Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Canadian Jewish News Article

The current edition of the Canadian Jewish News contains an article I wrote about Azerbaijan. It is not on their website, but it's prominent in the print edition. Here it is.


Predominantly Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan cultivates its Jewish connections


For those following the recent conflicts in Israel, it might come as a surprise that some of Israel’s best friends are Shiite Muslims.

Since it split from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan – where about three of four are Shiites - has developed a rich friendship with Israel.

The relationship was born in 1992 when Israel supported Azerbaijan against Armenia in the Karabakh War, a territorial conflict following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The war killed an estimated 20,000 and Armenia currently occupies about 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territories.

Israel has since continued to provide intelligence, security and military training to Azerbaijan, as part of a Israel-Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance roughly pitted against an Armenia-Russia-Iran axis.

The Jews and the Shiites also do much business. Israel’s Backcell is the second-largest cell-phone operator in the country of eight million and just one of many Israeli businesses doing brisk trade in the nation at the foot of the Caucasus. The recent opening of the BTC pipeline allows Azerbaijani oil to flow from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, a supply that helps secure Israel’s vulnerable energy supply from political interruption.

Although its citizens are Muslim, Azerbaijan might be the most secular Muslim country, likely a result of 70 years of Soviet atheism. The main streets of Baku are full of women sporting trendy skintight western fashions and nowhere can be seen a veil or any other religious clothing. Those who climb atop Baku’s famous ancient Maiden Tower might be hard-pressed to find more than a couple of minarets on the skyline.

On a recent visit to the country, I found myself at a picnic table overlooking the Caspian discussing Azerbaijan’s politics with a half dozen Azerbaijani professionals. The men proceeded with their customary lunchtime ritual - unscrewing a large bottle of Azeri vodka and proceeding with the first of countless salutary toasts.

We drank to Canada and Phil Esposito’s performance in the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series. We feast on a sumptuous spread of fresh fruits, fried sturgeon and fatty mutton kebab.

While such Azerbaijanis consider themselves a solid member of the Muslim brotherhood of nations, they are thoroughly committed to having a fully western state.

None seem tempted by the overtures of their co-religionists in neighbouring Iran, a country that has long wooed Azerbaijan into the orthodox fold. Many Azerbaijanis remain mistrustful of Iran, a country, which has forbidden its own Azeri minority to attend school in their own Turkish-like language. Iranian support for Armenia during the Karabakh war was also seen as a stinging insult.

Iran continues to attempt to dissuade Azerbaijan’s from the Israeli orbit. In August 2004 Iran offered Azerbaijan major concessions in a dispute over oil rights. In return it requested that Azerbaijan cut military ties with Israel.

Iran’s efforts to cultivate Azerbaijan’s bitter rival, Armenia, have been more successful. In 2002 the US State Department accused the Armenia of helping Iran develop its nuclear program.

Azerbaijan’s link with its Jewish community goes beyond modern diplomatic necessity. Just 25 kilometers from the seaside picnic table where we raised too many glasses sits Krasnaya Sloboda, home to an estimated 4,000 Mountain Jews, or Tats as they’re known. The history of the Jewish hill town is debated, but it’s believed to have sprung up over 15-centuries ago. Iranian Jews settled there in the 17 th century.

The area was once a stronghold in the Khazar Empire, the only Jewish state in history outside of Israel. The Khazars originated when a nomadic tribal leader named Khagan converted to Judaism in order to avoid having to choose between the Byzantine Greek Christians in the southwest and the Kievan Rus barbarians in the North.

In a recent visit to the Mountain Jews of Krasnaya Sloboda, best-selling Jewish-American author Gary Shteyngart, whose roots are in the region, described “the incredible prosperity of the place.” Meanwhile French historian Marek Halter’s historical novel The Winds of the Khazars, offers a spellbinding historical conjecture about the roots of the Jewish past in the region.

Some religious historians suggest that Zoroastrianism inspired many key elements of Judaism, which is one of the world’s first monotheistic faiths. Zoroastrianism originated in Azerbaijan and was inspired by the fires that shoot from the soil in the country, a phenomena that the Zoroastrians consider a divine symbol.

Another connection between the Azeris and Jews was explored in one of last year’s hottest titles. Tom Reiss’s The Orientalist explores the rich traditions of Jewish-Azeri relations through the tale of Baku novelist Lev Nussinbaum who became a literary hero in Azerbaijan in the 1930s.

Israel has an Embassy in Azerbaijan (although Canada does not) and the two frequently declare friendship and cooperation deals. Yet Azerbaijan also lines up among other Muslim countries to speak up for the Palestinians.

The complex diplomatic web might seem impossible to other nations but Azerbaijan has faced such demands for centuries. This country at the crossroads of Asia and Europe has seen just about every civilization pass through. Even Vikings hung their horned helmets in Azerbaijan, as proven by Gobustan’s ancient petroglyphs. The popular petroglyphs, perhaps only eclipsed as a tourist site by the nearby and highly bizarre mud volcanoes, depicts ancient drawings scratched into rock by onetime Viking residents.

Some say that the Vikings have returned in the form of rowdy British Petroleum oil workers whose pubs are now a fixture in Baku, a booming-yet-picturesque hilly city full of winding streets, classical mansion, discos, museums and leafy parks.

Azerbaijan’s geography and precious petroleum resources has led it to suffer much political manipulation, as regional superpowers such as Iran and Russia have played diplomatic chess in the oil-rich region.

Even Hitler hungered for control of the country. In a famous newsreel, Hitler is shown eating from a cake baked in the shape of the country, lustily swallowing the piece marked Baku. Alas, the Nazis would never gain control of the area to the delight of the many Jews who moved there to flee the Holocaust.

All this occurred as before modern offshore oil extraction has allowed one million tonnes of crude to be sucked daily from the Caspian, sent north to Tbilisi, Georgia and finally to tankers on the Mediterranean at Ceyhan Turkey, where the crude is loaded on tankers and shipped onwards to Israel and other countries beyond.

The pipeline is fast turning Azerbaijan into a Kuwait of the Caspian, as an estimated $150 billion will flow to Azerbaijan over the next two decades, big money to a country where many war refugees have been living in train cars and pensioners exist on paltry pensions of $30 (US) a month.

The BTC is good news for Israel, which like most of Europe, has faced serious energy supply vulnerabilities. In May, visiting Israel MP Joseph Shagal even suggested that the BTC be extended from Turkey to Ashegelon City in Israel. The fuel that courses through the giant underground vein should offer a chance for Israel to survive any threat of politically-inspired oil blockade

After chatting about the complex politics at the Caspian-side picnic, our van headed south along the main highway to Baku, home to 11,000 of the country’s 16,000 Jews. We passed Five Finger Mountain. Myth has it that it’s the hand of a hero who conquered a monster that had blocked the water supply. Our driver stopped at a mosque to give alms for the needy, undoubtedly asking Allah for a bit of safety on the trip down the two lane two-direction road.

In Baku, construction cranes dot every horizon but Muslim traditions and tendencies are well-hidden. After days of people watching on the bustling streets, I didn’t spot a single burka.

I drop into a language school where thousands of young Azeris learn English. Under the Soviets, all Azerbaijanis were conversant in their language as well as Russian; many are now also learning English.

The school’s principal Senan Huseynov, who also serves in a variety of foreign relations government posts, expresses optimism about Azerbaijan’s ability to get along with all sides. “We have very good relations with Israel, we are also proud to have normal relations with Iran. All this is impossible for other countries,” he says, adding that “many of the Azerbaijani Jews who moved to Israel following independence have been moving back. They missed it too much here.”

Huseynov dreams of seeing Azerbaijan become a new Switzerland – a country of comparable geographic size and population – and eventually join the European Union. In its efforts to impress the EU, Azerbaijan has appointed many opposition party members to government committees and it has agreed to place its oil profits into a transparent fund.

Although I don’t manage to track down a Jew in Baku, the words of my Toronto-based friend Fema Gelman rings in my ears throughout my trip. Gelman, a bear-like Jewish jazz bassist from Baku – a country produces poets and jazz musicians the way Toronto produces stockbrokers and accountants – often speaks with a melancholy tone that only disappears when talking about Azerbaijan. “The Seaside! The food! Delicious! The beaches! The women! Beautiful! You go! You will love it!”

He was right. I have a hunch that he might be one of the Jews that eventually returns, too.


Blogger Jason said...

I was surprised you mentioned that Islamic dress was absent. During my summer stay I was surprised at the number (albeit small) numbers of visible devotees to Islam via their dress. It wasn't uncommon to see women in hijab or at other point veiled. There has been a Wahhabi influx and the attending culture. The fact that you don't see many women completely veiled could be attributable to those that would dress in such a way would often times rarely leave the home. If you travel to a place such as Nardaran, where Shi'a religious fervor is high, you'll see a lot less of the secularism you describe along with anti-Western sentiment.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Rapho said...

Hi Kristian, I found your Blog on It shows interesting. I will observe your blog in the next time ... Thanks! I made a link to your blog on my blog.

8:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Kris,
I was very surpised and happy to know that you are very interested about Azerbaijan.
I would like to interview you .

9:47 AM  

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