Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Azerbaijanis

The Azerbaijanis are on the move. Gold teeth glowing in the blue and yellow lights of the courtyard.

Flash, dubious personas for the men, like a dodgy gathering of The Usual Suspects: a pin-stripe suit on a five o'clock shadow; a vinyl black jacket on a bushy moustache; a fur, oblong hat perched jauntily on wily grey eyes.

As for the women, my god! They're big, busty and brazen, broad-arsed as barns and loud-voiced enough to fill one or even two of them, with dark-ringed eyes and a no-shit readiness to do business day or night so shoo! The women wear grey cotton raincoats and black scarves in sloppy deference to Islamic dress codes, but there's a Western trashiness to them that won't be suppressed: a polka dot handbag, a splash of peroxide blonde hair and red, red lips, a whole way of walking that suggests these women shop to kill and it's best you stay out of their goddamned, hotsie totsie way.

The women also know a special whisper that makes all the hotel cats come to them. But they don't give the cats anything when they arrive. Still they whisper and seduce them, time and again. What bitches!

Loud as foghorns, jolly as a trading fleet, the Azerbaijanis converse across the hotel courtyard by yelling. Yelling from flat to flat, yelling from upstairs to downstairs, yelling to each other at their tables over chai. Their communication verily eats the word 'hearty'. Manifests the adjective 'beefy'. Not talking, yelling. Always bellowing, the hotel reincarnated as their import-export factory, booming to mercantile actions and the law of being heard.

Around the courtyard are their spoils. Thousands of plastic coat hangers wrapped in bundles man-high and higher - mostly red in colour, followed by a little orange, and some luxury stock in a rare baby blue. Boxes of something marked 'whitener' that is probably bleach. Giant-size, lumpy sacks of cloth and cotton for clothes-makers. And a few large electric heaters for the exclusive warmth of limited purchasers back home.

Every night a bus arrives. Every night a bus departs. With different communities of Azerbaijanis, mobs of shopkeepers who all seem to know each other and bargain with each other and help each other out. After a few weeks you notice a rotating pattern of personalities, of familiar faces yelling their way back into your world.

They load their booty onto the hired buses for their return trip. Night after night, out front the Hotel Gilano on Ferdosi Street in Tehran. The pavement is chock-full with their boxes and sacks and human industry, everything squeezed onto the vehicle, till the people ferret and push their own way in like human plugs. A job well done.

Among them I have been given one friend. The man in the sharkskin suit.
He always has a cigarette loosely at hand. Eager, hurt, dark eyes, straining, hinting at an intelligence that evaporates into the open bafflement he expresses about his life.

'You are from Australia? I have a brother in Toronto.'

Toronto is in Canada.

'Yes, yes, yes,' he says, like there's no difference. 'He is a dentist.' And then he whispers. 'But I have much trouble getting a visa. My brother try for me.'

There's an implication I can help. But I just nod sympathetically. I feel embarrassed and ashamed. Again and again on our travels through India, Turkey and Iran, we encounter people who ask why it is so easy for us to visit them, and so hard for them to visit us.

Visa. That magic, dirty word: 'visa'.

One obvious reason why they can't get an Australian visa is their desperation to get out of here-and run like hell into the Promised Land. Wherever the hell it is. But even the rich or the studious,
the genuine holiday makers, find it very difficult to leave these countries. You feel privileged, elitist, to be standing in their home when they cannot visit yours.

'Yes, I have trouble with my visa.'

I act mystified. Put the blame on strange, contrary, distant Canada. 'Hmmm...'

'When do you go to Istanbul?' he asks. 'I go to Istanbul soon.'

The inference is that perhaps we will meet there. But I just go 'Hmmm…' again. I'm a real sphinx tonight.

And then Sharkskin shakes my hand passionately. 'Australia is a good country!' And that's where our conversation ends, more or less, because it seems to be all the English he knows. This is tragic for me. Because we have the same conversation, pretty much word for word, every night. Till I dread the sight of him.

The dentist brother. The visa. The conflation of Toronto, Canada and Sydney, Australia - anywhere out of here will do, he seems to be trying to say. Istanbul. When are you going to Istanbul? His curiousity is frightening and urgent.

His greetings to me are always happy, keen, wishing me all the best. I start to feel like a brother, like his brother - but also as if I am a man already in another country, even while I'm still in his country - and that he can only watch me helplessly, a fool of fate from behind some invisible window pane between us.

One night he finally varies the content a little. I get the feeling he has been studying his book of English phrases. Out of the blue, he turns and says to me, 'Azerbaijanian people are very stupid,' and waves his hand dismissively at the rest of his group. Then more sadly he adds, 'They are very poor.'

At the next table a big woman prepares snacks for her typically moustached husband: bread, pickles, tuna in a can. Perfect food for a cat, perhaps, but not today - nor any other day. They offer for us to join them in the meal. And we accept.

I now realize why every single garbage bin outside every single room is knocked over and spilled around the halls of the hotel. As if drunks have been upending rubbish constantly around the premises every night.

Each evening the Azerbaijanis put their finished snack tins out. And each night the cats go absolutely mental, teased into fury already by the whispers of women.

You would think this might invoke some change in the system. But the Azerbaijanis still have their pickles and tunas every night. And the hotel still has their plastic bins set outside their rooms. And the rubbish-strewn morning still comes, stinking of fish.

The funny thing about Sharkskin is how cheerily he greets those people he has whispered to me, or tried to suggest to me, he is somehow apart from. He greets them with love. Heartily. In a big loud voice that tells me he is definitely one of them. He laughs with them as they approach the table we have now joined. And calls out across the courtyard. And loads up the buses busily. And dreams and schemes secretly like each of them. Melancholy and aware of the world's bad luck, its short straws, but still getting on with what has to be done here: the talking, the eating, the working, the bus. Part of a dark-eyed Azerbaijanian mystery, a rhythm, a commerce.

But that's all philosophy and speculation and maybe a little romantic bullshit from me too. Sitting here among them with a tuna and pickle roll. All of a sudden I sneeze like a cat - 'tchew!' - and a woman says, I think, whatever the Azerbaijanian word is for 'bless you'. Then another woman at the next table starts quietly laughing-and laughing - and laughing - which makes her husband laugh, till he throws up his hands because he can't stop. I sneeze again and pretty soon the entire courtyard of Azerbaijanis is laughing and I get the feeling sneezing is like farting. By the time I sneeze a third time, people are almost falling from their chairs with laughter, and we have joined them, roaring with tears.

- Mark Mordue

* Extracted from Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip. Photo taken at an early 20th century fruit market in Urmia Persia. Image retrieved from US Library of Congress via Wikipedia
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