I first encountered Juma outside the castle in the Azerbaijani town of Sheki, a town of 60,000 people about a four-hour drive from the capital, Baku. Juma had planted himself just outside the castle gates. I didn’t realize it at the time but he was waiting for me. He was sitting on the ground, his hands resting on a 3-foot-high object that was covered by a Persian rug.
Few tourists seem to make the trek to Sheki. But for those who do come, there are a few highlights: to escape the bright lights of Baku, to sample the unique halva they make here, or to just get a bucolic feel for what this country can offer. And, as I officially did about 15 minutes later, they might also meet Juma a local septuagenarian. I emerged back into the sunlight from a drab, stodgy museum that had been displaying historic Azerbaijani costumes on fashion mannequins and there he was waiting for me again, the carpeted object in front of him. I was, it seemed, the only tourist in town and he was intent on showing me what he was hiding underneath the rug.
And then, like some kind of magician, he pulled off the carpet to reveal … a crudely taxidermied wolf. As Juma then told me, this was his job – his very odd job.
I pulled a few crumpled Azerbaijani notes out of my pocket, handed them to Juma, and commenced asking questions.David Farley: What’s your friend’s name?
Juma: Ramo. He is a male.
DF: What kind of beast is this?
Juma: It’s a wolf. Just the type of wolf one finds in these hills around Sheki.
DF: Did you do the taxidermy yourself?
Juma: I did. It’s good, right?
Juma: Watch this! [Underneath Ramo’s chest, Juma grabs two wires, touches them together and the wolf’s eyes flicker with light.]
DF: Impressive. Is that your equivalent of the money shot?
Juma: [Pause] I do not understand this question.
DF: Never mind. So what do you feed him?
Juma: I had him on a steady diet of meat. This is what wolves like. Even neighbors would come by and give him meat.
DF: No, what do you feed him now?
Juma: Now? [Pauses, looks upward.] Mostly coins [laughs wildly].
DF: Weren’t you ever afraid he was going to attack you?
Juma: No, because I kept him in a cage the whole time.
DF: How long have you been doing this?
Juma: Several decades. I’ve had Ramo since I was 12 years old. Look at this. [Juma pulls out a creased and folded up piece of paper and shows it to me]. It is a letter from the Soviet minister of business. Back during the Soviet occupation it was illegal to start your own business. But I did anyway, by going around with Ramo like I am now. And, instead of getting in trouble, I got this letter thanking me for doing this.
DF: Is that fur hat you’re wearing made from Ramo’s stomach?
Juma: No, it’s from a fox.
DF: Did you like Ramo better in life or in death?
Juma: You haven’t given me enough money for me to answer a question like that.
[Photo by David Farley]