If you’re lucky enough to be invited on a state visit to Azerbaijan, you may well get the wonderful Ehtiqad Şükürov as your driver. A proud Azerbaijani who reflects the warm hospitality of his incredible country, loves all things Turkish, and drove us around in his fabulous disco-like minibus with all the skills of a Formula 1 racing driver.
Two years ago, myself and T-VINE writer Edward Rowe were invited to visit Azerbaijan following its victory in a 44-day war with Armenia in 2020, which led to the liberation of much of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region following 30 years of occupation by separatist Armenian forces.
Arriving bleary eyed in the capital Baku in June 2021 following a pleasant 5-and-a-half-hour direct evening flight on Azerbaijan Airlines, we waited with fellow journalists in a special arrivals area as our passports and PCR papers were inspected to check we were Covid-free. After what seemed like an eternity (over an hour), we were finally, formally able to enter the country.
We collected our baggage and waited in a VIP lounge, before being directed outside to a Mercedes people carrier basking in the early morning sunlight. The driver, a cheery fellow wearing big sunglasses and an even bigger smile, who we would soon discover was the inimitable Ehtiqad Şükürov, came to assist us.
For the next five days, Ehtiqad would greet us outside our hotel and drive us to meet with key Azerbaijani politicians, including the Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, Speaker of Parliament Sahiba Gafarova, and Rovshan Rzayev, the Chairman of the State Committee for Affairs of Refugees and IDPs.
He drove us to the newly freed areas in Agdam District in the Karabakh region, where we saw in disbelief the environmental vandalism the Armenians had wreaked on the area. When we disembarked the minibus near the Juma Mosque to take a guided tour of the deserted and derelict town of Agdam, we were advised not to go wondering off as the area was filled with landmines.
The Armenians are said to have planted an estimated one million landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh, which one UN specialist, who had previously been stationed in Bosnia, told me would take “30 years to clear.”
Ehtiqad took us to watch Wales beat Turkiye 2-0 at the Baku National Stadium in the Covid-delayed finals of the Euro 2020 tournament. We toured Baku’s gorgeous Old City and the fantastic Heydar Aliyev Centre, as well as viewing a host of other stunning landmarks including the Flame Towers and the Fortress Walls of Icheri Sheher from his minibus.
On the way back from Agdam we stopped off at a special dinner, complete with renowned Azerbaijani singers, where we sipped on traditional Azerbaijani drinks and enjoyed a meal fit for a sultan. On another occasion, we visited a roadside outdoor tea garden.
Every trip was a blissful adventure with Ehtiqad, who would play us a fine selection of contemporary popular hits from across the globe, including India, America, Latin America and Turkiye, as lights inside his vehicle flashed up like a disco in sync with the musical beats.
Running late because of traffic or an over-running meeting? No problem. Our driver was as cool as ice as he sped from one destination to another, knowing all the short cuts. It’s safe to say if he had the chance, Ehtiqad would make a fine Formula 1 driver. He not only looks the part, but also can seriously handle a vehicle, even around those super-tight and narrow bends of Baku’s Old City.
Suffice to say, after several days of travelling together, one evening Edward and I sat down with Ehtiqad to learn more about his life. One of the things that made the conversation easier is Azerbaijani is very similar to Turkish.
“I am from the village of Alvadı in Masally District in Azerbaijan. I have been driving since the age of 12,” Ehtiqad tells us. When I challenge him about no licence at such a young age, he replies laughing “I only drove in the village at that age and back then the police would not interfere”.
Ehtiqad has three sons aged between 20 and 28 years old. The eldest is married and they don’t yet have any children, but Ehtiqad hopes for some grandchildren “soon”.
He knew from a young age he wanted to be a chauffeur and says he “loves his job” and that he feels “alive and free” when he is behind the wheel.
Ehtiqad explains he is “naturally impatient”: he eats fast, lives fast, drives fast! His idol is legendary German F1 driver Michael Schumacher – “I always hoped there would be a rally in Azerbaijan and that I could race in it,” he tells us.
However, he maintains – and we have witnessed – he never takes risks on the road, “I always drive with care, especially in residential areas. Driving isn’t about speed, but enjoying the journey,” he explains, adding that the uplifting international music he plays, which he “finds on YouTube” gives him “energy” on the road.
He has been a professional driver for over 20 years, of which the last five (since 2016) he has been employed by the Azerbaijani state as a driver.
When asked what is best about his job, he replies, “That I am giving a service to my government.” Ehtiqad feels the full weight of responsibility as an ambassador for his country, driving around “important visitors who visit Azerbaijan from all around the world” that he must ensure they return to their homes “kazasız belasız [‘safely, without any accidents or adverse events’].
“On one occasion, I had to drive around the Speakers of Parliaments from 15 different countries. It was a very big responsibility,” states Ehtiqad.
He wants each of these VIP guests to leave “Azerbaijan with fond memories and be a friend of my country”, so he always tries to be “happy and helpful” when he greets and drives around his passengers, chatting with them and answering their questions as best he can. We can certainly vouch for that!
When asked about if the disco music and lights is a usual part of his travel experience, he responds with a firm, “No!”, adding, “That’s just for you guys. Most of my passengers are very serious. It was clear your party was a little more relaxed, so you had some special treatment,” as he grins broadly. He also states the décor of state-owned people carrier isn’t down to his personal tastes, but how they are provided when purchased from Turkiye.
Ehtiqad explains how he and the wider Azerbaijani public are aware of countries who have supported Azerbaijan, such as Britain, Israel and Italy with clearing landmines, but the number one country for support is “Turkiye, followed by Pakistan”. It is fair to say everywhere we visited, we would see the flags of Turkiye and Pakistan displayed alongside that of Azerbaijan.
A perennial challenge is not to leave any passenger behind. Ehtiqad recalls one story involving a group of Italian dignitaries that he had dropped off at the Baku Old City for sightseeing and shopping, agreeing a pick-up time and point. However, the party was one short when they returned. Unable to find the missing person, Ehtiqad was obliged to call the police for help, only to find the man “sitting alone at a coffee shop completely oblivious of the time or commotion his absence had caused. The guy walked back to the minibus with me and sat in my seat and insisted he drive us back!”
Ehtiqad’s love for Turkiye is huge. “I have always felt welcomed by the Turks, treated like a brother,” he says proudly.
He has visited the country several times, travelling to Trabzon, Ankara, and Istanbul: “I loved the Bosporus, eating fish there. I am intrigued by historical places, I’ve been to the Ayia Sophia, the Maiden’s Tower, and the old prison now a luxury [Four Seasons] hotel.”
Ehtiqad has never been to Britain or Cyprus but would like to visit both.
Although he doesn’t know much about Cyprus, he does adore the Turkish Cypriot President Ersin Tatar: “He always supports Azerbaijan, especially during our darkest days,” Ehtiqad states in reference to the Azerbaijani martyrs who lost their lives fighting against Armenia, or killed by landmines and through border skirmishes.
Speaking of the TRNC, Ehtiqad affectionately states that “Türkiye anavatanı ise, Azerbaycan’da dayı vatandır” [‘If Turkiye is the motherland, then Azerbaijan is the uncle land]. He hopes that all will unite under a Turkic banner that “stretches from Hungary in Europe to China.”
Today is Ehtiqad’s 50th birthday, so from all of us here at T-VINE Magazine in London we wish him a blessed day and many more healthy and happy years ahead.