Summer 2000 (8.2)
Typical scenes in "The Passage"
Above: Watch seller, Vladimir
Slavin, showing wares to Vafa Mastanova of Azerbaijan International's
staff. Photo: Khanlou
"Watches for sale!" "Rare antiques, right here!"
"Paintings of the Old City!" You're likely to hear
at least some of these phrases - in English - at the Passage,
an outdoor shopping area where Baku vendors sell items to passersby.
Many of the vendors sell pieces of artwork, especially ones that
feature scenes of Ichari Shahar (Inner City). Antiques, silverware
and watches also compete for the buyer's attention.
are a regular feature in the Passage. Often someone is there
to sketch portraits. Photo: Khanlou
The Passage, also known as Torgovaya Street, used to have a tram
line. Nearly 20 years ago, it was closed to traffic and made
accessible only to pedestrians. After Perestroika, vendors started
selling paintings and other items there. Before Perestroika,
they did so illegally. Today, everyone who sells items at the
Passage has to have a license. Each vendor pays about $400 in
taxes to the government per year.
Above: Typical scenes along
the busy thoroughfare of the Passage where vendors sell all sorts
of wares. Photo: Khanlou
Vladimir Slavin, 54, has sold watches on this street for the
past five years. Slavin was born in Baku and spent most of his
life in the Soviet Army. Nine years ago, he retired on his pension.
Slavin has two children and two grandchildren; his son and grandchildren
now live in Chicago.
As you might expect, Slavin insists that his watches are of high
quality - not fakes. "The watches are made in Moscow, Tatarstan
and the Ural mountains," Slavin insists. "Every year
the styles change. For example, last week I was in Moscow and
I brought back some new styles."
Often, customers try to bargain with him or ask for a discount,
but Slavin says that he has to stick with the price list that
he's been given by the company. He receives a 5 percent commission
on every sale.
Slavin's customers are usually foreigners. He says that while
Azerbaijanis can appreciate the quality of his watches, they
don't have any money to buy them. For example, his least expensive
watch costs about $20. For most Azerbaijanis, this would be their
whole monthly salary.
One mark of being a good salesman is the ability to speak the
language of the customer - in this case, English. "I learned
English in school," says Slavin. "Today, to be successful
in my job, I have to speak English all the time. My duty is to
give the customer information about my watches. I repeat the
same phrases a thousand times a day.
"Every foreigner speaks English. Nearby is the French Embassy,
around another corner is the German Embassy. All of them speak
English. Even if I see a Chinese person, I speak English to them."
Slavin is amazed about how attitudes towards foreigners have
changed so dramatically in Baku. "Nearly 40 years ago,"
says Slavin, "when I was quite young, I met two foreigners
in this place, and they were speaking English. At the time, seeing
foreigners was very rare in our city; it was almost as if Martians
had dropped in for a visit. I went up to them and began speaking
English, saying things like: 'How do you do? How do you like
"A few minutes later, two men came up to me and took me
to the police station. They asked me what I had been talking
about with the two foreigners. One of them told me, 'You need
to realize that every foreigner is a spy. If you don't want to
get sent to Siberia, never speak with foreigners. They are all
"At that time, we were very afraid of foreigners. After
that incident, I tried to forget English. After I graduated from
the Institute and went into the Soviet Army, I used to teach
my soldiers never to speak with foreigners. But today is a new
day and I speak English to foreigners openly without being afraid.
In fact, English speakers are my best customers."
Located off Fountain Square
Corner of Khagani and Rasul Reza Streets
You'll see a
real mix of quality and items, but it's worth a stroll. And if
you see something you like, don't walk on by. It's not likely
to be there the next time you come back.
(8.2) Summer 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.
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AI 8.2 (Summer 2000)
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