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.