Experiencing Azerbaijan

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Location: Kansas, United States

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.