Good times return to Azerbaijan capital

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Fariz Ismailzade, 27, lives in Baku, on the Caspian Sea. He is a journalist, activist and professor of social welfare policy at Western University. Ismailzade has lived in the capital of Azerbaijan for seven years and is from Lankaran, south along the Caspian shore near the Iranian border.

Q. Baku is the center of the petroleum industry for Central Asia. How much is gas at the pump?

A. In Azerbaijan, one liter is about 45 cents (about $1.70 per gallon).

Q. Does the industry have a large presence?

A. Baku is considered a cradle of the oil industry. Back in the 19th century, it began here with the drilling of oil fields. This is where many international bankers and businessmen made their fortunes. During World War II, Baku produced most of the Soviet oil needed for tanks and planes.

Now, we don't produce so much - about 1 percent of world output.

Baku is changing a lot now. During Soviet times, the population was about 1.5 million and architecture was Soviet or medieval.

Now there's a new oil boom, and it is one of the most important times in Baku's history. The city holds 2 million people and is changing day by day. Last month, the government started construction of nine bridges and 11 overpasses. There's a construction boom.

This is a big issue right now: Many believe ancient buildings are being destroyed through stupidity and being replaced by cold skyscrapers built with oil money.

Yes, oil plays a significant role in Baku.

Q. So you have the ancient town, the Soviet town and the new burbs. Are there three Bakus?

A. That's the case. Americans are fascinated by the combination of faces. Baku combines a bit of everything and is at the crossroads of everything. You see the medieval Islamic mosques and minarets; the Soviet legacy of huge apartment blocks that are poorly taken care of; the modern buildings that are a sign of capitalism. You also have many beautiful mansions designed by European architects during the original, pre-Soviet oil boom.

Q. What would you show an American tourist?

A. The Old City is the first place everyone goes; at its center is the big medieval castle called Maiden Tower. It has amazing architecture and is a national symbol. You climb six floors up a narrow stairway and get a beautiful view of the bay area.

Two other places are important. One is Gobustan, about 33 miles away, where there are lots of petroglyphs - ancient rock drawings dating to the Stone Age. There are drawings of people, animals, boats a fascinating place with many caves. You feel like you're back in prehistoric times.

And 20 minutes from Baku is Ageshgah, site of a very ancient temple where fire comes naturally from the ground. Zoroastrians and other fire-worshippers from all over Central Asia came there to worship for many centuries.

Q. Are they still around?

A. That kind of died out after the Muslims conquered Azerbaijan.

Q. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country; is it West-friendly?

A. For sure, Azerbaijan is one of the most secular countries in the world. We have separation of religion and state. There are no Islamic schools or Islamic orientation in the government. More girls attend schools than boys; there are no multiple marriages. Dress is very Western. Many Americans say Azeri girls wear more miniskirts than girls wear in the United States.

I think all this helps us. We want to align with the Western Atlantic states. Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim countries that has sent peacekeeping forces to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Q. Baku is a major port on the Caspian but that's a landlocked sea. What kind of boats are there?

A. There's lots of Caspian trade with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan; oil is shipped to Baku, then pumped overland to European markets. There's commercial fishing, too.

Q. The Caspian Sea is famous for caviar; is that a big thing?

A. They say 90 percent of the world's sturgeon live in the Caspian. The problem: It is so expensive and there's so high a demand for our black caviar in Europe that illegal fishing is out of control. Sturgeon is dying out. The UN actually put a ban on international trade in black caviar.

Q. Is it hard to get?

A. Not at all. It's legal but expensive at shops - state prices plus taxes. If you buy it at the open-air market, it's cheaper but illegal.

Q. Can you describe the landscape in Baku?

A. Baku is on a bay on a peninsula surrounded by the Caspian. Baku sits low on this. Leaving downtown, it becomes hills and mountains.

Q. Who visits Baku?

A. For the past 10 years, oil workers and their families; tourists looking for the exotic - it's attractive for young, backpack-type travelers. Our Soviet period is of interest to historians. With the new development, we're now seeing middle-income families visiting from the West.

Q. Baku sounds kind of like a Texas oil-boom town. What city in America does Baku most resemble?

A. I've never been to Texas, but Houston and Baku are sister cities; their history in petroleum unites them.

Of the places in America I've visited, Baku reminds me most of San Francisco - the bay environment, the streets that go up and down the hills, the diverse neighborhoods.


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