When discussing Baku’s beauty, foreigners generally focus their comments on the city center, where massive investments into infrastructure and new construction have rendered old Soviet Baku unrecognizable. Tearing down homes and historic architecture, the state has produced a city center that is a controversial but impressive symbol and agent of change. Thanks to the funds invested into soaping and scrubbing downtown streets, the downtown literally glistens. It was impressive and, in many ways, lovely, and yet it wasn’t “my” Baku. Yes, I visited the center, as did droves of young people and families on weekends. Still, my “home,” the place where I spent most of my day-to-day life in Baku, was my dvor–the famous and embattled Baku dvor.
My “dvor” was in many ways still a Soviet dvor–a bit ramshackle and unkept, a site for both play and what might be called “everyday economics,” including car washing, laundry drying, and automotive repair. Ringed by six five-story Khrushchev-era apartment buildings, the dvor held trees, a few vegetable stalls, a bakery, a shed, and a small drive with parking all along the perimeter. When we first arrived, my husband and I noted a small outdoor community faucet from which water flowed constantly. Men drew water from it to wash cars (though there was a car wash at the far end of the dvor), and small boys sometimes attempted to wash themselves, though they did little more than dampen and spread the dust with which they had covered themselves (how I longed to watch their mothers react!).
The dvor went through a daily routine: mornings tended to be sunny but quiet, as mothers accompanied children to school, men and young boys quickly ran to the corner bakery to buy naan, and others walked to work. The cars tended not to move, and in general we often had the sense that the city slept–or, at least, that our dvor slept. At 10 o’clock, we might see a mother on a bench with a child, and perhaps a salesman might enter the yard, broadcasting his wares with a rich, echoing call: “Apples, small crisp apples! Apples, small crisp apples!” or “Brooms!” Now and then, a woman (it was almost always a woman) would cross the dvor to the small “everything store” on the ground floor of an opposing apartment building. Days were generally very quiet, though, especially in the cold winter months.
In the early afternoon, the dvor began to come to life. First, the yard would fill with children returning home from school; always accompanied by mother or an older sibling, they ran and “jabbered” with all the boisterousness that one would expect of children recently “released” from school-day discipline. If the weather was good, young boys would then begin a soccer game, while girls might skip on the pavement just below our window. By late afternoon, the dvor’s activities would peak. Adults would return from work, often with a load of food goods in hand. Well-attired youths would head to the metro, perhaps to the boulevard for a stroll with friends. A group of fit-looking young males would gather around a small set of outdoor bars, doing chin-ups, sit-ups, and other exercises. At times, someone in the apartments above would open a window and shout to a child below, launching a conversation for all to hear. And gradually, starting with the children, everyone would drift back indoors.
There was no clear distinction between the interior and exterior of these buildings; one blurred into the other as people reached across the black-and-glass divide to communicate. Salespeople exploited this. Though it was not uncommon to be solicited by young people who entered the apartments and knocked on doors (a new, post-Soviet phenomenon), traditional salespeople communicated to us from the ground below, something in which I delighted though their lives and work could not have been easy. Their calls filled the space, becoming a part of the sound and feel of the apartments, not just of the space below. Twice, a man selling wooden lutes entered the dvor, advertising his goods by playing a number of playful tunes. I peered out our second story window when I first heard him, for I was attracted to the sound and rhythm of the music below. When the salesman caught my eye, I turned away, determined not to be “lured.” The moment reminded me of how intimate these spaces were, however; the salesman below had entered my personal space, even as he remained below.
Though what city planners would designate “green space,” our dvor was not particularly green. The unpaved areas tended to consist of sandy dirt, and grass thrived only under the slides and benches–in short, in all spaces sheltered from human feet. Elsewhere, the grass was patchy and beleaguered. Although town workers (middle-aged women sporting bright yellow or blue vests) cleaned the yard regularly, garbage tended to gather in entryways and corners, as Baku’s winds sent the detritus tossed into the bins at the far end of the dvor soaring into the air. Before capitalism brought a surfeit of packaged goods, this dvor might have been clean; in post-Soviet Baku, garbage services proved inadequate. The litter made everything appear still more grey. Mulberry trees lined the entire dvor, but several were clearly dying, and most were slow to leaf out in the spring. In the mulberry tree outside our window, the only “fruit” to appear consisted of garbage–perhaps, a pink plastic bag on the branch above, or perhaps a white rag on the branch below. The trees did add character to the dvor, however, and many served as posts for the laundry lines that ran everywhere from windows into the dvor.
Perhaps because the dvor was something of a public/private space–an extension into the public of domestic life–there was never a day when these laundry lines were entirely empty. My husband swore that he would never use our own clothesline, which was blackened from a long period of disuse. Besides, with all the grit that flew through the air, Jim regarded air-dried laundry as less than clean. I couldn’t entirely disagree, although the lack of a drier made drying bedsheets indoors something of a complex operation. Given this, I certainly understood why our neighbours used the drying lines, despite the dust, and in some ways I was thankful that they did, for their laundry was a window into the lives around us–who had children, which apartments were filled with middle-aged or senior adults, what cartoon characters children loved, and more. Besides, Bakuvians’ standard dress throughout the winter months was black: black coats, black shoes, dark hats, and dark pants. Only the clotheslines hinted at the more colorful world that would emerge with the spring. Admittedly, when regarding the wide yellowish-green, black polka-dotted robe that appeared regularly on the clothesline next to us, it sometimes occurred to me that I might not want to see this more colourful apparel. But perhaps the nicer clothes were dried indoors? I sometimes suspected this.
Women were central to this quasi-domestic space, and they often entered the dvor in their fluffy indoor slippers, sometimes even in housecoats. One of the slipper-clad women also sported a headscarf, a likely sign that she had moved to Baku from “the provinces.” Watching her, I wondered if all the slipper-clad women were newly minted “Bakuvians” (“bakintsy”). Did women in Baku wear such slippers on the street in Soviet times, when Azerbaijan and Baku were part of Russia? I wondered, for in Russia I had been reprimanded by my host family for wearing a flat pair of patent-leather dress shoes with a skirt and also by a male stranger for wearing a pair of Aerosole sandals. “Those are slippers,” I was told. “It’s shameful to wear these in public!” Actually, I was told the same thing with regard to running shoes until about four years ago, when my former Russian “mom” purchased her own pair of these. “They protect your feet!” she exclaimed, apologizing for years of harassing me about my footwear preferences. Given such experiences, I never quite knew if I was witnessing “provincialism” or something else, perhaps a touch of the Azerbaijani “come as you are” approach to life. Or perhaps the answer had to do with the nature of the dvor itself, with its function as an extension of domestic space.
I have to admit that my experience was colored by memories of living in Russia, for this dvor conjured memories of other dvors, some of which were ringed by these very same “Khrushcheby” (as these Khrushchev apartments were known). “My” Russian dvors had lacked mulberry trees and outdoor vegetable stalls, and this Azerbaijani dvor had 10x the children. But, the space nonetheless offered a sort of “communalized domesticity.” What this dvor lacked, however, was snow, the sort of crisp “squeaky” snow that comes only with bitter cold weather. I missed that. Baku was not warm, for its winds are harsh and bitter; yet, its the bitterness never came with an odd sound that I love–that of rug-beating on the snow. In my dvor in Nizhnii Novgorod, when cold weather produced crisp, grainy snow, Russian women (the square strong “babushkas” for which Russia is famous) would haul their carpets outside, turning them facedown onto the snow before beating them with big wooden sticks. The strokes were slow, no more than 1 every 2-3 seconds. The muffled thuds would echo through the expanse of the yard, steady and determined and somehow comforting. . . I often find myself wanting to return to that space, though it no longer exists . . . Vacuum cleaners and parking lots have disappeared it forever.
Likewise, I had the sense that my Azerbaijani dvor was rushing toward obsolescence. Already threatened by cars and trash (I discovered that a nearby Stalin-era dvor had been reduced to car sheds), my Azerbaijani dvor faced yet a new threat: reconstruction. Tall new apartment complexes sprouted up all around us, replacing Soviet-era housing. These new buildings were far too tall to permit for the interaction that I had enjoyed with the lute salesman. Yes, of course, someone on the second floor might still catch a salesperson’s eye, but most residents were out of reach, being 8, 10, maybe 12-15 stories up. Such manicured new buildings lacked clotheslines, vegetable stalls, and soccer fields, and I doubted that their children lit bonfires on Novruz. The “communalized public” of my own dvor appeared to be absent in them, giving me the sense that my own dvor was but the shadow cast by the retreat of a Soviet past.