If you want to experience a semi-desert climate, a subtropical climate and a cold and dry winter all in one country, you should think about visiting Azerbaijan. Situated along the Caspian sea in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan has 9 out of the 11 climatic zones present in the entire world.
Azerbaijan is an independent country bordered by Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Turkey to the west. Azerbaijan is a relatively small country compared to its famous neighbours. It consists of only 86, 600 km2, but within it, it has nearly everything a country needs. It is full of natural resources, the soil of the country is very fertile and the different climatic zones provide Azerbaijan with landscapes that will take your breath away. Alongside this breath-taking nature, Baku, the capital city also offers a mixture of historical buildings and new skyscrapers that are comparable to the ones in Dubai.
Konul, a PHD student who has been studying at the University of Antwerp for a year and a half, is from Baku. She has nicely accepted to tell us more about her wonderful country.
What was it like growing up in Azerbaijan?
I actually had three phases during my childhood.
1. My early childhood coincides with the Soviet regime. I remember that we lived in a three room apartment; a Soviet one. We were two kids and my mum was a geography teacher and my dad was an engineer working in a plant and that was very normal for that time. We had free healthcare, kindergarten and schooling. Everybody was equal since everybody was a teacher or an engineer and the teachers were very respected in those times. People used to say that if you have a teacher, a doctor or an engineer you had everything you needed. I remember my parents saying that we worked a lot and gained very little. We used to say that the Russians could have a higher standard of living while the other countries worked a lot. We had to work and supply Moscow. But I was happy and I think they [my parents] were quite happy.
2. Then there was the 1990s. That year, I still remember there were some protests going on in the country. That was the end of the Soviet regime and the people started fighting. We still call it Black January. Soviet troops invaded the city, hundreds of people were killed. I was so afraid. I still remember my mum telling my dad “don’t go out ” because there were tanks, troops. It was so frustrating.
Then we were on enemy terms with Armenia. Some 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory was occupied by invaders.
3. In 1994, there was a ceasefire and a change in the regime. There was a new presidential election. There were new rules. In 2000, that was the year I graduated from school and then I had to work in order to be able to study.
I do not have much experience living with minorities groups because they live in certain towns. I grew up in the capital city and there we would not know who is Lezgin, who is Tat. But in some regions, 85% of people can be from a particular minority group. They always tend to marry each other. In 99% of the cases, they will always marry each other. Once my friend’s mother was arranging a marriage for her son (arranged marriages are very common in Azerbaijan) and the bride was from the Northern part of Azerbaijan (where there are many Lezgins) and all of a sudden one of my relatives asked, is she Lezgin?
Food and art is said to be an important aspect of Azerbaijani culture, do you agree?
Azerbaijan has a very rich national cuisine and I would say that it is our pride. I am so proud and so happy that we still preserve our culture. There were moments when we did not value what we have because we were not allowed to do so. But now as an independent country, we do.
Mugham for example, which is our national folkloric music, is very spiritual in nature. UNESCO declared it part of the Masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
Religion in Azerbaijan
Religion is not allowed to affect the country’s policy and status. It is separated from the government. After Iran, Azerbaijan is the second largest Shia country. Is religion an important part of the everyday life?
That is difficult to answer. But compared to 10 years ago, I would say that the country is more religious today. In Azerbaijan, Baku is very different from other regions. It is very modern. Walking on the street, you can see a girl in a hijab, alongside a girl in a miniskirt.
I had some friends who were wearing wigs on their hijabs. I think that it is not allowed to wear hijab in university. At least you cannot find anyone wearing a hijab on TV or in parliament. But people do respect religion a lot. We have got synagogues, churches, mosques. No one would blame or fire you for your religious choice. I think we are very tolerant.
Azerbaijan has a high rate of economic development. What do you think contributed to this?
The country is very rich in oil and gas, but these are not renewable. The government tries to think of other ways to promote the economy, because the oil boom seems to be coming to an end. But that oil boom increased the development of the economy. Due to that oil production the country changed and developed tremendously. As an ordinary citizen, I am not quite satisfied with the economy because I think these resources enables us to do so much more than what is currently being done.
But the problem is also that some part of the natural resources is found in parts of the land that is under occupation of Armenia [This part of the country, named Nagorno-Karabakh is found in the south-east of Azerbaijan]. Housing refugees, supplying them with everything necessary is also very costly. These people were driven out from their native lands by the Armenians and settled in different parts of the country.
It is an interesting, strange, disappointing, annoying thing that happened in the country that prevents it from going ahead. We are in a very difficult position. I would like not to be a part of this game, to be in an isolated island rather than being in between these empires. Over 30 million Azerbaijani live in Iran, but we could never ask for a reunification. I still have relatives in Southern Iran, we call them south Azerbaijanis. The country was like a toy, Russia said ‘I want this part’, Iran said ‘I want this part’ and what was left was an independent country.
In what fields do you think your country needs to improve?
In the field of education, definitely. Health service too. Social services in general.
Azerbaijan is trying to promote tourism and to make it a major part of its economy. What are your thoughts on this?
Azerbaijan has got everything one might need to promote tourism. We have wonderful nature. Out of 11 climatic zones, we have. We have early spring, dry and sunny weather which enables us to have beach tourism. We have got the Caspian Sea which is actually a lake, but because its bed has some ocean type of soil, it is considered to be a sea.
Azerbaijan is also called the land of fire. It is called the land of fire, because there is a place in the suburbs of Baku where 365 days a year, a fire is burning. People cannot explain what is going on there. It does not matter whether it rains or snows, the fire is always there. This is one of the places that you should see.
We have also got more than 6000 museums and snow slopes for winter tourism. We have the old city next to the new. If you enter Baku’s gate, you will feel like you are in the 12th century but if you leave that gate, you will see new modern buildings. The only problem is visa issues. If you have visited Armenia, you cannot visit Azerbaijan. You will be persona non grata.
What are the most important places that you would recommend people to visit in Azerbaijan?
One should definitely visit Baku, the old city. Then one should visit Qobustan, where you can find early petroglyphs and mud volcanoes. Then there is also a temple from the Zoroastrian period named Ateshgah and a magnificent palace named Shaki Khan’s palace.
After a year and a half living abroad, how do you feel about your identity as an Azerbaijani?
I have changed. Studying abroad opened new doors. I opened to knowledge, to new people, to new customs, to new traditions, to new beliefs, privileges and identities. I have become more independent. I had the opportunity to study abroad even before, when I was studying for my bachelor’s degree.
The university gave me a grant to do my bachelor in China. But it was not possible for a girl in the year 2000 to go and study abroad. People would have shunned me from society. People would have said “come on, look at her parents who let her go study alone”. So, I didn’t even discuss it with my parents.
Again after my bachelor, I had the opportunity to do my masters in the U.S. But then my parents said that I had reached the age to get married. After some time when I decided to do my PHD abroad, again the same thing happened. But then my husband and my in-laws said that they will support me. But living here on my own made me become more independent. Now I appreciate my own culture more than I used to do before, because when there is some distance between you and what you used to have, you cherish the values that you have much more.
©Verrekijkers Magazine Laila Hamja