Experiencing Azerbaijan

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Location: Kansas, United States

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

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.


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