Shopping, like most things I’ve found in Baku, comes in two extremes: very cheap or very expensive; Turkish tat (a change, albeit not a marked one, from Chinese tat) or designer labels. And it’s mostly very expensive. Every designer worth his or her salt has a shop, or two, in Baku. From Armani to Vuitton; from Tom Ford to Yves Rocher. And interestingly, these shops are not concentrated in one area – as they are in Budapest on either Andrassy or Fashion Street. Nope, they’re all over the place. On main streets, back streets, and high streets. And there are even designer shops for children.Oil money is big money and translates into fancy cars (did you know that Lexus makes a very posh-looking SUV?), fur coats, and fashion. The guide map lists a part of town that’s home to the oil millionaires’ mansions. I’ve yet to come across it but am half-thinking that it might be a good day to see how the other half live. For your average Azeri, though, the good news is that the monthly gas bill will be just a couple of manats – less than €2. Electricity, of course, is another matter entirely.
I walked along Park Bulvar, along the coast of the Caspian Sea. No expense has been spared. It’s beautifully finished; every detail from the heavy ornate rubbish bins to the bronze sculptures and landscaped footpaths has been carefully accounted for. It was empty on Saturday, partly because of the day that was in it: the nineteenth anniversary of a particularly bloody massacre in Azerbaijan’s history – the massacre at Khojali.
No matter how you look at it, what happened in 1992 was bad. Very bad. Six hundred Azerbaijani innocents – men, women, and children – brutally murdered by Armenians. It will probably never be known with any degree of certainty what instigated the massacre or what individuals were responsible for it. (I found an interesting site offering a view of both sides.) It would be practically impossible to forget about it, no matter how hard you tried. It was brutal. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.
What discomfits me though, is the perpetuation of xenophobia; rearing children to believe that all Armenians are evil. I’m not proposing a simplistic forgive and forget – that would be humanly impossible, given the brutality of what happened. But what is accomplished by fomenting hatred, I wonder? What do we accomplish anywhere in the world by passing our hatred and our prejudice from generation to generation without allowing them to make up their own minds?
I’m reading the famous Azeri book – Ali and Nino – written under the pseudonym Kurban Said in 1937. In the early chapters, Ali’s father counsels him: Do not forgive your enemies; we are not Christians. While I’m as far away as ever from understanding how Bakuvians think or how the Azeri people as a whole see life, I’m considerably closer to realising that there isn’t a simple explanation.
The juxtaposition of East and West; the gaping divide between rich and poor; the tug of war between Asia and Europe are underscored by a complicated past and an even more complicated future. On the edge of Fountain Square in Baku stands a beautiful old Armenian church. It’s boarded up, no longer in use. A daily reminder of what once was and what is looking less and likely to ever be again.