Here in the capital of Azerbaijan one can smell the odors of the Levant, one can feel its charms. Baku is a beautifully situated city, lying on the slopes of a mountain overlooking the Caspian Sea.
It could be a heaven for tourists, but instead it is a haven for war refugees.
On a recent visit to the Jewish communities of Central Asia in the wake of communism’s collapse, there is evidence everywhere of the war between Christian Armenians and Moslem Azerbaijanis in nearby Nagorno-Karabakh.
The fallout caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union has turned this into a city of question marks. As it has throughout history, the volatility here has led to an unsettled feeling among the Jewish community — and has bolstered aliyah.
Repercussions from the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, reach all the way to the office of Lyova Baradani, the emissary of the Jewish Agency in Azerbaijan.
Every day he meets families in need of immediate help. Many want to go to Israel as soon as possible because their sons have received draft orders to go to the front.
The 35,000 Jews who live in Baku — a city of 1.8 million — are a worried community. Had it not been for the war, they would have thought twice before making aliyah. Even now they hesitate, torn between their links to the land and their fears for the future.
MORE THAN 1,000 ALIYAH APPLICATIONS
Baradani says that last month he received more than 1,000 applications for aliyah. People are gathering up the exit visas that they had stashed away for possible future use. They feel the time has finally come.
So far this year, some 4,000 Jews have left Azerbaijan for Israel, compared to 6,000 in 1991. Now, Baradani expects that aliyah will again pick up momentum.
The war has made Baku a city of contrasts. The broad, green boulevards along the coastline hum with the sounds of happy children. Lovers sit holding hands on benches. Teen-agers play pool on tables set up along the promenades.
But the suburbs of Baku are meanwhile filling up with refugees from the battle front. The military cemetery overlooking the bay of Baku is always busy.
The new regime of President Abulfez Elcibei, who succeeded the Communist old-timers in democratic elections held last April, has taken strict security measures. Every few hundred yards armed guards search cars for hidden weapons.
A resident of Baku said he was going to the front next week. “Who needs this war anyway?” he asked. He was unable to understand why, after decades of quiet, the Christian Armenians could no longer live peacefully within the Moslem territory of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is facing harsh economic realities. The country produces more than 11 million tons of oil annually, but the outdated pumps hardly cover their operation costs.
Some workers have not received their salaries for months because plants have stopped manufacturing goods. In the past, Russia was the principal purchaser of Azerbaijani exports. But now the situation in Russia is considered even worse than here. Here, at least, the food stands are not empty.
Many here believe the war may easily get out of control. Turkey supports Azerbaijan, which is ethnically Turkic; Christian Armenia enjoys the support of the West, and, more importantly, of Russia. Militant elements within Turkey are pushing for Turkish intervention on the side of the Azerbaijanis. But so far they are a minority.
“We want to do our fighting alone,” said Niyazi Ebragimov, press adviser to the president. “We are not seeking Turkey’s help. We want no escalation.”
Sabir Casanli, deputy to the Sheikh Al Islam in the Caucasus — the most senior religious authority in the region — told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the war could easily develop into a religious conflict between Christians and Moslems.
“Our greatest effort is not to give it the color of a religious war, because we would not like it to spread to other regions,” he said.
But if the Armenians push too far, Casanli warned, “we may call for a Jihad, a holy war against the heathens.”
The war has produced its share of fallen Jewish soldiers. Albert Agaronov was 24 when he lost his life on top of his tank in Nagorno-Karabakh.
He won a posthumous medal for his bravery. But that provided little consolation to his parents, Agaron, 68, and Leah, 66, and to their 10 other children.
“He was a patriot of Azerbaijan,” said the father. “He used to say: ‘I am Jewish, but I am fighting for my country.’ “The mother then added bitterly that the government had offered no help after Albert’s death, “only words.”
But the Agaronovs will not make aliyah. Neither they nor their children expressed any interest in moving to Israel. They are too rooted to the soil of Azerbaijan. They have no desire to make the difficult transition.