Earlier this month, I ventured inside Azerbaijan, formerly the Soviet Union. Nestled along the ancient Silk Road trade route, Azerbaijan is north of Iran, south of Russia, east of Armenia (whom they despise), and west of the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijan was never on my “bucket list” of places to visit.
Some expat friends moved to Azerbaijan about a decade ago, which is how I learned to pronounce the country’s name and locate it on a map. Azerbaijan [pronounced ah-zer-bye-john] is not exactly a tourist destination, and after spending a little time there, I understand why.
After spending a month in Brisbane, Australia, I flew to Perth, spent 10 hours with a South African mining engineer named GodKnows (yes, I checked his ID) in the international terminal, hopped a second flight to Doha, Qatar, where, after arriving, I immediately took an Uber to The Four Seasons Hotel for breakfast on the Persian Gulf beachfront, then, finally, boarded my third flight for Baku, Azerbaijan.
I made two observations while inside Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport: it’s unexpectedly modern and there were no women.
Later, I learned the international airport was commissioned in 2013, which explained its modern architecture. After spending some time in Azerbaijan, I learned why there were no women in the airport.
My expat friends welcomed me at the airport. We caught a first class bus to the city center, where we then walked across the street and boarded an underground metro train like three hundred pound linemen – exploding into the car as soon as the doors opened, pushing, shoving, and maneuvering, just like the locals.
The “old city” of Baku, dating back to the 12th century, includes the Palace of the Shirvanshas and the Maiden Tower. I was transported back in time as we walked around the ancient walled city. We then took a northbound, overnight train from Baku to Sheki and arrived at 6am the following morning.
Sheki and the surrounding villages still host multiple first century churches. Between our historic visits, we also explored the Caucus mountains in what I would describe as the 4×4 cousin of a 1975 Honda Civic hatchback. It wasn’t impressive to look at, but after it traversed snow, mud, ice and water, I saw it differently.
Being in Azerbaijan was like concurrently living in two parallel universes. On one hand, I’m surrounded by beautifully ancient cities, monuments, walls, and churches, and on the other hand, I’m a woman. In Muslim Azeri culture, women are not permitted to go outside much. At the historic sites we visited, I was often the only woman. At restaurants, I was also often the only woman. One “tea house” even told my friends I wasn’t allowed inside.
One day I was a bit rushed and ended up leaving the house with wet hair. As I was re-telling the incident to one of the expat women I was staying with, she burst into laughter and explained that when a woman walks around Azerbaijan with wet hair, she is communicating to everybody that she was with her husband the previous night. Also, according to their culture, when a woman makes eye contact with a man in public, it is interpreted as a sexual advance. For this reason, women are not permitted to make eye contact. In public, she is to look down.
I had heaps of fun seeing my friends, and I loved the history in this part of the world. But having to stay indoors, or stare at the ground while in public, is not my cup of tea.
Azerbaijan, I will never forget you.
You have inspired me to do all I can to empower the next generation of young ladies. To help them discover their voice and teach them how to use it. To live their lives to the fullest. To look everybody in the eye. To extend a caring hand to the oppressed, uneducated, and fearful.
Azerbaijan, I will never forget you.
You have opened my eyes to the kindness and support I continually receive from the men in my world. They are strong, creative, and confident. The next time they encourage me to reach for the stars, I’ll remember the Azeri women looking at the dirt.