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An Azerbaijani American in Baku

Farzin Farzad

Every morning I pass by an impressive statue on my walk to campus. The protagonist is a commanding figure, riding his horse through the clouds, pointing his scimitar toward the sky. It stands on a tall stone base that pushes the total height to about 23 meters (25 yards). It commands attention.

The first time I walked past it, I immediately knew what it was. I looked at the base to confirm and read KOROGLU in big metal letters. I should probably have expected to see a giant statue of possibly the Turkic world’s most famous hero in Baku, but I honestly was struck. I’m sure every visiting ethnic Azerbaijani from Iran like myself had the same reaction at some point. 

Koroglu literally translates to “son of a blind man.” He’s the main character of a series of folk tales that my father would tell me as a child as I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. By now, I have forgotten much of Koroglu’s adventures, but some of the tales still resonate.

I remember that when my father spoke of the Epic of Koroglu, at times he would get excited and use emphatic gestures. But as he told the stories, he would snicker intermittently like it was something of the past that had been replaced by more civilized Persian stories. As if it were an oral tradition only known to villagers, while the more educated and elite were teaching their kids stories from the Shahnameh. It was the expression of a man who knew that his culture, identity, and national heroes were withering away and had come to terms with it. Koroglu was something of the past.

This nostalgia in some way was passed on down to me. I guess that was the reason that I became so emotional upon first glance at the statue honoring this tale. 

I came to Baku for several reasons: to become educated on the region, to perfect my Azerbaijani language skills for which I never in my life had received formal education, and to scout possible opportunities. But I think subconsciously I’m here to learn more about the intricacies of my own culture that I was never exposed to, partially because of the fact that I hail from the ethnic Azerbaijani minority in Iran who are denied cultural expression, and partly because growing up in the States made it difficult to learn about and experience these things. It is as much a journey of self-discovery as it is anything else.

Before I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. On one end, working at the Karabakh Foundation and within the Azerbaijani community in D.C. gave me a grandiose impression of what Azerbaijan would be like. I had seen photos of the beautiful Azerbaijani countryside and the amazing construction projects, witnessed beautiful Azerbaijani dances and musical performances, and had been a frequent consumer of Azerbaijani cuisine. I had kept up with Azerbaijan’s economic, political, and social development. Despite this, I was still quite naïve about the country. We all know that nothing compares with firsthand experience. 

I have to admit that after five months living here, I’m still as confused about this city as I was when I came. Baku is a city of contradictions. It’s a city of both excess and insufficiency, of progress and conservatism, passion and stoicism, color and blandness. It’s both European and Asian, simultaneously post-Soviet and modern.

And as such, my feelings about Baku are torn. If I were to say my stay here has been perfect, I’d be lying. I grew in the D.C. area, where I took for granted simple conveniences. And while my living conditions are by no means bad—for many things I was actually quite impressed) as my hosts have done their best to ensure that I have everything I need—there are still bureaucratic messes that one has to overcome.

But after some reflection, I don’t think that I would want it any other way. I would be bored otherwise. I came here to open a new chapter in my life, start an adventure, and now I realize that this is exactly what I wanted. There is an interesting charm about the dichotomous nature of this city. 

I think the only thing about Azerbaijan that doesn’t seem to have an opposing side is the amazing sense of hospitality that is embedded into the people here.

While Baku is a little more Western in orientation and has a colder “big city” feel than some other parts of Azerbaijan, one can still regularly experience the generosity of strangers who are willing to almost give you everything to make sure your experience is nothing short of perfect. I consistently struggle to pay for my own meals and coffee when I’m out with friends. This is, of course, much more pronounced when one visits the regions outside of Baku, where people live simpler lives. 

Throughout my time in Baku, I got a chance to see a number of amazing sites. My favorite thing to do by far is to take a night stroll through the city’s gorgeous Caspian-side promenade from the Old City toward the Flame Towers, which dominate the night skyline. On occasion, I’ll take the funicular up to Martyrs’ Alley, which has one of the best views of the Baku. It’s a wonderful blend of old and new.

A quick trip to Gobustan will afford a glimpse into the lives of the regions earliest inhabitants. Other great sites within the Baku city limits are the Maiden’s Tower in the Old City and the Carpet Museum. Complete the day with a trip to one of Baku’s Turkish-style hamams (bath house) and you’re guaranteed to sleep like a rock. 

The restaurants in Azerbaijan are amazing, especially those serving local fare. Anyone who enjoys Middle Eastern cuisine will definitely appreciate Azerbaijani cooking. I especially find it quite nostalgic because it is quite close to some of the foods that my mother and grandmother made at home, but with interesting twists. It seems to be a perfect blend of different tastes for the region, and it is never boring.

I still reminisce about the quantity and quality of the food that I had during the fall apple festival in Quba and the pomegranate festival in Qoychay. Both seemed like giant outdoor all-you-can-eat buffets where you could be indulging on numerous foods made with the particular fruit of choice in one minute and then watching a breathtaking Azerbaijani dance performance the next.

If you’re lucky enough to be invited to an Azerbaijani wedding, which is quite easy actually, you’ll even get to learn some of these dances yourself. The fruit festivals usually end with performances by Azerbaijan’s most renowned musicians. 

Azerbaijan is a country that is trying to revive its rich culture yet modernize at the speed of light. The country is simultaneously exploring its past and stepping into the future. While reviving and preserving its age-old music and dance, it’s also aspiring to build the tallest and most innovative buildings on Earth.

For me, Azerbaijan is seeing the statue of Koroglu every morning before attending class at my new state-of-the-art campus.

Post Written by Farzin Farzad. Farzin is a former program officer for the Karabakh Foundation and currently a student at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy and International Affairs.