You need to upgrade your Flash Player
Ismail Safarali

Ismail Safarali was born in Baku, Azerbaijan in April of 1978. After spending two years in the United States studying for his Masters degree in International Affairs at Duke University, Ismail returned to his home country. His literary career started with poems and short stories. Ismail’s critically acclaimed short story entitled "The Funeral" was published in an anthology “Baku and its neighborhoods” focusing on Baku society and social issues. Ismail produced several scripts for cinema. His latest script "I am returning home" was acquired by an independent production company “Salname” in Azerbaijan. It is currently being filmed in a location outside of Baku. Ismail is about to publish his collection of poetry as well as working on his first English language novel "Sea of Tranquility". He resides in Baku with his wife and daughter.

Novruz in Baku

It is difficult to imagine that once in the history of our country, Novruz was a forbidden holiday. Banned in Azerbaijan for over seventy years by the Soviet authorities, Novruz was preserved in its full glory in a family home. I remember in our small neighborhood of Yuxari Mahalla1, my brother and I exchanged sweets and small presents with the kids from the next block, all under the cover of night. It felt as though we were part of some conspiracy in the name of the good spirit of Novruz, the way we concealed goghal2 and dried fruit with a colored blanket. We knocked on the door of our neighbor Aziza khanum3, an elderly woman who looked after us when our mother was at work. Aziza opened the door - candles lit inside her apartment - and welcomed us, the “bringers” of Novruz, with her arms outstretched. We gave her our empty basket and in exchange we received a kiss on the cheek, as well as some “treats for the two little devils”.

It is a challenge to write objectively about Novruz when for 33 years I have been immersed into this holiday’s mystery, magic and ageless tradition. But there is one irrefutable fact: Novruz is a family holiday. As it is for me, it is for most Azerbaijanis – the time for the family to come together and celebrate the arrival of spring.

This morning, on March 21, I am trying to lose the comfortable layer of my cultural identity. In order to have a fresh perspective, I am trying to forget what Novruz feels to me. It is 8 am. I close my eyes and sit still in front of the window overlooking the still somnolent city of Baku. For a day or two, I will become “xarici”, a foreigner in my own city, a wondrous eye open to new experiences. I want to see tonghal4, like I see it for the first time.

At 9 am I meet Rena Effendi, a photographer on assignment to cover the holiday in Baku. We sit in a café and over a cup of fresh mint tea discuss the plan for the day. Our today’s mission is to absorb the multi-layered sprit of Novruz, with its joy, sorrow, hope and ultimate celebration.

Icheri Sheher (Old City), the historical center of Baku, is where most traditional street festivities take place. Though early in the morning, the narrow streets are full of people. Tents are set up to offer souvenirs and picture opportunities in national costumes. Families are standing in lines by the manghals5, enveloped in kebab smoke. A stage stands in front of the Maiden Tower6 for dance performances, and crowds are eager for the show to start. Something looks different though, something right in front of our eyes. The faces of women are somehow more groomed, at times even bearing the signs of cosmetic surgery. We overhear a conversation and the language is not quite Azeri. Most of the old city crowd is in fact from Iran, ethnic Azeris who have come to celebrate Novruz in Baku, outnumbering the locals. A square behind Gosha Gala Gapi, the main city gates, has become a fairground with a traditional Novruz wrestling show. Too many odd things are for sale, mostly items that have nothing to do with Novruz, such as Indian scarves and extravagantly bushy choban7 hats.

We cannot help noticing a giant man wearing a green suit of Semeni8, his legs in matching green pantyhose, and clad in red shoes. The sidekick of Semeni, the incredible Baklava is nearby. As they dance together on the street and wave their enormous gloved hands to children, the spectacle resembles a Novruz comic strip with the protagonists captured in the wrong time zone. A Nordic looking woman is taking a picture of her bemused kids with the Cirtdan9 character. The sidewalks are full, the crowds are merry, but we feel that we must escape the tourist trap of the Maiden Tower and chase the spirit of Novruz somewhere else.

Our guide is Muslim, a young boy Rena met randomly in the Old City, who promised her to take us to the hidden corners of Icheri Sheher to meet his neighbors and relatives. We wait for Muslim by the Old City walls, but he does not show up. He is running late, but keeps calling us and giving us new directions to a home where “his aunt will be happy to see us”. Forty minutes are gone and we are aimlessly meandering inside the walled city in search of Muslim. After another 30 minutes, he finally calls to inform us that somebody had challenged his Sony Playstation football skills, and…he must attend.

Away from the commercialized celebrations, the streets of the Old City are eerily empty. Everyone is at home celebrating, so we continue to wander the narrow streets in hopes of finding an open door. Finally we see a man walking down the cobbled stone street. He is stocky and short with playful eyes. He holds a garbage bag in his hand. We look desperately inquisitive and he asks us if we were lost. We introduce ourselves, recounting the story of Muslim. Taking pity on us, Elkhan muallim10, our savior, invites us in for a cup of tea.

Preparations are under way for a small celebration in the evening and we get the first taste of Elkhan’s wife’s delicious baklava. In the kitchen she shows us other pastries she made for the holiday, shakarbura and shorgoghal. The top of shakarbura is beautifully hand-carved, and since the trade of nakhish11 is passed along to younger generations from the elderly, one can tell who the master is and who the apprentice. One can trace age, wisdom and life experience in the symmetrical lines of the intricate ornament. The family table is set. Elkhan is telling stories, his daughters are lighting candles on Novruz honcha12. Elkhan moved to the old city in 1989 when he bought a burnt down building and restored it to its original look. He has since been working in the administration of the Old City doing his best to preserve the city’s historical and cultural legacy. An educated historian, Elkhan tells us that he will never move anywhere from Icheri Sheher - “This place has the most amazing aura, the walls are breathing history. This is my home now”.

When we ask him what Novruz means to him, Elkhan gives a short answer – “Novruz is a symbol of life, a new beginning”. With a pear-shaped “armudi” tea glass in his hands, he argues that a new year should always start with warm spring as opposed to cold winter. For Elkhan, this is the essence of Novruz. As we begin to depart, Elkhan insists we meet his special friend who “knows a thousand and one stories about Novruz”, so we move a couple of blocks and end up by the small arched door of Khalida khanum.

A native of the Old City, Khalida lives alone in the house that belonged to her father. She gave up the second floor of her home to an elderly woman with many cats. “I look after her and she looks after them” – she says apologizing for the cat smell. Downstairs, Khalida’s cozy living room is lit with candles, an orange glow reflecting on the many woven carpets hung on the walls. She has lived alone for many years now, yet the table is set as if someone is about to come. This is how Khalida always celebrates Novruz. She cooks and sets up a table for a family she does not have. “A total stranger can be closer than family”. Khalida jokes that we are her family this year and sure enough, at the candlelit table with the Novruz spread, it feels like home.

Educated as a chemist, Khalida began sewing gurama13 as a way to handle stress after the bloody events of January 20th, 1990 when the Soviet tanks invaded Baku and over a hundred people were killed on the street. Miniature silk cushions are scattered around on tables, needles stuck in them like in voodoo dolls. Small bits of cloth are everywhere, not one inch wasted, snippets of memories, good and bad sewn together by Khalida’s clever hands. Elkhan is here too, drinking tea and making conversation. We look at them sitting together, their faces are glowing in mutual admiration. Elkhan and Khalida have been friends and neighbors for over 20 years. “There is always something interesting to talk about with Ekhan muallim”. – Khalida says making him blush. “He also knows a lot and I can always call him up whenever I have a question on history!” Khalida recalls a Novruz story from her childhood – “My mother always made new dresses for me and my sister to wear when we visited our neighbors. We had to meet Novruz in brand new clothes, no matter how hard the times had been”. My mind wonders back to Khalida’s gurama. Perhaps she could make a large patchwork from those Novruz dresses. If Novruz was a child, this would be his magic blanket.

We thank Khalida and Elkhan for their warmth and decide to head to the municipal cemetery where people from all over Baku come together to commemorate their origins. The cemetery is at the edge of the city, next to the TV tower, a vast graveyard of marble tombstones bearing formal portraits of the dead. People are flocking the alleys, gathering around graves, praying, crying. Women have covered their heads with black scarves. We see a family of four passing by, a burly mustached man with his wife and two daughters. They circle around a grave with a picture of a woman on it, most likely a family matriarch. One of the daughters puts a small plate of baklava on the tomb. The baklava will not remain rotting on the grave. Not only a tradition of remembrance, but also a way to support those in need, very soon the poor will come to fetch fresh food to sweeten their holiday. A girl puts down semeni next to the plate of sweets. Most graves around us are sprinkled with green shades of semeni. A symbol of Novruz in Azerbaijan, semeni represents the start of new life. The growing grass symbolizes renewed hope for those who had lost their loved ones.

The people at the graveyard are camera shy, they do not want to be disturbed in their private ritual. We watch the solemn crowds proceed along the alleys of the cemetery, making eye contact with the tombstone photographs of their mothers, fathers and loved ones far gone. Our entranced observation is interrupted by another phone call from Muslim, our guide yet-to-be. He says he is finally ready to show us around, we agree to meet by the Gosha Gala Gapi. We entertain another idea of getting lost in the Old City, following the ghost of Muslim. Perhaps this is a way of getting things done on Novruz day. Sure enough, Muslim does not show up and half an hour later, his phone is switched off.

At dusk the square of Gosha Gala seems deserted. No trace of celebrations, the cobble stone roads have been swept clean of the earlier Novruz extravaganza. The Old City air rings with silence, it is time for the walls to speak, as the ancient stones come to life in the moving light. We make our way into the labyrinth of dimly lit streets. The smell of our first Novruz tonghal brings us to a square where a group of six local kids run around with plastic bags and hats in their hands – we stumble upon papaghatdi14. A distinctive feature of Novruz and every child’s favorite – papaghatdi is yet another way of sharing Novruz with neighbors. Children throw their hats under neighbors’ doors and run away to hide. When they return to fetch them back they find goghals, shakarbura, fruits and candies inside them.

We join the ‘hat runners’ and barriers of communication are brought down quickly as we recognize Nazrin, Elkhan’s blue-eyed younger daughter as leader of the group. She introduces us to her friends: beautiful Gulay, shy Nigyar, smiley Ofelia and the two small boys – Abdul and Murad. The latter starts counting in English from one to ten in “our honor”, thinking we must be foreigners. It almost feels like I am ten again running up and down my street with friends and waiting for something absolutely delicious to appear at the bottom of my hat.

Children sprint up the stairs of a dilapidated mansion turned apartment building – the monogram NM carved on the entrance tells us that it was an oil baron’s home in the previous century. All six kids throw their hats and plastic bags at the foot of a heavy wooden door. They knock and dash out of the building as quickly as they can. We hide with them outside, the kids excitement is somehow multiplied with our presence. The door opens and after a pause we hear a lady shouting in Azeri, “ay uşağlar, adam olun, alti dənə papağda atarlar?!” – Why so greedy, not six hats together!” Kids giggle and collect their hats full of treasures. They gather and compare their trophies. Gulay got caramel candy and Murad’s showing off his chocolate bar. Other kids even got lollipops. This is not something that I could ever expect in my Novruz hat. Back in the eighties a lollipop was a stronger currency than a Soviet ruble. But not even Novruz can resist the passing of time. Traditions are uprooted and rituals take on a modern twist. In my Soviet childhood, a plastic bag for ‘papaghatdi’ was bad manners. Only hats were accepted and the deeper the bottom the better. There was no chocolate or caramel candy. Back then we collected baklava, goghal and maybe some dried fruit and nuts if the neighbor was wealthy. And although the choice of Soviet sweets was meager, the holiday spirit prevailed.

Our next destination is “Mahalla”, one of Baku’s poorest neighborhoods where flat roof houses were built by the forefathers of people who live in them now. Unlike the Old City with its spruced up facades, Mahalla is crumbling. Pavement is broken, roads are in disrepair, and electrical cords are jumbled together with cloth-lines on which rumor and gossip travel from house to house. Mahalla is rough but proud. This is where meyhana15 was born and reborn. This is where a fun wedding is the one where street poets draw daggers after a session of improvised recital. This is where a Novruz tonghal is the tallest in the city. Is the fire big here because of Mahalla’s ancient pride? Or is it because the road police is a rare visitor here?

It is true that Mahalla has been left to its own devices and the bonfires are flaring strong here, bigger than human size, blocking one-way traffic on several streets. Young men and boys stand in a circle around a huge tonghal. The boys are afraid to jump over the raging orange flames. Tonghal tradition has deep roots and is a revered Novruz ritual, finding its origins in the Zoroastrian religion. It is imperative to make three jumps over the fire to singe away your bad fortune from the last year and let the flames purify your soul. An older man jokingly pushes the boys in the fire: “Jump if you are a man!” – he shouts, summoning the Mahalla code of masculinity. To prove the seriousness of his statement, he dashes forward and for a split second the man’s dark silhouette breaks through the body of the fire sending sparks into the air and onto the second floor windows of the neighboring homes. Others are encouraged by the move and soon enough the sky above is crimson with dancing bonfires. Tonight there is no need for the streetlights of which there are few.

Here we are, on the streets of Baku in the middle of this Novruz night, something that twenty years ago was nearly impossible. The wind blows gently from the Caspian Sea, and the burned wood is still in the air. Today was so much unlike the holiday I remember, and so much more than I expected – the genuine generosity and temporary friendships, and though I spent it away from my family I feel like I have become – however fleetingly – part of so many others.

By the way, Muslim never appeared that day, so we have his irresponsibility to thank for the great people we met. At times, small mishaps lead to a greater fortune.

1 Neighborhood in the uptown Baku, Azerbaijan

2 Crispy layered dough filled with spices

3 A way to formally address older lady

4 Traditional Novruz bonfire

5 Grill

6 Historical monument, a tower in the center of the Old City overlooking Caspian Sea

7 Shepherd

8 Sprouting wheat grown in a small plate or vase

9 A boy character from Azeri folk tales

10 A way to formally address older man

11 An art of hand decoration of pastries

12 Traditional Novruz tray filled with nuts and sweets with semeni and candles in the middle

13 Patchwork

14 Throwing hats (in Azerbaijani)

15 Street recitative music style

Share on