Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Azerbaijani Villagers Protest Hijab Ban In Schools

Nardaran is a small town located in close proximity to Baku. It is known as the Azerbaijan centre of conservative Islam. Women of the town wear headscarves and are rarely seen on the streets.

Recently, the government imposed a ban on the wearing of hijabs in schools. During this years Ashura ceremony in Nardaran, several thousand villagers protested against the ban. Ashura is a Shia holiday commemorating the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein.

According to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, the villagers chanted slogans and blamed unnamed officials for depriving them of electricity, closing and destroying mosques, and ordering a reduction in the loudness of the Azan, the call to prayer.

Such government behaviour may cause the rise of extremism in the region. It has been criticised by international organisations for oppressing its religious minorities (International Crisis Group, 2010).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Music of the East

Recently, we attended an amazing concert, organised by the Polish Embassy as a closing event of the celebrations of Chopin’s year in Baku.

During the first part of the concert, a Polish group Prusinowski Trio performed Chopin’s compositions and their own variations on Polish folk music. During the second part we could listen to the famous mugham artists: Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fergana Qasimova. But the most exciting part of the concert began when the Polish and Azerbajiani artists began performing traditional Polish music jointly with mugham music. It was a kind of competition between the two groups but it created an amazing, moving and harmonious performance. I’d love to share it with you, but I don’t have a recording of it. I simply did not expect it to be so good!

Instead, I’ve also uploaded a few videos of Alim Qasimov and his daughter performing in different places. But firstly, a few words about mugham music. Since 2003, it has been recognized by UNESCO as one of the great forms of intangible cultural heritage. Mugham could be best described as the art of passing oral tradition in an improvised vocal and instrumental form. Traditionally, a mugham artist would perform accompanied by players of bowed kamancha, plucked tar and oboe-like balaban at the weddings. Mugham music is intensely emotional and spiritual. Below you can see a great example of it:

Short film about Alim and Fargana Qasimov and their music, and some good shoots of Baku:

I would also like to show you a few videos of the Prusinowski Trio, great avant-garde performers bringing the traditional Polish folk music to the 21st century.

I also tried to find some examples of the modern Azerbajiani music and came across jazz-mugham Shahin Novrasli Trio:

And here is something that I find incredibly humorous... at least I hope they are not for real. A good example of what not to do with music:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

People of Baku

Kids from the neighbourhood :)

Of course, the best photos were taken by J :) 
(the one above and the one below)

Nard - Azeri backgammon. Very popular with local men.

Some very nice school kids. I reckon, in the UK they would all be sticking their middle fingers up!

Ladies making bread in the old town.

He actually asked me to take a picture of him...

This is why Baku is not boring ;)

The omnipresent Heydar Aliyev - deceased former president, the leader of the nation and the father of the current president.

Friday, November 26, 2010

"Women's War"

Yesterday I attended a screening of “Women’s War”, a documentary by Marika Griehsel produced by Giant Film Production on assignment for the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation. It was organised by two interns from YUVA Humanitar Merkezi in order to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This short documentary tells the story about the encounter between two women who are fighting for women’s rights and help victims of rape rebuild their lives. One of them is Esther from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the other is Mira from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The documentary states that 500 000 women are estimated to have been raped since the war in Congo broke out in 1996. Wartime rape is one of the worst types of torture and it is used to frighten and humiliate people. The victims are often gang-raped with the use of guns and knives. They might be as young as 3 and as old as 73. Very little seems to be done to help the victims. That is why Mira tries to share the Bosnian women experience form the 1990s Balkans war to show the Congolese women they are not on their own with this problem. She encourages them to stand up for their rights. For example, for a simple right to abortion when impregnated by rape.

Here is a trailer to an even more powerful documentary: “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” by Lisa F. Jackson:

And here are some comments from Congolese women on the documentary itself, explaining what they have learned from their shared experience and how it has helped them to better understand their situation:

This is why it is so important to speak about such issues, to share experiences, to learn why such things take place.

The “Women’s war” screening was followed by a discussion on why sexualised violence against women continues, and how we can contribute to its elimination. This topic was meant to provoke young Azerbaijani people to reflect on the role of women in their country. There were only 6 young women and 2 men in the room, but the discussion was very spirited. They talked about the situation of young women in the villages in other regions of Azerbaijan, who have very little opportunities to continue their education beyond primary schooling. Some communities see educated girls as a burden and parents often terminate their daughters’ education in order to force them into marriage with an appropriate, in their view, candidate. This happened to Mary. Today she works for an organisation helping women to understand their right to education and to lead happy and fulfilling lives, lives without domestic violence. She told us of a young girl she met not long ago. The girl was only 13 years old when her parents arranged her marriage. Shortly after the wedding, she was expecting her first child. I did not think that such issues existed in Azerbaijan.

Women in the room blame the position of women on the families, communities and traditions. They explain that even though Baku is completely different, there are still some obvious signs of the division of roles and positions. Women in Baku are privileged, because they can wear make-up, fancy, shiny dresses and high heels. They can also get a degree.  But even a university degree is often treated as just another element of a dowry, goods that a women brings to her husband in marriage. So essentially, the role of women in Baku is to look nice and to find a husband. The girls in the room feel as there is a need for Azerbaijani people to change the way they think about men-women relationships. But they disagree on the way it should be done. Some of them want to scream for their rights, others think that the only way to achieve change is to trick men into thinking that nothing is being changed. I am surprised by their openness in sharing their views and their open-mindedness. Soon it comes out, that each of them have either studied or lived abroad and had a chance to see a different way of life. The majority of their friends do not understand their attitudes. This is why it so important to speak about women.

Monday, November 22, 2010

One big building site

Baku seems to be a paradise for architects. Wherever you go, wherever you look, there is always something being build or restored. It would not be an exaggeration to call this place one big construction site! Here are some photos by J & I to prove it:

Same may argue, that the city’s so called modern architecture and planning are a result of some crazy experiment!

Even the pavements throughout the city seem to be always under construction... missing pavers... building materials lying around. You really need to have eyes in the back of your head if you don’t want to fall into one of Baku’s many traps!

This construction boom is stimulated by the oil industry, which is currently making a lot of money for Baku and some of its citizens. Baku was known for its oil from about the 10th century, but it was not until the beginning of the 20th century, when the first offshore search for oil began. That is when the city began growing rapidly and became a boomtown, attracting workers and businessmen from Russia.

Since the 1990s, western oil consortia have also been investing in exploration of oil resources and the BTC oil pipeline was built. It is one of the world’s longest oil pipelines, transporting oil from Baku, through Tbilisi, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterrean. This is a very significant gain for the West as it ensures the delivery of Azeri oil to Europe independently from Russia or Iran. The oil attracts foreign investment and Azerbaijan’s economy is doing well. Baku is booming again and experiences an influx of expats from Western Europe. Property prices and the cost of living are increasing and are currently similar to European levels (Lech, 2007; Lonely Planet, 2008). Some locals joke that Baku is just as expensive as London or Moscow, but it is not far from the truth. In fact, some things are already more expensive. For example, a cup of coffee anywhere near the town centre costs around 5 manat (= 5 euro). Before I came here, I was hoping that I would be able to feel rich for once in my life... How quickly I had to open my eyes!

But going back to the construction business, there are some of the world’s most expensive hotels being built in Baku right now: Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Four Seasons, etc. But who are they aimed at? Wealthy tourists? Businessmen? Some say that Baku will become another Dubai. But do the locals really need another Dubai in Baku? Who will it benefit? Who will be left out? Is anyone going to address such questions?

Noble, Kohn &Systermans (2008) “Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan”, Lonely Planet.
Lech (2007) “Guide to Azerbaijan”, Baku: EUROPA publishing house.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Festival of Sacrifice

Eid al-Adha, called also Qurban Bayramı, is one of the most important religious holidays in the Muslim world. It is celebrated to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God. However, God seeing the truthfulness of his faith gave him a ram to sacrifice instead. That is why nowadays Muslims sacrifice a sheep, goat, cow or a camel during the festival of sacrifice. Then the animal’s meat is divided into three parts to be shared between the closest family, relatives, friends and neighbours, and the poor. This year, the three days long celebrations begun on the 16th of November. If you want to find out a bit more, go to: http://www.isna.net/Islam/pages/The-Significance-of-Eid.aspx.
I was wondering whether I’ll be able to see any visible signs of Eid al-Adha in Baku, as it appears to be a secular city. I went for a walk around one of the centrally located suburbs and took a few photos:

Poor things. I’m definitely going to stick to my vegetarianism...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

People love parks

Parks. I thought I’d better mention local parks before the horrible, windy winter arrives... Spending time in parks and on the boulevard is beyond doubt the most loved activity in Baku. No matter what time of the day or the evening you go there, there are always people sitting around, strolling though, men playing nard (Azeri backgammon), boys playing football or girls chatting away. Evenings are particularly busy. Parents let their offspring run free until midnight or maybe even beyond, I can’t really say as I am normally in bed by then. It’s a truly adorable experience to watch these people enjoying each other’s company, drinking tea, eating popcorn and laughing at my trainers and J’s shorts.

Pics by J and me.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Back in Baku

It’s good to be back. I’ve been away for the last three weeks, dealing with some important things in my life, and it helped me to get away from local peculiarities and my own frustrations. Hopefully, I’ll be able to see this place with fresh eyes and enjoy it. Sometimes, it is hard to keep our minds open and forget our prejudices. It is so easy to criticise something just because it is different to what we are used to. I just can’t help it, but to see the difference everywhere...
It starts as soon as we get to the airport. We are waiting in the queue for the security check at the gate and we are not moving forward. One of the female passengers keeps ‘beeping’. It is probably due to the 5 kilograms of gold hanging from her neck, hands and ears... or possibly because of her 10 cm high heels she refuses to take off... In the meantime, she is trying to squeeze a plastic tree through the airport scanner, followed by a brand new vacuum-cleaner. Finally, she succeeds with the squeezing and takes her shoes off after being supplied with two plastic booties to protect her precious feet. She is not happy for being so horribly mistreated.
Just a few pieces of household equipment more and we can go through. It is little wonder people shop abroad. This type of equipment is very expensive in Baku.
Then we are being welcomed on board of Azal’s aircraft by friendly stewardesses. Their friendliness though seem to prevent them from being able to tell people off for lying across the seats without their seat-belts fastened during take off. But why do I let things like that surprise me? Maybe things just work differently over here.
It’s great to arrive at the airport with a visa in your passport and not having to queue up for it anymore. Everything goes smoothly. There is a group of men crowding around one of the columns. What’s going on over there? Oh, yes, I remember now! That’s a smokers’ column. Of course. The columns at Baku’s airport are divided into smokers’ and non-smokers’ columns. It is a shame that they don’t have the same system in pubs and restaurants, where all columns are for smokers.
The border control officer is almost smiling when she hands my passport back to me. So that’s it. No problems. I’m back in the country. Waiting for my luggage and watching all the vacuum cleaners and food processors going pass...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Azerbaijan idealised

It is hard to say whether Azerbaijan wants to promote itself as a tourist destination. On one hand, there are many official videos presenting Azerbaijan in an idealised way. On the other hand, there have been some recent changes to the visa regulations. Apparently, from the 15th of October it will be no longer possible to acquire a visa upon an arrival at the Baku International Airport. This will definitely have a negative impact on the Azeri tourism industry.

But going back to promoting, here is my favourite video:

I could definitely do with a flying carpet like that.

And here is Azerbaijan the average person will never have the chance to experience:


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Quba to Xinaliq, October 2010

Here are some photographs from a short trip to Xinaliq. Xinaliq is an archetypal high Caucasus village, surrounded by breathtaking mountainous scenery. I wish Baku was located somewhere half this beautiful.

On the way to Quba:

The Jewish cemetery in Krasnaya Sloboda:

On the way to Xinaliq:

Children in Xinaliq love being photographed :)

If you have 10 Manat (almost the same as 10 Euro) to spear you can get yourself a pair of hand made slippers.

A view through the hole in the wall of a local mosque.

Almost like the English Lake District:

Houses in Xinaliq:

...and some beautiful scenery...

Carpet makers in Quba. It takes about 3 months to make a medium sized carpet.

..unless you team up with someone else...

I cannot wait to go there again!