Experiencing Azerbaijan

My Photo
Location: Kansas, United States

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.