“See this apartment? Four girls were renting it. A few times they brought some strangers to the neighbourhood, guys [they were dating], sometimes hand in hand. We called the landlord to complain that it wasn’t acceptable. Don’t get these young men mixed up in everything. After that conversation the owner kicked them out of the flat. Otherwise, there could have been a fight,” says Ahmad Mammadli, a 27-year-old taxi driver from Yasamal, a district in the west of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku.
“When the girls rented an apartment here, their parents felt that they would be safe,” adds 26-year-old Uzeyir Asgarov. In this particular neighborhood, he says, locals would defend the girls’ honor. “If she is a well-behaved and well-bred girl, men won’t cause trouble for her here. And if they do, we take steps to resolve the issue.”
Uzeyir’s words are a good illustration of how men from this corner of Baku are perceived. The Daghli neighborhood of Yasamal is synonymous with conservative social more and criminality.
“Now we are dissatisfied with the fact that newcomers are moving in. They have a different worldview and they’re changing the atmosphere of the place,” complains 26-year-old Nijat, joining our conversation.
From the late Soviet period well into the 1990s the area was famous, or rather infamous, for its high crime rate; Baku’s taxi drivers were afraid to drive here. Things may be less dangerous now, but Daghli residents’ reputation as “real men” or “tough guys” still remains. From the young men lingering on street corners to their fathers, uncles, or grandfathers playing backgammon outside cafes, this form of masculinity is perceived as part of the region’s social fabric; a fabric that Ahmad and Nijat fear could start fraying at the edges.
Daghli is a close-knit kind of place. Since everyone knows each other here, a stranger draws attention immediately; it doesn’t take long to find out who the newcomer is and what he’s up to in the neighborhood. In many ways, Daghli feels like a village transplanted to the center of Baku. Its small one or two storey houses nestle closely to each other; most residents share a common courtyard. The crossroads teem with fruit and vegetable sellers and small shops, barbers’ and beauty salons. Over the peeling paint on stone walls, the occasional larger, distinguished old house with its own spacious courtyard can be seen rising above the rooftops.
Most people living here today are from the lower or middle classes. The informal name “Daghli” offers a clue about the origin of their ancestors. Dağlı Məhəlləsi, as it is called in Azeri, translates as the “Mountaineers’ Neighborhood.” Daghli is an exonym for the Tat people, an ethnic group who mostly live in Azerbaijan’s north. These “mountaineers” emigrated from the Khizi-Barmak district, a hilly area north of Baku on the Caspian Sea shore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The catalysts, historian Tarlan Aghayev writes in his 2006 book on the Khizi-Barmak region, were high unemployment and grinding poverty.
Fuelled by an oil boom, Baku had started to industrialise, and the people of Khizi-Barmak joined thousands of others from across the Caucasus and beyond who moved to the city to make their fortunes. The peasants of Khizi-Barmak came to settle in what were then villages outside Baku, many working in the city as laborers and bricklayers. As a result, not one but several areas of Baku are known as “Daghli.”
As Baku industrialized and expanded during the 20th century areas like these, which were once distinct villages, were engulfed by the urban sprawl. Long after the physical boundaries between these areas had blurred, the social distinctions remained.
But for how long? In recent years, run-down areas of Baku have come in the crosshairs of the city’s urban developers, and local residents fear that Daghli might be next.
Rahman Badalov, a professor of cultural studies at Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Sciences, complains that historic Baku has been nearly destroyed in apparent “modernization” efforts over the last 20 years. “We can do without these kinds of interventions. The people of the Daghli neighborhood had their own world. Old neighborhoods have their own history and memories,” says Badalov.
Oktay Gasimov, a 55-year-old construction worker, says that the image of local men has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. These days, he adds, there are few “old style” influential men left: they either died or were imprisoned. The ponyatiya [the unspoken moral code of the post-Soviet criminal underworld] changed, too.
For Oktay, the old school men of Daghli were pillars of their community, helping the old and delivering justice, sometimes with their fists. One such figure was his late uncle. “My uncle beat up strangers who appeared in the neighborhood searching for girls,” says Oktay with pride.
Hilbehisht Gasimova, Oktay’s 80-year-old mother, sees her brother in the same light. “Yes, my brother defended the honor of the whole neighborhood, and spent 24 years in prison for it. He never let a stranger enter our street,” she recalls.
Although Daghli’s women still experience the constraints of a conservative society, things are very different from the “good old times” that all the neighborhood’s middle-aged men lament.
“Before, when families went to find a match for their sons in the neighborhood, they wanted to hear what men, not women, had to say about the girl. As they were confined to the home, women could often say little more than “she is a well-behaved girl,” while men had more details. They could offer more detail about her behavior, who accompanied when she went out, and who she spent time with,” says Oktay Gasimov.
That’s no surprise. To this day, men are still seen in the streets more often than women.
“Women are constantly under control. Young girls are not visible in the old neighborhoods; they are back at home, because the streets are controlled by boys. In the city, I think this situation is changing, but in the provinces it still remains,” explains Zumrud Jalilova, lecturer in gender studies at Baku State University.
Walking through the old streets of Daghli I encounter a group of men gathering at a corner; two of them are playing backgammon while the others spectate.
"Even now when we go to each other’s houses, we ask to see the man of the house. If a woman shows up, we turn our faces away,” says 38-year-old Elman Aliyev, rolling the dice onto the backgammon board.
But even if Daghli succumbed to the same urban redevelopment as other historic parts of Baku, some doubt that would mean the end of deep rooted conservative values.
“From gender perspective, urbanization has both positive and negative effects on old neighborhood traditions. In the neighborhood, women are able to gather and socialize among themselves, but in the new buildings they do not know each other,” continues Jalilova, the gender studies expert.
So Aliyev could be right when he says that nothing would change if the locals had to move due to demolition of their neighborhood. “We won’t leave our traditions behind,” he declares.
Moreover, local women in Daghli have internalized these patriarchal values which oblige men to protect them. As Rahima Ahmadova sees it, such a hierarchy is only natural and a good thing for women.
“I never used [my husband’s] name in front of my father-in-law,” says Rahima, pointing at her husband Miraslan Ahmadov who is sitting on the sofa. “I would say ‘he went, he came’ referring to my husband [in the third person.] I’m not the only one; other daughters-in-law did the same, too.”
Rahima adds that eating at the same table as her father-in-law, walking around with uncovered hair, and hugging children in front of him are all considered shameful.
Before I leave, I ask if I may take a photograph. “Oh no, what are you talking about… My brothers don’t like these kinds of things,” replies Rahima. “If they find out, they will rebuke me. Take a photo of Miraslan, that would be enough.”