Azerbaijan International

Winter 1994 (2.4)
Pages 14-18, 68

Baku Diary
Inching Towards the West

by Susan Cornnell

Photo: Evidence of the influence of the West on East.
New store named "Texas" in suburbs of Baku. June 1994.

A Glimpse of City Life for the Westerner

Today, September 20, 1994, as I sit writing this column, it seems the East has nudged a little bit closer to the West. The long-awaited contract between the Western Oil Consortium and Azerbaijan's State Oil Company (SOCAR) has just been signed. With a single stroke of the pen, both my fondest and most anxious dreams for Azerbaijan may both be transformed into realities. I sit here wondering how access to money from this multi-billion dollar project and the influx of hundreds of Westerners with their technology, culture, business practices and, even, fashions will affect this Eastern land?

Photo: Street artist in Baku so reminiscent of European street scenes.

"East is East and West is West and ne'er the twain shall meet" goes the old saying that Rudyard Kipling coined nearly a century ago. But it ain't necessarily so here in Baku. The truth is that the East has gradually been inching towards the West for the past three years and during the most recent months, evidence exists that the face of this old city has significantly altered despite the incredible economic hardships these people are experiencing.

For example, a lot of us remember when the first Volvo came to town; most of us in the Western community knew who owned it. But things have changed; now there are dozens of Mercedes, Volvos, and Renaults jamming the already crowded streets of Baku.

Take fashion. Only a short while ago, Azerbaijanis were peeling off layers of Soviet "fashion" and putting on the most colorful thing that rubles could buy. A rebellion against monotony brought out a riot of color. Nowadays the streets are full of young people-guys and gals strolling, or perhaps I should say, "strutting" around in the latest Western styles.

Birth of the Market Economy

Then, there are Western products coming in the back door. Two and a half years ago, there were only state stores, state stores, and more state stores. Then one day, some guy got the idea to take a little table out in the street, put out a tube of toothpaste, two pairs of socks and ten boxes of matches and, basically, that's how private enterprise was born. At first, the police chased these little entrepreneurs away, but now they're flourishing. "Kommissyon" shops seem to be opening every hour and feature a wide range of Western goods. People never knew they needed ironing boards until they saw them in the shops. The Western mentality of consumerism and materialism is starting to run rampant. Even Adidas and Benetton (a British clothing company) have opened their doors here during these past two months. And there's talk of McDonald's coming soon.

I remember when the first foreign cosmetics salon opened here more than a year ago-Gilbert Granville of Paris. Even my British friend waited in line three hours to see the brilliant displays laden with brightly colored eye shadows, waves of mascara wands and beauty products. Guards, barriers, and crowd control were part of doing business during those early months. But now the crowds are gone since the products are available elsewhere. Meanwhile, Granville charges dollars for their goods.

Technology Still Lagging Behind

Western technology is still an unraveling mystery especially when it comes to two basic tools that we in the West consider absolutely essential-computers and copy machines. Kids in Baku, not to mention those living in the outlying regions, barely have a clue about video games, pocket computers or lap-tops. The computers that are occasionally found in an office are considered "antique" by Western standards with their giant processors and totally incompatible software.

Photo: Street Vendor in Baku: The birth of the market economy in the former Soviet Republics. (Photo February 94)

There are two major problems in introducing modern computers into Azerbaijan-first of all, the keyboards which need to have a modified Latin keyboard to handle Azerbaijani and secondly, the voltage requirements. Western keyboards simply won't work for Russian or Azeri texts. There are, of course, Russian keyboards. But when it comes to the newly adopted Azeri alphabet, there are several characters that are totally unique only to Azerbaijani (See Azerbaijan International, September 1993, "An Editor's Nightmare-the Upside-Down e", page 40). There are software packages with the Azeri fonts, but the problem is interfacing them with Macintoshes or on old IBMs.

Then you may have a voltage or outlet problem-transformers and converters may be required and they simply aren't available. I have a flimsily-built power pack for my VCR and somehow local folks are geniuses at taking a few wires, some coil and building their own transformers. But you never know when you'll have a power surge or an outage that can blow your hard disk.

Photocopiers and Cash Registers

Here's how you make photocopies: you take a taxi to the edge of town, enter a huge waiting room where dozens of people are clutching their grandmother's passport, a school diploma or a set of blueprints. Once an hour a little, stooped-over lady appears with a stack of papers and everyone descends upon her. This is the Copy Center and the equipment must be hand-fed. Nor can the machine collate, copy on different sized paper, or on two sides. If you're lucky, you may have to wait only a few hours, but most Westerners don't have the patience to wait even a few minutes, so they leave and come back the next day or next week.

Photo: The equipment for photocopying is very outdated. Here copies are being made at Azerbaijan's largest library, the Akhundov Library. It usually takes at least a day to get material such as newspapers copied. Photo: June 1994.

Many offices and schools do have copy machines, but they are continually breaking down. Maintenance is non-existent, repairmen are few and overworked. Copy paper is at a premium and spare parts and toner cartridges must be brought in from other countries.

When it comes to handling money, you'll often see these giant cash registers about the size of a desk. There's one problem since the price of items has changed so radically from 6 kopecks to 6,000 manats, it's impossible to ring up such large figures. Besides, the abacus has always been tried and true-why mess around with that behemoth with all those keys that requires dozens of entries when just a few beads will do the trick? It still amuses me when a storekeeper rapidly tallies my purchases on the abacus and then points to the beads, thinking I know how to read them.

Hand-held calculators are incredibly popular. Every money changer and "bank" (which means any store front that can put a sign in the window displaying the exchange rate) handles this little device with greatest of ease and accuracy.

Photo: Evidence of the influence of the West is clearly seen in the fashion on the streets in Baku. Photo: Oleg Litvin.

Admiration for the West

Yes, the West is moving East and the East is responding in a big way. Take the fascination with learning English. In Baku, my American style of dress and physical features easily mark me as a foreigner. I'm constantly greeted on the street or in the Metro by strangers. They'll come up to me and say, "My name is Roshan." "What's your name?" or "I love you!" or "Can you teach my child / my husband / or me English?"

And I do teach English to some first graders at a private Azeri school. Curiously, observers and parents often outnumber the students. There are even daily English language radio and TV broadcasts here. Can you believe? "Santa Barbara" is Hollywood's hottest soap opera and has become the indicator of American culture for Azerbaijanis.

The shocking thing about this part of the world becoming a little more Western is how rapidly it all has happened. Literally, in one short year, the look of Baku has changed dramatically. You now find neon signs, modern store fronts and attractive window displays. Even the concept of packaging and shelf arrangement is developing into an art.

Further East - Change is Slower

Some of my friends and I recently traveled even further east to the "Spice Capitals" of Uzbekistan-Samarkand and Bukhara. There, the East is still very East. Many men and women still wear the national "costumes", not Western dress like the Azeris do. Most men wear the "tubeteyka" hats and many women still prefer the "sharavari" (an A-line dress worn over wide-legged pants). There is still a lack of Western goods in the markets and bazaars; the flavor of the cities still remains distinctively Eastern.

Hospitality Still Deeply Valued

Thankfully, some traditions in Azerbaijan die hard; those are the customs and characteristics of this nation. I can't say it enough-Azeris are among the most hospitable people in the world! Dinner at an Azeri home is an awesome event. As guests, they always bring a gift for the hostess but sometimes when I've been the guest, I've even received gifts in return! Never mind the sumptuous meal that probably cost a month's salary.

Photo: Azerbaijanis are well known for their hospitality.

Foreigners are still treated as dignitaries as most homes have yet to be visited by someone from abroad. They still extend courtesy to strangers, respect the elderly, and help each other. These customs mark East as East. People still care about each other and feel responsible for each other. They still give up their seats on the Metro to women, to the elderly, and to soldiers. They still assist ladies across the busily trafficked streets. They still walk a lady home. They still allow their kids to be hugged and held by strangers. Women and girls still stroll hand-in-hand down the street; and men, both old and young, greet each other with a warm embrace and kiss on the cheek.

Azerbaijan is a warm, friendly place where no one is considered a stranger but simply a friend that has not yet been met. Homes are always open, tea is always ready to be served; and nothing is more important than your fellow human. Individualism is not the trend yet; so far, "no man is an island to himself" in Azerbaijan.

Let the East stay as East. West is not necessarily best, just another perspective. To tell you the truth, I find myself saddened by many of the rapid changes I see taking place here among the customs that used to seem so foreign and exotic to me only two years ago. Now I feel so close to Azerbaijan-like it's my heart and home. May the Eastern soul never depart this land. May the rich cultural heritage and traditions of the Azeri people live on in their hearts and minds forever.

From Azerbaijan International (2.4) Autumn 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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