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Disappearing Middle Eastern Neighborhoods Find New Lives Online

Journalists in Baku, Azerbaijan spent six months digitizing this community before it was razed in October.

by Masha (Maria) Koblyakova
Oct 22 2016, 12:10pm

The divide between the destroyed area of Sovetski and the rest of Baku. All images courtesy of the Ajam Media Collective.

The rise of post-Soviet capitalism throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Caucasus has fueled unchecked development in the region, but as cities modernize, neighborhoods are being razed to make way for malls, parks, transit hubs, and high-rises. Though state and municipal governments are striving to beautify cities and increase tourism in an under-appreciated part of the world, these initiatives come at a human cost.

In an effort to preserve the anthropological vibrancy of disappearing communities, the Ajam Media Collective, a website devoted to documenting and analyzing cultural and political trends in the post-Soviet world, created Mehelle, a mixed-media project preserving the sights, sounds, and stories of endangered neighborhoods using 360-degree videos, digital mapping, and photography. The Mehelle project’s first featured neighborhood is Sovetski, a neighborhood in Baku, Azerbaijan that once housed between 50,000 and 60,000 people.

An alleyway walkthrough in the Sovetski mehelle. Turn on Closed Captions for English.

Mehelle is derived from the Arabic word “mahallah,” meaning a neighborhood or quarter. It’s a term used across the region, from North Africa to Southern Russia, and India to the Balkans. In cities like Baku, it refers to semi-private neighborhoods centered around social institutions, like coffee shops, public squares, and places of worship. Sovetski is located at the heart of Baku’s state-led urban beautification campaign, and as of October 2016, the vast majority of the neighborhood has been demolished.

81 year-old Gulali recounts his life spent in Sovetski. Turn on Closed Captions for English.

For six months before the city bulldozed Sovetski, the Ajam MC team painstakingly recorded everyday scenes in local shops, housing complexes, and labyrinthine alleyways. “Within the neighborhoods themselves, we try to find the specific buildings, people, shops, and street life that make it unique. In Sovetski, this included doner shops, street musicians, bird keepers, and repairmen. When exploring the map, viewers should constantly be surprised by what they find,” Ajam MC co-editor-in-chief Rustin Zarkar tells The Creators Project.

The
Mehelle project's map of Sovetski. BLUE – Streets & Corners | RED – Work | YELLOW – History & Stories | GREEN – Social Spaces | BROWN – Animals

The resulting map of Sovetski, dotted with colorful icons, provides an immersive look at a community that no longer exists. Visitors to the site can ride along on a taxi trip through the bustling neighborhood, stand on a balcony overlooking dusty streets, and hear the stories of lifelong residents. Mehelle is a choose-your-own-adventure for online explorers. “We are able to capture more of the the urban environment, while simultaneously removing the photographer’s frame, thus allowing the viewer to explore what they find interesting,” says Zarkar.

A photograph of school children found in a Sovetski demolition site.

Interactive elements are layered over Google Maps to preserve the shape and size of the documented communities. In addition to Arabic, the project is translated into English and Russian, in order to reach a wider audience. Sovetski is just the first neighborhood to be documented by Ajam MC. They plan to record two additional cities in 2017: Dushanbe, Tajikistan and Tbilisi, Georgia.

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A photograph that was abandoned near a Sovetski demolition site and drenched in chemicals.

To learn more about the Mehelle project, click here. To support future efforts and learn more about Ajam MC, click here.

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