The flag of Azerbaijan was officially adopted on February 5, 1991. This is actually remarkable in itself because until September/October of the same year they were still part of the Soviet Union. The current flag is actually based on the Azerbaijan flag of 1918 – when they declared independence from the old Russian Empire. This only last a couple of year and they had a nice big red USSR flag with a small stripe of blue at the bottom for decades.
The flag consists of three equal horizontal bands of blue, red, and green. There is a white crescent and an eight-pointed star centered in the middle red band. The blue band represents the country’s Turkic heritage, red is for progress and the green represents Islam.
November 9th is National Flag Day in Azerbaijan.
Trying to leave some countries can be a pain. Azerbaijan was not the best example but provided some food for thought. At the airport border control counter a lady with a stern look took my passport and on the way to the Azeri visa page she came across my Armenian visa. The fact that I had one of those seemed to interest her even more than the existence of her own county’s visa. She started ogling at the Armenian visa as if it was some rare diamond, direct relative of the Kohinoor, looking at it from different angles and twisting the pages of the passport. After a couple of minutes which felt like eternity she quickly went over the Azeri visa and authoritatively stamped it. Later on I checked her work as I always do because stamps are valid documentation for legal travel and solid proof of presence in the respective part of the world. What I discovered was unbelievable – the date was one day ahead so in a way I was time traveling. Poor lady, Armenian visas made her hallucinate. The lesson for anybody who is contemplating a visit to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and has the slightest residue of this trespassing action, according to the Azeri, is bound to have LOTS of trouble.
Most unexpected was the view of similar outfits in rather confused in religious terms Baku. The vast majority of people seem mostly secular if we are to judge by the clothing, not very convincing method indeed. At the same time one can spot isolated cases of covered females but so rare that one can argue that in Europe they are more freely available to look at. What was the most bewildering was the third option were the East meets the West, sort of, with abundance of clothing covering all the flesh but the choice of colours was rather feminine and not to mention the high heels - combo that might be the perfect attraction for any male no matter what his social background is.
Conflict of interest is an expression regularly used in modern day life and has a connotation of corruption mainly in government services. The Baku version was applied hands on right there on the lowest possible level. While trying to find a hotel (because this was beyond the intellectual capacity of the taxi driver) I came across a couple of hotels whose owners were “sticking around”. When asked about such and such hotel the first owner said: "Come over here I have a room for you". The answer was that there was a reservation and he pointed to me in the right direction. Next hotel virtually 20 meters away from the goal and just behind a corner had a particularly insolent owner. She solemnly declared that she did know where the hotel was and went on yapping away to the top of her voice that she was going to give me a room for a price 5USD lower than the hotel I had reservation for (as I figured later). The conclusion is – in Baku, one is to be armed with the best information about any location of interest and not trust any “good” businessmen popping out along the way.
It is disconcerting to see men kiss affectionately, even on the lips sometimes. But it is quite obvious does not involve the implications or social comment it would make in the States. It's reallly quite charming and innocent. Do not make assumptions about male sexual orientation because of this. It could cause you serious problems. This is primarily a Muslim country and they have no sense of humor about mistakes in that area.
Some rules to remember: 1) Never whistle indoors. It is very bad luck. 2) Do not attempt to shake hands across a doorway. It is considered rude. 3) When eating, never throw out bread. It is disrespectful for those who have gone hungry in their lifes and had no bread. 4) Do not wear shorts or sandals on the street. This is a conservative Muslim country and the old-guard will not tolerate the skin showing. As a guest this rule applies. It does not apply to the locals. 5) Walking the streets after dark is dangerous. Not due to crime. The problem is poor lighting open man holes, one-way roads are more of a guideline than a rule, there are basement access points without guardrails, and stairs are not evenly standardized on height and tread depth, even from step to step on one stairway.
An interesting point of social behavior here is that one never starts or ends a conversation with a specific topic of business or practical information. Every conversation starts and ends with casual inquiries as to your health, your family, how your day went, how nice the weather is, or some other non-significant discussion. To do otherwise is rude and brisque. Being in a hurry is not part of polite society here. All is done at a casual, relaxed pace.
Even thought the Azeri people are very friendly, remember that most of them are muslims, and their faith is serious business. Respect their religion, their holy places and their religious hollidays. (This is just common sence, but I anyway feel that it need to be said)
First of all, bear in mind that this is a Muslim society so if you are familiar with traditions of Islam, you may as well come across them here. However, it is not a fundamentalist or strict society thank god ;-) Things are different in the city and of course people are much more modern, but if you get out of Baku, be especially careful when introducing yourselves to local women. Do not try to shake hands with them as either they or their male relatives may not find that amusing ;-) Although men are quite keen to shake hands and even kiss on the cheeks at some occasions. But do not find it offensive, as it is considered quite normal here. Also you will notice that some women will not look you in the eye during a conversation... that's also normal. What is not normal is blowing your nose in public!
All in all, the society is very tolerant and if you show ill-mannered behaviour, they will forgive you because you are a foreigner :)
Although less present in Baku, huge billboards and pictures of the ruling Alyiev dynasty can be found in Baku as well. What is remarkable is that some of the posters are advertisements, probably paid by private businesses in order either to attract favours or to manifest their loyalty to the regime. Or maybe such expenses are deductible….
Following some bombings in the underground from the part of some extremist islamists, entry to metro stations is subjected to bag search, a very superficial one at least when it comes to tourists. However, after using the same station for a couple of times, the same police guys remembered us, so just saying hello and being friendly was enough.
"Hei sir, no photo!" - this is what the guard in front of this bank may have shouted at me, in Azeri, while i was trying to gather more evidence of the "booming Baku" from a banking perspective. Nevertheless, i blamed myself not speaking Azeri and took the picture, to the guards despair: "Bank, bank.....no photo!"
Whenever at a traditional Azeri party, you will be invited to sit with many people at different tables, some of whom you've never met before and some you can't communicate with because of a language barrier.
However, everyone speaks vodka. Whenever you are invited, do not turn it down as you will be likely to offend. Sit for a while and try your best to communicate, locals appreciate this (I suppose it is the same the world over).
When it comes to vodka, take a shot with everyone, as it is usually used to toast good health and as you would be the guest, it would be most likely directed at you.
Azeri people are very warm and welcoming. Help them and they will help you.
Look around the old city and you will see Azerbaijan's national animal -the cat ,imortalised in stone. These three gaze at you from a window on high . There are of course lots of real ones and it seems a bit of a custom for the locals to feed the street cats just as people in other parts of the world feed pigeons. Of course the risks for pigeons here are high .The street cats are also very friendly.At least they don't Meow [loudly] at you or try to bite you.
Read this in a guidebook. Asked an Azeri friend who confirmed it. Its ok for women in Baku but probably not in the country (i.e. Shaki; Guba etc). Its seemingly downright weird for men though foreigners are "excused" for this oversight.