57194 swifts

On a back street in Baku, only a few meters from a busy metro station, we wander away from the busy motor traffic of the broad thoroughfare to find a series of tiny shops housed in improvised spaces along the dusty alley, many just the simple hole-in-the-wall type, going about their business. The shop with the sign “CD-MP3-DVD” is locked tight (no doubt the early hour is to blame), but the lingerie shop is open, as well as the one selling an endless selection of men’s black shoes. And the vegetable sellers (and their many helpers) are busy washing and arranging the greens to best effect to entice buyers to open their pockets. A greengrocers’s assistant sits on a stone. On one side of his right foot lies a pile of grape leaves. He goes through them one by one, discarding those that are too spotted, or torn, or brown at the edges, and making a neat, regular pile of the perfect ones on the ground between his feet.

In the sunlight the heat is tormenting. It fries the top of the head, and makes clothing seen heavy and constraining. But in even the smallest scrap of shade, provided by an occasional mulberry tree that juts out from a crack in a stone wall, produces a delicious cool breeze that makes one quickly forget the heat. The black stains on the pavement indicate where the ripe berries have fallen to the ground and were crushed underfoot.

Around the corner, a cheap stereo is placed on the pavement in front of an electronics shop, blaring out tinny Azerbaijani hits. Men in black trousers and white shirts and shiny pointed shoes, all with neat haircuts, stand around doing nothing, smoking, shooting the breeze. Dowdy women in headscarves with heavy grocery bags drag listless children through the crowd, sometimes stopping to closely inspect a cabbage, or inquire if the coriander is fresh, or select a few grape leaves for the evening’s dolmas.

In the nearby Yasamal district, we find a zone of random destruction, as if a capricious earthquake took this house, and not that, then the next three, leaving another one standing, and so on down the street. Baku’s minimally regulated building boom goes on like this, leaving the marks of its voracious appetites, lost teeth in the jaw of what was once a solid row of dwellings. New buildings go up, pre-fab hulks with mystifying orientalist facades, and older urban neighborhoods (which some would call slums) with their richness, character, neighborly social connections and history, are swallowed beneath them. People still live in these once dense, thriving neighborhoods. They watch us as we pass through, while we continually find new details, new scenes to photograph. We can see the wonder on the faces of the onlookers, that we find such things worthy of being remembered, of being made into an image.

“Their time is past,” states one old resident flatly. “The new buildings will be much better.” How much of this hope is a delusion is unclear. It is no doubt an attractive proposition to many in these quarters, to finally have flush toilets, paved streets, and other commonplaces of modern developed urban life. But can these people really know what they will be giving up? And do they really have any say at all in what replaces their old neighborhoods, those in which they have lived for decades, those which they have helped to create?

Swifts race these haunted ways in small groups, slicing the hot summer air to ribbons, their piercing calls seeming to drive them forward. Flying in tight formations and in closely bound groups, they round corners with unerring grace, and fluidly twist and turn to avoid electrical poles and other obstacles. Each bird must respond to the others in its group finely and swiftly. They whistle and peal as they neatly swing around obstacles, hewing to the contour of the streets, never seeming to come to rest anywhere. They flit and flutter and dart and dodge, and in the patterns they make, evince a kinetic ecstasy, a special craft, a gift for the marvelous. Then they disappear as quickly as they appeared, leaving only the shrill mental echoes of their passing.


Swifts fly past a window in Qǝncǝ, Azerbaijan.

A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 10th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“