Sumgayit and the Absheron peninsula, Azerbaijan

Ștefan Cândea
As a driver, I have felt the same kamikaze atmosphere of Georgia here in Azerbaijan. Only one difference though: the people’s deafening mania for elaborate honks. The first time, I was startled by an ambulance siren and I instinctively pulled over. A jeep passed me up and the driver threw me a haughty look, clearly amused by the fright I felt. The honks frequently used are ambulance, police or fire engine sirens.

We went on a trip from Baku, along the Absheron peninsula towards Sumgayit. It’s true that a heavy oil stench persists along the promenade in downtown Baku, near the sea. The same goes for several places along the peninsula. However, we have found lots of popular beaches with clean seawater.

Another important step towards a better image: most of the marine scaffolds which used to overrun Baku and the coast have been knocked down. There are still some around the town, but in more distant places. The earth on the field and among the houses is still overflowing with oil. Ecology isn’t a priority for those doing oil business in Azerbaijan. If one takes a look at the recent history of British Petroleum, one of the main foreign players in the region, this doesn’t come as a surprise.

Although around 700.000 refugees from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh live in Azerbaijan, their houses aren’t as visible as those in Georgia. For political reasons, the government has tried to keep refugees in temporary establishments such as wagons or tents in order to constantly exert pressure over the NKR. However, after so many years, many of them have mingled in the throng around the main Azeri towns.

It was in Sumgayit, the former petrochemical gem of the Soviet Union, that the Armenian – Azeri conflict broke out in 1988 when, according to official data, 26 Armenians were lynched and 6 Azeri lost their life in what the Armenians considered to be a pogrom. The huge scaffolds on the Sumgayit seashore have also disappeared. Only an immense, though rusty, industrial platform is still standing. The unbreathable air in the region is proof that one of the plants on the bank side is still being used. Although great efforts have been made to make the scenery friendlier, people aren’t exactly swarming the beaches which are far from being crowded, at least during the week. There are scarcely any terraces or restaurants on the seashore and those that do exist are mostly deserted. Perhaps that might be one of the reasons why the owners try to make good their loss (for the whole day) when they get their hands on a client. We have had the pleasure to experiment such ‘gimmicks’, otherwise representative for the Romanian seaside.

Everybody drives up to the seashore; on the beach there are beaten roads on which young men organize car races. Few women take a dip and most of them enter the water fully dressed or with a veil wrapped over their bathing suits. The beach is full of men on its most crowded section, the one near Sumgayit. Young or old, they’ve all left their girlfriends or wives at home and have come to the beach to play games or, when bored, to wrestle. Mafia is a highly appreciated board game and is, thus, very popular in Azerbaijan; there are even special separate booths to play it in.