"Economic Future of Azerbaijan Seems Obscure To Me"
This is the title of a front-page interview this morning on Today.az, which serves as one of the only English-language web sites for news in Azerbaijan. Basically, the interview with economist Inglab Ahmedov cites his concerns about slowing economic growth and the local economy's over-dependence on the energy sector. It's always surprising to me when interviews like this are published in a forum that generally seems quite tightly controlled.
Azerbaijan in the World
Travels, Traffic Jams and More Army News
There were various adventures during Summer School, including an off-topic education in the nuances of Baku highways. Returning to town one day we entered a 3 hour traffic jam, and after realizing the indefinite nature of the delay, exited the bus (Mercedes circa 1970) and walked. As the barren landscape dotted with oil derricks and blowing sand and dust coated our eyes and skin, it became clear that the traffic jam was created by a two-direction road being turned into one way, but in both directions. Failing to see the pattern in this, drivers (and the police) only allowed the jam to grow, resulting in what was probably an almost endless mess of a Saturday afternoon.
My father also arrived in Baku last week, spending two days on his own seeing the sights and preparing for the overnight train ride to Tbilisi, Georgia (pictures to follow). The "Dragon Ladies", as my father referred to them, assertively grabbed our passports on the train platform and lead us to our "cabin" where we met our two female Georgian roommates. Departing Baku, a bit of a chill thawed with these newfound roommates and honestly, after the 16 hour trip to Tbilisi even their slight mustasches were mildly charming. Despite the novelty of it all, this was an exhausting trip -- Soviet-era tracks tend to be very bumpy, thus limiting sleep considerably.
Meanwhile, another Azeri I know here just let me know that after a huge farewell party for him last week before he departed for his one-year army service, he also was told he didn't have to serve due to some unclear ailment. So, in the blink of an eye he is off to the Czech Republic for a summer training program about elections and civic institutions. Gosh, if only I could go with the flow like that!
Celebrating Military Day
Brand Azerbaijan III
"I have doubts about a million of tourists visiting Azerbaijan each year"
This was the title of a rather depressing assessment of Azerbaijan's tourism prospects in the near future published this week. The main source of the problem is pollution in the Caspian, which is reported to be so bad (and so widely known to be bad) that tourism development on its shores is basically out of the question.
But beaches aren't everything...I had a very cultural day today in Baku after a meeting with Dr. Farid Alakbarli, one of Baku's most prominent historians with amazingly nuanced knowledge of Baku's various hidden treasures. We visited the Museum of History together, which ended with a tour of Zeynalabdin Taghiyev's mansion. Taghiyev (headshot above) was one of the most famous oil barons during Baku's first oil boom in the early 20th century and lived in a palazzo that really took my breath away.
Brand Azerbaijan II
Anyone with a TV in Azerbaijan can sing the lyrics by now to Azerbaijan's Eurovision hit "Day After Day." The 8th place finish for the song was a hit in Azerbaijan and a strong statement for the country abroad given Eurovision's huge viewership. Pop culture, just like anything else, can constitute a country's image in the minds of outsiders so take a listen and judge for yourself...
Flying Carpet Ride
This unexpected day off was kind of nice as this was my first real weekend in Baku and I kind of craved some extra time to walk around the city and do some errands. The weekend started with an efficient shopping trip with one of my co-workers to buy some basics for the apartment. In a more severe way than I expected, I have been extremely price-conscious since getting here, not only because I am a poor graduate student but due to the inflation and awful exchange rate one gets in Azerbaijan. Sadly the US dollar only gets you about .81 Manat, compared to 1.25 Manat for the Euro. Strolling through the supermarket brought me face-to-face with further proof of these strains. As perhaps shouldn't be a surprise given grain prices worldwide, I quickly found that branded cereal like Frosted Flakes cost nearly triple what they would at home. It's a sad reflection on my life when cereal becomes a luxury good.
Once home, feeling somewhat battered (and dusty) from the increasing winds throughout the day (I have already mentioned the gusty winds that howl incessently off the Caspian), I was a bit startled when a mid-sized Persian rug came flying through the air, hitting my balcony window before landing on the balcony floor. At first it seemed like a big bird had committed suicide using my window as the poison pill but this was disproved when I went out to find the rug and pieced together the likelihood that it had fallen from the clothes-line in the apartment above me. So this turned out to be a nice excuse to visit my upstairs neighbor, who invited me for a quick tea to thank me for rescuing the rug.
It's been great to have some free time to read, and while the first two books of the summer were related to current affairs (The End of Food and The Audacity of Hope), I have become engrossed in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which so far has been amazing. It has also served as quite an attraction to locals, and four kids now have come up to me at Internet cafes or outside and commented on the book, showing their approval at my reading this Russian classic.
The Presidential Race
For those of you with a desire to get a sense of Azerbaijan, here is your first installment of a self-titled series "Brand Azerbaijan." I assume this video was created by the Tourism and Promotion branch of the government, thus the soothing music and well-produced imagery. I might have added a bit more concrete information and voiceovers to the video had I been its creator as the idea of someone spending six minutes watching images of Azerbaijan seems a bit unrealistic to me.
Roads and Votes
So, after only one week in Baku, I was lucky to be invited on a weekend trip to Lenkoran, a small town on the Caspian south of Baku. The five hour drive from Baku was draining at times as much of the travel was through very industrial, nondescript areas over pot-holded Soviet-made roads alternating with newer, improved ones. Nevertheless, I learned first-hand how many different climates there are in the tiny state of Azerbaijan as these rather mundane landscapes gradually evolved into more fertile ones, and by the time we arrived in Lenkoran, we are ensconced in green mountains, oak tree canopies, and clean, pollution free breezes.
There is surely a different feel to the countryside in Azerbaijan as compared to cosmopolitan Baku. Besides being just 10km from the Iranian border, there was a similar feel to the villages we passed through as I experienced in Iran. Yet the differences were clear as well, as red wine and Russian vodka appeared at dinner. Unable to watch the Roland Garros tennis final on Sunday, I found (along with another intrepid tennis fan in the group) an old, run-down astroturf tennis court associated with the local chapter of the Azerbaijan Olympic Committee. The game was kind of awkward and a bit hot in the blazing sun (the sun in Azerbaijan, much like the wind, seems to take no prisoners) but fun nonetheless.
Some out-takes from the weekend above include our cabins, our bus (which seemed to always be on the verge of a collision or accident of some sort), my attempts at getting arty at dinner, the indoor stadium at the regional Olympic center and the entrance to Lenkoran.
Full Moon Hotel
Generally speaking, Baku has turned out to be a remarkably easy adjustment. There seems to be a pretty organized and liveable vibe to the city, with just enough hustle and bustle without the annoyances of congestion and excessive traffic. I really lucked out with my accommodation, which is a 1BR apartment right smack in the center of the city. It is nestled on a small side street between the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) building and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation building. I am also adjacent to the Old City of Baku, which sounds like a great area to explore.
The general vibe in the city is really nice, it feels like a cross between Istanbul and Tehran both in terms of the city layout and the general look of the people. English is not widely spoken, yet there is a willingness to meet you halfway linguistically that usually resolves any questions or issues. You can feel that the country is prosperous economically, yet in a far more muted way than in Dubai. Old buildings and museums are being restored and some newer ones are being built, but the underlying skeleton, both in terms of urban layout and culture, appears to be quite secure. Although predominantly Shiite Muslim, mosques are few and far between. In fact, I can only recall seeing one mosque and one Orthodox church since being here.
My internship has started off really well. The Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy is a great group of people and already they have included me in various lectures and events. Yesterday, we had the slightly surreal experience of attending the 15th annual Caspian Oil & Gas Fair featuring a variety of obscure engineering innovations for oil drilling in addition to publicity for pipelines which to my knowledge, were not actually being built yet. The highlight of the fair was probably two cheerleader-esque women in tight outfits promoting a drilling company, surrounded by admiring Russian men. Ah, viva Baku!
This Pearl of Dubai has been a bit out of the blogosphere lately as my year in Dubai led to graduate school and less time for Pearls and Dubais. However, this summer I will be in Baku, Azerbaijan doing an internship at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. My interest in Azerbaijan perhaps stems from experiences in Dubai -- Azerbaijan is another small, energy-rich country with high strategic value and complex political and social challenges. So, keep visiting for news and photos from what should be a fascinating summer!
Tyler Brule, the founder of Wallpaper Magazine, recently started a new one called Monocle. I wrote a small blurb about Dubai in their current February issue. If I could be a magazine, I would probably be Monocle. Some describe it as "the Economist meets Vanity Fair." Or, current international affairs with a stylish slant. Whatever it is, I love this magazine. Look for it next time at the newsstand.