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The Statue of Liberated Woman

Last night's Minaret exhibit was not only a chance to share some photos that I've taken on my travels but an opportunity to retrieve and relive some dusty memories that had been lying forgotten in my 1.0 memory chip mind.

During the evening, a few astute visitors were quick to notice an early Soviet-era statue that features prominently in one of the photographs, thus refreshing my memory in regards to one of my favourite emblems in Baku, Azerbaijan.

While living in the city, my wife and I lived just off Nizami square/Metro stop in the infamous 'Beysh Barmak'. Baku's first 5-story building (thus the name) that was stodgily yet sturdily built during the years of Russian rule. The window panes hadn't been changed since the 5 year plans, allowing the winter wind free access to the flat, but it was a handy address that every taxi driver knew...especially given the fact that I speak no Azeri or Russian, no matter how much vodka I drank.

At the time we lived there (2004-2005), the neighbourhood was central yet far enough out of the actual centre to not have been gentrified beyond recognition (judging from this 2008 photo of the same, the creep has arrived). Local bars still sold cheap local beer with chickpea tapas while shashlyk, kebabs and piti were still the stalwarts of the menuless restaurants. Life teemed under the square in one of the most claustrophobic markets I have ever encountered and villagers sold fresh produce on street corners a few blocks away.

Just next to our building was the Ministry of Foreign affairs. An intriguing place clogged with sparkling black Mercedes that spoke well of the civil servants amazing ability to save while officially earning around $100 a month. The view from our outside balcony stretched beyond the corrupt cars and onto a panorama littered with shaky rebarless 30 story brick towers being built on the earthquake prone clay leading down to the Caspian. The view from our inside balcony however was another world, a quiet refuge of cats and Chechen refugees hanging their coloured washing.

But the most interesting feature in the neighbourhood was precisely the statue that the exhibit's keen-eyed visitors had pointed out.

Standing proudly atop a very Sovietish plinth smack in a fork in the road is the Statue of Liberated Woman, more familiarly known as the Woman Throwing off her Veil....strategically placed by the Soviets in front of the Iranian embassy and bank.

An interesting symbol in a country filled with young people eagerly looking back to their religious roots (even creating facebook groups to destroy the statue) and in the process melding tradition with newfound faith. 21st century fusings of pre-islamic traditions like cleansing jumps over fire with Saudi and Iranian prostelyzing are becoming dogma for some while others are lost in the blind rush to capatilize on the oil boom set to run dry. I mostly use the past tense because change is happening fast.

Hopefully the daring woman looking out to the below sealevel sea isn't lost in the process.

The Liberated Woman

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