In the early years of the 20th century, Azerbaijan was the first country, ever, to go through an oil boom, supplying an incredible 50% of the world’s oil in 1905. This was reflected in the religious tolerant period the country went through, everyone slowly realizing that money was more important than bickering over which version of god was the right one.
Also from this time period comes the immensely interesting, Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. Set in Baku at the time of the oil boom, the story is, in a way, a local Romeo and Juliet, the not so much appreciated love between a Christian beauty and a hard working Muslim.
The sociopolitical issues which is at least one of the causes for it being fairly challenging to get into Azerbaijan also are the root cause for the relative lack of a free press.
More interestingly, due to Soviet aversion to religion in all shapes and sizes, though Azeri are technically Shia Muslims, like in neighboring Iran, they are also surprisingly secular and open to diversity, to the extent where, apparently, remnants of Zoroastrianism can still be spotted here and there.
But, still, reading “the nation’s number 1 international newspaper” is more akin to perusing a Soviet-era state-controlled periodical than anything else. Though it’s easy to read between the lines, “rumors” being strongly denied as affronts to the Azeri nation.
So, perhaps 100 homosexuals *were* kicked out of Baku for the Eurovison contest. And, it seems, Ladas will be banned from Baku’s streets for the duration of the contest.
How open to interpretation perceived reality is, was underscored by the early claim that hundreds of Azeris were kicked out of their house to make way for the building of the Crystal Hall. Not so. The Crystal Hall was built on virgin land, reclaimed from the sea, meaning that the Eurovision claim that the venue was built on empty land was true. However, for making room for building the feeder highways to the Crystal Hall, people were most definitely displaced.
The devil is in the detail.
And it’s the detail that’s easily overlooked. Driving from the airport to my friend’s house, the driver decided to take the scenic route, which took us almost through the dead center of town. The trip is truly amazing.
The roads are in excellent shape, while the journey is akin to driving through a city that is a mix of Dubai, Tehran, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo. Apartments look to be in excellent shape, public buildings are grand and gorgeous, while the streets are clean and modern.
But, most of it is just a facade. It’s only the first line of apartment blocks that had their fronts cleaned or adjusted, with the second tier of apartments still being Soviet style, ugly and badly designed.
Still, quite a bit of the recent constructions are very impressive. The tallest flag in the world is an easy one, but the flame buildings are extremely impressive. And so are a lot of the modern hotels, springing up all over town to accommodate Eurovision tourists now and oil workers afterwards.
Indeed, it’s clear that Eurovision is the most important event in the country for decades. And a lot is being smoothed out to make things easier for those attending. The Eurovision promotion team was helping tourists getting their visa upon arrival, all of them being pretty and cute little babes in Eurovision uniforms.
From the airport, hourly shuttles, escorted by police, ferry tourists from the airport to downtown Baku. Azercell, one of the event’s main sponsors, gives every tourist, upon arrival, a sim card, for free, pre loaded with 5 euros worth of airtime. And the streets are filled with London style, Eurovision-branded cabs.
According to my friend, Johan, and his wife, who have been in Baku three years, change happens so fast, you can almost feel it in the air.