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At the end of a gun in Azerbaijan


Marion, sitting in a strange tent across from Belloq, swallows a belt of brandy and giggles at her captor. Belloq pours them both another glass. Keeping her at gunpoint, outweighing her, he has all the power, and he knows it. They drink on — eventually, when Belloq is at his most vulnerable, Marion leaps up – bone sober – and draws a knife on him, turning the tables.

Baku, AzerbaijanThe act of drinking someone under the table captures our fascination far beyond Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is all at once a display of skill, physical prowess (insofar as sobriety is a function of practiced tolerance and willpower), and cunning. Furthermore, the kind of cunning required to drink someone under the table is somehow more “honest” than other acts of deception, perhaps because it involves escaping a dangerous situation.

Out-drinking an aggressor also provides an alternative channel of masculinity. Alcohol tolerance and machismo are intimately tied up together, though often for the worse. The ability to “will” oneself to greater sobriety demonstrates strength, as the training of the body to delay inebriation demonstrates life experience.

As it so happens, I recently had the experience of escaping gunpoint by drinking someone under the table, and would like to provide some reflections on the experience. Realizing a childish dream and becoming my own strange version of Marion, just for a moment, taught me instead so much more about the beauties and hardships of the Caucasus, our re-casting of Belloq’s tent.

**

Last May, I found myself outside the town of Sheki in northwestern Azerbaijan. Sheki, though still well-traveled, used to be a famous destination during Soviet times, and what still remains of the infrastructure of tourism demonstrates this fact. I had chosen to stay at a sanatorium outside of town, which does not as in the Western sense denote a place to store crazy people, but in the Russian sphere of influence means something like an extended spa or resort (though perhaps in this case both senses are appropriate). Set at the base of the Lesser Caucasus range which towers above Sheki, my particular sanatorium was made up of several small, independent dachas centered around a complex containing a restaurant and a barebones office.

Being somewhat removed from Sheki proper meant that I had to commute in via marshrutka or taxi, which was worth it — this place had excellent trails into the mountains, and hiking was my purview. For me, there’s nothing quite the same as the early-spring-like feeling of high mountains in May, the delayed, fragile return to life, greenery poking out amid frost and waving in the crisp air, and I enjoyed many days wandering the goat-paths and pine copses without any evidence of other humans.

Sheki itself is an important cultural capital, once home to a local khanate, and is often overlooked for the bustle of Baku. Recent decades have seen, of course, the end of the vast Soviet travel network, as well as some of the advantages of Soviet life in terms of economic and educational opportunities, and smaller places like this have begun to dry up in favor of ever-growing, ever-globalizing Baku.

I loved the time I spent in Sheki, and have no complaints. This is not an indictment of a place, a country, or even a person. Rather, it is a look at how proud people can respond to hardship, and how despite the fact that our economic war has largely broken the First and Second worlds into Haves and Have-Nots, we are still united by how we take refuge in fantasy and in nostalgia.

On my last night in Sheki, hoping to get some work done and perhaps catch up on much-needed sleep, I returned to my sanatorium early. My plan was to take a cup of soup at the restaurant before cozying up in a big chair in my dacha, watching the sun go down over the Caucasus, and preparing for the next day, when I’d cross overland into Georgia.

Hardly had I started into my serving of kapusta (cabbage soup) and local beer when another beer, unordered, was laid neatly near my plate. I looked up at the waiter. “It’s from the owner”, he told me in Russian (still the lingua franca in nearly every ex-CIS state), pointing to a man, middle-aged and with the telltale patterns of baldness concealed on a shaved head. He sat with a group of friends, eating a plate of tapenade, whiling away the time. I waved courteously, and he waved back. Then, thinking better of it, he stood and came over. He sat with me, and we talked for a few moments, during which time he motioned one of the waiters to bring us a bottle of vodka. This is an experience I’ve had often in the ex-Soviet sphere, one that is usually pleasant and reminds me of old-world rules on gentility and hospitality which are now harder to encounter in the West.

Our discussion was routine – how did I like Azerbaijan, where did I learn Russian, could I speak Azeri (a little, enough for a laugh). He asked me how I liked the people, to which I responded with some rote response or another. He stopped cold. “The people are no good here, they’re cunning/tricky/deceitful .” I looked at him blankly.

“Yes, they’re cunning. See, with people here you don’t know if they’re your friend or your enemy. I hate that. Are you my enemy?”

I laughed, not knowing what else to do.

“Because if you’re my enemy, then I’ll kill you.”

He spoke slowly, deliberately – there was no mistaking him, no error in translation. If I could have entertained that idea even for a moment, it would have been obvious that I understood correctly when he reached into his satchel and pulled out a pistol.

In case you’ve never had the pleasure of having a gun pointed at you, I’d like to take a moment to sort out the truth from the bullshit in oft-told platitudes. First, the idea that time suddenly slows down is indeed fairly accurate, up to a point. This is due to a mixture of adrenaline and confusion. Like a chess engine, your mind immediately tries to evaluate several possible positions all at one, quickly going a short distance down many of the infinite branches of decisions and movements that are available in that exact moment, trying to find the quickest way out of the situation.

This is not an operation at which the human mind excels, which is one reason why chess engines are now better than any human grandmaster. In addition to juggling several options and impulses which may seem equally likely of saving your skin, I think a reasonable amount of processing power is devoted to questions like “Is this really happening?” and some fragmented, nonsensical instantiation of the idea that you see your life flash before your eyes, another saying which gives the overworked brain more credit than it’s due (for instance, I remember recalling Warren Zevon’s injunction to ‘enjoy every sandwich’ and wishing I had taken him more seriously at his word). The result, you process more thoughts in ten seconds than you probably do in an entire day.

For me, this phase – DefCon-1, complete survival mode – lasted for what I estimate is about thirty seconds. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive some training in both relaxation techniques and self-defense, and while I would very much like to think that these helped me come down from the adrenaline high more quickly, perhaps it’s the case that I simply wasn’t in as much danger as I thought, and started to catch on to that pretty quickly.

After emerging from the haze of DefCon-1, our gunman – henceforth to be known as Fred, to preserve his anonymity, which I think he deserves – rested the handgun on the table, not quite pointed at me, and began barking orders at the waiters, demanding several dishes of food and a decanter of vodka. At first I resisted (meekly) the vodka, thinking that alcohol was the last thing this situation needed, and entered a kind of hostage mentality, which I’ll call DefCon-2. To every question I tried to formulate the answer that I thought would best please Fred, and hadn’t settled down enough to broaden my attention and try to read the room. I could only focus on Fred and the waiters, who were clearly tense, though it was as yet unclear if they were genuinely scared or worn down by a history of nights like these.

Fred found my responses, all at once one-dimensional and sycophantic, quite irksome. Anyone who would lie to him was his enemy, and if I was his enemy, he’d kill me (“я тебя убью ”, clean Russian for “I will kill you”, his mantra for the evening). In retrospect Fred was an excellent reader of people. For better or worse, I am a decent liar, and at least some of my answers should have been convincing. Only when I started to answer him truthfully – and his questions, about how I found Azerbaijan and Sheki, how I found the men, the women, and the economy, often made telling the truth a bit nerve-wracking – did he begin to relax (though that could well have been due to a few more shots of vodka).

Truthful dialogue marks DefCon-3, where I’d say I remained for the rest of the night. When he held the gun, I leaned forward, pretending to be hard of hearing, though really I wanted to be closer to him in case, God forbid, we should come to some kind of physical confrontation. However, by this time I was at least 80% sure that Fred didn’t really mean me any harm. And when he became fixated on why I was in Azerbaijan, his character and the manner in which the winds of history brought us together came into focus.

This fixation centered entirely on the CIA – if I was in it, I was his enemy (and, “Ya tebya ubyu”); if not, we could still be friends.

Elite organizations play a special role in the ex-Soviet mind, one I’d argue is much stronger than in American culture, so this was not the first time I had been interrogated about the CIA in an ex-CIS country. But Fred was different. He told me how although the CIA was his enemy, he deeply respected them, because they knew how to “get things done” . He had been in Afghanistan, where he claimed the CIA had (forcibly) enlisted him, made him do terrible things. He never elaborated on what these things were (though my Russian vocabulary may not extend far enough into terms of torture, treason, and so forth to have understood if indeed he did elaborate). He was only 18 years old at the time. By now I had begun to encourage the vodka instead of discouraging it, recognizing my opportunity to Marion this guy and get the hell out of the restaurant. As Fred was getting drunker, this story became his new mantra – “In Afghanistan, I was only 18 years old. They made me do terrible things.”

Do I believe Fred was really some kind of double-agent for the CIA? Not really. The aforementioned fascination with elite intelligence and military forces has inured me to these kinds of claims. Once, while living in Ukraine, a guest in my apartment became belligerent, claimed he used to be Spetsnatz and would use his “extreme powers” to kill me. In less exciting moments, I have overheard many men in bars also claim that they were Spetsnatz, far too many for them all to have been telling the truth. Yet it is clear to me that those who were lying (and those who were telling the truth) were doing so not only from this almost-boyish fascination with violence, skill and power, but from a place of deep pain and in an attempt to adopt a prestige position in a socioeconomic milieu that has been almost completely leveled by three decades of downturn, unemployment, and often alcoholism.

After all, here we were in a sanatorium, a dying type of lodging riddled with maintenance fees for dachas which never get rented, in a one-time gem of a bustling tourism industry now defunct, tucked away from the nearest settlement in perennially snow-capped mountains.

Once we clarified that I was not CIA, the tension lessened, as much as possible with a loaded handgun still on the table (Fred had demonstrated that the gun was loaded and the safety off, for dramatic effect). His friends, who had conveniently sequestered themselves at the other end of the restaurant during the hairier bits, suddenly reappeared and started helping themselves to the rather massive feast Fred had demanded. They slapped me on the back – “What a great guy! You get it, he’s joking with you.” Laughing, they passed the gun around the table, striking poses from spy movies and Westerns (another example of the fascination with elite men, trained in the art of violence). In a reversal full of psychological import, Fred reverently handed me the gun, saying something to the effect of “Now you have all the power, now you are safe”. I immediately put on the safety and hid the gun under the napkin on my lap, to everyone’s mirth and applause. “The real James Bond!”

A few minutes later Fred asked for the gun back, and I gave it to him.

Church, Baku, Azerbaijan

One thing that still confuses me, which perhaps speaks volumes, is that while all this was transpiring, right near the entrance to the restaurant, people kept coming into the restaurant. Families with young children walked in, saw us, heard us (our din by now unmistakable), and thought “Yes, a bunch of drunks with a handgun, no problem, we’ll take a table”. Perhaps, like me, they had weighed their options — either go the night hungry or take their chances with Fred — and had somehow decided that borscht was worth the risk. More likely, they had seen this sort of thing before. The acting-out of danger, the infusion of ritualistic adventure into backwater life. The angry and unemployed trying to vent a deep frustration.

At around two in the morning, Fred hit that point of dead drunkenness where his mantras became a repetitive drone – “You’re a great person. In Afghanistan, I was only 18. They made me do things” – and I knew it was time for my exit. We stepped out into the pouring rain to smoke “very strong marijuana”, which were nothing but hand-rolled cigarettes, yet another posturing in a carefully constructed machismo dripping in the strange fascination with America, Russia and the past, a necessity for the losers and an alien, near-incomprehensible concept for the winners of economic warfare. For the first time Fred turned his back on me, stumbling inside to find a lighter. I sprinted off into the night.

The next morning, as might be expected, I woke up with an award-winning hangover. I had intended to stay holed up in my little cabin, indistinguishable from the rest, until check-out, when I had arranged a taxi to take me to the Georgian border. However, that would be humanly impossible without a bit of nursing. Reckoning that if Fred’s hangover was anything like mine we wouldn’t run into each other, I returned to the restaurant, where the same waiters from the night before — do they sleep? — met me sheepishly. Ordering them around as Fred might, I filled my arms with six liters of water, a few nips of vodka, and some pickles, constituting an East-meets-West kind of hangover cure. There was no question of payment. I had earned at least this. By the time my taxi arrived, I had just enough life in me to climb in. As we rode the hem of the Little Caucasus up to the border, a fearsome hailstorm forced us temporarily under the shelter of a broad evergreen, one last reminder of a region untamed and unbroken, uncertain of the future, and full of Stegner’s “beautiful cussedness of humanity”.

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