Baku to the future— Azerbaijan


Baku’s skyline is marking out the Azerbaijani capital as a city for the 21st century, with its five-star hotels and Zaha Hadid-designed arts centre, but there’s still much work to do to combat its 20th-century

Ali & Nino, Architecture, Corruption, Culture of fear, Development

The passengers waiting to board the flight from London’s Heathrow to Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International are, by an overwhelming margin, male, middle-aged, and given to tattoos and demeanours of purposeful burliness. Surely, you’re thinking, Azerbaijan’s capital is a journey too far for the hordes of stag weekenders who despoil other former Soviet cities such as Tallinn, Prague and Riga. Then you notice the spreadsheets on their laptops and the corporate logos on their clothes, discern the Scottish accents, and discover that a lot of them are…

Ali & Nino

You won’t spend long in Baku before someone insists you read Kurban Said’s Ali & Nino, published in Germany in 1937, and translated into English in 1970. Set in Baku during the First World War and Azerbaijan’s subsequent brief independence, it is both a grand, melodramatic love story and an astute summation of Azerbaijan’s history and culture.

Today, Ali & Nino is also a budding literary empire – the names grace two bookshops (with a third due to open in Park Bulvar), an online store, two cafés, a publishing imprint and a book award. Nigar Kocharli, 34, who founded the firm in 2005, says it hasn’t been easy – the country, she explains, doesn’t have much of a literary culture, with just eight bookshops nationwide. Moreover, she was raided by police last year trying to thwart the launch of a novel about a gay relationship between an Azeri and an Armenian – about as complete a local taboo-buster as might be imagined. “We’re just not afraid,” she smiles.

Monocle fixes

1 Straighten out the arrivals procedure at Heydar Aliyev airport – three different queues before baggage claim is an absurd, unworthy Soviet hangover. Also, make visa fees less larcenous.
2 On that score, the airport needs a complete rethink. Given Baku’s location, it could become a hub to rival Dubai or Istanbul. Not with that grim relic of a terminal, though.
3 A huge anti-corruption drive, from the top of government to the lowliest traffic cop. Azerbaijan won’t become the business or tourist destination it could be while it’s this hopelessly bent (Transparency International rates Azerbaijan the 143rd straightest country in the world, out of 180 – behind Pakistan, Libya and Nigeria).
4 Make driving licences something you have to earn, rather than buy – Baku’s traffic doesn’t need to be this chaotic and hazardous.
5 The overdue liberalisation of local media and politics. Azerbaijan’s smart young people won’t stay to live in a tyranny. And free the donkey bloggers, already.

Made in Azerbaijan

1 Maiden’s Tower wine
2 Narsarab pomegranate sauce for sturgeon
3 Persian silk rug
4 Portrait of President Ilham Aliyev
5 CD of traditional Mugham music
6 Medicinal tea from south Azerbaijan
7 Biography of Heydar Aliyev
8 Copy of ‘Ali & Nino’ by Kurban Said
9 Caviar fridge magnet
10 Traditional Azeri slippers


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