“Taking advantage of its geographical position, resources and potential, we are realizing the role of a ‘bridge’ between East and West—with origins in the historical past and oriented toward the future,” President Ilham Aliyev wrote in his 2007 book, I Believe in My Azerbaijan. And Aliyev’s wife executive-produced an English-language film adaptation of Ali and Nino, the 1937 book that has been adopted as a sort of national novel, in which the the love between the two title characters—an Azeri Muslim boy and Georgian Christian girl—represents Baku’s position between Europe and Asia. Ali describes his city this way in the book:
Outside the Old Wall was the Outer Town, with wide streets, high houses, its people noisy and greedy for money. This Outer Town was built because of the oil that comes from our desert and brings riches. There were theaters, schools, hospitals, libraries, policemen and beautiful women with naked shoulders. If there was shooting in the Outer Town, it was always about money. Europe’s geographical border began in the Outer Town, and that is where Nino lived. Inside the Old Wall the houses were narrow and curved like oriental daggers. Minarets pierced the mild moon, so different from the oil derricks the House of Nobel had erected.
But geographers haven’t necessarily agreed with Ali or Aliyev. Although there are varying interpretations of how the border between Europe and Asia crosses the Caucasus isthmus between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, they nearly all pass north of Azerbaijan, placing the country entirely within Asia. The Azerbaijan Geographical Society’s effort—part of a larger, international project, including geographers from Russia and Kazakhstan—aims to change that.
“Look at me. Do I look Chinese?”
“Look at me. Do I look Chinese?” Ramiz Mammadov, the chair of the society, asks me. “I’m just as European as you.”
Mammadov blames Russian chauvinism for the fact that Azerbaijan is not considered European. He points out that the last effort to redefine the border was carried out in the 1960s by Soviet Russian geographers, who determined that the correct border was the Kuma-Manych Depression, a series of small rivers that pass to the north not just of Azerbaijan but of the Russian Caucasus such as Chechnya and Dagestan. “This is where Muslims live. Their way of life meant that they couldn’t be European, so they were kept in Asia,” Mammadov says. The border he has identified, he argues, is a corrective to that unscientific approach. “Economics, lifestyle, customs: These are all dynamic factors, which can change. What doesn’t change? The watershed of the Caucasus. So, if lifestyle and customs can change in 40 years, do we change the border every 40 years?”
According to Eduard Murzaev, one of those Soviet scholars, the geographical societies of the three Transcaucasian republics—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—were surveyed as part of the 1960s border project and asked where they thought the border should be. Murzayev remembers the Azerbaijani delegation (along with the Armenians) arguing that the line should be the Kuma-Manych Depression, i.e., that they should be in Asia. It recalled the opening scene of Ali and Nino, in which the Russian teacher is giving a geography lesson to his mostly “Mohammedan” students:
“The natural borders of Europe consist in the north of the North Polar Sea, in the west of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the south of the Mediterranean. The eastern border of Europe goes through the Russian Empire, along the Ural mountains, through the Caspian Sea, and through Transcaucasia. Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia’s cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia.”
The professor had a self-satisfied smile on his lips.
We sat silent for a little while, overwhelmed by such mountains of wisdom, and the load of responsibility so suddenly laid upon our shoulders.
Then Mehmed Haidar, who sat on the back bench, raised his hand and said: “Please, sir, we should rather stay in Asia.”
There are people today who apparently agree that Azerbaijan should stay in Asia, or at least that it shouldn’t make such a big deal about trying to belong to Europe. Mammadov says that some of his higher-ups have asked that he suspend the border project because it is “too political.” (Mammadov wears two hats, as the head of the geographical society and as the director of the Institute of Geography at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Science. The former is an NGO, while the latter is run by the state.) He blames midlevel officials: “If it went to the president, he would support it. He’s farsighted and understands these things.”
Ali and Nino ends elegiacally, lamenting the dying beauty of Eastern tradition and predicting that Baku would inexorably Europeanize. And it was correct: At least by all the superficial standards that Ali used, Baku has lost its “Asianness.” Everyone eats at a table now rather than on the floor, and women are more likely to wear miniskirts than the veil. The old city, Ali’s Oriental redoubt, has been carefully restored and is now home to European embassies and carpet shops for tourists. The oil derricks are still outside the wall, but several foreign oil services companies, the successors to the Nobels—whose prizes were funded, in part, by their dominance of the 19th century oil boom here—have offices in restored Old Town buildings.