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WHITE ON WHITE: a film noir — BAKU, AZERBAIJAN
rufus corporation

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN

A fog of sand and dust and light. A haze and behind it black and forms silhouetted in the muted glaring. Filtering light, forms moving and shadows. Shadows, forms themselves. All things in the dust bleeding together in the dark black. Just dust everywhere and lights and shadows and forms. Approaching what we would learn to be the outskirts, pre-dawn and chaotic ribbons of concrete, automobiles, minibuses and workers, all in the haze and dust. Enveloping everything. And headlights passing through it like searchlights, ghost lanterns. The city bending like a ghost ship. Warping and refracting as light splitting and cutting through dust. I feel it on my tongue, in the dark. I taste the city. As it lurches sideways and rolls and wants to stay hidden in the long approach of undulating waves, the interurban expressway now local and decrepit now new and flowing above the endless stacked apartment boxes and even more radically arising legions of skeletal brick construction sites, empty, looming and hungry. Our taxi descends out of a cloverleaf into a swirling vortex of machines, a roundabout beneath arched overpasses, sucking everything into it. We slingshot around the outside, whipping that little Lada, dirty-white, and then jam the damn thing right into the oncoming ventricle adjacent. He skirts it across in fits, on the fins, almost moving it sideways like a ferry upstream, and pulls into an odd complex eddying off of the massive extropy. Standing masses of black leather jackets clustered in amorphous pods and darting through the veering headlights like swinging flashlights. The market stands just opening and ladies and men in sweaters in the bright white bulbs hanging from the stalls in the thick charcoal mist. The Hotel Velotrek is a workers’ hotel and something of an enclave inside the composite of an arcane mini-mall. Everything market stands, coca-cola bric-a-brac, electronics, strange candies and bags of odd puffed flavors, bananas and dates and almonds and dried cranberries beautifully piled and bulging from their cobra coiled baskets. Döner kebab stands wedged into illumined jerry-rigged porticos and white-tiled, wet-mopped cafés. A glowing two-chaired barber behind steaming glass cracked and frosted like a Christmas menagerie. The city buses and private minibuses charging, stunting up and conglomerating in lines and angles with their paper number signs and lists of alien stops. A boggling amoeba of taxis gathered and idling with their lights all aimed at each other like dogs sniffing on a sort of landing strip, a shallow waiting area just outside the whorl. And hundreds of men, incomprehensibly groomed and so alive, untouched by the fumes and filth, the raw time. All of this, so much life in the dawn spanning shortly along one arcing quadrant of the roundabout in the magical dust.

Inside the gate, on the backside, the air is damp and quiet and the fog thickening and restless, shifting in billows and rising and hurrying off at the top with the light broadening over the wall. A few small Russian cars parked in the blue light with smoky windows and hollow interiors such that somehow I think there might be exhausted men sleeping in the back seats but they’re aren’t and nothing is moving but for the fog and an emaciated cat curling along the corner and there aren’t even any dogs.

The Hotel Velotrek is so named, as it is hinged alongside the living market and the life of the traffic roundabout, the hotel is also the keeper of another sort of cyclone, a Velodrome. And such a thing I realize I have never actually seen before. A long-distance and high-velocity cycling ring with treacherously steep embankments formed of concrete. Blanketed in fog and illuminated by powerful lights diffusing through it, the arena is strange, and uncanny, and mesmerizing as though sentient and out of place, crouching like an incandescent egg, hollow and alive. We film it. And watch it heave in the fog, like a bullfrog. I walk in the light surrounded until I can’t see anything and I search for the outline of my hands against the dark morning sky. An unkempt winners circle of ratty grass at the center and here there are dogs, three of them loping about a 3-tiered winners podium of painted wooden boxes. They follow me like horses in the field.

Though the concrete track is cracked and in some places sprouting weeds a cyclist emerges from the awning mouth of the tunnel protruding like a squid’s beak from the center of the bowl. The rider begins turning the single gear laboring coldly against the chain and there is an obscure moment in his speed where it seems that the angle of his bike has exceeded his centrifugal velocity, and that he might tip over. But he pushes through it and smoothly rounds the elongated course until he is circling steadily with the light still coming on and the day not yet breaking and that brief timeless hour of morning that we sometimes wish would never pass for it’s bewitching peace and reverent musical breathing like a call to prayer.

The lobby to the hotel is behind long panes of cheap shuddering glass as though some sort of cheap jewelry box used to keep minnows for bait. And the lobby appears more spacious than its dimensions allow for it is near entirely empty. Two very long couches, or couches lined up end to end are pushed back against the black marbleized walls on either side, and men are asleep on them. Against the end wall is a television and a football match and a round clock high above it on the wall that seems massive. For a moment nothing happens, and we stand there as though in a room of an altogether different reality. Then two men rise upon their elbows in delirium and brief panic having finally heard us enter in the delay of their sleep sensing. Salaam. A man moves behind the counter and tells us that there is no room. We say that we have called. He says there is no room and we say that there must be a room because we have called and we are here now. A woman appears from behind a partition with a bucket and he communicates to her and she disappears upstairs. He says for us to wait and we have no other recourse and she reappears shortly and he tells us that there will be a room in two hours. It was then that we went to communicate with the Velodrome. And I returned and sank into an enormous easy-chair at the end of the couches and watched the muted football game while the men slept in white and sweaters and barefoot with blankets about them on the couches and a tea service on the coffee table and a few empty bottles of beer. And the face of the clock high above them while my American associate and the Bavarian went about to procuring some bread and kefir and water.

The room is a workers’ quarters with five beds divided between two rooms, several small nightstands, a fiberboard cabinet, a wardrobe and a disgusting shit-hole of a bathroom that while even though we are on the 4th floor we must keep the door shut for the smell of sewage backing up into our carpeted pension no less than if we were on the ground directly over the open hole. There is no TV. Which I could care less about but it makes you wonder of five beds and that void. The bulbs are bare. It is neither warm nor cold, thick and damp like the fog outside. I’m afraid to stop moving for the humidity but I have my emergency sleeping bag and the windows open upon a view of the Velodrome some starlings singing and finally the city itself emerging in half-light orange and golden and mucus colored. Pigeons aloft. Doves and crows. Common house sparrows on the window ledges and spruce boughs. And a falcon marking a straight line across the balconies, antennas and rooftops dense and infinite the populace focusing and fusing out of the blur. And I see for the first time the city of Baku which is entirely strange to me and I could never have before imagined it. As if until this moment of awakening it had for so long been shrouded in darkness and dust with the beams of flashlights cutting and swinging at the hands of searchers with swollen cataracts glowing in the haze like spiders’ eggs. Or had not existed at all.

The streets of Baku run like a cirque with the Turkic tones and diesel and the waste and fumes and the commerce of corrugated aluminum-sided trucks, packed jelly-green jacked-up mini-buses and dented-up Russian taxis putzing rabidly like clown cars running down to the promenade and port on the southern shore of the Absheron Peninsula that extends like a wolf’s claw into the Azerbaijani Caspian. Off-shore cumulonimbi towering with Olympian light, under-bellied murky and pink against the waters of the sea in March the color of iron filings. More art nouveau, again explored by the Russians brings a lovely incongruity to the dust covered city, the stone walls, the carpet sellers and the old stone Virgin’s Tower which legend tells of a princess’ containment rather then of the warring view that was certainly its purpose. And there is another lady, again atop an obelisk. Another messenger of liberty. Slender, strong and mesmerizing, calmly gazing down the mountain, down the fuming streets from an intersection of jackhammers and scaffolding, a mute refuge within the thicket of bricks and lattice-workings and urban swarm. She seems neither to be a pacifist nor of any other allegiance, but simply looking inside the war inside you and your violent constructions, facing out from the city the unchanging line where the water meets the sky.

by Jeff Wood