Winter 2002 (10.4)
Snow Scenes in Baku
by Susan Cornnell
in the snow near the funicular, winter 2003. Baku residents hadn't
seen a snowfall quite so heavy as this one for the past 20 years.
Note the minarets of a new mosque emerging in the background
(Photo: Olga Mammadova).
It's February, and it's
been snowing here in Baku for the last couple of days. It's quite
a sight! Palm fronds laced in white! Snow is rather rare here.
Three continuous days of the stuff, and the lively, playful nature
of the people is emerging all over the place. They are amazed
and joyful, even cavalier as they palm together little "messages
of mischief" to toss mostly at strangers. Then you'll see
an elderly little fellow take a tumble and the snowballs are
dropped as everybody runs to grab an elbow, dust off his bag
and help "Baba" go precariously on his way.
During the 20 years that I used to live in Boston, snow always
meant organized rows of giant plows, meteorologists' forecasts,
school cancellations and snarled traffic. In Baku, it means,
"Let's be kids again!" It's like a Winter Carnival!
As a few cars venture out over the unplowed streets, young boys
grab hold of rear bumpers so that they can be dragged, slipping
and sliding along as the vehicles bump down cobblestone streets.
In every park, perfectly dignified young men toss young ladies
(pretending to be indignant) into snowbanks. Few buses are running,
and in the traffic circles, cars squirm to get a grip. Snow tires,
plows, chains and salt are unknown here in this sunny capital.
To get anywhere reliably, people walk or take the Metro.
Carpets are hauled outside into the snow. Water is a problem
here and vacuum cleaners, scarce, so whenever God sends a natural
cleanser, they drag their carpets out, cover them with snow,
swish them around, and hang them on lines or over balconies and
"beat the daylights" out of them.
So, anyway, I'll make my point. I come from a land of predictability,
order and systems - where there's an organized plan for everything.
Now that I'm here in Baku, I'm beginning to learn a new way of
living from the generous-hearted people of Azerbaijan.
I was a corporate executive in the travel industry for 17 years.
Things worked, appointments were kept, strategies were displayed
on overhead projectors and even leisure time was scheduled on
the essential pocket calendar.
But in Azerbaijan, that list of hundreds of things "to do"
has been replaced with an attitude of "whatever-gets-done-today-is-great!"
The most important thing I can do is get to know someone. Somehow,
Azerbaijanis still cling to the belief that it's people who make
all the difference, and that, in the long run, relationships
are one's most highly prized possessions.
Let's say you have to rent a hall for a meeting, like I did the
other day. In my previous life, I would simply have made a telephone
call, scheduled an appointment with the manager's secretary,
arrived at the appointed time with my proposal in hand, been
prepared to negotiate and then finally signed the contract.
Photos (left and below): First snow for Alsu
Hajibabirova and so many young children like her, since this
was the deepest snow that Baku had experienced in nearly 20 years
(Photo: Arzu Aghayeva)
But here you find out
that it's still extremely difficult to set up appointments by
phone. You can try, but it takes a great effort. You pray, you
punch those numbers on that "Western phone" you bought
at the local "Commission" shop and hope that the number
goes through. You soon realize that the most important key on
your touch-tone phone is the "redial" button. A busy
signal can mean one of two things: either the line really is
busy, or it might just be dead. So you keep trying. It can take
several attempts to make the right connection. In fact, dialing
five times can get you five different parties, not one of them
the person you were originally trying to reach.
Once you do get through, don't be surprised if you're suddenly
interrupted by another person who cuts into your conversation.
If they know your language, they may find your conversation more
interesting than theirs, but more often than not, they'll listen
in and sometimes even ask to join in.
The other day I had to rent a hall. I didn't call; I simply stopped
by the office of the director. He welcomed me , saying, "Oh,
come in and have some tea!" Now, he had no idea of the purpose
of my visit, but he didn't press me. He was just interested in
becoming friends. It turned out that he is a Member of Parliament,
a famous author, and, like me, loves photography.
Nazim Hajiyev, Baku, Winter 2002)
We had a lively exchange
for quite some time. Finally, I felt compelled to state my mission,
which by then somehow seemed so intrusive on our marvelous conversation.
But in 30 seconds, the business aspect was concluded. "Whatever
I can do for you, I'm at your service." There was no need
to negotiate or sign a contract. Sometime later on, we'll agree
on a mutually acceptable price, but that's a mere detail compared
to the greater task that we accomplished in laying the foundation
In the two years that I've been living here in Azerbaijan, I've
come to realize that getting anything done involves an incredible
amount of time. Here, you're dealing with people, not plans.
Friendships take priority, not schedules.
Well, you say, that's not such an efficient way to do business
- all this tea and these niceties. But the Azerbaijani people
are known for their hospitality. It doesn't matter if you're
in a corporate boardroom or a refugee tent, you'll find that
their first priority is always in getting to know you. Maybe
that's why the life-expectancy rate for many of the people here
in the Caucasus is among the highest in the world: less stress,
It's a value that is inherent in the Azerbaijani character. These
people are survivors. They have survived generations of oppressive
rule, from invaders and cruel khans to organized socialism and
the deprivation of their individual worth. Now their lives are
being torn apart by a struggle with a bordering country.
Azerbaijanis are used to disappointment. They're used to their
"well-laid" plans and orderly lives being pulled out
from under them. One day they can be preparing bread in their
home, and the next, plodding across snowy mountain passes and
forging rivers in search of shelter - even a simple tent - to
protect them from the hostile elements. The indomitable character
of the Azerbaijani people has survived - not because of plans,
but because of relationships.
Maybe we don't know so much about this in our "civilized"
Western world. Most of us don't know what it's like to experience
war within our own borders. We don't have a "Martyr's Lane"
where graves are being dug on nearly a daily basis for our young
soldier sons. We haven't had to invite our cousins and their
families to live with us in cramped two-room apartments, sharing
limited resources because their own homes were looted and burned
by the enemy.
If we had experienced such tragedy, perhaps, we would better
understand the value of human life. We would realize that we
weren't placed on this earth just to hustle through it. Perhaps
we'd stop more often to share a cup of tea or a meal - "bread
and salt", as they say.
Some Azerbaijani ways may be difficult for us Westerners to understand.
We look askance at men kissing each other and at women walking
down the street holding hands. Ours is a mentality that places
great emphasis on individual expression, but often ignores how
our actions affect others. But here in Azerbaijan, relationships
are primary. And when Azerbaijanis say, "Khosh Galmishsiniz"
(Welcome!), they really mean it.
So, if you're privileged to visit this land where telephones
may still be rather temperamental, where electrical and water
shortages are the norm, where nothing seems to work in a systematic,
predictable way, then let me suggest one thing. Leave your American
Express card at home, along with all those well-organized, immaculate
proposals. First, come and establish deep friendships with the
Azerbaijani people. All the rest will follow in its own time.
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AI 10.4 (Winter 2002)
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