Skateboarding struggles to take hold in Azerbaijan
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Anar, Mikayil, Javid, Vagif, Zaur.

Five students doing tricks on their skateboards, just like young people in any city in the world.

But these skaters are in Baku. They represent a new generation of skaters in a country where skateboarding is barely tolerated.

On the surface, they face the same problems most skaters face, namely parents who are more interested in their grades than their command of the latest tricks.

More deeply, however, they face a clash of cultures.

Even as skateboarding – once dismissed as a public nuisance in most countries – is gaining international acceptance (it will be an Olympic sport in the 2020 Tokyo Games), it seems to be losing ground in conservative Azerbaijan.

Skateboarding is largely limited to capital Baku. And, while there are skateboarders in the capital, there are few places they can ride. Parks, while beautifully built and full of great ramps (made for wheelchairs, not tricks), are largely off-limits

It didn’t used to be that way.

Skateboarding gained popularity in the country in the early 2000s. There was a skate park in the capital, Baku, and some Azerbaijani skaters went professional, winning competitions and earning money.

Mikail Zeynalov is one of the oldest skaters in the small skateboarding community. He is 20 and studies at the Azerbaijan Oil Academy. When he was 11, his friend Tahir introduced him to skateboarding.

After that, he was hooked. He begged his parents for a skateboard and, eventually, his uncle relented and bought him one.

He has never looked back.

Mikail's love affair with skateboarding was echoed in neighborhoods across the capital and the skaters he rides with have similar stories.

Like Vagif Mirzoyev, who was just 12 when skateboarding become part of his life. Six years later he still finds time to skateboard professionally, even while balancing his studies at Azerbaijan Technical University and his job as a waiter. 

Sixteen-year-old Javid Melikli got his first skateboard ten years ago. He didn't become passionate about the sport until he traveled to Budapest three years ago, however.

It was there that he learned about skateboarding culture. When he returned to Baku, he tried to find the local skaters and found the Youtube channels run by Denis Raxmaninov and Ruslan Shirinov, the first skaters in Azerbaijan.

He has since helped create a small but strong community of skateboarders in Baku, including 17-year-old Anar.

“It was 2015 when I first saw a cruiser [a type of skateboard] on YouTube, I liked it so much and my parents told me that if I got good grades in ninth grade, they would buy me one. But I got it even earlier: I bet my father that I could read one [Harry Potter] book in two hours and I did it. Actually, I skipped a bunch and just retold him parts of the movie. He bought me the cruiser,”Anar said.  

While riding the cruiser in Xirdalan City Park, near his house, he was introduced to local skater Ilkin. He taught Anar to a lot of tricks.

Eventually he met Javid and the rest of the skateboarding community.

But today skateboarders are finding it increasingly difficult to find a safe place to meet up and ride today.

A handful of skateboarders cruise the local parks in Baku looking for places to practice their tricks. But it is a challenge.

While skateboarding at parks is not illegal, police and security patrols often stop skateboarders and accuse them of ruining the marble work that is so prevalent in the capital's public spaces.

Sometimes run-ins with the police can escalate.

Vagif recalls a day when one such encounter ended with him at a police station a couple of years ago.

“A police car came and they asked all skaters to come over. I had headphones on [and couldn't hear them] and I continued to ride my skateboard. He asked me to come with him and then gave the command to put everyone in the car," he says.

"Everyone started to run but I couldn’t because he was holding on to my arm. Our friend Akper (Twist) came to the police station to help me and, as a result he was also detained by the police. Akper had to pay a bribe to let us free."

Today there are plans to build a proper skate park in Baku, in honor of skateboarding being included in the Olympics.

There is a fear among skateboarders that it is too little, too late, however.

Vagif notes that skateboarders will always be ready to train the next generation. But the question remains if there will be anyone left to take them up on the offer.

The lack of accessible public places for skateboarding means few children have access to skateboarders – they don't see them practicing their tricks, and are therefore not inspired to take up the sport.

“This tradition continues: a generation of more experienced skaters will always support and teach the next generation to be free and accept everyone. Nationality and gender doesn't matter – that is the philosophy and lifestyle of skaters in Azerbaijan,” Vagif says.

Mika and Anar near the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum on the Boulevard in Baku. Mika stretches before starting to skate after a few weeks off his skateboard.
Mika is trying out trick moves on his skateboard at Boulevard Park. The stairs and wheelchair ramps are perfect for skate tricks but park security does not like skateboarders to ride in the park. They believe the skateboards ruin the tiles and sidewalks in the park.
Anar Tagiyev is 17. “It was 2015 when I first saw a cruiser [a type of skateboard] on YouTube, I liked it so much and my parents told me that if I got good grades in ninth grade, they would buy me one. But I got it even earlier: I bet my father that I could read one [Harry Potter] book in two hours and I did it. Actually, I skipped a bunch and just retold him parts of the movie. He bought me the cruiser.”
Anar rides his skateboard down one of the wheelchair ramps in the park. Skateboarding is not encouraged at any of the public parks in Baku.
Mika and Anar wait for Zaur and Javid at the park. The young men are close friends and socialize outside of skateboarding as well.
“We decided to go to Heydar Aliyev Park, where skateboarders generally gather to skate. I didn’t have good shoes for skateboarding and wore Spiderman flip flops instead.”
Friends (left to right) Anar, Vagif, MIka, Javid at Winter Park. The park is a regular hangout for skateboarders in the city.
Vagif remembers the first time he saw a skateboard. It was a day that changed his life, he says. “I started begging my parents to buy me a skateboard. My first skateboard cost 10 AZN and had Spiderman on it. For a long time, I skated with it in the yard.”
Javid started constantly riding his skateboard in 2016, after he returned to Baku from Budapest, where he had seen skateboarding was a completely different culture, with its own identity.
Vagif, Javid and Mika doing tricks at Winter Park in Baku.
Javid Melikli is 16. His parents bought him his first skateboard in 2009, a “Zing” for 30 AZN. “It was a low-quality skateboard and for just over six months it sat unused on the balcony,” he says.
Skateboarders play the rock-paper- scissors game to choose who will perform the first skateboarding tricks and who will follow.
Zaur is 22. He said his first skateboard was made in China and he only used it to skate in the yard outside his apartment. “Then, in 2009, they built a skatepark. That skatepark does not exist anymore,” he recalls.
Park security stops the skateboarders along the Boulevard. Skateboarders are not allowed to do any trick riding at this park or any other public park in the city due to complaints that they ruin park property.

Millennials,

February/March 2019

Chai Khana
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