This is a story of three men – a tailor, a barber and a coppersmith, old Soviet-type entrepreneurs who are adapting to new environments and are trying to survive in a new world. They have come from different regions of Azerbaijan in order to settle in Baku and make a living. Their careers have seen happy and turbulent times, changes in trends, and how the city has become what is it is now.
The tiny tailor’s workshop on Tabriz Khalik Rza oglu street, Baku is one of those that will probably become lost to history soon. This part of Baku is being destroyed extensively to be replaced with high-rises. Therefore, the residents here have been living with an “itchy feet” mood, which explains the raw and rustic looks of the shop.
Usta Rafael,55, (usta means master) was renovating an old leather jacket. His little room was filled with the sounds of old popular Azeri music and a buzzing teapot.
Originally from Aghdam, Usta Rafael moved to Baku in 1980 and has been working as a tailor since then. His uncle and grandfather were famous tailors in Aghdam, who used to sew suits for the most important officials of the city. His grandfather had trained his father, three brothers and himself.
Usta Rafael doesn’t want to expand his business, move to a bigger place, or hire workers. He appreciates the romantic quietness and privacy of working in his tiny workshop, where he sings along with his radio and serves to his old customers who have become his friends. However, it is not without regret, that he mentions that nobody has an interest in learning this craft any more.
He has taught his two sons this craft, but they don’t seem to have any interest in continuing it. “But if I had a grandson who would want to become a tailor, these scissors and this sewing machine could serve for another hundred years”, he said with hope.
“There used to be young boys and girls who would come and ask me to teach them how to sew and they were ready to accept any challenges. But that was ten years ago”. Nowadays, nobody seems to take this craft seriously.
According to Usta Rafael, the craft has changed a lot. “There used to be great masters who owned very simple tools and getting them was not easy in the Soviet Union’s shortage times. .
Therefore, they would value their tools, and they would become one with the master and pass from one generation to the next”, Usta Rafael said, pointing at his scissors that his late uncle used to own and the other tools such as the iron and the sewing machine that have served him throughout his career.
What Usta Rafael doesn’t like about today’s tailors, is that they don’t possess any zeal for the work. Perhaps, they think that this craft is no good for them.
“People bring me some work and I look at them and ask who has done this, because they have killed the work. I look at it and just shake my head”. He thinks that what these masters need, is enthusiasm. They need to spend enough time on a piece of work and cherish it. Then they can enjoy the result of work. But often all they do is rent a fancy place, fill it with expensive equipment and then turn the clients down, saying that they don’t know how to do it or their machinery cannot handle that type of job."
“There are fewer and fewer good tailors, especially those who work with leather”, usta Rafael said worriedly.
Except for the bright pink schoolbag that Usta Rafael was repairing, everything else – his tools, the music, the cups for tea – belonged to another time. He even gave a visitor candy when saying goodbye, just like grandparents would do.
It was an old Soviet style barber shop not very far from the tailor. The vintage interiors of the place show through the large windows what is happening inside, and why this place has not changed like all the others. Later, the master also confirmed that this is the only place in Baku that has not changed since Soviet times.
Usta Zeynur was about to start the haircut of his old client. The two had known each for over 30 years and their relationship was so trustful that the client didn’t even feel the need to explain what kind of haircut he wants and Usta Zeynur refused to call him a client preferring the word “friend”.
“I cut his hair on his wedding day and sent it off to get his bride from this barbershop and since then, we have attended the weddings of our each other’s family members,” said Usta Zeynur. “I had long hair then”, said his friend with a smile.
He has been working as a barber for almost 40 years and 26 years of that, have been spent in this shop called “Zanbaq”. At the age of 20, Usta Zeynur decided to become a barber, which was not a common practice in his family. “This is an art, it is creative, I wouldn’t wish to have another profession. Even when I was in the army I was doing this work”, Usta said.
Usta Zeynur tells what has changed since the beginning of his career. “Baku was a more international city before and I used to work together with Armenians, Jewish, Tatars and others”. According to him, they were all very good barbers and taught each other a lot.
Usta Zeynur’s life has evolved around his work. He works a lot and when, at home, he organizes his free time in such a way that he is fresh and well prepared for a new day.
“It is difficult to be on foot all this time and sometimes they make up to 2 kms a day walking around their work station. “There are certain rituals to follow such as soaking your feet and lifting them so that they rest”.
What is the other main priority for him? “Definitely grandchildren”, he said and his determined and concentrated facial expressions automatically softened. “I sometimes go to my house in Balaken, work in my garden there and spend time with my family”.
It was the eve of Novruz holiday and Usta Kishiagha, 84, was very excited to go and see his family in Lahij, a remote village in the Ismayilli region of Azerbaijan, mainly known for the mastery of its craftsmen, especially coppersmiths.
Usta Kishiagha comes from a family where everyone has always been a coppersmith and he started to learn this craft at the age of 8. “My children say that I shouldn’t work anymore, that they will take care of me. They will take care of me. But I know that if I don’t work for 5 days, I will get sick,” and that has been the motto of his life.
He moved to Baku in 1991 because there were more opportunities. In those times, foreigners had started to come to Azerbaijan and they were interested in buying copper household items, but they wouldn’t come to Lahij very often. Then some magazine published photos of Lahij and it became popular, and now all the foreigners go there, so it might be a good idea to move back.
Usta Kishiagha owns a workshop in Teze Bazar, a centrally located bazar in Baku where one can find almost anything. He spends all his time here with his assistant of 15 years and a young apprentice. He can do almost anything from copper, starting from cleaning antique samovars to making dowry gifts for young girls.
According to the master, his craft is facing three major problems. First of all, the traditions of giving a big dowry and collecting a big collection of copperware is fading away. People nowadays live in small apartments and don’t have the storage place for big and clumsy copperware, and they increasingly prefer the modern kitchenware produced in Turkey, Iran and China.
The other problem is that getting the raw material has become very costly and difficult. In Soviet times, such masters never had to worry about where to get the copper and it was also quite cost efficient. Now this metal that comes from Moscow or Tula has become so rare and so expensive that often reusing the unwanted items into material is a better idea.
The last problem is that all the tin platers have turned into dental technicians and it is difficult to find good specialists.
Nevertheless, Usta Kishiagha believes that the demand might shrink, but there always will be people who appreciate his craft. For example, the bakery business is growing in the country and this creates demand for copper trays for baking pakhlava.
On the other hand, foreigners are genuinely interested in copper household items, although they prefer small sizes. The master is very hopeful about the future and therefore, he has trained some of his grandchildren, as well as 16 apprentices who all work in Lahij these days.