Experiencing Azerbaijan

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Location: Kansas, United States

Monday, January 24, 2011

Baku from the Boulevard: A windy night in January

To live by the sea. What a joy. Such a wonder. To walk five minutes and be beside the waves, splashing from Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, sharing with all the coastline, unknown peoples, all and each a part of the life of the water.

Tonight, the wind was up and the sea, from the Boulevard, was a thousand million waves, each one capped in white. Like a thousand million happy babies slapping water in a thousand million baths. Short, sharp waves that hit the retaining wall sending spray up and over the walk. I stood to listen. I closed my eyes and I heard each wave hit the wall, and felt the spray across my face. Each drop of the benthic mist carried the history of thousands of years, molecules of lives and ships from the bottom of the sea floor. An eternity in each drop and this great mist was upon my face.

The wind was stiff, pushing against me as I dreamed along the Boulevard. Seabirds could not light on the waves but they sailed along hoping for the chance to fish. Walkers and lovers moved against the wind, and the trees so gently bent toward the sea by warmer winds that sweep down from the peninsula onto the sea, were whipped back against the land tonight. I stopped under the trees to listen to their leaves brushed by the wind, leaves made crazy by the slapping and whoosh. New tree transplants, exotic and accustomed to hotter climates, were motionless in their protective plastic frames. “What are you trees doing here,” I asked. “Where is your sun?” Great blackened palm trees, short and stocky, all the way from Australia, or the Canary Islands, in formation, two lines, each boxed in plastic. Two fat baobao trees encased for their full twenty feet look out on pedestrians like watchers from house windows.

No vendors on the Boulevard tonight. If you need popcorn, you will have to go home and make it yourself. Cotton candy? Maybe tomorrow. Water or chocolate? Stored away for the night. The wind gusted and whipped. I pushed on and on but each step into the wind made me think of turning around. As I turned into the south walk, along the yacht basin, along the temporary ice skating rink, still not cold enough to freeze, and walked on toward the rusted heaps of discarded ships and seeing in the distance, the huge platform built for the world’s largest flag, I turned around. Enough.

To turn around, to have the wind forcing me along the smooth paving stones…step and slide, step and slide. I ran. I pulled my scarf off. I ran more, and took my coat off. There was little cold; there was only a great moist wind. There was one star. There were no low lying clouds.

I knew the ships were out there, over the horizon. No lights visible. But yesterday, the ships lined the horizon, dividing water and sky with their great hulking angles. All anchored into the wind like great metallic cows. Yesterday, nine ships, tankers, sat and waited. Three hours out by boat are the offshore oil rigs. Manned by workers from across the world, two weeks on, two weeks off. Or one month on and one month off. Men from other planets, it seems. Men who have been rooted then uprooted from Egypt or Louisiana or Brazil or Scotland. Strangers in a strange sea.

Landward, new construction. Flame Baku, or Baku Flame, grey glass towers that rise over thirty stories into the air. Every day, another row of glass panes are fixed to their anchors. In the fog of cool seaside evenings, in the haze of sunset, the top floors are obscured. Cranes swing around to the men, but the men are invisible. Shouts from heaven, might as well be. And the fog softens every line, every corner, and Baku becomes a fairy land. Behind, in the east, along the arm that reaches out, hooks and holds the sea to the bosom of the city, so to speak, is Xetai region. It is a hook with city dwellers, apartment buildings, houses and, thousands of windows that, from across the bay, unbelievably reflect the setting sun that peeks out from between the flame named buildings and the fire of the sun lights those thousands of windows setting the land alive with a red orange brilliance. It is captivating.

On the Boulevard. Lovers and loners, young and old, mothers and fathers, endless children, the fat and the skinny, the fur coated and the thinly jacketed. Poor and hungry, rich and overfed. The loud and the quiet. The aggressive and the shy, those born with a cell phone stuck to their ears, modest women arms linked with complacent men, bleached blondes with massive chests, tight jeans and pointed heels. Criminals. Toughs. “Stay out of my way” men. Self conscious gangs of boys, supporting and shaping each other into the future generation of husbands and fathers. Flocks of girls, smiling and trying not to glance at the boys but hoping, all the same, to be noticed. All these against the backdrop of an eternal sea, against a thousand million waves, capped with white.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


need to say that one of the photos is from Yemen, not Azerbaijan. Not sure how to remove the photo of the men wearing the Yemeni knives at their waists. It belongs to the Yemen group.

There are many elements of this culture that I envy and admire and I particularly admire the spiritual homogeneity. January 21 was Gurban, the holiday when Muslims celebrate the sacrifice that Abraham intended with his son Isaac, and the salvation of Isaac by the lamb appearing in the nearby brush. Every Muslim family that is able, buys a lamb, or cow in some cases, and slaughters the lamb. They eat the lamb and give portions to the poor. I was actually leaving Azerbaijan on that day and I imagined that I could hear from the airplane the collective bleating of hundreds of thousands of sacrificial sheep. So, I did not get to experience this sacred holiday in person but I did see a video of the celebration made by my host family in Baku. Brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins congregated and watched the lamb become sacrifice gurban. One man took blood from the lamb and made a mark on the children’s foreheads; this will help them to not be fearful of the threatening things in life.

I think one of the reasons the society can be so openly passionate is that, for the most part, they share the same religion. In the last letter I described Gurban. If a person does not celebrate Gurban, they must still accept the celebration because the manifestations can not be avoided. I spent the eve of Gurban in Baku. When I am in Baku, I rent an apartment that happens to be across the street from the British Embassy. Tethered in this street, near the heart of the downtown, was a sheep that bleated all night. This sheep was awaiting its role of sacrifice on January 21st. Now, if I had been home in Lawrence and I heard a sheep crying all night, I would call the police. I would not think, “Oh, Gurban is so important I must tolerate this sheep crying all night.” On the tail of this holiday, is Maharamlik, the holiday that memorializes the death of Ali, the grandson of Mohammed. The Azeri Shia Islamic world memorializes his death every year for 50 days. There is the 40 day standard period of mourning, then 10 more days for a purpose I don’t quite understand. Also, no weddings are held during this time so now that it is over, there are weddings every day. A happy time. I find it interesting that a 40 day time period occurs in so many religious ceremonies.

I will sign off now. It is possible that this will be my last letter home. I may be home a bit earlier than anticipated…maybe early June, or mid June. I have applied for another location with this program for next year. IF I am rehired, I may go to another former Soviet Republic or the Near East, Inshallah. I hope you have enjoyed the letters.

Personal Space

I am melancholy because I have learned that my position here in Lenkoran will not be renewed next year, and that is causing me see the culture as though I were beginning again. I am remembering all the things I wanted to tell you but forgot. Suddenly it seems critical that I haven’t told you how the men stand around in the streets eating sunflower seeds—how the hulls pile up so that you can see that the men have been standing there for hours. How the women layer themselves in scarves that become ‘medicine’ when wrapped around their middle, as in the case of my landlady, or become coats on a brisk day, or become a shield against wind, rain, or prying eyes…and a thousand other details like the herds of sheep and cows or goats or water buffalo I pass on the road to Baku with the shepherds in close attendance. Or how the bazaar is a riot of color with women in brightly colored headscarves, green and orange vegetables, brown ducks and white geese, apples of every color, potatoes in red net bags, small purple onions woven together into ten pound bunches. It is not beautiful because it is surrounded with the grime of age but it is totally alive.

The bazaar is also a place of frequent arguments -- a taxi runs over a basket of carrots or the fish wives that crowd the intersection trespass on their neighbor’s square foot of road. This is a volatile, passionate society. Conversations are loud, gestures are wild and abrupt, arguments are frequent. Body language is intense, and personal space is very, very small. I was visiting Javid’s extended family; the household consists of the grandmother, two sons, their wives, children, and one unmarried daughter. The night I was there, another sister was visiting, so there were 15 of us having tea and torte. Two of the sisters were talking. After a few minutes, Javid turned to me and said, “They aren’t arguing. They are just talking.” They talk in loud voices… almost everyone does. After Abigail and I visited Javid’s family, he told us that his family commented that Abigail and I talk so softly to each other. Also, the people like to be close to each other when talking. One of the reasons, and there are many, that I hate the big busses is that after a couple hours on the road, several of the men have made their way to the front of the bus to smoke or talk and there may be six or seven men in the small area beside the driver—just inches away from my seat. They are smoking, arguing, talking laughing, eating sunflower seeds and they lean into me when the bus rounds a curve. If I try to shove them away, they just laugh. We foreigners are so funny.

Becoming Azeri...

I have been in Azerbaijan eight months and the edge is definitely off the problems of daily life. In the early days, I wrote a nightly journal just to maintain some order in my life. The act of arranging the candle, the paper, the pen, focusing on the culture, and writing down the daily events was calming. More than once Elchin, my Azeri student in the conversation groups at KU, told me that the first five months of his stay in the U.S. were excruciatingly long but the last five months flew by. I am finding my perception of time here is similar. The first two months of my time here were the longest months of my life. I had decided that I must have had a stroke that altered my perception of time. Really. Now, the time flies and I am making a list to make sure I get everything done and I am worrying about the writing classes wondering if we can get everything written … and of course, nothing has changed except ME. I showed up half an hour late last week to meet Elchin and he agreed that maybe I was becoming a little Azeri.

I will also miss the sea. I went to the sea tonight. The hour was almost sunset. I sat on the retaining wall and ahead of me the sparse clouds were pink and orange and behind me, the young greening trees were silhouetted against the sunset colors reflected in the clouds above the western mountains. I was under a canopy of color and that color too, was reflected onto the sea which glowed a metallic coral. Tonight the sea’s horizon was indigo. The wind was slight so the waves were gentle and made a hissing splash as they met the boulders at the base of the wall. It is so strange that I have lived most of my life far from such a body of water, and now I don’t know if I can ever live far away from a sea again. It is like space or green grass or blue sky—we have deep needs for such things and sometimes we are not aware of them until we lose them or discover them. Now I know I need the sea.

Emerging Theories on Laundry

I have to return to the dirty towel line of thought though because towels are at the center of my Emerging Theories on Laundry: a dry towel feels less dirty than a wet towel; the remaining soap in not quite rinsed clothing repels dirt; the small spot of chicken grease will not be noticed; I think I can wear this shirt again; the socks are, after all, a long way from my nose. I admit that my attitudes toward cleanliness, along with my attitudes towards other habits of my American life, have taken a beating here. Is cleanliness relevant in this troubled world? We can take it as given that I am, was, a clean person. Doing laundry was my favorite chore at home. I loved my organized laundry room, and I loved the time I spent in peaceful solitude reading care labels, sorting, determining color fastness, and above all, the neat, precise folding—I was more a Clothing Control Officer. And I was quite fanatical concerning kitchen towels. I had a lot of rules relating to the segregated use or multi-use of kitchen towels; I don’t want to list them…“her poor children” you would think, and you would be right.

Present circumstances have forced a change. The same three pink, blue and white towels hang in the kitchen day after day, week after week, because towels are tough to wash by hand, really very tedious, and if you don’t get them clean, what is the point? They are already somewhat dirty and why scrub the knuckles raw, if in the end, all you have is a not quite clean towel. That is a dilemma for nervous people, and to survive, I have swung the other way, and that shift in thinking is responsible for Emerging Theories on Laundry…I am, I suppose, much like a ‘think tank’ at Proctor and Gamble—only less productive and more realistic—with the result that my kitchen is enshrined with spotty towels, my tea cup reeks of lavender and my face smells slightly of cabbage.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Azeri Wedding

Weddings are another cultural event where I see a closeness and companionship that I envy. I have been to five weddings. That is a monumental number for the average westerner but does not come close to a nearby Peace Corps Volunteer who has been to forty five. Never mind that. I have yet to describe a wedding because they tend to be formulaic and I don’t want to write A Typical Azeri Wedding. Weddings are major social events. They are loud and long and tedious. They are also filled with love and good will and hope. Last week I was at the wedding of one of my student’s cousins. There were twenty three tables, twelve people seated at each table, and very few empty chairs. I sat facing a table of ten men. I watched them talking and hugging each other. I watched the endless toasts when the men from the further reaches awkwardly stretched forward to tap glasses of vodka at each toast. One man often wrapped his arm around his friend’s shoulder and leaned into a confidence or as much of a confidence is possible when the music is at a very non-traditional, augmented volume.

The weddings are ALL like this, varying only in whether the women sit with the men from the beginning, or are segregated for the meal and join the men later, and in the quantity and quality of dishes served. When I sat down at this last wedding, there were nineteen different dishes on each end of the table so, thirty eight dishes of food, and twelve bottles of drinks, everything from carbonated water to vodka. There were salads and pickled vegetables, cold cuts, baked fish and baked chicken, cheeses and greens, radishes and caviar. The bread was brought to us fresh; our dirtied plates were frequently changed, and we sat and plowed through the thirty eight dishes. All this time, the music is loud and constant. I am a rare person I like the music. I love the traditional instruments. When the music becomes too modern, or too synthesized, I think of leaving. Dancers slowly come to the floor and at first they are typically the younger women. They dance in the way we westerners have seen in movies and cartoons sinuous, with delicate wrist and finger revolutions that are seductive in their subtlety. Eventually the young men join the dance and display their rapid foot movements. Older women sway and twist gracefully and finally, the old men who have been making vodka toasts for three hours, take to the floor. I asked a friend, Do many old men die at weddings? Their faces are florid and flushed even their friends who stand by only watching seem in imminent danger of collapse. And here again is the sameness of this traditional society in the dance because everyone dances in the same manner. Some are better, some feet zip back and forth faster, some women undulate their shoulders more enticingly but still, it is the same dance. I love it, and I wonder how long would it take to become Azeri.

I have introduced the wedding but I have not described how in the afternoon the extended family of the groom drives to the bride’s house, a chosen male relative ties the ‘bundle,’ a length of red, crocheted ribbon, around the bride to show she is a virgin. The bride takes her place in a car and the procession drives around the town honking and waving. The wedding procession that I was a part of here in Lenkoran included over forty cars. We took the bride to the groom’s home where all the women, about one hundred or more, took turns having their picture taken with the bride, and you might imagine that her smile was becoming a bit fixed near the middle of this duty. Sometimes, the groom and bride have one joint wedding, but often there are separate ceremonies. If the group of family and friends is large, there must be two weddings in order to fit all the people into the wedding ‘palace.’ This wedding was the groom’s wedding so his friends and his side of the family tootled off to the wedding palace where the women were crowded into a small dining room, and the men drank and smoke in the big room filled with men and smoke and music. After three hours, the women joined the men and the dancing began in earnest. It was a long day.

Death, Taxes and Class Schedules

The Spring Term has begun, and Friday I had an interesting conversation with my university counterpart and translator. For the second day of Spring Term, no students came. I was a little exasperated when I asked him,"Rafael Mallim, do you think the students will come on Monday?" He gave a long, thoughtful pause then said, "God knows." I was laughing, but he went on. "It is not for us to say or for them to say what will happen on Monday. It is up to heaven. Do you understand? It is circumstances that will cause them to come or not to come. It is for us to be here. It does not matter whether or not the students come. It does not matter if we teach. What matters is that we are here." I don’t have to tell you all that this is not the American way. Ohhhhhh, what can I say. This place is so strange sometimes. Students do not select their courses. If they are Freshman English Pedagogy students, they will take a fixed set of classes, no options and no electives. The university schedules five time slots a day, and my students told me last semester that they do not like to come for the 3rd hour which begins at 12:10. When I asked about my spring schedule, the timekeeper suggested Monday through Thursday, 3rd hour. I declined. The timekeeper also suggested I wear lipstick because I am too pale! The two women in the office first translated, and then agreed with him. Yes, you should. He knows. It will be better. Honestly! Can you imagine going into the Registrar’s office at Kansas University and the registrar gives you your schedule, and then says, By the way, that hair style does not suit your face. You should have it cut and maybe get some highlights.

These episodes are what make me curious about this culture and, I have to admit, make me love the culture too. This timekeeper, or registrar to give him what would be his American title, is Tofiq Mallim (Tofiq Teacher), and he is the man with the power and he decides ‘who, when and where.’ For the first few weeks of school, I tried to organize a lunch or a visit a tea house with my students. What I didn’t know was that the students’ classes are scheduled on a daily basis. I would ask, Are you free on Thursday at 1:00? and I got the same answer every time: We don’t know. You must ask again on Thursday. I had a difficult time with this concept and it was not stubbornness that kept me asking but sheer simple mindedness. I would ask again, Are you free on Tuesday at 2:00?...or Wednesday at 10:00? Finally, one student said, Don’t you understand, we don’t know our schedule! Another student chimed in, Yes, teacher. Only God and Tofiq Mallim know our schedule. Then the realist student said, And sometimes only Tofiq Mallim knows. They did not mean to be funny but I appreciated the comic relief.

Snow in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is one of the former Soviet republics, and like some of the other recently independent nations, the country’s infrastructure is crumbling. Outside the capital city, electricity is not consistently available. In the capital city, there are also problems; some neighborhoods have electricity but have water for only six or seven hours a day. Here in the far south we usually have water but we have only anywhere from thirty seconds to three hours of electricity a day. Tonight we have no electricity, and the entire city is dark. The sky is solid gray, pallid with unshed moisture. When I look out from my second story window, I see the pale glow of kerosene lamps in a few scattered windows. Those dim lonely lights make the rest of the world seem murky, almost as though we were under water. There is no reflected light, and it is such a heavy crushing grayness, it makes me feel that there is no light anywhere.

Tropical Snow has taken on has taken on new meaning for me. It is no longer the little booth on Iowa Street where in mid summer we can pull up in our cars, hop out and get a coconut or grape or cherry pile of shaved ice and for a few moments beat the heat of a Kansas summer. Now, tropical snow is the heavy white stuff that falls from the colorless sky, settles on the palm trees, and breaks the branches of cedar trees and even the saplings because it is so weighty and wet. It is not gentle; it does not suggest nursery rhymes or poems. It freezes and it takes what little heat remains in this world, and buries it deep under the forbidding drifts. I did not know I should carry an umbrella against this unnatural force and the flakes pressed down on my eyelashes and melted into large puddles on my face.

This evening, after a somewhat warmer day, the great mats of rooftop snow are sliding down my tin roof. Minuscule avalanches thunder and echo in my cavernous palace of an apartment. The courtyard is two feet deep in snow; the path to the tandoor oven is six feet deep in snow because it is a repository for rooftop slides. Snow is disruptive here; it keeps the students home. It is not a truth of nature that one must overcome snow as we Americans overcome ice or floods; I think the people here save that heroic spirit to battle the summer heat and humidity. The snow keeps people home, hovering near a stove. I don’t blame them. No public space is heated; our classrooms are not heated. My classroom has a gap a foot long and over an inch wide where the floor has warped away from the wall and the stucco that covered the building has decayed away. Daylight, snow, nippy breezes, rain, insects all are free to enter and exit.

And, I am cold. I am not alone in this. Many people are cold. I finally donned the long underwear for regular daytime use. I did this four days ago and I have not had it off since. I am, in fact, collapsing into a black hole of black wool. I have worn the same two black wool sweaters and the same black wool pants and the same black wool socks for four days. Try not to think too hard about this. When I go out, I wear my black wool-lined coat and my long black wool scarf. I can not bear even the idea of the cold vulnerability of changing clothes. Lynne told me that she had recently visited another Peace Corps Volunteer in western Azerbaijan. The two of them were discussing the cold weather and laughing about how they sleep in their clothes and sometimes in their coats. Then they began counting the items of clothing they were wearing at that moment: they each had on twelve pieces of clothing. Here, the cold is the result not so much of a low degree as it is the humidity and the damp is penetrating. We are cold, but at my regional meeting in Turkey last week, I met English Language Fellows who are posted in Russia and they talked about temperatures of 40 degrees below zero.

So what, you may be asking, is YOUR problem? Nothing! Nothing at all, and thank you for asking! There are many elements of this culture that I envy and admire and I particularly admire the spiritual homogeneity. January 21 was Gurban, the holiday when Muslims celebrate the sacrifice that Abraham intended with his son Isaac, and the salvation of Isaac by the lamb appearing in the nearby brush. Every Muslim family that is able, buys a lamb, or cow in some cases, and slaughters the lamb. They eat the lamb and give portions to the poor. I was actually leaving Azerbaijan on that day and I imagined that I could hear from the airplane the collective bleating of hundreds of thousands of sacrificial sheep. So, I did not get to experience this sacred holiday in person but I did see a video of the celebration made by my host family in Baku. Brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins congregated and watched the lamb become sacrifice gurban. One man took blood from the lamb and made a mark on the children’s foreheads; this will help them to not be fearful of the threatening things in life.

Friday, January 28, 2005

new photos

Monday, January 17, 2005

After the New Year...

I have just returned from an hour at the seaside. I watched the changing light and the way the changing light reflects off the water. In the building cloudy sky, the light on the water looked like molten lead. The surface of the water gave the impression of being a flexible solid that I could have slid upon were I so inclined. Two ducks were riding the waves. Oh, to be a duck on the Caspian Sea! To be intimate with that water and survive! Last week Sharabani Hanam's grandson was here and he was gracious enough to take me to the sea side after dark.the moon and the stars and the sea.so very beautiful.

Today when I arrived back from my walk, the landlady gave me a bowl of borscht for my supper. I was cooking a chicken, but I put the chicken aside and had the borscht and a bowl of yesterday's yogurt for supper. Ihave talked about the food here before. The food is delicious-bread being the most extraordinary-let us call bread (corek) `10,' and radish greens (turp) stewed with rice `1.' I would give the rice (plof) a `9,' though I know there would be substantial debate on my scoring of the bread and rice. Food here is a passion; it is not something that people eat to stop from being hungry. Last week I went to a student's home for supper. This is thefamily where I often eat so we are all comfortable with each other. His mother made buranyi plof, one of my favorites. Buranyi is a mild, sweet, delicious squash. It is steamed and served diced with plof. Plof is buttered rice and sometimes made with gazmaq-an egg and yogurt concoction placed at the bottom of the rice pot and, when cooked, is browned into a rich, satisfying chewy mass. Anyway, I ate two admittedly smallish plates of buranyi plof but the family urged me on and on. When I turned my head to the TV (Vengeance or Clone.I don't remember which), the father scooped more plof onto my plate. Ahhhhh!! Baste.enough! The mother sat with a sad look on her face: Janet doesn't like my buranyi plof, my student translated. One day at school I mentioned to this student that I was going home for lunch and that lunch would be cheese and an apple. What else would I eat, Cavid asked. Nothing, I said. Oh, teacher, that is not good.that is not enough you must have something more.

And I can tell you about another conversation stopper. I was visiting with my landlady's family, the grandson previously mentioned and his family, in Baku. Since I am talking about food, I have to describe my visits here. When I arrive, tea is immediately served. Tea, cakes, jam, fruit, cookies and candy. We dally over the tea and eventually stop eating. The mother clears the table and I goof around with the kids and while we are playing, the mother is fixing the meal. After an hour or so, she calls us to come eat. We dally over the meal and eventually stop eating. We clear the table and immediately the mother brings out the tea and cakes, jam and fruit, cookies and candy. I have never stayed for two meals in one day so I don't know if we would repeat this series endlessly or if we would have a three or four hour break. So, that sets the stage. Last week, we were eating, as usual. My entire wardrobe was becoming uncomfortably tight, again, and I had been dieting during the previous week. I told the grandson, "I haven't eaten bread or rice for one week." "What?!" "I haven't eaten bread or rice for one week." This simply could not be taken in. "What did you say?" "No bread, no rice for one week." "You have not eaten bread or rice for one week?" "No!" His expression was priceless-total disbelief. He turned and told his mother. He had to repeat himself to her also. When she understood she looked at me and HER expression was priceless. I could not have excited more shock and disbelief if I had said I was a secret agent from the moon.

Well, I did go on about the food but it is a problem. I was talking to Lynne, the Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in a nearby village. She lives with a family and this family has three or four `gunags,' or get-togethers, at their home every week. This is a bit wearing on Lynne who before joining the Peace Corps lived alone. I asked her just what it is about these frequent parties that most bothers her. She said she could sit with the group-15 to 20 people-and enjoy part of the evening, but that the grandma and everyone else kept trying to get her to eat and when she said "No" to something, they said, Don't you like it? Oh, Lynne doesn't like my________. Because of the language problem, Lynne tries to knit during these parties so she can be with the people but not frustrated out of her skin by trying to understand and talk to 20 people speaking a different language. Lynne is trying to count stitches and people keep putting plates of food in front of her and she loses count. It is a little funny, but I do feel for her. If I hear of a deranged woman with knitting needles chasing a group of Talysh women around the village streets of Vilvan, I will immediately know who it is.

Most all fresh food is bought at the bazaar and I braved the muddied, cobbled streets today for provisions. Most vendors are honest but I sometimes feel that I have been cheated because I am a westerner. And I don't know if I have been cheated or if they are just laughing at the stranger with the funny haircut and the shiny new zambil, the indispensable, woven shopping basket. I have narrowed my choice of vendors which makes shopping much more convenient and eliminates the feeling that I am an object of a private joke. I go to the same woman for apples and she calls me her sister. I go to another woman for parsley, cilantro and dill. Her greens are usually fresh and because I always go to her, she picks out the best looking bunches for me. I have a choice vendor for mandarins and cucumbers. I quit going to the crazy onion man and found another seller for large, solid yellow onions. The small red onions I will still buy from anyone. Recently I found a good vendor for nuts and dried apricots. Today I bought a pound, actually, a half kilo, of dried apricots, a half kilo of shelled English walnuts, and a quarter kilo of hazelnuts. He assured me that they were all "yakshi" or `good.' The cost, by the way, was less than seven dollars. This young man is very nice and remembered me from the week before. I have the feeling that if I am a regular customer, I can trust him. Across the aisle from this young man is my new, favorite vendor-the butter man. Previously, I have bought butter by the ½ inch block at the shop down the street.In truth, I don't need to be so cautious in buying a quantity of butter as it lasts a long time on my kitchenshelf-the kitchen being almost as cold as a refrigerator. But, while doing my holiday baking, I started buyingbutter by the kilo and found this man at the bazaar. He looks like a Balkan/Azeri version of Bud Abbot of Abbot and Costello, and I like his smile. The situation with this `Abbot' is a culture issue that I really didn't anticipate: strangers touching my food. And it isn't just Abbot touching my food; it is the question of what else he has touched before he touched my food. Ok, I don't want to get lost in this endless circle. What I see in front of me is enough. He licks his finger to get a grip on the plastic bag, wiggles an opening then blows into the bag to open it. He uses a fantastic yet simple tool to cut the butter.a string tied between two narrow wooden handles. He estimates the proper weight then garrotes off almost exactly the correct amount. He delicately shaves a bit off or a bit on, and it is his delicacy of movement and his obvious love of butter that keeps me coming back because as many of you know, I too love butter. He wraps my purchase; I pay; he gives me a smile and a slight bow as I take the butter and carefully place it into my zambil. I suppose bread suffers the most from touch. Everyone gives the bread a squeeze before buying. I do. The vendor may give it a squeeze to advertise its quality. Customers squeeze the bread to see if it is hot or crusty or stale. A customer at a tandoor bakery will go down the line of loaves pressing each until she reaches the loaf that meets her particular needs. Bread, unless it is cold, is not sold in plastic bags. If I plan to go to my favorite tandoor bakery I take a small cloth to wrap around the bread to carry. If I stop on impulse, they give me a piece of newspaper to protect my hands from the hot bread. Or my favorite thing to do is to buy the bread straight out of the oven and hold it gingerly, passing it from hand to hand, tearing off the crusty bubbled edge.

Well, dear friends, this is the point where I must stop.unless I take a break and wait for more inspiration. After a recent deluge, yesterday was sunny and today looks like it might be the same. What do sunny days mean here? It means that one does laundry because it might get dry on the same day. I washed clothes yesterday morning; today I will wash towels. There is no hot water from the tap so I heat the water, mix it with the very cold tap, and scrub a dub dub. I will only mention that I take "showers" the same way. This subject leads to the title of my next letter: From Clean to Cleanish-One Woman's Story.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Day of Knowledge

This is a very big moment in Azeriland. I am sending this email from home and I am about as excited as I can get. Last night I began this letter at my favorite Internet Klub.

I began by saying: I am inside my favorite Internet Klub and outside the generators are humming. The door is shut, almost tight and on the television is yet another program of live, traditional music--my favorite three culture ingredients: noise, heat and exhaust. And that is about where I got to when the generator failed, again, the computer crashed and with it, my momentum for writing. Along with those feelings came the realization that it was time to get it together at home. I went along today to someone who helped me get my "first time internet user" card installed, got the value installed and here I am. Some time has passed since I last wrote.

There is no one big reason but many small reasons that seem to erode my determination. I have been in Lenkoran for seven weeks, two days, fourteen hours and thirty seven seconds. Just kidding about the seconds. We have moved from the dregs of summer to the approach of autumn and as in Lawrence, the change was signaled with rain, damp and a radical drop in night time temperatures. The days are still slightly muggy. The university here is not quite what I expected nor hoped for. They have a markedly different attitude toward classes and schedules. And, I have to say that many of the students have achieved 4th level (senior) through the standard means of bribes to the teachers. This is perfectly acceptable here. It is ingrained, inseparable from the culture. Fortunately, I am not subject to this system because I apparently do not have to give grades.

For the two weeks preceding the beginning of school, I made occasional inquiries as to my schedule. It’s OK. Don’t worry. Next Monday. Or Tomorrow. Or Probably next Friday. The word from the Rector was that I would teach 4th level speaking. Great. Exactly what I would have chosen. Each week, Professor Kamal told me, through an interpreter, The Rector says you will teach 4th level speaking. On the Tuesday before the Wednesday of the first day of classes, I asked again about my schedule and Kamal said they had to learn what I was teaching. I said, The Rector said 4th level speaking. Ah, yes. He said that over the phone but he has to come here and say it. At last the Rector arrived and said in person I would teach 4th level speaking. Good. Can you give me my schedule? Relax! Later we will go down the hall and you will know your schedule. This is the day before school is to begin. Sure enough we went down the hall to see the man who creates the schedule. He works in pencil and paper and creates the schedule for all the teachers and students in my division--English. And, he creates this schedule on a weekly basis and sometimes on a daily basis.

In the two and a half weeks of classes, I have been in three different rooms, had four different schedules, and had my classes cancelled twice, without any notice, because of ‘special’ speakers who came from the capital city to lecture, in English, for three hours. Both times, I began my class on schedule. The first time a student popped in and said they all had to go for an English lecture. OK. The second time, the speaker himself popped in looking for someone to lecture to. I gave him my classroom and students.

But these disorienting events occurred after the opening Day of Knowledge. School began on September 15 with the Day of Knowledge assembly led by the Rector. The Rector belongs to that class of old men often described by a word that personally, I don’t use, but the word rhymes with Bart. The Rector couldn’t decide if he wanted to have the assembly in the open area at our classroom building or in the large auditorium next door to his office, one mile from the classroom building. At least that was the game. Just in case, we were to report to the classroom building and if the rector didn’t show, we would all hustle into taxis, or for those without funds, walk to the auditorium. At 9:00, the word came that we should go to the auditorium and when we arrived, we found the place in full meeting regalia - flowers, chairs for the distinguished whomevers, podium, sound system etc. In other words, there was never any conflict as to the location. It was intended to be held at the auditorium all along. There is talent and knowledge among the teachers of this university but you would never know it from the attitude of the Rector. Two teachers arrived late. Actually, everyone arrived late because of the Bart’s fickleness. But, the Rector broke off his speech to chastise, publicly, over the loud speaker, the two teachers who arrived late: How can you expect our students to arrive on time when even you can’t arrive on time; you should be more responsible!

The Rector opened the assembly with a full minute of silence in remembrance of the former president, Heydar Aliyev. The memory of this man is reaching epic proportions and billboards with his smiling face are everywhere. The bus route to Baku passes through a very small town that has a brand new Heydar Aliyev museum. The stucco is painted a very unsuitable bright yellow; I don’t look for the brightness to remain in this humid, dirty area. There are three billboards of Aliyev in this town,and there are scores in Baku and across the country side.

After the minute of reverence, the sound crew pushed the cassette button to begin the national anthem. The cassette must have been quite old and dirty because from the beginning, the music sagged and lagged. It is a very long song. After about two minutes, the sound crew began exchanging glances. You know how it is when we Americans are listening to our anthem being sung in person, and the tune is getting ready to switch to that impossibly high part? You know we share questioning looks and when the singer deals with the leap by changing keys, we waggle our eyebrows and have a moment of silent sympathy? Well, the looks were flying. The audience was still trying to appear somber, after all, the Rector was at the podium looking somber AND looking out at the audience of teachers, but some of us were losing it. I was losing it. Finally the music reached a stage where it no longer even resembled its original self. The Rector gave an evil look at the crew, and one brave man reached across and abruptly switched the machine off. We were about ten minutes into the assembly and I needed to lean back and have a good laugh but I couldn’t, I really shouldn’t.

After some speech making with the woman next to me trying simultaneous translation in my ear and my finally saying, please don’t bother, I was distracted by the arrival of the press. The press, in this case, was one man with a rumpled suit, a large video camera, and a big behind. He was very late! He hustled to the front, and right right in front of the stage, he launched the camera onto his shoulder, shaped himself into a rigid form, and focused on the Rector. Incredibly, this made the Rector nervous. He previously ran through the words with obvious practice but now he stumbled and referred to his notes and appeared disconcerted.

I swear the mind boggles when I think of watching a video of this loony production. Watching in person with all the pleasurable distractions of cell phones ringing, complaints, grunts and sneezes was barely endurable. To watch a video, taped from the shoulder of a late and penitent pressman simply could not be done. I imagined a small dusty room where the sacred videos were kept and the old Bart casually entering on Saturdays after a week of work, pulling down a black grimy case and slipping it into the VCR. But, save your sympathy. There is no electricity; there will be no rerun.

And speaking of electricity, I am definitely pressing my luck. Happily I woke up early today. I heard the 6:22 call to prayer, and when the electricity came on, I grabbed the laptop and powered up. It is only the two or three hours in the morning that the electricity is strong enough to run the computer or charge my cell phone. Still, am not sure how I will get this into an email but at least I will have a letter to send when I figure out how to send it. I can see now, in the light of the next day, that this letter ends rather abruptly. I wanted to talk about the busses and how many sheep and shepherds we almost ran over and how many ducks we almost ran over and the cars we almost crashed into-I don't include the semi trailer we almost bashed into because that would have been a GENUINE accident--that was almost caused by the bus driver when he leaned over to light a cigarette and check the cassette--whereas the other accidents were almost caused by maniac drivers. I also wanted to talk about the delicious cherry preserves I was enjoying and delicately spit out what I thought was a piece of stem but it turned out to be a complete honey bee, legs and all.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Birthday Cake

My landlady's family lives in the capital, Baku, and when we met here in Lenkoran, they took a liking to me and hoped that I would come to Baku and celebrate my bday at their home. We had a couple weeks to get to "know" each other and they reiterated the invitation so I finally took it as serious. I say "know" because only the 17 year old son speaks English and the rest of us just smile at each other. I took a liking to them also so I went. They made--the mother made--dolma, stuffed grape leaves. delicious. AND a cake with my name on it! Being a mother for many years means that I have made a lot of cakes with other names on them but as far as I recall, this was a first with my name. So, in itself, that was very sweet. Then, when I began to cut it, they sang happy birthday in english. I cried...very embarassing, and it made the son quite sad thinking I was quite sad. So, that was my birthday and very nice it was. A.'s birthday is the 22nd and my friend Elchin and I went to a western bar in Baku and drank a Guiness to celebrate her birthday and that was fun too.

Thursday, there was a party for teachers new to Azerbaijan so went to that. Friday I can't remember. Saturday I shopped then my friend Elchin, the landlady's 17 year old grandson, Kamran, and I went to the cat restaurant. They make a delicious cat. Actually, I insisted that Elchin order the sturgeon kabob so I could toss my share to the two sweet cats who sit on the retaining wall by the restaurant. The first time at that restaurant, I fed the cats and I am not saying the cats are brilliant BUT long before the waiter brought fish and the only dishes on the table were fresh and pickled salads, the cats came and sat on the wall beside our table.

Then, instead of taking the nasty, rotten, terrible, horrible bus home, I took the train and sat in the first class compartment (an unnecessary luxury because they play the TV at record breaking volume in EVERY car). The train takes a little over 6 hours, the bus about 5 1/2 so...The downside is that there is only one train at 8:25 am and one at 11:pm. There are busses of one sort or another about every 20 minutes--as soon as they fill up.

As for current information, I have rec'd mail from grandma, spices from C. and ear plugs from M. Recd all on same day! But let me tell you this little story. When I got home from work, the letter and package from charlie were there. I pay a 60cent delivery charge but since I wasn't there, I went to the post office with the receipt to pay the 60cents. I went to the main post office. Ah, wrong post office. The man, speaking louder and louder, repeated himself motioning for me to go elsewhere. By chance, another employee was passing by so my clerk motioned for me to follow the 2nd clerk. OK. I followed through hallways and down stairs out to a car! He motioned for me to get in. I asked if tomorrow was OK but no. So in I got and we tore off through town and he takes me to a tiny post office near my school. He comes in also, I pay my 60cents (3 thousand Manat, by the way) and as I am walking out, they yell at me. I return to the counter and there is the envelope from Millie! The 2nd clerk has actually brought it in his hand in the car from the other post office. I pay another 60cents (not a delivery fee, I guess). Then I go back to the car, but NO>>>>...no ride back! Too funny. I had to take a taxi back to the town center.

I am thinking of exchanging Azeri/English lessons with a group of 3 girls who have pretty good english but want to improve in order to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) so they can study in the US. Two have already spent one high school year in Kansas! Now, they want to go to college there. I can not tell you how frustrating my university is, and not only for me but for other teachers. Two of my classes were cancelled last week without notice. When I asked another teacher about it, he said it is not uncommon. OK. The top student in the Top Students Association has been to class once. Of the approximately 12 students who have come to class (I can not comment on the 14 who have never come) about 4 can not answer 3 simple questions in English (and I know what I am doing). Yesterday, in the first half hour, I had 8 interruptions--6 of which were students coming in late. Today I had a class with three students, a fourth one came 20 minute late. He sat there for 5 minutes, received a phone call, then said, "May I go. I must go to my friend's party." The Peace Corps guy said if you get heavy handed and say no one can come in late, the student will just go get some administrator who will come back with him and make you let him in. AND, just for something to ponder, the entire schedule of 4th year students AND teachers is worked out on paper by pencil by one man WEEK BY WEEK!! Bad for the blood pressure. Still, all is well. Went to bazaar today, got fresh veges awaiting and fresh bread from the tandoor oven.