Nardaran is an eastern town of Azerbaijan, perched on the proverbial “eye of the eagle,” where religion is the only outlet for self-expression, opportunities are scant, and entertainment non-existent for young people. With few prospects in life, locals hold fast to religion and defy state-sanctioned secularism, which is part of Azerbaijan’s broader policy to portray a modern, progressive image to the world.
Our first glance inside the bus is a tell-tale sign about the place where we are headed.
The windshield of the bus carries a placard emblazoned, “Every day is Ashura, everywhere is Karbala,” references to the Battle of Karbala and the Day of Ashura, key concepts in Shiite Islam.
In secular Azerbaijan, Nardaran is one of the country’s most ancient and neglected villages where religious sentiments run particularly high.
Located only half an hour drive away from Baku, the country’s modern, shiny capital, this town seems like a world apart. One would be forgiven for mistaking it for a different country.
If you look at a map of the peninsula, Nardaran is perched right on the eye of the eagle.
Narratives shrouded in mythical terms vary about the origin of this name. Nardaran means “the place of the brave” or “place where there’s light,” some say.
Imam Museyi Kazim’s (the seventh of the twelve Imams in Shia doctrine) daughter Rahima Khanum, her young child, and her spouse Mir Abdullah Agha were all buried in this village. An imposing sanctuary was erected on their graves in modern times. Now it’s the site of pilgrimage for hundreds of visitors every day.
According to Mehman Babayev, who serves in the sanctuary, more pilgrims visit in spring and summer than during colder seasons. Babayev has been serving in this mosque for several years now. Usually those who want to pray and sacrifice come to serve in the mosque for free.
Babayev’s situation, however, is different. “It’s all because of poverty,” he tells Meydan TV. “If the financial situation were better, I’d have no interest in working here. May God give you a chance to go and see Karbala. There everyone works for free in the mosques. Here it is different. It doesn’t work without money. It’s hard to live.”
Graffiti-scarred walls read “God is the greatest” and “Every day is Ashura, everywhere is Karbala, o Hussein.”
There are no tea houses or cafes in this village
Nardaran may be the only village in Baku where you do not see addresses of dating websites on the walls. In their stead, walls are adorned with religious references and calls to prayers. Most of them are written in Arabic script. The slogans and pictures every Azeri is used to seeing even in the most remote villages of the country are not present there at all.
Only the tricolor flag and portraits of martyrs who fell in the war with Armenia remind that this place is part of Azerbaijan.
But scripts on the walls are not the only thing that distinguishes Nardaran from other villages and settlements. This village also has no tea houses or cafes. Several years ago, after we finished shooting, my colleagues and I decided to drink some tea and relax, but we could not find a single café. We discovered that there are none in this entire village.
Even though several years have passed since then, there are still no cafes in Nardaran. According to the locals, sometimes elderly village inhabitants get together over tea. However, there are no special places where people can get together to unwind.
“It’s only men who come together to drink tea. Women never go to such places,” we were told.
When we asked why there are no places for families to spend their leisure time, we were told: “You know that Nardaran is different from other villages. There has never been such a desire among our people.”
The central government’s oil largesse, generally spent on flamboyant stadiums and foreign lobbyists, does not trickle down to areas like Nardardan. A native who wishes to remain anonymous says that journalists often visit Nardaran and write about their life and living conditions, but that doesn’t really help to solve their problems.
“We have had so many protests in the Imam Hussein Square since 2003 to demand our rights. The media has covered it so many times. Who cares? No one cares. How can we demand people’s rights be protected when the laws do not work?” the respondent says.
Close to the sanctuary which pilgrims visit en masse, there’s a poster featuring national hero Mubariz Ibrahimov and the letter he wrote to his parents before falling as a martyr.
Imran Rahimov, the owner of the nearby shop, says that this poster was made and placed there as a result of the local citizens’ initiative. When we asked about the scripts on the walls throughout the village, our translator said that they have existed for over 20 years now. “After we acquired our independence, we started to post these slogans, since almost everyone wanted it.”
Do girls not want to study?
In this remote town, parents do not let their daughters finish school, and take them out after the 5
“Sometimes the family’s financial situation is not good, so they decide to take their kids away from school,” Imran Rahimov says. “Some have other reasons. But some graduate. For example, my nieces have graduated from school. Then they taught at the boarding school. Also, there are female teachers who work at the school.”
Idrak Alizadeh, a local who is graduating from the 9
grade this year and does not want to go to high school, also says that girls do not continue after the 5
“For some reason they take girls away very early. Usually boys graduate. But, to be honest, boys who are in the 11
grade have way less knowledge than girls who study in the 5
grade,” Alizadeh says.
No restriction on the hijab
In this village, girls can go to school covered in the hijab. The hijab restriction applied to school children by the Ministry of Education a couple of years ago is not observed in Nardaran.
In December 2010, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Education announced the ban on hijab in schools and universities, in a bid to project a secular, modern image of the predominantly Muslim, post-Soviet country. Buoyed by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, activists held protests in the spring of 2011. Some slogans reportedly featured calls for freedom to wear the hijab.
Though the ban remains in place throughout the country, locals in Nardardan defy the law by following their own rules an traditions.
Natig Karimov, the Chair of the Elders’ Council in Nardaran, faced substantial pressure when he informed the villagers about this ban during one of their meetings. The school principal, who is also a native of Nardaran, decided to follow the rules of the village, instead of the national ban. Now those who don’t want to wear the hijab can go to school uncovered, and those who decide to wear the hijab can do so too.
Mahluga Taghiyeva, a housewife, also says that women are not forced to do anything, but most of the children who grow up in religious families live according to the rules set by their parents.
“My daughters also wear the hijab. In the village school, girls wear the hijab starting from the first grade. Most of them do it voluntarily. Nothing is imposed,” she says. “This comes with tradition. Our children see the hijab and have been interested in religion since they were born. This is why they voluntarily choose the hijab.”
Another thing that you do not see much in Nardaran is beauty salons. Mahluga Taghiyeva says that there’s only one beauty salon in the village. “It is in the center of the village. There are very good hairstylists there. All of our women go there,” she says.
There are not many Internet cafés either, and the ones that exist are only visited by men.
Here, besides the Nardaran sanctuary, there’s also the ancient Nardaran tower. This historical monument is a round fortress built of white stone in the northwest of Nardaran in the Middle Ages (XIV century). Built by architect Mahmud Said Oghlu, the now-neglected fortress is 12.5 meters high. Its three sides are surrounded by a garbage dump, and the fourth, outer side is used by the locals as a pasture for their cattle.