Meeting Solitude on the Streets of Baku: Ehtiram Jabi Photographs Azerbaijan’s Changing Capital

 

Baku and its dynamics as a city has fluctuated immensely following Azerbaijan’s independence from the USSR over two decades ago. The massive inflow of money into the economy during the oil boom years has shaped Baku into an exhuberantly luxurious city. The city was filled with flamboyant, and often preposterous, constructions that did not coalesce with its previous set up. As a result, Baku was left devoid of its holistic identity, which in turn became a disruptive element for serene rambles across the streets- be it while searching for ideas or in attempts at catching your own thoughts. As a photographer, I can’t help but notice each time how these hasty and haphazard elements of construction are depraving aesthetics of image composition.

I personally have a rather contentious relationship with the city and its current urban life. As an urban dweller, I often experience those restraining environments for creativity, particularly because of the lack of innovation, dynamism and urban vibrance around me. Nevertheless, I feel deeply connected with it: through memories, walks in the old town; where sometimes the wind brings the smell of the sea, or with the clear and cloudless sky above me on frequent sunny days. During these long rambles I often notice how solitude is a common thing to meet on the streets of Baku. Very often I see people sitting on the benches or at the promenade, gazing at the horizon, as if they were in hope of a better future.

New trends are shaping Baku today. While the remainders of the oil boom infrastructure and entertainment outlets are attracting a massive amount of tourists from the Gulf countries, the youngsters of the city are building up an environment of creativity in the cafes, galleries and bars of the city centre’s backstreets. The former pattern is bringing a much needed economic boost to small and medium-sized business owners in the service sector amid the ongoing economic crisis. It is often that I see the transformation of familiar cafes in Baku into places with Arab music, signposts and where shisha is offered. Many in the city are worried by the rise of prostitution, as sex-workers are becoming one of the key “entertainment attractions” for the current flow of tourists.

Coming back to the sparkles of hope, in the backstreets of Baku’s downtown- these are mainly fresh graduates or young professionals, which are paving the way into the city centre with their ideas of space, as the high rents of the oil boom period are in the past. While walking along the backstreets, almost every month you can notice new places popping up, with their own spirit and identity. The city has finally started to offer some budget options for its youngsters (and not only) to get together, talk, exchange ideas, sip tea (as any true Bakuvian does, even on hot summer days) and enjoy music and dances till very late. I’ve noticed that many visitors leave the city without delving into that side of Baku life, which is actually hard to get acquainted with if no one navigates you into it.

Baku is the place where beauty and creativity cannot be taken for granted, as you have to really look for it and sometimes even be able to abstract yourself from disrupting objects, in order to enjoy its magically beautiful elements.

Text: Nazakat Azimli and Ehtiram Jabi

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