an army of sprinkles water the grass in the president’s parks. To be fair the parks are public and enjoyed by everyone. Interestingly though, there is very little patriotism. People seem to blame Azerbaijan for their problems.

It is hugely multicultural place, with no discernible ‘Azeri’ ethnicity. Unlike many of the far right movements in Europe which blame other ethnicities for their problems people here just blame the country. Nearly everybody I teach wants to move to a different country. Baku strikes me as having a transience to it. Regeneration and influx are the constants. It is a crossroads between Turkish, Russian and Iranian culture: and floating on their Black City in the Caspian Sea is mini-America drilling for oil. This coagulation of Russian, Turkish and Iranian culture is immensely rich but the aspirations are towards the banks, to the black city, and I do not get the feeling that the governments priority is to encourage this diversity. It has banned all languages except Azeri from the television and radio, but all that has happened is that Rupert Murdoch has filled the gap.       

It is a rugged place. It is a bit like living in a building site. But as Fr Stephen said you can do two things with lots of money – build or war. So I guess this is the best option.

I know it’s Monday because I have a free day…

It is said that Narde was created by three friends. The first was a chess player and so saw intelligence as life’s governor. The second played dice and so saw luck as life’s governor. The third saw that over the passage of our years, both govern our lives, and declared that there are three governors – intelligence, fortune and time.  And so, he created a game that would represent all three.  The board is a long rectangle, pinched in once on the short side and twice on the long side to create a wavy, but not insincere look. On the contrary, it is the lofty curvature of a crest or coat of arms. Even when folded in half it is still just too large to be inconspicuous, and appears in most cases slightly cumbersome – its presence, somewhere between haughty and insistent, is like that of the New York Times journalist who introduces himself not to you but those around you. When closed, the board forms a shallow box for the counters and dice, which is finished on the outside to an opulent shine and sports a stoic gilding that draws the eye to the just-too-small chess board in the centre; the patronymic of the game.

Here people are named first after their father’s father, then their given name, then their father’s first name and then the family name. I would be William James Stuart Murray, for example. When opened the two sunken rectangles of the box form the playing area. The players sit opposite across the length of the board. Across the top and bottom of the board there are grooves that hold the counters. From which ornately painted spires extend, perhaps a quarter of the board’s length, towards a photo-sized portrait of an ancient Baku. There are four sections, with six spaces in each one, and fifteen counters make the full journey around the board, which, if you do the maths, means that each 1 rolled represents a day. One game – a year. The game is an anachronism, counted in Arabic and enshrined in custom. Here is it the umbilical link to a fading history.    It is a game about blocking your opponent . You simply have to move your counters anti-clockwise round the board. The first person to complete the journey wins. If you occupy a groove then it is blocked – get a row of six and there is no way your opponent can pass. The game is played fast, to the mellifluous scuttle of luck, to the clap of counters moved instinctively. It has a  rhythm. In the commotion of road-side Baku men sit under trees with their home-assembled tables and homemade stools. On rare occasions you may see the stool without its man, an apparently fused cushion holds the imprint of many years, its insides escaping with a glacial absurdity.    

This game’s presence sits with such an incongruity against the new prefabricated  Baku. Even the New York Times journalist is lost here, and you feel the embarrassment; as you would for the pride of the journalist fumbling to find the correct words in impossible circumstances; as he fails to understand, with the terrible concentration of somebody who’s whole life has taught him what he’s seeing is impossible.  Such is the disconcerting feeling acquired here – listening to the sound of drills, of cranes and hammers, of the scuttle of luck, the click of instant calculation – the sound of years passing, of time speeding up. It is erosion. The uncomprehending inhabits these wizened skins of Baku’s men. An incomprehension born not from lack of intelligence but from contentment with what was.

Oh My America

‘As Hilary Clinton moves on from Azerbaijan in her Grand Tour of the Middle East and Caucus states over the next three months, we reflect on the wealth that her two-day visit has brought this country. Especially, to the troubled region of Karabach where her demand for peace will no doubt imminently bring the two decades of Azeri-Armenia conflict and racial tensions to an end.’ So rings out the harmonious symphony of diplomacy, democracy and equality – from the land of the free. (In our praise we should also bear in mind the generous instalment of a ground to air missile system in Eastern Poland. It is a defence system honest – it just happens to shoot missiles.)

One of the reasons why I wanted to come to Azerbaijan was because it is very much a country in the middle. Geographically, politically and economically – it is not an impoverished country, but it is classed as a developing country. There is much wealth here; in resources, in climates, in cultures and histories. I wanted to see how this situation fits into the global system of injustice; the system which oppresses the poor and appeases the revolutionary middle-classes to inertia; the system which maintains the injustice of our world. No person purposefully wishes a child to starve, but through their actions they may unknowingly become complicit with such situations. Such is the condition which prevails. It is easier to see the link between poverty in certain African states and the consumption of the Western World, but to understand why Azerbaijan is struggling to develop is much more convoluted. Initially it is easy to mistake the abject corruption and bribery as the cause of poverty but I do not think that the causality is so straightforward. The corruption in official services undoubtedly forms part of a cycle, and therefore must be held partly accountable, but the truly responsible is that which fuels the cycle.  When I saw Azerbaijan on the BBC news page yesterday only to find out it was in fact a story about America it occurred to me that the problem here may well be ideological. For the first time in two years (with the exception of the Eurovision Song Contests), since Russia attacked Georgia and the border may have appeared fleetingly on the map as we zoomed in on the area of conflict on our ten o’clock news, Azerbaijan appears in the British media. It is one of those small countries, struggling to come to terms with its identity after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. It quarrels about petty lands, with other nondescript ex-soviet states whose names end with –stan. But there is hope – oh, our magnanimous America, there is hope. She has come, oh salvation, oh provider of life’s nectar; of the Coca-Cola company. She has come. ‘Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary…Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or “seducing” the “underdeveloped” to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement….’ From ‘To Hell With Good Intentions’, an address to CIASP by Ivan Illich, April 20, 1968.

If we accept this view then we must conclude that the endorsement of The American Dream by an individual or nation will somehow costs them money, for they are buying a commodity from America. An export is sold, and so must be bought, and so must come at a price to the consumer. Though this may sound tenuous, the strength of the system lays in the impossibility of tracing the individual pathways through which injustice and wealth are manoeuvred. The system of injustice operates covertly, esoterically. Its transactions in injustice are relayed through an untraceable global web, information, money and power in constant flux in constant turmoil so that minority can live from the majority. ‘…the U.S. is engaged in a tremendous struggle to survive. The U.S. cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that [there they] have Heaven-on-Earth. The survival of the U.S. depends on the acceptance by all so-called “free” men that the U.S. middle class has “made it….’ From ‘To Hell With Good Intentions’, an address to CIASP by Ivan Illich, April 20, 1968 It is not the U.S. that demands promotion but the American Dream itself – an ideology that is now viewed as synonymous with capitalism and development by many. I am beginning to think that the American Dream functions like an organism. The aspirations I encounter here are towards international recognition (the government are building the world’s largest flag), towards America or the U.K, towards Coca-Cola at meal times, and money – ‘it’s dollars and cents, nickels and dimes, war and peace, it’s nickels and dimes.’

Old Man Baku

Having spent the last week on Summer Camp at the Salesian beach house I have developed a new appreciation for this land, and through such a new understanding of the people here. Up until this point I had failed to grasp people’s adoration for this land. I had, rather rashly, put it down to the fact that it was their home and, for many, all they had know. This argument, however, could not account for the Salesian community here, all of whom are originally from Slovakia.

All I saw was a dusty, sharp, hot and inhospitable landscape embroidered with an industrial nudity. Pipes; blue, yellow and green slice through the curvature of the land. They run perfectly straight but rise and fall with the undulation of the plains. They look childish. Heat shimmers, rocks and ancient shards of shell scratch, mean little shrubs and barbed grasses graze any exposed skin, fighting off whatever foreign body may have invaded territory. Everything feels competitive. It is a competition that moves with a sedated pace in the soporific sun, but with an inexorable  and nasty determination. It is a desert- a dying landscape that has become mean and selfish in its old age. A landscape where change shuffles slowly and unyielding for its own gain.

Learning to read this landscape, and it is very much an ongoing process, is hard. I have learned much about reading in the last two months. When you cannot communicate with people in their native language, and (as is the condition with English speakers) you must stick to a basic secondary school level of language it is impossible for you to get a measure of the person. Indeed it is very easy for the native speaker of the language to consider the other person unintelligent, in the face of their bad grammar and inability to express themselves.

So you must read. When they speak with their native language you must watch, read their intonation and body language and expressions, and body language can be much more truthful than words – which has a tendency to be bound to pleasantries, manners and a whole host of social conventions and complexes.

The turning point in my appreciation for this landscape came to me on the beach. I had climbed carefully up to a large flat rock in the shade of another, and was incidentally covered in the clay that you can dig out of the floor in the sea and rub on like a face mask. It was both amusing and a good sun cream.

It is late afternoon but the sun is still high and the rocks burn to stand on in bare feet, though they are smooth. The sea stretches out somberly from the baked edge of the basin. The patches of sand are abrasive and where there isn’t sand there are mounds of broken shells. Sharp shells. In the patches of baked clay, spiked grasses and waxy leaved shrubs are scattered sparsely. There is an absolute stillness to it, except for the delicious breeze that dances through the air. It has a warm roughness to it, like the coarseness of old hands acquainted with too many wash pails.

In a way the beach looks as if the sea has only just drained down leaving rivulets in the swaths of ancient shells. Yet at the same time it is indisputably ancient. This huge lake cut off from the rest of the world’s water. Left to bake on its own, to grow old alone. No tides, just a gentle lapping of waves.

But by now I have learned the pace. Where to walk, how fast I can go so as not to incur the wrath of the shrubbery, or get too hot. When I must drink so as to avoid the thirst. I have learned to respect this land. Not respect like we use the word  for respecting our English country side: dog on lead, litter in bin. No, let the litter be thrown, let the old man’s cardigan get food down it, the time for the pristine presentation of youth is over. This is a rough hewed ancient man of the world who has won the right to be dirty.

Sitting on the rock, covered in clay, overlooking the basin I felt like an ancient hermit, part of the great generations that have lived in this unchanging land. Seeing the beauty of this wizened lakeside, the colours, histories and the boundaries. A part of those first tribes  that scratched their hunting stories into the lakeside rocks over four millennium ago; the first fire worshippers that praised a land that leaked gasses and flames; and the modern Baku men who refuse to be shunted from their home by generations pumped up on the words and ideologies of the Eastern and Western worlds. Can this respect for elders prevail here in the midst of all these prefabricated parks and shimmering young eyes that dream of air conditioned offices stocked with Cognac? Can the culture and pace of this land remain autonomous in the face of a brutal globalisation.

Here respect is a deeper understanding, a dignity that is not in appearance but in interaction and communication with the land; and there is deep beauty and deep reward to be found in that understanding.
By this token however Baku’s natural culture is one that will always harbour a certain weakness to be exploited, because to enjoy this land, to get the most from the land, a certain passivity is required. In the global system we live in today, such indulgence cannot be tolerated. Success is defined by an ideology that is based on a coffee fueled work day, and a wealth orientated perception of happiness.
If you compare Tbilisi with Baku you will soon realise that what Baku lacks is a harmony between city and landscape. In Tbilisi buildings, language and alphabet all chime harmoniously with the rolling green hills that surround the city. In Baku the city fights to maintain a western greenery. Water is flaunted as a sign of wealth. There is rarely a day that goes by when you don’t find yourself suddenly very thirsty, and as such there is an appreciation for water that is exploited in the fountain parks and boulevard sprinklers.

The aim is to erase the natural landscape to create false human controlled areas of living. These are not governed by boundaries of mutual respect but by an apprehension of police officers. Such is how the younger generations are being placed under the watchful eye of their father Heydar Aliyev. The man, the face, the patriotic quotes line every street.

His son Ilham Aliyev is now president,  and though he must step down at the next election there is little likelihood there will be an election – the country is in an official conflict situation with Armenia and the constitution states that in such a situation an election can be postponed indefinitely. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Like many of the quasi dictators of the former soviet state the Aliyevs have been a pin holding the country together. A huge ethnic diversity can be a blessing for a city, it makes life rich and interesting, but it can also be a tinderbox that is ready to ignite. Here this is an unavoidable religious pressure coming from Iran and Shiite communities, that is in direct conflict with the liberalism of Western Europe and even the young Christian communities. It is well concealed, but notably present.
The conflict with Armenia is in many respects dormant, a political tool that has for the moment been shelved by the those who hold sway over it. But while the fighting rests there is a slow call to arms of the younger generations. In the centre boys will make songs about uniting their land (although, to be fair, when asked who will fight, it is usually greeted with a shrug of the shoulders). Violence must alternate generations to allow for logic to be overcome, and here the younger generation is quickly forgetting the war of the late 80s and early 90s.

The youth are proud and when there is no history to be proud of people become proud of their future, which is a dangerous pride for it must be wrought. The culture of the Old Man Baku is being eroded in favour of a Global friendly and (ironically) competitive outlook on life, and so the leaders try to shunt the historical culture of the city. Like under many political regimes history dies – the Old City is given a shiny new paint for tourists and becomes a commodity, simulacrum of itself. Stories become manifestos, myths become aspirations. The elaboration of history becomes a future to fight for.
This is Baku. The tension here is palpable, the disharmony is unsettling – and the potential explosive. Just like a land that leaks gas and oil, the culture treads a line between destructive and resourceful. Yet at the same time you can find deep peace in this land and deep reward – this is the Old Man Baku.

p.s. An Interesting Note,
The Ateshgah fire temple that was built by Indian fire worshippers in the 17th century was abandoned in 1883 when Mendeleev’s factory exhausted the natural gas supply of the gas chamber that fuelled it.

A Witness of Grapes
I will leave Azerbaijan next week and so to conclude the summer’s pontification here is a reflection on how I feel about my time here; and as it has become customary in these emails to have some slightly hyperbolous symbolic foundation I might as well make use of the grape vines that have been quite a feature of my stay here.

When I came here the vines were flowering with an sort of unassuming blossom. I didn’t realise that they were grapes. Over my stay I watched the bunches grow, and eventually we got to eat them. Now the fruit is sparse and skeletal bunches littler the vines where wasps have eaten the insides. Time here is shifting, after seeming impossibly suspended. Autumn can be felt and as such there is a sense of restlessness that comes with the anticipation of the fall.

Time is moving on. Summer is beginning to curl at the edges and the transparency of Autumn is becoming visible. The price of watermelons has dropped, the smell of oil is thinner in the air. It is a glimpse at the other half of life in this country, but the plans that are made now are only told to me out of politeness. I am being rapidly assigned to the past here, my presence now becoming memories. The presence blooms, is consumed and attention moves on until one day it drifts back into memory. Relationships remain firmly consigned to the superficial with such a short time span.
I came here with the hope of learning and the community  I have been working in is a melting pot of culture, language and faith, that has not disappointed me. Yet for all the insight into the unique situation of this country the answer I sought the most has eluded me. I have learnt, I have witnessed, I have accepted hospitality, but as for answering the question of how I might help the world, ignorance remains frustratingly unyielding.

The community here is a mission of faith. The Maryam Centre reaches out to the young people and provides them with education and access to a community where they can belong. The presence of volunteers enriches that community, deepens the intercultural understanding and helps to encourage aspirations. I teach to the best of my (limited) ability and join in with the youth programs – but it is, and for short term volunteering placements will always remain, a peripheral role. The role of a witness.

As such I am indebted to this community for the experiences and understanding that I have learned and been invited to witness. The repayment cannot be direct, but it must be otherwise there is no value to this experience except for myself. All I can say is that I will try to use what I have learnt to help, or rather to find where I might help.

For the most part Azerbaijan will remain a mystery and the problems buried deeper than three months shallow excavation could even nearly unearth but for me, what this country needs most, like many countries, is to be spared the political interference of the Americans and Russians and other countries so that it can develop on it’s own and find it’s own identity. It reminds me of a renegade pawn on a chess board of America and Russia’s exceedingly long and tedious game. Though increasingly Iran and China are making the moves.

So – goodbye, sag ol and до свидания.

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 February 2014 11:00