A Fond Farewell to My Home in Azerbaijan

The Moscow Times
Tuesday, August 10, 2004. Page 11.

A Fond Farewell to My Home in Azerbaijan
By Chloe Arnold

BAKU, Azerbaijan — I am sitting on my suitcase as I write this. I leave
Azerbaijan this week heading east — to Sri Lanka and then to India.

There is so much I will miss about the place that I hardly know where to
begin. I’ll miss the tiny shop at the end of our street that sells boxes of
apples and lemons and buckets of curd cheese and the best homemade yogurt
I’ve ever tasted.

I’ll miss the woman who sits on the pavement outside, her head swathed in a
red and yellow scarf, who sells herbs from a flat wicker basket — parsley,
dill, coriander and mint all freshly picked that morning.

I’ll miss the Caspian Sea, that stinging salty smell tinged with the whiff
of oil, which is the reason Baku has grown to be the most important city in
the Caucasus region. If not for its “black gold,” Baku would still be a
sleepy backwater, not much bigger than the jumble of cobbled alleys and
mosques that make up its centuries-old walled city.

I’ll never forget the friendships I’ve made in Azerbaijan. There was Qyzyl
Quliyeva, who at 131 would have been the oldest woman in the world if only
she’d had a birth certificate.

The day I visited, she had just baked a batch of bread and was in her
orchard feeding the hens. She scaled a ladder to the second floor of her
house and we sat on a giant Persian carpet, sipping tea with her
great-great-grandson, who translated her tales of 19th-century Azerbaijan.

Then there were the Mountain Jews, descended from one of the 10 lost tribes
of Israel. I have an abiding memory of a New Year’s Eve I spent with one of
the village elders and his best friend, a Muslim policeman.

We left them throwing back the vodka, their arms around each other’s
shoulders, laughing and singing into the night. If only Jews and Muslims in
other parts of the world could take a leaf out of their book.

I’ll miss Georgia and Armenia, too. I’ll always remember the day of
Georgia’s Rose Revolution, when I stood on a rickety balcony above Freedom
Square as tens of thousands of people marched on the parliament building to
demand the resignation of the president, Eduard Shevardnadze.

In Armenia, the spectacular drive to Geghard, a church carved into the side
of a mountain, is one I won’t easily forget.

But it’s Azerbaijan that I will be saddest to leave. I worry for the future
of the place — the corruption, the infighting between the clans who run the
country and the hardships suffered by ordinary people.

But most of all I’ll miss it because I’ve come to think of it as home.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan. This is
her final column for The Moscow Times. We wish her all the best.