How Capital Cities Distort Reality

What's lost when the only lens into a place is its major metropolis?

If you've never been to Azerbaijan, you'd be forgiven for thinking the country is one giant Dubai-lite; an oligarch's playground where excess is the aesthetic of choice. You would think that, of course, because almost every English-language article about Azerbaijan is set in the capital city, Baku. Most include an obligatory homage to the country's glittering construction projects, Bentley dealerships, marble promenades, and bumpin' night life.

Buildings are seen under construction in the capital Baku. (Osman Karimov/Reuters)

This depiction of Baku is not inaccurate. The truth, though, is that most Azeris wouldn't recognize this Disneyland as their country. About 70 percent of Azerbaijanis live outside of Baku, in "the regions." There are no skyscrapers in the regions, few night clubs, no sparkling infrastructure. For the most part, there are dusty roads and occasional kitchens where one can stop and buy some qutab (flat bread and greens) for fifteen cents a pop.

Scenes from Sheki, Azerbaijan. Images courtesy of Loom Studio/Flickr

Like so many places, the way we think of Azerbaijan is inseparable from the way we think about Baku. If news organizations have reporters in a country at all, they're most likely based in the capital city; their friends tend to be ex-pats or Western-friendly locals.

This is a difficult reality to avoid -- we can only pay for so many stories out of a tiny country. But by necessity, it limits our lens into a place.

I was reminded of this fact this week when I read news of protests in Ismayilli, a small city in the center of the country. Azerbaijan's government has gotten good at the kind of low-level oppression that allows a small number of people to hold onto power without stirring up too much foment. Elections are rigged; journalists are beaten and jailed; embezzlement and bribes are a way of life.

Traditionally, the government has not faced much opposition. That changed in Ismayilli. More than one hundred people rioted when the government refused to shut down a brothel. For days, protesters lit fire to cars and buildings, one of the most dramatic shows of discontent in years. Scores were beaten and internet service was temporarily shut off.

Emboldened, shop-keepers marched in Baku, calling on the government to keep their rents low. Hundreds were detained; dissidents and opposition leaders have gone to jail.

From where I'm sitting, thousands of miles away, these protests seem monumental. For the first time since I've been paying attention, calls for change are coming from outside of Baku's coffee shop intelligentsia. Despite this, there has been very little Western coverage. We're so attuned to the goings-on in the capital, we could be missing the most significant political protests in Azerbaijan in years.

Scenes from the Ismayilli protests. (Reuters)

I'm not pointing fingers. This is as much my fault as anyone's. I lived in Azerbaijan for a year, and offered glimpses of Baku's glitz aplenty (see, for example, this lede). Though I traveled outside of the capital, I never reported a story from Ganja, or Ismayilli, or Sumgayit. My work took me no farther than an outer suburb called Nardaran, where graffiti cartoons implore women to cover themselves in burkas.

Protests in Baku during the height of the Arab Spring had an air of theater to them. Protesters lined up on one side of Fountain Square, holding signs written in English. The police, decked out in riot gear, would stand on the other. Someone would yell, someone else would yell, and all of a sudden the two sides would be running toward each other. The clashes would last just minutes, with scores of young kids rounded up in vans and detained for a couple of hours.

I remember a friend telling me, as I covered one of these protests in Baku, that these gatherings, violent and photogenic as they were, wouldn't come to much. They were put on by the country's best-education citizens. This little sliver of Azerbaijan did not represent the feelings of most Azeris.

If any change were to come, he said, it would come from the regions where people worry about things like a cartel that decides how much an egg will cost that week. 

And perhaps that's what we lose from our capital-centric coverage. If change comes to Azerbaijan, we might be too busy talking about man-made islands and art walks to notice.

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.