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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

The next morning, back in Baku, I head to the City Lights B ar on the 17th floor of the Radisson Hotel. There, I order a portion of caviar: $36 worth, enough to feed at least four. The caviar is a mixture of beluga and osetra, hence not as pure as the highly prized beluga alone, but it hits all the right briny, buttery notes. I stand there looking out over the harbor, where a small contingent of warships has anchored, shoving caviar in my mouth, remembering that the last time I ate Caspian caviar with a spoon was during my childhood in Leningrad. After carefully licking the empty jar , I decide to go for a swim in the same waters as the fish that produced these eggs. Shikhov Beach, slightly south of the city, is a popular place for overcooked Azerbaijanis in the summertime. On this day, the waters seem clearer than on my last visit to Azerbaijan; the wind has blown some of the oily residue out to sea and is now tickling my bare back. Three oil rigs the size of skyscrapers squat in the distance, while children play volleyball next to me, albeit with a soccer ball and no net. I try not to swallow the thick, green water, but after my brief dip, my bathing suit, my towel, and my sunburned shoulders all smell vaguely of petroleum.

On one of my last days in Azerbaijan, Aydin and I head up along the Sumgayit highway to a roadside restaurant called Ruslan. We are traveling through the Absheron Peninsula . Polluted even in Soviet times, Absh eron is a spent wasteland of salt beds, slurry, oil derricks, and various other examples of man's inhumanity to nature. Despite smelling, for the most part, like the warm armpit of an orangutan, the peninsula is home to a good portion of Azerbaijan's citizens. Surrounded by the industrial cacophony, Ruslan is an oasis, tucked away in a grove of trees beneath a mighty railroad overpass. The owners are Kurdish, refugees from Azerbaijan's conflict with neighboring Armenia. With typical local ingenuity, they have turned a group of ­construction ­workers' cabins, once used to house fellow immigrants, into the restaurant and a series of gaily painted love shacks. I am told by Aydin and his older associate, who is nicknamed Ali Baba, that for 20 dollars one can have sex in the cabins (bring your own lover), eat like a king, and then leave. Thankfully, we are here only to eat. We chase vodka with sour plums, then dig into a meal of lula kebab, a skewer of flaky mutton meatballs. "See the pools of juice on your plate," says Ali Baba, who is twice as old and four times as experienced as either Aydin or myself. "That's because the mutton was minced by hand over a tree stump. They don't use meat grinders here."

Aydin, who has a master's degree in oil production and the thin wrists of an educated Soviet city boy, complains that the foreigners get preferential treatment in the oil industry, leaving him (and me) to lug refrigerators up flights of stairs. "They come here," he says of the expatriates, "and they think they're in Africa. They don't realize how educated we are, how we were once part of a great superpower."

We drink to his success, to our friendship, to our families ("the holiest of all," according to Ali Baba). After many vodka shots, Ali Baba raises his final toast. "May I drive you home safely," he says. I walk past the samovar and the smoking grill pit to admire the façade of one of Ruslan's tidy love shacks—a bright painting of lush blue-green mountains, a ­ bubbling silver brook, and a precisely rendered little village hanging onto a cliff. It takes me a while to realize that this scene, painted upon a cabin once meant for Soviet construction workers, then for Kurdish refugees, then for local lovers, is of the land from which the restaurant's owners were evicted. Here, amidst the refineries and oil derricks of modern Azerbaijan, is a melancholy, but hopeful, interpretation of home.

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