Knight in black jacket

Should I ever have the occasion to stay a while in Chicago, it will be interesting to see just how well ‘The Windy City’ lives up to its name.  Baku – ‘the city of wind’ – has most certainly reminded us all of how suitable that translation is today.  This morning’s drive to the Terminal was conducted through varying viscosities of sand/dust-storm with visibility briefly reducing to twenty metres or less in places.

The wind is a cool one and the way it deflects the heat of the weakening September sun is starting to make the evenings feel autumnal.  I am sitting here typing with the air-conditioning turned off for the first time in ages and sundowners on the terrace currently require long sleeves.  The temperature might even dip below twenty degrees soon; what ever next…

Taking a more positive view, I imagine the drop in Celsius might be welcomed by the devout of this region.  Ramadan started on the thirteenth and I expect fasting during the daylight hours will be less strenuous at twenty-something degrees than at thirty-odd.

While the breeze may be bearing our summer away it is also bringing us visitors from afar.  Those who are aware of wrestling of the type that exists outside the melodrama of WWF might be interested to know that the Wrestling World Championships started here today.  Azerbaijan has an international medal-winning wrestler to support and competitors are genuinely coming from opposite ends of the globe to attend: I have spotted Team Japan walking around town and Team Cuba is in the hotel just outside my back gate.  Indeed every room in the city is fully booked for the week and that last observation could make life difficult for followers of the other international event that is coming to town next weekend.  Allegedly.

First we had J-Lo.  Last year she was due to come here as part of a Caucasus/Middle East tour and had a stadium gig sold out but she cancelled the whole tour.  Some while later advertising went round for Rowan Atkinson doing a theatre performance but that turned out to be a fraudster’s hoax.  The Gypsy Kings supposedly played here a couple of months ago but that too turned out to be a cheat (either an other non-event or not the full band, still not sure which).  Most recently the Israeli band, Alabina was widely heralded across billboards, buses and television for a whole month prior to allegedly performing ten days ago at the Green Theatre.  Verdict still awaited on that one but I am not holding my breath seeing as the band’s website is many years out of date and other inquiries bore little fruit.

With the recent history of mainstream international performances in Baku being so patchy, you might understand my scepticism when I first heard the Sir Elton John is expect here but so far the corroborating evidence is good.  Official sponsors include a major government body, Sir Elton’s official website announces the Baku date as part of a mini-tour in the region and a friend of mine in London who has worked with him kindly made the requisite ‘phone call at my request to confirm that yes, the date is in the diary.

Ticket sales initially posed a problem as the first two outlets I was informed of were two far-from-five-star bars just off Fountain Square (bars with a liking for live music admittedly but definitely more Miller than Moet establishments).  Bar sales for Sir EJ playing a stadium gig?  I think not…

A few days later I am now guessing that the owners there knew the right people and got hold of a portion each to sell on as the ‘official’ structure appears to be more suitable in a Baku sort of way.  The majority of the tickets; starting at 30 manats each; are being sold through shops of a recently established mobile ‘phone company (sponsors I expect) while several hundred front row ‘VIP’ tickets (front row seats, at a stadium?) are being offered at the Opera Ballet’s box office for 500-800 manats.

Yes, I will repeat that: 500-800 manats.  That upper figure is about 500 pounds sterling, not far shy of 1000 US dollars.  Feel free to remonstrate with me if you wish but personally, even if I was old enough to have savoured true love’s first kiss with the original seven-inch pressing of “Your Song” playing in the background and gone on to become a life-long Elton John devotee (I am not and I have not), I would think twice about paying that sort of money for a public performance anywhere in the world, let alone one in a stadium and in a city with a track record for ‘major’ gigs so inconsistent as the one I have just described.  Plus to be honest, 30 manats could still be considered a steep price for the ‘cheap seats’ in a town where that figure reportedly equates to one third of a month’s wages.

The issue is proving to be a divisive one for many people in differing ways.  I see it potentially becoming a watershed for Baku as a credible destination for mainstream performing artists.  There is undoubtedly enough money in this city to buy those VIP tickets but it is concentrated within a very particular group numbering a limited quantity of people.  Are there enough of those people and of them how many can be counted upon to just pay any price without question simply because this is a major popular musician coming to town?  Being there to be seen there will be a strong motive for many but can that motive be relied upon?

As the number of countries forming this region of the tour is very small (Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Azerbaijan) it is possible that some audience members will fly in from other countries to see the gig.  Assuming of course that they can find a ticket price that are happy with and that they can find a hotel room while the place is booked out for the wrestling.

From the performance side I am fortunate to have a limited but valuable insight into the working practice of the artist and I have good faith in Sir Elton to arrive, set up, perform and give his very best on the night (please don’t let the whole event be jinxed now that I have committed that to print).  My concern on the broader scale is that if Sir Elton plays his heart out to a stadium that is barely half full, the audience might have the best time on earth but the message to other prospective visiting artists will not be the most positive one.  Everybody prefers to play to a full house.

At the end of the day, it may simply boil down to a question of how many Elton John fans there are in the area.  The wind also carries word that Jose Carreras is coming to town and should that come to pass I imagine that on that occasion I might feel less cautious about the ticket price should I happen to find one available…

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

September already and the summer heat shows little sign of abating.  Even the hardiest citizens of Baku seem to have had enough: I stepped out on the stroke of midday last Sunday to find Fountain Square virtually deserted and eerily silent.

A power cut last night had me waking up parboiled in the small hours once the electrically powered cooling aids had been idle for a short period.  Half an hour standing in the sun at the Terminal this afternoon while mustering for a General Alarm (thankfully a false one) left me wondering how people in hotter places like the gulf states manage to survive the extra fifteen degrees they experience there.

It has taken little encouragement for me to deal with the temperatures in the time-honoured coastal way and head for the beach.  While Baku Bay and the coast immediately south of it is not recommended for bathing as the water there contains a lot more than just sea-life, the north side of the peninsula offers much better conditions and I have paid several visits.  Even after the toughest of working days or the most challenging of battles with the traffic; both of which coincided yesterday; the rhythm of the waves and the beat of the breakers combine to calm all ills.

For the well-to-do of Baku the stifling humidity and clinging dirt of the city summer is alleviated by the dacha season.  For the fortunate amongst the rest of us there is air conditioning, ideally experienced in an apartment in the Old City.  The small acreage within these ancient walls has to be the most peaceful part of Baku.  Standing on the roof terrace and watching the moon rise over the bay I can sometimes hear muted tones of rush-hour chaos coming from the streets of the ‘new’ city but most times the quiet is punctuated only by the call for prayer issuing calmly from a centuries-old minaret nearby.

It was on such an evening that I finally read a book that had been recommended to me and I found that the environment perfectly complemented the tale.  Kurban Said’s “Ali and Nino” is ostensibly a love story set in the Baku of the early twentieth century, the protagonist of which lives in the Old City.  The seemingly simple language of the English translation captures not just the plight of the lovers but scenes of visually vivid description, an impression of the huge changes and multi-cultural tensions of the time and a certain sense of satire in places.  I learned a lot about the history of Azerbaijan while reading the book and I expect that had I already known more I would have appreciated the satire in greater volume and detail.

While the author might not have imagined it ever being so, one recurrent theme for me was the thought that many of the changes and concerns expressed within the book are the same now as they were then.  With much of the intervening period being filled with the near other-worldly experiences of the World Wars and Soviet occupation, Azerbaijan finds itself again in the midst of an unprecedented oil-fuelled boom with cross-border relations being as complex as ever.

Having been invited from afar to live here and contribute to the fossil fuel effort I feel a particular sensitivity towards that aspect of the book, one that other readers understandably might not share.  It heightened the pleasure of reading for me but the lack of it should not diminish the experience for others.  There is enough contained within the twenty-nine brief chapters of this volume to entertain and illuminate, be your preference history, geography, politics, religion or just a simple, straightforward love story.

Should the author and the title fail to yield search results, ISBN 0099283220 is quoted straight from the Vintage/Random House copy in my hand.