One evening, on what was supposed to be a fun night out, my friend Gulnar announced that her husband Arif and his friends were coming to join us. After they arrived, the conversation immediately changed to one topic: cars. The evening became a planning session as the men discussed how they wanted to customize their vehicles; fitting a flashing image of the night sky to the ceiling or making the car resemble a spaceship, to name just a couple of their desires.
In recent years car tuning, or modifying vehicles to personal taste, has become increasingly popular in Azerbaijan. Thirty two year old Arif Zeynalov is the founder of Azart, a popular car tuning center which opened in central Baku in 2008. Raised by his father and elder brother, who worked at a car repair shop, Arif started out as a salesman of spare parts. “But I always had a business plan [to open a car tuning business],” he says.
Azart is truly a man’s world; the business has 33 employees, all of whom are men. The dark industrial space where they work contains cars in various stages of completion, whose owners have brought them here for a makeover. According to Arif, ninety percent of these customers are, of course, men.
What explains men’s apparent obsession with cars? In her 2002 article for The Daily Telegraph, the Australian feminist writer Germaine Greer suggests that the bound between a man and his car is related to the motor’s satisfying their erection fantasies, as per Freudian theory. “The car is one female thing that a man can get inside of whenever he wants and it will provide unfailing evidence of his potency unless, that is, the two of them find themselves trapped in traffic,” she writes. “In fact, this love affair starts long before puberty, when a boy baby meets his first wheeled toy and knows that it represents something that makes him go faster. The little girl may know it too, but she is less likely to care,” concludes Greer.
According to Toghrul Abbasov, a sociologist who currently works as Azerbaijan branch director for an international consulting agency, the automobile has symbolised the appeals of modernity since the very moment it was introduced. The 38 year old sociologist, who often writes columns for Azerbaijani publications, explains that the car simultaneously represented freedom of movement, independence, and the thrill of risk-taking. In today’s patriarchal, capitalist Azerbaijani society, adds Abbasov, cars naturally symbolise a masculine gender dynamic, as “women have traditionally never had freedom outside the home, nor the chance to openly compete with men for power. But with more women entering that game, perhaps the situation will change,” he adds.
A chat with customers at Azart reveals quite how attached many of these men are to their toys.
“I would never drive a car like this,” remarked one client in disgust, pointing at his 2010-model convertible limited edition Mercedes Benz G-350, which he had bought ten days ago and brought immediately to Arif’s place for a makeover. “The roof will be red. All the details, including the interior, will change,” explained the man, who did not want to be named.
“Why is that so important?” I asked.
He looked at me for a while, deeply puzzled at this question, and responded simply “it’s a thirst.”
Twenty six year old Fuad Mirzayev’s passion for cars extends to anthropomorphizing them. “If you pay attention, a car looks like a person”, says Mirzayev, once an intern, and now sales manager at Azart. “The hub caps are shoes, the headlights are eyes, the front is the face, and the exhaust system is the voice. Its back is also extremely important and has to look good,” laughs Fuad.
61-year-old psychotherapist Asad Isazade believes that this bond between owners and their cars mirrors how people once related to their horses. “We like pressing the gas pedal to feel the engine and the speed, and how the vehicle submits. Before, that applied to controlling a wild horse. We want to raise the car on two wheels, just like we used to ride our horses,” he explains.
For Isazade, being from the Caucasus only adds an even greater depth to this passion for cars. Horses have always played a cherished role in the lives of people from the region, says the psychotherapist, so in some ways, owning a prestigious brand of car today is like what owning a gracious Arab horse used to be in ages past. “All these elements of psychology sit deep in our subconscious. We only got off horseback some 100-150 years ago,” concludes Isazade.The psychotherapist continues that the popularity for customizing cars in Azerbaijan was rooted in the poor choice of cars available during the 1990s and 2000s. “When we were young, car tuning was a necessity, as the only available option was the [Soviet era] Zhiguli. All models of which came with same features and in three to five standard colors,” says Isazade. “We had to do something to make our cars distinguishable, even though such opportunities were limited. We would personalize them with stickers from abroad, change the fenders, or add curvy antennae and spoilers,” he remembers.
“Today, in view of the immense amount of purchasing options, someone must be really obsessed to have his car modified beyond recognition,” stressed the psychotherapist. Car ownership has skyrocketed in Azerbaijan since the end of the Soviet period, and grew particularly rapidly between 2005 and 2014. According to the State Statistical Committee, there were 260,210 cars in the country in 1990, compared to 1,147,437 in 2017: an increase of 77%.
Back at Azart, Arif says that with the wide variety of cars ready for purchase, car tuning is not a popular craze, but caters to a very small but very obsessive subculture. “We do everything with cars, as long as it’s legal. We basically create fake new brands,” he admits.
Both Abbasov and Isazade agree that as long as car turning brings joy, there is nothing wrong with being obsessed with it. The problem starts when this obsession leads to people neglecting their families, overlooking their responsibilities or getting in great debts. According to Abbasov, what we need to be concerned about is an object replacing a suppressed desire. “This sort of becomes a commodity fetishism, which consequently leads to alienation and restricting the lust for life to only some objects.”
“People in Azerbaijan particularly like their cars big and expensive-looking”, he says. “Some sick men spend all their money on tuning their toys. They rent a shitty apartment but have well-made cars. This is not the same in other countries; in Europe people don’t even care much for luxury cars. But here, they like to show off and try hard to make their $10,000 car look like it cost $200,000,” observes the owner of Azart. Abbasov suspects that for some men, these flamboyant vehicles are ways compensating for what they lack in life. In short, the issue may be one of wounded pride.
When the working day is over, Arif and his team rarely have time left to work on their own cars. However, that doesn’t mean that their plans are any less ambitious. Royal Babayev, the 31 year old chief mechanic at Azart, speaks with pride about his Opel Calibra, which he bought “as a donor” three years ago.
In this context, a “donor” refers to a car which is bought solely for the purpose of making extensive modifications. Royal has high hopes for his car, which he hopes will prove that “anything is possible” in car tuning. “I will build a Ferrari 488 out of it; I’ll change everything except for the engine. Of course, if I find time during the next 20 years,” he laughs. Meanwhile, Arif has his eyes set on some bigger toys: yachts. “Or maybe some machines that can go, swim and fly,” he adds.
When I later visited the Zeynalov family at home, their seven year old son Ali and his friend were racing cars in virtual Santa Monica on a PlayStation. Their apartment has a perfect view over Baku’s Formula One circuit; Ali can watch the races from his window.
“The Porsche 918, BMW X7, Ferrari, and Tesla; because it’s electric.” According to Ali, these are the only cars worth paying attention to.
Arif beams with pride, and explains that “Ali has a specific taste; he likes luxury cars and doesn’t even notice the ordinary ones.” Nevertheless, the boy’s father confesses that he was once a little worried for Ali’s future, given that the boy did not show much interest in cars.
In any case, that has changed; Ali is a man now.
Some photos were taken from Azart’s archive and are republished here with permission of the owner.