Yes, it’s quite almost true. The maths is right… just a little off with my geography. The show will actually be broadcast from just north of the Iranian border….in Baku, Azerbaijan. It’s guaranteed an audience of around 300 million before a single mic is switched on and it goes by the name of Concours Eurovision de la Chanson. You and I know it better as the Eurovision Song Contest. OK, well at least I kept you this far, but hold on…this post is not about Eurovision.
(Pictured above: The Baku Crystal Hall, venue for Eurovision 2012)
Embarrassed friends of mine know that over the years I’ve been a huge fan of the contest. I’m not as much nowadays and in fact I was not intending to watch it this year until the BBC revealed that dear old Engelbert Humperdink will sing the UK’s entry and so the whole thing took on ‘car crash’ appeal.
Next week the contest will be beamed to the whole of Europe and to Australia, the US, Canada, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan, the Philippines…..from Baku, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. It’s a place I know nothing about so I thought I’d investigate.
On the map, Azerbailan looks to be slap bang on in the Middle East, bordering Russia to the north and Iran to the south. Azerbaijanis (sometimes called Azeris) are closely related to the Turks and the country is predominantly Muslim, though like Turkey with a secular government. Also like Turkey, there is greater freedom of dress code for women, a more liberal society and Western aspirations. The local currency is the Manat.
With 86,600 square KM, Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Caucasus region, the area from which white people derive their racial tag Caucasian. The Caucasus Mountains were traditionally the ancient boundary between Europe and Asia and the fact that a small part of Azerbaijan sits north of those mountains qualifies its European credentials – just. There are just over 8 million Azeris according to the CIA World Fact Book (9 million, says Wikipedia). Baku, the capital, is the largest city on the shores of the Caspian Sea and home to around a quarter of the national population. ‘Baku’ is a derivative of the Persian name for the city Bad-Kube meaning ‘wind-pounded city’. The city is prone to strong winds all year round which has a cooling effect on what would otherwise be hot sub-tropical summers but it also suffers from fierce and sometimes snowy winter storms.
Though it has only existed as an independent state again since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, it is a very ancient nation and culture, claiming to be one of the lands where humanity originated. In ancient days it would have been at the heart of civilisation bordering the empires of the Medes, Persians, Assyrians and the Greeks.
It’s an oil-rich nation. Two thirds of the country sits on vast energy reserves and as a result its favour is courted around the world. If you watch the show next week, expect to see lots of references to fire. The theme and emblem of this year’s show is called ‘Light Your Fire’. In ancient days, Azerbaijan was called Atropatene after a Governor set in place by Alexander the Great. The current name of Azerbaijan is a derivative of this and means ‘Land of Fire’. It was said to be a land of ‘burning hillsides’ as first recorded in the first century AD that were actually caused by ignited fissures of natural gas set alight by the heat of the sun. The country became home to the ancient Zoroastrian religion – one of the world’s oldest monotheistic faiths – for whom fire was a sacred symbol and many temples were built around the natural burning fissures. The country was subjugated under Tsarist Russian expansionism ans remained part of the Soviet Union until the close of the Twentieth Century.
If you tune in to the opening credits of Eurovision next week, prepare to be surprised by what you see as I have been by some of the videos I’ve dug out on YouTube.
Of course the national tourist office will only be putting the best on display but I must admit from what I’ve seen and read it looks like an extraordinarily beautiful country. Baku, the capital is highly developed. The country is heavily dependent on its oil revenues and its fortune rises and falls depending on the global price of oil, hence why hosting Eurovision is a hoped for kick-start to an under-developed tourist industry.
Several notes of caution here. While Azerbaijan has a liberal and progressive society, it’s leadership is considered heavily authoritarian and corruption is rife. There has been recent rumblings of social unrest and civil protests have been harshly dealt with. It also sits on one of the worlds most deadly geo-political fault lines bordering the Middle East and the power struggle between the two branches of Islam that I covered in a previous blog. Oddly, that while sharing the same side as its southern neighbour Iran in the inter-Islamic faith struggle between Shias and Sunnis, Azerbaijan and Iran have frosty relations. Azerbaijan has up to now had positive relations with Iran’s arch-enemy, Israel. The Iranians have accused the Azeris of harbouring Israeli spies, which the Azeris deny. The country was also at war until fairly recently with its western neighbour, Armenia, over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but broke away in 1991. That region sits outside the borders of Azerbaijan with a mostly Armenian population. Sovereignty over it was ceded to Azerbaijan by Russia in the 1920’s and today it is a self-proclaimed though unrecognised independent state. An uneasy truce is now in place but the conflict remains unresolved and is a serious impediment to the stability of the entire Caucasus. Armenia has chosen not to participate in Eurovision this year due to this dispute. There are also territorial tensions between all the countries bordering the Caspian Sea due to the vast oil reserves believed to be beneath the lake.
Azerbaijan also has a very dark side in that it is a source, transit and destination country for sex industry trafficking of women and children and for forced slavery.
The country has around 9 weather zones ranging from sub-tropical in the south to moderate in the uplands, sizzling heat in the Summer and bitter cold in the Winter.
While we in the UK think of Eurovision as a trivial farce, other countries view it as a huge potential boost to national kudos and for tourism as the host nation is profiled to millions of eyes across the world. The Azeris are taking the contest very seriously indeed. It’s the biggest and first truly global event they have hosted and it is reported that they are spending a colossal £80 million on the event making it the most expensive show in the Contest’s history. The national tourist office has been busy filming the little ‘postcards’ that will be screened next week giving us a taster of this extraordinary country as you will see from this short clip:
Azerbaijan – the land of magic colours
As for my predictions on a winner for Eurovision? Well, it won’t be the UK and not because everyone hates us or the song is rubbish. In fact it’s not bad at all. We were drawn as the opening song in the Grand Final – a position from which no one has ever won, so we can save ourselves from the trauma of the public voting results. For me, the best songs this year come from Italy, Romania, Ireland, Ukraine, Spain, France and the Netherlands. However all the hot money is on this one:
“Euphoria” – Sweden 2012
(That said, watch out for a surprise attack on the top spot from 6 Russian grannies…)