Azerbaijan is dust and sand. It gets in your hair, under your skin, makes your eyes water when they shouldn’t. But the tighter you squeeze, the more it slips away.
I’ve never understood a country less. It fascinates me.
Hitting the books for a week has given me the basics:
The region was controlled by the Persians until Russia staked its claim in 1813.
After the fall of the Czar, the Azeris surprised everyone by declaring their sovereignty and establishing a secular and democratic republic – the first in the Muslim world.
It lasted two years before collapsing under the weight of the Red Army. Along with Georgia and Armenia, it was swallowed up by the Soviets and remained so until the U.S.S.R. dissolved.
With nationalism running high, independence was again declared in 1990. Then things got very ugly.
In the winter of 1991, Russian troops marched on Baku and left more than 130 civilians lying dead in the streets of the capital. Black January.
This in the midst of a brutal six-year war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
Nearly 30,000 Azeris were cut down before a shaky ceasefire stopped the killing. The conflict simmers to this day.
Beneath it all was oil.
Azerbaijan has it and foreign powers want it. They incited rape, riots and war to get it, and when the storm finally cleared, an ex-KGB general with local mafia ties was firmly in power.
Contracts were hastily signed. Old oil flowed in new directions and the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was assured. Very slick indeed.
That’s the history, but it’s not the point.
I’ve tried to understand Azerbaijan in terms of politics and power grabs, religion, language, money and even geography. All of it slides between my fingers.
The only thing that sticks, the one thing I can swear by, are the people I’ve met. They have been wonderful without exception.
In Ganja I asked a man where to buy bicycle grease. He shrugged and then returned five minutes later with a new tube – a present, he said shyly.
In a small village a boy gave me a bag of pears after I let him wear my helmet. In another a woman grinned her row of golden teeth and asked if she could write, “I love you, Canada” on my pannier.
And in Baku, where I was supposed to be careful, people put their arms around me and ask if I need money (I politely decline).
I’m no stranger to the generosity of others, but in Azerbaijan that kindness melds beautifully with an energy, honesty and insatiable curiosity that makes my heart ache in all the right places.
They are who I hope to be, and all I want from them is to be closer.