… I like it.
I’ve been based in Azerbaijan for the last 18 months and I write to you from the capital, a city with fever: Baku has Eurovisionitis. The bug is highly infectious, millions of people are affected and only large doses of international media attention will alleviate the symptoms across the country. As a Brit, I developed immunity long ago but am watching it spread swiftly, like a plague of Biblical proportions. Eurovisionitis zaps brain cells, causes palpitations of the heart and soul, and an irresistible urge to vote by SMS. You have been warned. If your toe is tapping as you read this, please contact a DJ and ask for a check up.
The crisis appears to have started with an outbreak of national delirium following Azerbaijan’s well-deserved win in last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, with the song ‘Running Scared’, probably one of the catchiest tunes since barefoot diva Sandie Shaw won with ‘Puppet On A String’, in 1967. Sandie was British and her success triggered chronic Eurovisionitis back home. Our illness was cured by the decline in the quality of British entrants, by a sudden increase in the contest’s kitsch factor and by the rather creepy politicization of the voting process. Nevertheless, Eurovision seems more popular than ever and now the stethoscope is on Azerbaijan. Sorry, I mean the spotlight. Question is, what might be revealed?
If and when you watch Eurovision this month, you will no doubt enjoy impressive footage of a country in transition. Azerbaijan is changing and Baku is one of the world’s richest and fastest developing capital cities, its growth funded by lucrative revenues from massive reserves of oil and gas. An American geologist recently told me that one of Azerbaijan’s new gas fields “measures 6 miles deep, top to bottom”. That’s a lot of mamaliga, certainly enough to win friends around the world during a time of global austerity and high oil prices.
Closer to home, the social effects above ground are, of course, more visible – Baku has lots of flashy cars, designer shops and exclusive places to have fun.
Numerous reconstruction projects are underway, including a special arena purpose-built for Eurovision. Some of the buildings make your eyes pop, and at night Baku looks like the futuristic city in Blade Runner. My favourite one is based on the handwritten signature of Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB officer who became president after Azerbaijan split from the Soviet Union. Imagine a building based on your own signature, curling and poking into the sky like some giant meringue baked by Dali? Crazy but I love it. Maximum points.
The existence of that building perhaps contradicts a recent news item on the BBC, which suggested that the authorities in Azerbaijan ‘lack a sense of humour’, although that reporter was referring to the controversial case of the ‘donkey bloggers’, two young men who posted on the Internet a video of a donkey giving a mock press conference in Azerbaijan. They went to jail for their cheek but were released after an international outcry.
The ‘donkey’ controversy highlighted one of the difficulties faced by a country in transition from Communism to democracy: when is free speech OK and when is it too provocative? More recently, some locals claim to have been evicted to make way for new construction projects, although the local authorities insist they were compensated. When animal rights activists claimed that local police were shooting street dogs in Baku as part of a clean-up campaign, their claims too were refuted.
Whatever the truth in such cases, the organizers of Eurovision hope to avoid politics before and during the song contest. Of course, they cannot hope to resolve the bitter animosity between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but they were probably encouraged to hear one of the ‘donkey bloggers’ recently urging foreigners not to boycott the contest, but rather to come and see it, and the country, for themselves.
However, my friend Kolea won’t be watching. Kolea was a homeless man who used to live in the alley near my block and survived on a few pennies from odd jobs. He visited Romania many years ago, as part of the Azerbaijan karate team, or so he told me in one our sign-language chats. During the recent severe winter he slept in the snow, huddled in his polyester blankets. One day, I asked Kolea if there was a shelter for homeless people in Baku. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I bought him some clothes and gave him some hot food in my flat, where he grabbed my guitar but seemed puzzled that could not play it. Maybe he had forgotten how? A few days after his visit to my flat, Kolea took ill and died, but not because of Eurovisionitis. I’ll watch the song contest on TV but I’m not sure who will get my vote. The best tune, I suppose. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
First published in Playboy, May 2012, by S.C. MediaFax SA, Romania.
To see the original page from the magazine, please click this link: playboy mai 2012