Experiencing Azerbaijan

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Location: Kansas, United States

Sunday, May 01, 2005

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.


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