Tofiq Bahramov, the ‘Russian linesman’

Last weekend England beat Norway 0 – 1 in a friendly football match at Oslo. Great Britain beat Norway at Eurovision too, although this was hardly cause for celebration as coming 25th, just a few points above 26th-placed Norway at the very bottom, is really nothing to be proud of. Many admire ‘null point’ Norway’s steely determination to achieve dependably low scores in this annual cheesy telefest, but those behind the Great Britain entry probably expected far more. But what what can you expect from a septuagenarian crooner named after an obscure German opera composer?

As we all now know, this year’s Eurovision was held in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital. The jury is still out as to whether this ex-Soviet country in the Caucasus geographically belongs to Europe or not but, for the purposes of this competition, Azerbaijan is as much a part of Europe as Norway or France…or even Israel.

I travelled to Baku back in 2000 and returned once more for a brief stay in 2010. In 2000, Baku had seemed quite a threadbare sort of place but by the time of my second visit the Azeri capital had visibly enlarged upwards and outwards to resemble a high-rise building site, with lofty buildings mushrooming near the port like blue glass monoliths. Now there was ferocious traffic too, but I braved this to seek out the Tofiq Bahramov football stadium in the north of the city. The national stadium, which had originally been a contender for the Eurovison 2012 venue, was not easy to reach on foot and necessitated the hazardous crossing of lanes of teeming city traffic. It would seem as if one of the consequences of rapid urban development is to make travel through the city on foot difficult, undesirable and even unwise. Planners seem to assume that, given shopping malls, high-rise offices and a blanket spread of MacDonalds outlets, the hapless pedestrian will happily abandon bipedalism for more appropriate means of locomotion. Clearly, those of us preferring foot power just stand in the way of progress with our unreasonable demands for footpaths, pavements and pedestrian crossings. But I digress.

The England football team’s most glorious moment back in 1966 may well owe a debt to Azerbaijan.  The sympathetic ‘Russian linesman’ at the 1966 world cup was actually an Azeri national named Tofiq Bahramov, although at the time Azerbaijan was an autonomous republic within the USSR. It was Bahramov who decided that Geoff Hurst’s extra time shot that bounced off the crossbar had actually crossed the line – a controversial decision that proved to be a vital turning point in the game in England’s favour. The final 4-2 scoreline clinched it. After the game, Bahramov, along with the referee and the other linesman,  received a golden whistle for his duties from HM the Queen. We can only presume that he would still have been given it even if England  had lost the final.

A statue of Tofiq Bahramov blowing a whistle in refereeing pose stands outside the national stadium that has borne his name since his death in 1993. The statue was unveiled in 2006 when England came to Baku to play Azerbaijan and none less than Geoff Hurst turned up to make a speech at the ceremony; FIFA president Sepp Blatter also attended. Ironically perhaps, the stadium, built in the shape of a ‘C’ to honour Stalin (C = S in the Cyrillic alphabet), was partially constructed by German prisoners during World War II. Bahramov had himself fought against the German army during WWII and on his death bed more or less admitted having a pro-English prejudice at the 1966 final –  an apocryphal story tells that when asked why he allowed the goal to stand he simply said, ‘Stalingrad’.

Hotel Titanic, Nagorno-Karabakh

With only the forthcoming Jubilympics stealing more media thunder so far this year, it has been nigh on impossible to ignore the fact that April 2012 marks the centenary of the sinking of a certain trans-Atlantic passenger liner. One hundred years ago this month, RMS Titanic, a vessel considered virtually unsinkable, disappeared beneath the North Atlantic’s icy waters on its maiden voyage, along with most of its crew and lower class passengers. The cause of this tragic event was seemingly the combined effect of hubris and a sneaky, yet massive, iceberg.

What does this have to do with a little-known corner of the Caucasus? Well, it is partly connected with the sense of irony so readily displayed in the post-Soviet territories of the Caucasus region. I remember spotting a restaurant on my first visit to Baku that was called, of all things, ‘Lady Diana’ (smallish helpings presumably) but even this pales into insignificance when compared to a hotel I once stayed at in the unrecognised territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh, formerly part of Azerbaijan, now a de facto independent state (but only recognised by three fellow non-UN states – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria), is a very odd place – and a sad place too, with visible traces of war damage almost everywhere. Given the state’s poverty, isolation and lack of infrastructure it might seem surprising to come across a hotel of any description in a small village, let alone one called ‘The Titanic’, but the small lumber village of Vank in northern Nagorno-Karabakh not only has a guest house that answers that description but also one that is actually built in the form of a ship.

The Titanic Hotel – officially Hotel Eclectica but everyone seems to calls it ‘Titanik’ and that is what it said on my restaurant receipt – is a striking edifice built in the form of a ship. This brick-built simulacrum even goes as far as having port-holes for some of its windows. In front of it stands a small swimming pool (no icebergs!) that must, almost certainly, be the only one in all of northern Nagorno-Karabakh. The hotel must be a thoroughly disturbing phenomenon to come across out here in the boondocks if you were not expecting to find it; it’s an arresting enough sight even when anticipated.

The Hotel Eclectica/Titanic is one of the most surreal sites you are ever likely to see but the village is the oddest of places too. Vank is the birthplace of a Moscow millionaire lumber baron called Levon Hayrapetyan who as well as asphalting the 12km-long road to the village has ploughed plenty of money back into his home village, building a school, a lumber mill and this highly incongruous hotel. Part of Hayrapetyan’s vision for the village of his birth is to develop tourism in the area, hence the hotel. It seems a long shot considering its isolation and the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh is the remnant of a frozen conflict and officially does not even exist. Technically speaking, Nagorno-Karabakh still belongs to Azerbaijan, although virtually all ethnic Azeris have left since the bloody conflict of the 1990s.

I spent a few days in Nagorno-Karabakh back in 2008, having first obtained a visa in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. The colourful ‘visa’, which I took the precaution of not sticking into my passport, was hardly glanced at when I arrived at the border post in the crowded marshrutka that plies daily between Yerevan and the Nagorno-Karabakh capital Stepanakert.  After a couple of days in Stepanakert – a bit of a threadbare Soviet theme park without really trying to be – I took another marshrutka to Vank for an overnight stay.

The village lies deep in a wooded valley with wispy strands of low clouds kissing the nearby hills, atop one of which stands the mysterious Gandzasar Monastery. I managed to get a room at the Titanic, although they didn’t really seem very keen on having a lone foreigner like me stay, perhaps disbelieving that I might seriously want to spend the night there. After paying 7,000 Armenian drams ($20) and leaving my bag I walked up the neatly tarmaced road to the monastery on the hill, which was swathed in mist so thick that it was impossible to see the church until the very last minute of ascent. In the monastery grounds I encountered a friendly trio of chain-smoking Armenian men but, after we had posed for group photographs together and they had sped off down the hill in their Lada, I was completely alone once more – the resident monks were either absent or keeping a very low profile. Not quite alone though. Mooching around, I noticed a small curved-beaked bird poking around on the stone of the gable. A sparrow? No, a wallcreeper – an exotic-looking mountain bird more at home on isolated cliff faces than the stone walls of churches. Perhaps, like me, it had become disoriented by the swirling mist that flanked the monastery like the overenthusiastic use of dry ice in a Hammer Horror production?

Later, walking up out of the village through lovely wooded countryside along a section of the long-distance Janapar Trail I came across a few more locals: friendly Armenian women at a village kiosk who wanted me to take their photograph and another villager who beckoned me into his garden to drink vodka with him. Less welcoming though, was the policeman who gruffly insisted on seeing my dokumenti. As he was dressed in civilian clothes I countered by asking to see his identification, which pissed him off a bit but made his friend roar out loud with laughter. I stood my ground and soon the policeman just walked off in a huff trailed by his still giggling accomplice.

By the time I got back to the hotel late afternoon the place had been virtually taken over by a wedding party and so things had become pretty chaotic. Nevertheless, I was hungry. The hotel’s ‘Van Gogh’ restaurant had a Chinese couple working there (who knows how they found their way here to Vank?), which might have been a good sign, although it seemed they were only capable of providing food for themselves and pre-ordered wedding feasts. Eventually, after much negotiation and shaking of heads, I managed to order an overpriced plate of barbecued mutton, which arrived after a full hour’s wait accompanied by a huge dish of fresh coriander.

One night was enough. I caught the early morning marshrutka back to Stepanakert the next day. Among the suspicious faces that turned my way when I took my seat was the policeman from the previous day. This time he was in uniform – quite high-ranking it would seem judging by the pips on his lapel. He didn’t bother asking for my passport this time.

Postscript: I am aware that Vank is not the only place in the world with a Titanic Hotel. There’s also a luxury beach hotel resort called Titanic in Antalya in Turkey, another beach resort in Hurghada, Egypt, a business hotel in Istanbul and others in Albania, Vietnam and Poland. You would be hard pushed to find this particular one on TripAdvisor though. The Hotel Titanic, Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh is not only a very odd place to stay, it is the Caucasus region’s very own Fawlty Towers.

For those interested in finding out more about the long-distance Janapar Trail you can look at my feature for Walk magazine here – the title Global Walk: Azerbaijan was not my idea.

Azerbaijan – Azerbaijazz

Eurovison Song Contest 2011. This year it is Azerbaijan’s turn to take the honours at the annual whine and cheese fest. As this year’s winners become next year’s hosts, May 2012 will no doubt see Baku, the Azerbaijan capital, shimmering with a million sequins and strobe lights as it reverberates with the overblown oompah-pop that characterises this glamourous event.

So exactly where is Azerbaijan, you might reasonably ask? Is it part of Europe? Well, politically yes; geographically and culturally, not really. What matters here is that Azerbaijan has been part of the European Broadcasting Union (along with Israel and Morocco) since 2008 and so is eligible to enter the annual Eurovision Song Contest.

South of the Caucasus Mountains, straddling the Caspian Sea’s dark, once sturgeon-filled waters, Azerbaijan is but a stone’s throw from Central Asia. With Persian, Turkish and Russian colonial influences, current-day Azerbaijan has a culture that owes a debt to all three neighbours. To the casual visitor though, it probably seems more like an oil-rich Turkey than anywhere else and, rather than Euro-friendly pop music, it is the thick black stuff that sweats copiously out of the Apsheron Peninsula and Caspian seabed that normally attracts most attention from the rest of the world. In truth, Azerbaijan’s precise geographical provenance is really not that important unless you are one of those misguided individuals that consider ‘Asia’ to be some sort of pejorative (for instance, try telling someone from Tbilisi that Georgia is not really part of Europe).

Eurovison notwithstanding, music has long been a thriving force in the country. Even New Orleans-style jazz was once regularly performed in Baku restauarants  in the heady days of the early 20th-century oil boom. During the Soviet period such music was labelled ‘capitalist’ and unceremoniously banned – rather ironic considering that Hitler had already done exactly the same thing in 1933. However, jazz never dies, it just withers a bit, and following Stalin’s death in 1953, a new form called mugham jazz that fused jazz and traditional Azeri folk forms began to emerge in Baku. A major proponent of this new music was the pianist Vagif Mustafazade whose daughter Aziza continues the musical dynasty as a well-respected international artist today. You can read Vagif Mustafazade’s story here.

There’s a small museum dedicated to Vagif Mustafazade in Baku today, and a statue. There are also clubs where mugham jazz is performed nightly by enthusiastic Azeri musicians. In its own modest way, the Azerbaijan capital has quietly become an unpaid member of the international jazz pantheon: New Orleans, New York, Paris…Baku. Not bad for a city that sits 28 metres below sea level. Coincidentally, New Orleans is mostly beneath sea level too so perhaps there is some sort of link between musical innovation and sub-maritime altitude.

Somehow it seems doubtful that there will ever be a statue dedicated to Eurovision 2011 winners Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Jamal.  You probably won’t hear much evidence of Vagif Mustafazade’s mugham jazz in Running Scared, the Eurovision winner either. There again, the UK’s 2011 contenders, the thirty-something ‘boy’ band Blue, manage to disguise their Evan Parker influences pretty comprehensively too.