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Agdas within a walled courtyard

A 19th century soumak salt bag visits on the author's balcony.

Carpets offered for sale in Agdas.

On the Road to Azerbaijan
Continued from page one

I met only one Christian as such, and she wanted to go to America. She was looking for the American Embassy and stopped me on the street. I did see two Armenian churches that had been burned out.

As to Islam in Azerbaijan, there is an attempt by foreigners to introduce Islamic fundamentalism. When I visited the carpet museum in the "old city," I found that it had been turned into a mosque. The museum has not yet relocated and the carpets are all in storage. The Imam and his assistants are Turks who studied in both Iran and Iraq and had just moved to Baku to teach Islam to the natives. As I walked through the building, which is beautifully decorated with stone carvings and filigree, I noticed two large painted signs: "Recapture Jerusalem" showed a crumbling Star of David; and "Not Russia nor America" manifested a Kalishnakov machine gun.

My Turkish friends were outraged, and the Azerbaijanis to whom they described this display were dumbfounded. The Minister of Culture, Polad Bulbuloglu, who was kind enough to speak to us for an hour over a fantastic tea service, was very embarrassed and promised to look into politics masquerading as religion. His office was directly across from our hotel and was very large, with wood paneled walls, an extravagant crystal chandelier, a fine grand piano, oil paintings on the walls... and machine-made rugs on the floor. When asked about the carpets, he just shrugged and said they had come with the building.

There are more than 40 carpet dealers in Baku, with contacts in New York, London, and Tel Aviv. Most of these rug dealers do not have shops and sell out of their homes. The best rugs are, of course, hidden at home.

There are three types of shops operating in Azerbaijan. The first are government-owned and operated; they are old style, and you can tell them by their signs in Cyrillic and unhelpful sales staff. The second type are the consignment shops, where things are sold for their owners by the shop staff and the shop gets a commission on each sale. The third style is the modern, western, capitalist shop. These have signs using the western alphabet and they sell everything imaginable, sometimes from the same display case. One can distinguish the rug shops easily; an old fragment is hung on the outside of the door -- an excellent form of advertisement with no language skills required.

I found good rugs in all of these situations, although doing business in the home felt preferable. In fact, I did feel that many shops were just meeting points for potential customers. Once the shopkeepers knew you, they would take you home to see the "old pieces" in privacy. Many homes I saw were little more than warehouses for old rugs.

Rug prices tend to be very high throughout Azerbaijan. The people with stuff to sell have very high expectations of what their goods can bring, and they have no shame in asking real fortunes. One lady in Baku wanted $12,500 for a room-size soumak. True, it was about 80 years old, with a natural dye palette, and in mint condition. But $12,500! Sotheby's would have sold it for $6,000. Small old bags were rare, and there were lots of 50-year-old kilims and carpets. Pretty much what one would expect. I did not, however, expect the prices!

A certain amount of caution is still exercised in "doing business" in Azerbaijan. This activity was so illegal for 70 years that much apprehension still exists. In addition, the government has very, very high taxes on profits (over 70%), so people naturally keep their "business" close to their vests.

I interviewed one older carpet dealer who had been selling rugs for 17 years. This in itself was exceptional as most rug dealers have only been in business for a few years at most. He was speaking of his trips to Georgia in the 1970s and the American buyers there to whom he sold when he became aware that I was taking notes. He stopped abruptly and left the room without a word. Later he returned and requested that I not mention his name or location. Obviously, he had found out I was with Çemal and was writing an article on business in Azerbaijan. That was okay but "don't quote me directly."

One government shop had a separate "consignment section" and, when we looked at carpets, they closed the whole shop and posted lookouts at the doors. All this to show a few "old" rugs from a back room.

At least one other rug shop had a lookout that I saw. This was a new shop near the entrance to the "old city," where many of the carpet shops are located (also, the ex-carpet museum). Here was a sign in western script and a rug hanging on the alley wall opposite the shop. One of the two men inside spoke perfect English; he said he had been in the government but ducked the question of what he had done. All was very convivial until the owner asked if I wished to see a "Stalin" carpet. When I replied, "Of course," the mood changed abruptly, and the English-speaking gentleman stood outside the door looking out while I was shown the 1932 mat size commemoration piece. Unfortunately, it was too badly damaged by moths to consider. When it was put away, the lookout returned to the shop and we had tea together.

A change in the secret police is coming. I saw young, well educated men standing by the uniformed ex-KGB inspectors. They were watching the watchers. My Azerbaijani friends said they were anticipating a change soon. Too much old style corruption. Outside of Baku the general mood is much lighter and, with a good guide, it is much easier to see pieces. Everything is at home; I saw no carpet stores as we traveled through Shamacher, Agdas (pronounced Aldash), Shemaka, and Sheki. The village of Agdas was especially interesting. Many of the villagers have decided to go into the old carpet business. We visited about 20 homes to see rugs; the children would lead us around. It turns out that many buyers from both Europe and Iran also stop here.

People were very hospitable; we must have eaten five meals in one afternoon and drunk a gallon or two of tea. Homes were well appointed and centered around a spacious courtyard. Everyone wanted to show us rugs and feed us. Rugs were everywhere. Many homes had small depots of rugs to show. There were no over-the-shoulder glances and closed doors -- much more relaxed. However, we saw better things in Baku and more of them. Many of the people I interviewed admitted to selling their best pieces in Baku where they would bring more money.

On the way to Sheki we passed an old roadside tomb. Our driver stopped to pay his respects, and I interviewed the attendant. This is the resting place of "Pir Saat," a 15th century holy man. Though this is all anyone knew about him, all were eager to use their newly gained religious freedom to honor him. This is a well traveled road and, in the 10 minutes we were there, I counted 15 cars and trucks whose drivers stopped for a brief moment of reflection, and a small monetary offering.

The most beautiful and prosperous of all the areas I visited in Azerbaijan was Sheki, famous for its silk as well as its oil, natural gas, and tobacco. People there seem to have learned how to live with the old system to their advantage. Now they are complaining about the new system; but their well paved roads, street lights, large, well furnished homes and abundance of foods and drink tend to belie their complaints. I wonder what Sheki was like 10 years ago.

As I was from the U.S., I was given a bit of attention, all of it warm. It was very pleasant traveling through such a friendly countryside. Azerbaijan is moving into the 20th century democratic marketplace. After 70 years of heavy-handed unworkable government, there are still many anomalies. The old Soviet system is still in place in many areas, while capitalism and democracy are severely handicapped by a lack of both popular understanding of democratic capitalism and the funding necessary to implement necessary changes.

One incident provides a good illustration. When we arrived in Baku, amidst the hoopla of family reunions, I noticed Çemal speaking to an American who had been on the flight with us. He did not have his visa for Azerbaijan. Çemal smoothed this out for him by suggesting a $50 U.S.A. entrance fee. He was to then obtain his visa at the Baku visa office; it might take him a day of hassles, but it was workable. As we were leaving Azerbaijan, after undergoing a thorough search by customs, who was waiting to board the same plane as us but this same American. It seems he did not get to the visa office, and no matter what he offered -- or what Çemal translated (no one here spoke English) -- he was refused exit from Azerbaijan. We watched him standing there as we boarded the plane.

Visas are obtainable from the Russian Embassy; Azerbaijan does not yet have its own service. The traveler should be sure to have both entrance and exit stamps. Entrance customs is perfunctory; exit customs is thorough. Be advised: they look through each bag and count your jewelry.

In Istanbul the next morning I was checking out the "Russian Market" by the university. There were more things for sale here than I had seen in most of Azerbaijan, from military uniforms to carpets, from household items to coins and medals. The prices were realistic, and there was no underlying paranoia.

My next stop, in October, is to photograph the Russian market on the Black Sea. Hopefully, this will complete the picture of goods moving from hiding to market. To me this is the clearest reading of the decline and breakup of the Soviet Empire.

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