“Herr Professor, Please: We’d Rather Stay in Asia”
– Ali Khan Shirvanshir, in Azerbaijani classic novel “Ali and Nino” (1937)
Before I had set foot in Azerbaijan I had unconsciously put it in a category. It was clear. The Caucasus comprised of three countries – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The first two were largely Christian countries, indeed the oldest Christian countries in the world, with long developed wine-making traditions, perhaps indeed the oldest in the world (the debate rages on, new discoveries continually adding fuel to the fire). These were European countries. Borderlands of course, but primarily European in nature as well as aspiration. Azerbaijan, on the face of it, seemed to come from and look to Asia. Its was predominantly Islamic (mostly Shia Islam as in Iran) and its language is closely related to that of its “big brother”, Turkey.
Then I arrived in Baku.
I already knew Baku was a modern city, built on one of the world’s first oil booms. Its modernity is no longer new. The discovery of oil transformed a regional backwater into a cosmopolitan city in a matter of decades and the population of the city reflected the nationalities of the powers of the oil industry. The old city is overlooked by the flame towers, huge glass and metal constructions, each in the shape of a flame – to represent Azerbaijan’s moniker “Land of Fire”. The country sits on oil and gas, boasts more mud volcanoes than any other country and during its Zoroastrian past it was to fire temples people came to pray. At night they are lit up with flashy lights. A neat tie up of old and new.
Gani, my guide, explained however that the towers were completed on the eve of Baku’s hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest, and that only 11% of the towers’ space was occupied today. The powers that be in Azerbaijan seemed to making the case for Azerbaijan as Europe, though perhaps not entirely successfully. Its hosting of the upcoming Grand Prix was more an attempt to raise its profile more generally (it certainly has the lowest profile internationally of the three Caucasus countries) than a pitch to be seen as European – but even how it chooses to present itself in its hosting of this event betrays its leaders intentions in this regard.
It was in other domains however where I felt Azerbaijan seemed to lean more towards Europe and the West. During the Soviet era Azerbaijan changed a lot. Before the Soviet Union, Azerbaijanis on either side of the Aras river (dividing Russian and Persian spheres) had similar values, views and, indeed, lives. There were more Azerbaijanis (indeed there still are) South of the Aras in modern Iran than in Soviet Azerbaijan (today the independent country of Azerbaijan) but the values no longer match. Under Soviet influence the elite Azerbaijanis north of the Aras looked to Moscow for sustenance and Russian values slowly pervaded Azerbaijan.
Today alcohol is widely available and drinking is widely accepted; vodka is de rigour and Islam, where it is visible, appears in a moderate guise. During our whole trip we heard the call to prayer only once. Unlike in many other countries Sunni and Shia live comfortably alongside each other, often praying together in the same mosques.
Russian is still widely spoken and a lack of fluency is Russian is an indicator of lower class amongst many. This is changing only slowly, mainly amongst the youth, many of whom prefer to learn English, though many feel it still holds them back if they cannot speak Russian fluently.
On a historical level the influence of Iran and to a lesser degree Turkey is obvious, but on a cultural level it seems that the influences of the Soviet Union have left a more immediate imprint and, if that is being replaced, it is mostly by Western influences. That said the statistics show that young Azerbaijanis are more likely to be practising muslims than their parents. It is not a one way road.
In short I did not feel Azerbaijan was either European or Asian but a mix of both, and its future direction will involve a tug-of-war amongst competing influences. What I did find was a beautiful, fascinating, friendly and very little visited region that certainly merits another look.