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Exploring Azerbaijan

Oberto Gili Two people stand in front of a Soviet-era World War II memorial in Krasnaya Sloboda, home to Azerbaijan's Mountain Jews.

Photo: Oberto Gili

Azerbaijan is democratic and lawful is one of the billboard sayings attributed to the country's recently deceased dictator, Heydar Aliyev, which for many of its citizens would be true enough if "democratic" were changed to "kleptocratic" and the first l dropped from "lawful." The onetime Soviet republic, whose outline resembles a fierce bird dipping its beak into the Caspian Sea, is stuck between Russia to the north and Iran to the south—hardly a place where you would want to open up a lemonade stand, much less a modern free-market democracy. And yet, for all its troubles, Azerbaijan carries on. Its people, hypereducated in Soviet times, are kind, friendly, and decent, though often driven by tough economic circumstances to ­record-breaking levels of patronage and graft. The oil industry keeps pumping money into the pockets of local politicos as well as the vast coffers of concerns like British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. And the country's rich, bloody history astride the tectonic plate at the conjunction of Russia, Persia, and Turkey makes it one of the most fascinating and—­every once in a while—beautiful places in the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan offers more than just the usual litany of crumbling palaces and grilled meats. The country is a true reality tour, a catalogue of everything that is wrong with the world at the beginning of the 21st century and a vibrant portrait of how life is lived by the majority of humankind—which is to say with difficulty, ingenuity, piety, and unshakable pride.

The first thing one should do, after getting ripped off by the taxi drivers at the airport, is head to the Mirvari Café by the Baku waterfront. The capital city is often compared to an amphitheater built around the polluted green stage of the Caspian Sea, and the open-air Mirvari, whose roof resembles a series of overturned mussel shells, provides the visitor with an orchestra seat. I order a plate of sturgeon kebabs and unfurl the Russian-language newspaper, the Echo. The front page has an article titled "The Black Economy of Azerbaijan is Equal to That of Nigeria," explaining that 60 percent of the Azerbaijani gross national product is off the books. I pour a tart pomegranate sauce over the grilled sturgeon, which, while not the best in town, still manages to be both crisp and mealy, a combination that goes down well with a bottle of Khirdalan, the heavy local lager. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, but the influence of religion here is moderate enough for women to promenade down the waterfront in tank tops and Daisy Duke shorts, although men, oddly enough, are confined to heavy-collared shirts and sweltering gray trousers usually held up by stiff cardboard-like belts. The harbor rocks to the sound of Turkish disco music, and oil derricks, shimmering beneath the afternoon sun, crowd one end of the bay. A nearby billboard shows the deceased Aliyev standing in front of the Baku skyline next to his son, Azerbaijan's new president, Ilham Aliyev, in a pose that seems to suggest the caption: "Son, do you want to take over a small oil-rich country when I'm gone?" I swallow my last fish kebab and look around. Sea, oil, nepotism, sturgeon, the black economy, women showing off their barely clad hips—I have Azerbaijan before me on a platter.

Like most cities of the former U.S.S.R., Baku has a solid inventory of dogmatic Soviet-style museums (State Museum of Carpets and Applied Art, anyone?), but the capital's true cultural draw is its eclectic architecture. After lunch, I visit the compact Old Town. The Maiden's Tower, which guards the waterfront, is perhaps the most famous of Baku's tourist sights. The ancient eight-story fortress, whose true purpose has never been ascertained (good guesses include a fire beacon, an astronomic observatory, and a Zoroastrian temple), is an unduplicated architectural wonder: a round structure with a single buttress pillar projecting from its eastern side. Estimates for when the original tOWER was built range from 600 b.c. to the 12th century, but the ribbed wedge of the buttress gives it an almost futuristic feel, as if it were an enormous piece of postmodern furniture. A hike up to the tower's top reveals a vista of the carpet shops and minarets of the Old Town in one direction, the sea dotted with oil tankers in another, and, facing away from the bay, the higgledy-piggledy onslaught of new residential skyscrapers that make parts of the city look like a miniature São Paulo.

The Old Town itself is remarkably devoid of tourists: its many carpet sellers call after the rare foreign visitor with a profound glottal cry. In the daytime, it is a child's wonderland, filled almost exclusively with happy little post-Soviet tykes kicking soccer balls past the low domes of the hammam . The Old Town's gem is the 15th-century palace of the Shirvan-Shahs, complete with a harem, mosque, family mausoleum, and the shah's supreme court. The latter features a delicate eight-sided pagoda where the shah sat and communicated with the condemned through a hole in the ground (only the poor fellow's head was visible). Elegant Kufic calligraphy graces the walls of the compound. The crescent of the Old Town is ringed by an assortment of fin de siècle mansions built during Baku's first oil boom, which brought prospectors with surnames like Nobel and Rothschild to the dusty shores of the Caspian , and provided Lev Nussimbaum (a.k.a. Kurban Said) with the cosmopolitan setting of his celebrated novel Ali and Nino. Like newly rich immigrants everywhere, the oil magnates went crazy with the money and the ornamentation, ending up with a mélange of styles, from Moorish to Persian to Italian Renaissance. The overall results, however, are impressive. In the course of a five-minute walk I encountered a city hall that could hold its own against the Hôtel de Ville in Paris; a colorful local take on Venice's Palazzo Contarini; and a wedding hall that would not be out of place amid the neo-Gothic quads of the University of Chicago.

When the merciless sun sets, or at least laggardly tips toward the horizon, it is time to experience Azerbaijan's other treasure: dinner. This requires disabusing oneself of any preconceptions one may have about mutton. The Azerbaijani kitchen cooks up a fearsome shashlik, or "mutton kebab," the meat usually taken from the loin or hind leg, seasoned with spring onions, put on a spit, and roasted over a charcoal fire. While the best shashlik is usually found outside the capital, the Karvansaray restaurant in the Old Town has a light touch with the grill and also comes up with delicious mutton plov (pilaf) and dolma. Substandard versions of dolma can be found in many Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants in the States, but the Azerbaijani kind are the real deal: vine leaves, peppers, and tomatoes stuffed to bursting with rice and large juicy chunks of mutton. The plov is mutton and rice tossed with onions, dried grapes, apricots, and chestnuts. The combination of sweet fruit and flavorful salty meat is delectable.

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