Struck out abroad, back to Azerbaijan – three stories
The International Center for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) estimates that there are more than a million Azerbaijani emigrants around the world.
The reasons for leaving are well-known: seeking a better education, higher salary, better quality of life, or for political reasons.
Many well-off Azerbaijani youths leave in order to try to find their place in the world, to start a new life. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out. What happens when this new life isn’t what they expected?
Oktay – It was too cold and too bright
“I flew back on August 1. That day, it snowed in Saint Petersburg.”
Oktay calls his attempt to flee from Baku, “my trip north and back.” His whole journey took only one month in the summer of 2017.
After getting to the end of a long and tiring project, during which he had to travel the full length of Azerbaijan twice, Oktay became involved in an unpleasant situation on his birthday and ended up spending 9 hours in a police station. It was only by some miracle that he ended up back in his own bed the very same night.
It was the last straw – Oktay sold his car and left for Saint Petersburg.
“My first day in Petersburg went terribly. It turned out that my friend, who was supposed to get everything ready for my arrival, still hadn’t found me an apartment. We wandered around cafes all day, searching for housing online. We didn’t find anything until that night. We had a fight, and then he left.
All my money, clothes and personal items were in a storage locker. I had no way to get there, and it was freezing, since I only had my t-shirt on. I didn’t realize that nights in Saint Petersburg got so cold. For a day and a half, all I had for food was soda and cigarettes, until I got in contact another friend who helped me pick up my things.”
Oktay works in the film industry, on the set of documentary and arthouse films. He counted on his friend with whom he had fought on his first day to help him find work. He didn’t start looking on his own because Petersburg hadn’t lived up to his expectations. Oktay kept hoping that things would magically turn around for him. But the city weighed heavy on his shoulders.
“The climate there is really strange. You can experience all four seasons in just one day. And I did not enjoy the “white nights” – sunset at midnight, sunrise at 3 am, the whole time the sun beats in through the window and it’s impossible to sleep. I was in a bad place. Loneliness when you’re in a comfortable situation is a lot different from loneliness when you are uncomfortable. I didn’t want to go back to Baku. But life in Petersburg was becoming unbearable. After I returned home, I was really depressed for some time. But then life started again, and somehow everything returned to its normal pace.”
Oktay says that he still plans to leave someday, but he will take his experience into account and try to prepare better.
Tahir – You have to write music in your own language.
Tahir does not like the word “migration,” and prefers to call his journeys “wandering,” quoting the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar: “Like a rain cloud over the ocean, start upon your journey, for without travel, you will never become a man!”
Tahir started upon his journey to earn his master’s degree in composition. In 2015, he went to study in the Austrian city of Graz.
“Azerbaijan paid for my master’s program – I got a government scholarship. After I graduated, I went into the Pedagogical and Composition Theory department, because I decided to study the Austrian teaching method more deeply. But I had already used up my scholarship. For two years, I tried to make enough so that I could somehow live on my own and pay for school. But then my personal circumstances changed in such a way that I had nothing left keeping me in Austria.”
In Azerbaijan, Tahir makes money by writing arrangements, sometimes conducting small ensembles, giving private lessons, and writing music.
“I didn’t feel out of place there. Maybe because I was talking with creative and intelligent people who were on the same wavelength as I was. I had an Austrian friend, and we would often walk around the outskirts of the city, by the river, talking about music and about the differences between eastern and western culture.
On the other hand, my roommates sometimes surprised me. These were all young people from different European countries, and most of them had absolutely no goals in life. They earned their money somehow, played in small local theaters, did things to entertain themselves, but all of it was superficial, just for fun. For me, who came from Azerbaijan with a clear goal and a long list of plans, it struck me as more than a little odd.”
By the way, I also learned how to cook in Austria – some of the most complicated Azerbaijani dishes and Western deserts.
And, oddly enough, it was in Austria that one of my professors, seeing me gravitate towards the French musical style, very subtly hinted to me that music should be written in the language in which you think. Even though we were talking about instrumental music, you know?
No one can write Azerbaijani music better than I can, just like no one can write French music better than a French person.”
Maral – The unregulated plant
“When I returned home, my mom set a plate of shepherd’s salad before me, and I started to eat it and was amazed by how delicious cucumbers and tomatoes can be.”
Maral can spend hours talking about how much she loves Baku, and how the city inspires her.
In 2015, the Azerbaijani manat fell, which took a big toll on both the economy and the general mood in the country. In the wake of this disillusionment, Maral went to study in the Netherlands. And in the fall of 2019, she returned to Baku.
“The thing I missed the most in the Netherlands was the human warmth and spontaneity. Everything there is planned a month in advance, everything is strictly regulated, including the relationship between people.
There, it’s not appropriate to have too close of an emotional bond between friends, and they do not accept all kinds of friendly hugs and squeezes. It turned out that this is a very important part of life for me.
In the courtyard of the house where I lived, there was a plant worming its way out of the wall. I looked after it; I liked it precisely because it was a tiny bit of chaos in this too-neat country. And then the owner of the house painted the fence and uprooted the plant. It made me feel really bad. In a country where everything looks like a video game simulation, can they not tolerate just one unregulated flower in a private garden?
It seemed to me that I would never understand what these neat and polite people live for. Although there was a lot I liked about them, for example, their directness, the fact that they don’t hint or imply things, they don’t stay silent, they aren’t hypocritical. And they rarely gossip. In this sense, we Azerbaijanis have something to learn from them.”
At the University of Leiden, Maral studied social robots and artificial intelligence. She hopes to use what she learned back in her homeland. Maral believes that he can work with her foreign colleagues online, without leaving her bedroom, instead of facing a difficult and problematic life abroad.
“I want to go abroad, to work and communicate with other people, but I always want my home to be in Azerbaijan. This is where I’m most comfortable. In the Netherlands, I felt obsolete, because the problems I struggled with all my life and gave me motivation to grow as a person had already been solved there long ago.
You learn a lot about your own country when you look at it from afar. You understand how much you love it. This love pulled me back, and this love is what makes me get up in the morning and work on myself. I know that now is the time to be in Baku.”
P.S.: By the time this article was written, Maral had already left for Berlin to work on two projects.