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Published: December 19th 2013
I began to pass through a back street of Baku, edging my way past some parked Ladas. Across the road, a large woman wearing a headscarf was leading a small child by the hand, and above me, leaning over an upstairs balcony was a middle-aged man in a string vest, smoking a cigarette. I carried on past them until I came to another narrow street filled with fruit and vegetable shops. It was just near a huge sandstone-coloured mosque with gorgeous golden domes.
I noticed an overflowing bin with a clear plastic bag tied to one end. The bag contained pieces of bread. I’d already read about this strange custom, which had nothing to do with how full the bin was. Bread was regarded as a holy thing in Azerbaijan and could not be discarded with other trash; it had to be left separately. As I took a photo for prosperity, I heard a voice and turned to see a middle-aged woman carrying a bag of groceries. She looked at me quizzically. “Why you take picture of street? It not very beautiful. Mosque beautiful yes, but street no. It very old, maybe more than hundred years. So why?”
thought it pointless explaining I had been taking a photo of a rubbish bin and so shrugged and told her I thought the street looked interesting. The woman scoffed and gestured along it. “Not beautiful!” Just then, a large woman who looked like she knew her way around a turnip stall was walking along. She was wearing a dark-green dress patterned with white flowers.
“Look!” said the woman. Instead of arguing with her about the relative merits of a Baku street scene I asked whether she knew the way to the Russian Church.
“Why you go Russian Church? It very old and not very beautiful!” She scrunched up her face. “Photo no good!”
“I just want to see it,” I said, smiling.
The woman put her bag of groceries down on the floor. For a fleeting moment, I wondered whether she was going to find a turnip so she could beat me with it. Instead she gestured down a steep path, telling me it was down on the left.
I thanked the woman and walked downhill, wondering why she had been so bothered about my photos only showing beautiful and modern things. Perhaps she wanted
to look to the future and not dwell upon the past. Whatever the reason, her directions were good, and I arrived at the church where I quickly spotted a platoon of old crones sat outside with tins. All of them were staring at me. Between them, they had five teeth. Wearily I approached the entrance as rattling began to an accompaniment of banshee-like babbling.
“I'll give money on the way out,” I said as I stepped past them. Most of the women looked blankly at me, but one woman seemed to understand and turned to her friends. I left them to it and entered the tiny courtyard. The Russian Church might not have been very beautiful, but it was still a pretty little thing, with a nice silver onion dome and some fetching red trimming.
A young couple entered after me and once the girl had received a headscarf from a little booth, they both entered the actual church. As for me, I ambled around the courtyard, stopping to look at some religious icons and then headed back out into the street. The rattling began immediately and after depositing a few coins I escaped with my life.
I soon found myself walking through a square dominated by a drama theatre at one end. More interesting were the old men playing nard, a type of backgammon in the middle. Groups of them sat huddled around boards flinging dice and moving their pieces while their pals looked on. I approached one group and watched them awhile. They didn’t seem to mind. Eventually I headed away. If you have enjoyed this excerpt from The Red Quest , then perhaps you'll enjoy the book it came from. Head on over to Amazon where it's available in paperback or as a Kindle e-book. Buy it here .
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