Apparently, one is never too old to fall in love again, and I fell in love with Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Actually, with the country of Azerbaijan.
You can walk the city of Baku for hours and not be bored. Every hundred steps you discover a building that stops you from walking. There is the old city protected by UNESCO, over eight hundred years old, then as you walk farther, you encounter buildings that remind you of Venice or Italy. Walk more, and you are in Paris, and a few yards later on, modern buildings that take your breath away. Zaha Hadid, the world-renowned architect, has her most celebrated creation here.
And every few hundred meters, there is a little park with benches and every few miles a big park where you can walk in the middle of the night and not worry. Even if you are a woman. The country has a crime rate of almost zero.
The city is immaculately clean. I have not seen a single piece of paper on the streets of Baku, and I have been looking for it.
The city has many restaurants, and every ethnic group is represented. But I loved most the local cuisine. The first thing they serve you as you sit down is not bread as customary all over the world. They put a big plate of uncut vegetables in front of you. Whole tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and green onions.
Then the feast starts. Small dishes with small portions: a chicken wing, then some grilled fish, then some kebab. You are not eating much. You are tasting a lot. For dessert, Turkish delights, which are sweet pastries.
But it is not just the architecture and the food that I fell in love with. It is the people. I have never been to a more smiling, friendly country in my life, and I have been to many (58 to be exact).
The people here go out of their way to accommodate you, to make you welcome. They take being hosts very seriously. The waiters here literally run to perform their task, not just casually walk.
The Azerbaijani people are just a friendly bunch. That is all I can say. They are very tolerant of others. It is a Muslim country, some are Shias and some are Sunnis, but there has never been an aggression or rejection of each other or other ethnic or religious groups except with the Armenians with whom they have a territorial dispute and with the Russians during the battle for their independence. And never, ever a persecution of the Jews.
I came across a Jewish community here that is over two thousand years old. These are the descendants of the Jews exiled by the Babylonians. They are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic. These are the descendants of the people who made the famous wove, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may I lose my right hand.” Verdi had an opera with a very stirring chorus about them. They are the original Jews from king Solomon’s time.
I came across a community of Muslims that do not work on Saturday. They must have been the followers of Shabetay Tzvi, the false messiah, who converted to the Muslim religion to avoid being executed and all his followers did the same but continued practicing Jewish customs in hiding.
And then there are the Khasars. In the history books of the Jewish people, I learned that along the Caspian Sea there was a kingdom that converted to Judaism. The only one ever to do so. Who are they? Where are they now?
Well, Khazaria was where Azerbaijan is now.
In Cabala, the old capital of the Caucasian Albanian empire that competed with the Khazar empire, I found in their museum a grave with a star of David on it. So they did exist. The guide in the museum called them the fake Jews.
There is a theory, not proved, that when the Khazars, whose empire spread from the Caucasian mountains to the Black Sea and to Kiev, today Ukraine in the north, when they were forced to convert to the Muslim religion, some of them refused and remained Jewish. They are the Ashkenazi Jews of today or at least some of them.
There are no Khazars today; no one identifies himself as Khazar. The Azeris of today are a mixture of many ethnic groups that passed through or lived in this region. There are about thirty million Azeris that speak the language. About ten million reside in today’s Azerbaijan. The rest are in Iran where, for generations, they were the Shahs. Persian rugs that are so famous come from the region in Iran where the majority of the population is Azeri.
I was in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in July and August. I feared the heat. Israel is unlivable during these months. Over 100 Fahrenheit. Europe is not better. Not to mention Gulf states. So I dreaded the time I would be in Baku.
Wrong. It was pleasant. Practically a warm spring.
Because of the wind. A wind that almost blew me away. Baku is called the wind city where the wind blows hard all the time. So the heat is not felt.
Gabala, an hour flight from Baku, the tourist mecca, is heaven on earth during the summer, with clear air and mild, pleasant weather. (It is surrounded by very high mountains covered with forests.) In the winter, it is a ski destination.
The hotels are overbooked by tourists from Abu Dahbi, Qatar, and Dubai, which are unbearably hot during the summer.
I watched the touring Arab women in those long, black dresses, with faces covered and only with a small opening for the eyes. To eat, they need to lift the veil a little bit, put the food in the mouth and lower the veil back. Like they do not exist. Totally covered and silent.
During breakfast, you could witness the clash of civilizations. . The women from the Gulf States, silent, dressed in black dresses, totally covering every inch of their bodies, served by Azeri women, modern, dressed attractively in Western clothes. Alive. Both are Muslim. Both follow the religion, but behavior wise, they are different.
What enchanted me THE MOST, beyond food, architecture, history, or the weather were the Azerbaijani women. I rediscovered femininity.
The young girls here have a pure, shy smile I see rarely in the modern world of the West or the East. Pure innocence. It is not an inviting smile. I can only describe it as a smile of a four-year-old beautiful girl. None of the subtle, angry, aggressive attitude one gets from some modern women. None of the defensiveness. None of the argumentative attitude. They are not afraid of having eye contact, of wide-open smiles that bring sunshine to your heart. I fell in love in elevators as these beautiful, high-cheeked, exotic, loving creatures smiled at me.
Is all in Azerbaijan heavenly? No. The disparity in income is severe. A guard in front of an apartment building earns 6 to 7 dollars a day max. Secretaries 200 to 300 dollars a month. So how do they survive? Everyone needs to be paid tips. This includes government officials. That is called corruption, which is rampant.
Career opportunities are rare, and anyone that can leave the country leaves.
My future involvement with the country will, I hope, address these issues.
I will be back.