Crude oil touted as health cure in Azerbaijan

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The petroleum spa resort in the oil-rich Caucasus country is a draw for visitors. (AFP)
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The treatment is offered at Qarabag luxury resort in Naftalan, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) from capital Baku. (AFP)
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Azerbaijan’s vast oil deposits were discovered in the mid-19th century. (AFP)
Updated 12 April 2019

Crude oil touted as health cure in Azerbaijan

  • The local oil is used to treat muscular, skin and bone conditions as well as gynaecological and neurological problems
  • According to a legend the healing properties of Naftalan’s “miraculous oil” were discovered by accident when a camel left to die near a pool of oil was cured

NAFTALAN: Immersed up to her neck in a dark viscous liquid, Sulfiya smiles in delight, confident that the fetid substance will cure her painful condition.
Sulfiya, a Russian woman in her 60s, has traveled to Azerbaijan’s north-western city of Naftalan in the hope that crude oil baths at a local sanatorium will end her years of suffering from polyarthritis, a disease affecting the joints.
“This is so pleasant,” she enthuses, despite the reek of engine oil.
Her naked dip in oil heated to just above body temperature lasts 10 minutes, after which an attendant scrapes the brown oil off her skin and sends her into a shower.
The native of Russia’s Tatarstan region said she and her friends “have long dreamed of coming” for treatment in Naftalan.
The petroleum spa resort in the oil-rich Caucasus country is a draw for visitors despite its proximity to Nagorny Karabakh, a region disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia in a long-running armed conflict.
After 10 days of bathing in crude oil Sulfiya says she now feels “much better” and has even reduced her medication for the polyarthritis that she has had for 12 years.
“It is a gift from God,” agrees 48-year-old Rufat, an Azerbaijani journalist and opposition party member who is undergoing treatment in the sanatorium called Sehirli, or “magic” in Azerbaijani.
Azerbaijan’s vast oil deposits were discovered in the mid-19th century, making what was at the time part of the Russian Empire one of the first places in the world to start commercial oil production.
Oil exports to markets all over the world are the largest sector of Azerbaijan’s economy, but the crude that comes from subsoil reservoirs in Naftalan is not suitable for commercial use.
Instead the local oil is used to treat to cure muscular, skin and bone conditions as well as gynaecological and neurological problems.
According to a legend, which spa staff readily tell clients, the healing properties of Naftalan’s “miraculous oil” were discovered by accident when a camel left to die near a pool of oil was cured.
The small town of Naftalan some 300 kilometers (185 miles) from the capital Baku became a popular health resort for Soviet citizens in the 1920s.

“In the past, when there weren’t any hotels or sanatoriums, people would come to Naftalan and stay with locals,” said one of the doctors at the Sehirli sanatorium, Fabil Azizov, sitting in her office under a portrait of strongman President Ilham Aliyev.
“But as time passed, sanatoriums were built and treatment methods developed.”

Some specialists warn the method has dangerous side effects.
“Despite the stories of past cures, the use of crude oil for medicinal purposes has been condemned by Western doctors as potentially carcinogenic,” former journalist Maryam Omidi wrote in a 2017 book published in Britain about Soviet-era sanatoriums.
In fact, the oil at Naftalan is almost 50 percent naphthalene, a carcinogenic substance found in cigarette smoke and mothballs that in large amounts can damage or destroy red blood cells.
But doctors and patients at Naftalan brush aside any misgivings and the sanatorium even has a small museum displaying crutches that once belonged to patients who have recovered from their illnesses.

During its heyday in the 1980s, Naftalan would host more than 70,000 visitors a year.
But in 1988, a bloody war began with neighboring Armenia for the control of Azerbaijan’s separatist Nagorny Karabakh region, which unilaterally proclaimed independence from Baku in 1991.
The conflict claimed the lives of some 30,000 people from both sides and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
A 1994 cease-fire agreement ended hostilities, but the arch foes have yet to reach a definitive peace deal and there are frequent skirmishes along the volatile frontline.
During the war, the sanatoriums in Naftalan — a few kilometers from the frontline — were converted into hospitals for wounded soldiers and temporary accommodation for refugees.
Over the last two decades, the Azerbaijani authorities have worked hard to re-establish Naftalan’s reputation as a health resort.
They resettled refugees in other regions, demolished decrepit Soviet-era sanatoriums and built brand-new tourist facilities.
Modern Naftalan is a blend of kitsch-looking high-end spas where a week’s treatment costs some 1,000 euros, and modest sanatoriums where a week’s treatment costs around 100 euros.
The simmering Karabakh conflict may be out of sight, but guests can still feel uncomfortably close to the military action.
During one of the deadliest recent bouts of fighting in April 2016, “we heard gunshots,” said a member of staff at Naftalan’s luxurious Garabag spa, adding quickly that “everyone stayed on.”


At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 image, Lizzie Chimiugak looks on at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (AP)
Updated 22 January 2020

At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

  • The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: Lizzie Chimiugak has lived for 90 years in the windswept western wilds of Alaska, born to a nomadic family who lived in mud homes and followed where the good hunting and fishing led.
Her home now is an outpost on the Bering Sea, Toksook Bay, and on Tuesday she became the first person counted in the US Census, taken every 10 years to apportion representation in Congress and federal money.
“Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted,” Lizzie Chimiugak said, speaking Yup’ik language of Yugtun, with family members serving as interpreters. “Right now, they’re considering me as an elder, and they’re asking me questions I’m trying my best to give answers to, or to talk about what it means to be an elder.”
The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. The ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. The mail service is spotty in rural Alaska and the Internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
The rest of the nation, including more urban areas of Alaska, begin the census in mid-March.
On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, director of the census bureau, conducted the first interview after riding on the back of a snowmobile from the airport to Chimiugak’s home.
“The 2020 Census has begun,” he told reporters after conducting the first interview with Chimiugak, a process that lasted about five minutes. “Toksook Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to, and the temperature is cold. And while people are in the village, we want to make sure everyone is counted.”
Dillingham was hours late getting to Toksook Bay because weather delayed his flight from the hub community of Bethel, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. Conditions didn’t improve, and he spent only about an hour in the community before being rushed back to the airport.
After the count, a celebration took place at Nelson Island School and included the Nelson Island High School Dancers, an Alaska Native drum and dance group. Later, the community took over the commons area of the high school with a potluck of Alaska Native foods, including seal, moose and goose soups, herring roe served with seal oil and baked salmon.
Robert Pitka, tribal administrator for Nunakauyak Traditional Council, hopes the takeaway message for the rest of the nation is of Yup’ik pride.
“We are Yup’ik people and that the world will see that we are very strong in our culture and our traditions and that our Yup’ik language is very strong,” he said.
For Chimiugak, she has concerns about climate change and what it might do to future generations of subsistence hunters and fishers in the community, and what it will do to the fish and animals. She talked about it with others at the celebration.
“She’s sad about the future,” he eldest son Paul said.
Chimiugak was born just after the start of the Great Depression in the middle of nowhere in western Alaska, her daughter Katie Schwartz of Springfield, Missouri, said. Lizzie was one of 10 siblings born to her parents, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and traveled with two or three other families that would migrate together, her son said.
Lizzie and her 101-year-old sister from Nightmute, Alaska, survive.
In 1947 Lizzie married George Chimiugak, and they eventually settled in Toksook Bay after the town was founded in 1964 by residents of nearby Nightmute. There are five surviving children.
He worked maintenance at the airport. She did janitorial work at the old medical clinic and babysat.
Like other wives, she cleaned fish, tanned hides and even rendered seal oil after her husband came home from fishing or hunting. Her husband died about 30 years ago.
She is also a woman of strong Catholic faith, and told her son that she saved his life by praying over him after he contracted polio.
For her own hobbies, she weaved baskets from grass and remains a member of the Alaska Native dance group that performed Tuesday. She dances in her wheelchair.
She taught children manners and responsibility and continued the oral tradition of telling them stories with a storyknife.
Chimiugak used a knife in the mud to illustrate her stories to schoolchildren. She drew figures for people or homes. At the end of the story, she’d use the knife to wipe away the pictures and start the next story with a clean slate of mud.
“She’s a great teacher, you know, giving us reminders of how we’re supposed to be, taking care of subsistence and taking care of our family and respecting our parents,” her granddaughter Alice Tulik said. “That’s how she would give us advice.”