Category Archives: Baku

A Mehelle Film About Urban Change in Baku

The documentary below is brought to you by Ajam’s Mehelle project, an initiative dedicated to preserving the sights, sounds, and memories of rapidly-changing neighborhoods in Central Asia, Iran, and the Caucasus. Facade is a product of two years of filming in the Sovetski neighborhood of Baku, which has been the target of a state-led urbanization campaign since 2014. A follow-up film will be released in Spring of 2018.

Produced and Directed: Ajam Media Collective’s Mehelle Project
Production Help: Javid Abdullayev and Ahmed Muktar
Music: Shebnem Abdullazade and Vusal Taghi-zadeh

“The neighborhood was one large family… Sovetski was always strong, and that’s why they want to break us.”

In the center of Azerbaijan’s capital city lies Sovetski, a historic neighborhood that was once home to Baku’s oil workers and their families. Over the course of the 19th and 20th century, Sovetski developed its own distinct identity. Self-proclaimed as the “old” Bakuvians, the residents of the neighborhood have had their ups and downs; they have witnessed political upheavals, the rise and fall of various “-isms,” and economic stagnation, but they always had a close-knit community to fall back on.

Now however, the residents of Sovetski face an uncertain future. Fueled by oil rents and foreign investment since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baku municipal authorities and the Aliyev administration have initiated many urban beautification projects to dramatically rebrand the former Soviet industrial entrepot as a center for global capital and tourism. Over the last three decades, the municipality has renovated the Old City and the adjacent Torgova district (2008), in addition to building the iconic Flame Towers (2007) and transmuting the historical industrial Black City area into a wealthy suburb known as the “White City” (2014).

The authorities have not excluded Sovetski from their vision of a ideal cityscape. In 2014, the Baku municipality ordered “renewal” of the historic Sovetski neighborhood– their labyrinthine alleys, homes, shops, and places of worship will be replaced with a public park and major boulevard. Over the course of the last three years the people of the neighborhood have resisted through protests and demonstrations, but the bulldozers have been relentless. As of Autumn of 2017, the heart of the neighborhood has already been demolished, and new sections have been marked for demolition for the coming years. Facade is a documentary about this process.

As part of Ajam’s Mehelle project, Facade is the result of a collaboration with a number of Azerbaijani filmmakers, journalists, urban activists, and neighborhood residents. If you are interested in the lived experiences of the people of Sovetski, check out the digital map below featuring 360 video, music, and other forms of media.

Baku’s Sovetski Celebrates a Final Novruz

This photo essay features video footage from the Mehelle project, as well as photographs from Chinara Majidova, a Baku-based photographer. The accompanying text was written by Ajam Editor Rustin Zarkar. For more articles from Mehelle, click here.    

Novruz bonfires rage in what remains of the Sovetski neighborhood in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Every year on March 20th, communities from the Balkans to Western China celebrate Novruz (Nowruz, Newroz, and other spelling variations all reference the same holiday). Over the centuries numerous forms of commemoration have developed throughout this geographic space–ranging from table settings to divination, children’s games and bonfires, and even throwing hats and tightrope walking–as people have blended local traditions with the celebration of the vernal equinox. Despite the diversity of practices, a common theme runs through all Nowruz festivities: renewal and rebirth.

In the case of the Sovetski neighborhood in Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku, the last two Novruz celebrations have been bittersweet. Sovetski residents continue to ring in the new year with fanfare and jubilation (which usually includes lighting large bonfires), but the continued demolition of their neighborhood looms over them. While many have already moved from the neighborhood, the last holdouts in Sovetski believe that this will be their last Novruz in their homes.

As we have outlined in earlier coverage, in 2014 the Baku municipality ordered the destruction of the historic Sovetski neighborhood (and home to 60,000 residents) in order to make way for the extension of Winter Boulevard and the accompanying pedestrian park. While many residents have taken the government’s financial compensation package and moved to the outskirts of the city, some still reside in the emptying neighborhood.

With most of the demolition taking place last summer, Novruz 2016 was attended by many. The streets were crowded with cars, music blared from speakers and people gathered around bonfires that dotted the neighborhood’s alleyways and growing empty spaces. Our Mehelle correspondents were able to capture Novruz celebrations in the videos below:

A short video of 2016 Novruz celebrations from the Mehelle project

Residents of all ages gather around the fire to ring in the New Year.

Family members also start bonfires in back-alleys for a more intimate setting.

360 degree video of Novruz celebrations along Murtaza Muxtarov Street.

One year later, however, the crowds have noticeably dwindled. The municipality has blocked off all major roads leading into the neighborhood, forcing people to travel by foot in order to come and go. The fires continued to rage, albeit this time fueled by construction materials, windowpanes and molding, as well as paper scraps that litter the area. Bulldozers hovered around the gathering like moths to a flame as the inhabitants listened to music, laughed, and added to the fire. Despite the constant reminder of the demolition all around them, the people of Sovetski were able to welcome the New Year the way they have done so many years before.

As dusk falls, a few groups of residents begin to make their own fires.

Young men watch the fire from the steet.

Tending the fire.

Remnants from once-inhabited homes are used as firewood.

The roaring flames attract more residents.

Bulldozers ominously watch over the festivities.

While Novruz is a time for new beginnings, it is also worth reflecting on what has been lost. In Sovetski, as well as other neighborhoods across the Caucasus and Central Asia, state and private interests are dramatically refashioning urban areas. This coming new year, Ajam will introduce two new locations to the Mehelle project: Tbilisi (spring) and Dushanbe (summer). Not only do we wish to document the changes to the built environment and the social relations embedded within them, but we hope to show that communities continue to find reasons to live and celebrate despite the struggles and the hardships they face.

Baku’s Not-so-Ephemeral Public Banners

We Apologize for the Temporary Inconvenience: Capturing Baku’s Not-so-Ephemeral Public Banners


The following is an interview with Ilkin Huseynov, a Baku-based artist, photographer, and publisher. In this interview, Ajam Editor Rustin Zarkar speaks with Huseynov about his recent book, “We Apologize for the Temporary Inconvenience” (2017) by Rally in the Streets Publishing.

The book documents a municipality-led initiative to place graphic banners over active (and idle) construction sites in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

For more information on urban transformation in Baku, check out Mehelle, an AjamMC project capturing the sights, sounds, and memories of rapidly changing neighborhoods in the Caucasus.

Baku’s Government House, an example of Stalinist-era architecture which houses a number of Azerbaijan’s ministries.

1) AjamMC: Your book takes a detailed look at urban transformation and idealized visions of public space through the lens of banners covering Baku’s construction sites. Could you give us some background on the political and economic processes that fuel this  development?

The title of the book is called “We Apologize for the Temporary Inconvenience,” but in reality this inconvenience is permanent. Since the second oil boom of the 1990s, there has been a constant string of new construction projects, often without any forethought. It is common practice for companies to break ground on a project before they have acquired the necessary funds to complete the building.

Due to limited financial resources, they rely on selling individual units to fund the later stages, and if they do not reach their goal, they will just freeze construction. This dilemma was exacerbated during 2015-16 manat crisis, so a good number of building sites remain idle. There are many people involved who do not have much experience in the industry, and they see it as a way to make a quick buck without considering the risks involved.

In order to mask the unsightly building process, Baku City Hall has placed banners on the fences and barriers that run along the construction sites. With this book, I want give a sense of the imposed artificiality that is slowly displacing the actual cityscape.

Layering of two banners depicting the iconic Baku Flame Towers, and underneath the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline.

2) AjamMC: What did you notice as you were documenting these walls and barriers? What stood out to you about them? Can you speak about some tropes or themes that were used by the municipality?

IH: There’s nothing unique about using billboards or banners to cover construction sites. In most cities the images depict the final plans of the projects being built in that particular location. In our case, however, the banners are rarely related to the spatial context, and instead consist of a wide variety of images that present ideas of the “utopian” city, notions of “beauty,” as well as Baku’s pre-modern and modern history. The people in charge want residents and tourists alike to see a particular vision of the city, without all of this construction.

Aesthetically, the photos themselves are not that impressive. They are pixelated, repetitive, and sometimes even placed upside down. Originally, I was more drawn to how they are affected by the environment and vandalism– how they have endured the aggressive elements here.

A banner featuring Baku seaside Boulevard and Flag Square, which was placed upside down.

3) AjamMC: Who is responsible for the images that go up? Can you explain the decision-making process? How long has this been going on?

IM: It is a relatively new phenomenon, no older than a decade or so. It coincided with the construction boom of the mid 2000s, as well as the innovations in printing technologies. In Azerbaijan, it only costs ten or fifteen manat ($6-$10) to print five square meters.

As for the process, it is clear that there is not much thought or logic in the selection of images. I envision a group of district-level officials are told by higher-ups to choose from a certain number of categories. However, they are not provided with anything specific, which has resulted in them resorting to Google searches. In some cases, you can even see the watermark or copyright of the original photographer.

I’ve only seen one photograph that was taken by a relatively well known photographer; he had gone around shooting all the fountains of the city and was featured in an exhibition. The rest of them have been chosen randomly, coming from the tastes of personnel who use their imaginations to adhere to a vague set of criteria and directions. As you can imagine, this results in a very chaotic beautification initiative.

Low-resolution image banner in front of the Heydar Aliyev center depicting both eponymous late president as well as his son, Ilham Aliyev, the current president of Azerbaijan.

4) AjamMC: Regarding vandalism and environmental stresses, it’s clear that a lot of the banners are in bad shape. My favorite examples are of those photographs composed of different layers of banners.

IH: Interestingly, construction often remains static but the banners are updated frequently. For example, before every event like Formula 1 (annually), Eurovision (1202), or the European Games (2015), they will put up new banners right over the older ones.

The layering of the images sometimes reflects the process of capital accumulation fueling the construction boom— you can see photos from the oil industries, like rigging platforms and pipelines, with the iconic Flame Towers and other contemporary landmarks plastered over them.

I wanted to capture how the banners were able to inadvertently create a natural collage without any real artistic involvement through this layering process, so I designed the pages of the book to have different lengths and dimensions.

Layering of two banners caused by a tear in an image of the Azerbaijan Drama Theater to reveal an image of an oil rig.

5) AjamMC: Yes, we see that oil features prominently on the barriers, even though It seems like an odd choice for beautification. Why do the banners stress oil imagery? Is it an homage to the economic and political history of the city?

IH: Oil is the national pride of Azerbaijan, and it has been stressed as part of the state narrative  for more than a century. Of course, Baku wouldn’t be the city and major port it is today without the infrastructure, transport lines, and migration brought about by petroleum.

Oil is part of the city’s economic transformation, so I understand why it features so prominently in the images. I hear such sentiments quite often when I take photographs. People say, “Why are you shooting negative things? Don’t you see how things have changed? Look far we’ve come.”

A banner featuring the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum.

6) AjamMC: Why did you choose this topic? What interests you about urban change in Baku?

IH: To be honest, I never thought I would ever be interested in urban change, architecture, or this kind of photography. My previous work mostly focused on social issues and people-centered stories, so I never imagined I would start a project that didn’t prominently feature people. My first book, Mühit, was very much about things that are hidden in plain sight. Whenever I would attempt to photograph objects, people, or places that were intentionally hidden for socio-political reasons, people would always ask me, “Why are you interested in that? Go and shoot something beautiful.”

After I returned from a trip to Spain, I was inspired by a new movement called post-photography, which documents found images that have been distorted and manipulated through photoshop and digital editing. As I scanned the city, I was struck by the artificiality of some temporary beautification material, as well as the various ideological narratives they were propagating.

I took people’s advice and shot what the authorities intended for me to see, but from a different perspective. Rather than going out and searching for what was hidden, I became interested in how things were hidden.

An off-colored banner depicting the Azerbaijani countryside.

7) AjamMC: How did you undertake this project? How long have you been working on it?

IH: As you can imagine, there are hundreds if not thousands of construction sites across the city, and there’s not much information about where to find them. Often, I would just drive around, jot down the location of the banners, and return on foot.

Two months after launching the project, I participated in a group exhibition at Yarat! Contemporary Art Space. I had just started the project, and it would take me eight more months to fully realize it. I was still experimenting with how I would present this material, and I chose to highlight their wear and tear. I thought that these small details represented a disruption, and by shifting our attention, we can prevent the banners from rendering themselves neutral in our everyday life.

I keep returning to the idea of how things are hidden, so I want to continue the project by documented other forms of facades, especially the new cladding used to cover the walls of old housing blocks.

The Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid.

8) AjamMC: Regarding the composition of the book, your photographs only feature the barriers/walls, and we are left with no context or visual information about our surroundings. Is this intentional? Does it reflect something about the municipalities curatorial decisions for these barriers?

IH: I designed the book so the images do not reference their surrounding environment. In the first draft of the book, I included images where people, animals, cars, etc. were passing by. I wanted to show some semblance of the lived reality there, but I ultimately took out. Instead, I want readers to question what they are looking at and to ask whether it was an actual location or just an image of a place. There is this surrealistic feeling where you do not know where the photo ends and the environment begins.

As I have already mentioned, the banners provide little to no geographic context to the construction sites they are covering. This is pretty unusual. Take the example of Istanbul, the images seem to be carefully chosen and the projects are well-executed.

A banner that seemingly blends reality and representation.

9) AjamMC: Sure, I see what you mean about Istanbul. The Galataport development project in the Karaköy neighborhood is an example of this. They are completely transforming the area and erasing traditional architecture, but at least the banners are propagating a narrative of historical continuity related to physical geography. So you are saying this context is not stressed in the case of Baku?

IH: Exactly, only in the Old City (İçərişəhər) do you see banners related specifically to the neighborhood. For example, in the book, there’s a few examples of banners covering the fortifications featuring the ancient walls and historical structures of the Citadel.

A banner featuring traditional architecture.

10) AjamMC: After publishing your book, do you think people have a different impression of these banners?

IH: After the exhibition, people would send me pictures of banners they had seen, and I recall speaking with an individual who told me, “you know, I never really see these banners, yet we pass by them everyday. They have become part of our environment.” The project encourages people to look past the banners’ utopian landscapes displacing the actual image of Baku. But you know, you cannot really conceal anything in this city. Sooner or later, the truth reveals itself.

A torn banner depicting the Baku cityscape.

Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

By Heather D. DeHaan  
In western popular consciousness, Islam is a faith that rigidly patrols its boundaries. In this conception of Islam, the “House of Islam” combats the world of unbelief, religious infidelity is punished by the state, and uncovered women are banned from public space. The only boundary that the West might wish to introduce–a religious/secular divide–is staunchly rejected. Given such an understanding of Islam, the western public cannot quite fathom Islam’s variability or the fact that “flexible” Islam exists.

Living in the secular Shia state of Azerbaijan made me consider anew the question of Islam, for Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet Islam offers a paradox: a distinct “male” gendering of public space, despite the presence of “liberated” women in European cuts of fashion.  Unlike Russia, where the figure of the babushka (the Russian grandmother) dominates public space, public space in Azerbaijan is distinctly male. Here, there is no sign of the male emasculation associated with Soviet-era repression (in which the state usurped the role of father) or with post-Soviet unemployment (which left men unable to provide). Indeed, neither Soviet nor post-Soviet economic struggles appear to have limited the size or cohesion of the Azerbaijani family, and Azerbaijani men remain central to family life. While not unaffected by Soviet life, Azerbaijani traditional culture remains exceptionally strong.

As a westerner, this vitality might not be immediately visible, for Azerbaijani streets tend to be filled with small groups of men who have apparently nothing to do. They gather at the junctions of streets, on the edges of the dvor, and around metro entrances. Shifting restlessly, but not with any sense of haste or impatience, they engage in long conversation marked by few words and multiple drags on a cigaret. Some of them are taxi drivers waiting for a customer to appear. Others appear to be arranging a deal of some sorts–a swap, a trade, or something else. Some are surely pensioners, while others are probably unemployed. High unemployment alone cannot explain this phenomenon, however, for in places such as Russia or Georgia, similar post-Soviet unemployment rates failed to produce this male-dominated street scene. The men on Azerbaijani streets signal something else–namely, that public space is coded male.

This gender coding is unmistakable. For every woman in the metro after dark, there are at least a dozen men. In the heart of Baku, men and women together remain out late, but this does not change the overall gender imbalance on the street after dark. Males dominate the night, and to some extent they even dominate the day, for they are the ones responsible for public errands as opposed to domestic chores. Azerbaijani teahouses are purely male “hang outs,” and even public parks seem to privilege men, who gather there to play chess, dominoes, and backgammon, or perhaps just sit.

Not that women are entirely absent from public space; only, they tend to be busy with activities other than leisurely conversation in the street. When small clusters of 2-5 women appear, they are generally on their way to somewhere, never stopped on a street corner.  Although women do frequent restaurants and cafes, these are crowded and expensive mixed-gender spaces. Bathhouses are gender segregated, but going to the banya is regarded as something that “the boys” do when seeking to relax or bond. Women do occasionally stop and chat together in the dvor, but not as often as men, and they are usually busy supervising children as they talk. In any case, the dvor is something of an extended familial space, being only quasi-public. The hair salon provides a site for female sociability outside the home, but such salons consist of interiors sheltered by curtains from public view.

Despite male dominance over public space, women walk Azerbaijani streets with remarkable freedom from harassment. As a rule, Azerbaijani men do not ogle women. They make no unwelcome advances, and one has the sense that they would be dreadfully embarrassed if some action on their part caused offense to a woman. Moreover, such respect is granted no matter what the woman’s attire–headscarf or revealing “European” cut of clothes. Freedom of dress may be a legacy of the Soviet past–of an imposed secularism in which fashion was a mark of cosmopolitan sensibility, but thankfully it’s a practice that has lingered. This is a world where women have the freedom to choose–to work or not work, to sport a headscarf or not. They can also wander into “male” space and not be harassed.

This spatial arrangement is tied to domesticity, being a city-wide expression of household arrangements that sustain the family. Yes, Azerbaijani women may opt for careers or European dress, but nearly all have families, and the pressure to bear children is very high. To support family, which Azerbaijanis value deeply, men assist in childcare, running errands and taking children outdoors to play. Meanwhile, women cook, clean, and keep the home in order, whether or not they have careers. Despite women’s freedom of career, social roles tend toward the traditional, and the street’s gender code illustrates this. Male-coded streets not only reflect the political and economic dominance of men over women (top posts in Azerbaijan are, of course, dominated by men), but also a deep male-female interconnectedness–that is, a shared strategy for managing all space, both interior and exterior.

Navigating such spaces can be complex, for class and neighborhood also divvy up Baku’s urban terrain. In Baku’s large markets, where low-brow and more transient men appear, a “ruffian” may comment on some woman’s clothing, provoking a fistfight with “her” man.  The offending comment might be relatively innocent by western standards–a mere reference to a logo on a shirt, perhaps; but, such remarks represent a transgression, an impropriety that insults the woman’s honor and thus that of the man. Such conflicts involve manhood–that is, the male defense of honor and territory, as defined by the woman and her relationship to these men. In a typical scenario, a man from a middle- or upper-class neighborhood enters the “lower” world of the market. The man in the market then responds, challenging the newcomer’s social code and place at the same time.  Cultural and economic differentials help provoke the conflict. Class and territorial boundaries–not just gender lines–are at play.

To understand this complicating feature of the gendered landscape, it’s important to remember that Soviet Baku was historically divided into neighborhoods, each with its own codes of dress and comportment. Many were ethnically mixed, turning “territoriality” into an expression of class. Memoirs of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s describe how young men in one neighborhood organized to keep “their” women away from the men of other neighborhoods; in fact, dating a woman from another neighborhood was a sort of “coup.” Women could cross neighborhood boundaries, but the men who accompanied them might be challenged by men from competing neighborhoods. In other words, the male coding of urban space in Baku did not exclude women, but left games of trade, influence, and policing to the men.

Perhaps ironically, Azerbaijan’s male dominance on the street appears to benefit women. In Russia or Georgia, where women “occupy” public space to the same degree as men, women require male accompaniment after dark, for harassment and assault are not uncommon. Yet in Baku, where men rule the street, women are generally safe from verbal or physical harassment, as if virtually veiled and protected from objectification. They are defined, after all, in relationship to men–as wives, mothers, sisters, and neighbors, all in a world where family traditionally extends into the dvor and the dvor into the neighborhood. Far from marking the “bogey men” of unemployment or conservative Islam, then, Baku’s male-dominated street marks the resilience of a complex traditional social code, one that is post-Soviet and yet distinct to Azerbaijan.

All of which highlights the variability in Islamic practice, something all too often forgotten in popular western conceptions of Islam. Thanks to Soviet influence, the strict Islamic segregation of space according to gender has broken down, leaving a milder gender code that nonetheless protects many of the fundamental principles that Islamic practices were designed to uphold, starting with respect for women. In striking contrast to southern Azerbaijan (i.e. northern Iran), Azerbaijani women in post-Soviet space enjoy freedom that defies the boundaries cast both by conservative Islam and by the West’s conception of it. Unlike the state-imposed boundaries of Iran or the imagined Islam of the West, Azerbaijan’s boundaries are complex and evolving, influenced by Iranian and Soviet pasts and a distinctly Azerbaijani present in which the boundaries of class, nation, faith, and gender shift continually.