My Trip to Azerbaijan: Part Two
|This post is dedicated to my amazing husband.|
Okay! Here follows the second installment to my Azerbaijan post, where I share those similarities I promised (you'll remember the last post highlighted a few cultural differences). I feel this post is the most important, and I'll probably write future travel posts in this fashion, because, for now, it serves my purpose, which entails bringing us closer and destroying biases one at a time. However, there may be things you read here that you won't like, that you are offended by possibly, but I hope you keep an open mind about my experiences and observations, and remember that it will never be my intention to generalize an entire population. (There are also far less jokes, but I hope you are still entertained.)
That being said...here we go!
"Bianca, how are we the same?"
1) Well, the cities are very developed, which a lot of people probably do not expect, as most everyone I've talked to in the U.S. has never even heard of Azerbaijan (chalk it up to a poor education system; some Americans today can't even recognize all the continents on a map unfortunately. If you think I'm exaggerating, watch this: link).
|This is Nizami Street in Baku. Google image search this street so you can see how pretty it is all lit up at night!|
Their cities are just like ours. They have boutiques and fancy, kitschy restaurants too. They have a nightlife culture, and plenty of young people enjoy being social. They have skyscrapers and architecturally intriguing buildings. There are beautiful parks and museums and plenty of history to explore.
|The view from my husband's aunt's balcony in Baku.|
|Posing in front of the famous Flame Towers and the Carpet Museum (yep, it's shaped like a rolled up carpet) in Baku.|
Basically, there's lots to do, but if you write off a country because you've never heard of it, you may fall prey to the idea that it has nothing to offer you, which, when it comes to Azerbaijan, that just isn't true.
|Here is "Little Venice," which you can find on the Boulevard in Baku.|
The countryside is mostly like ours too. Stunning. Mountainous and green. Azerbaijan also houses natural phenomena as awe-inspiring as any of the wonders of the world (thanks to the country's myriad natural resources), like mud volcanoes, fire springs, and continually "burning mountains."
|The view from the Kungut Resort in Sheki. More views at this spot on my IG: link.|
|Here is Yanar Dag, the burning mountains mentioned.|
|This is Yanar Bulaq, the fire spring. Hold an open flame by the spring's water, and watch it ignite (it's rich in methane is why)! Click here to be directed to my IG post about it: link.|
Hopefully, it makes your must-see destination list.
2) Gender norms and gender expectations for women are the same in Azerbaijan. Like us, they too uphold societal discrimination despite adopting progressive ideologies about gender norms nationally.
I don't want you to get the wrong idea about Azerbaijan, who granted women the right to vote a whole year before the United States did, because the truth is: As much as Americans boast about our inclusiveness, tolerance, and general modern attitude, we still uphold oppressive attitudes about women, and that's something I'm confident I'll find around most parts of the world, and did.
That being said: Azeri women in the cities look like you or me walking around Manhattan. They're fashion-forward, enjoy wearing make up, high heels (even to the mall), and experiment with different hair styles and cuts. Azerbaijan is a secular country where the predominant religion is Islam, but women rarely wear hijabs or full body coverings. If you spot a covered woman, she is most likely a Muslim Arab tourist. I actually observed that some Azerbaijanis are perturbed by the sight of a covered woman, because they feel it gives others the wrong impression about what they stand for or how far they've come. Simply put, some Azeris do not enjoy being associated with garments previously linked to female oppression.
|The Statue of a Liberated Woman (Azad Qadin) by Fuad Abdurahmanov was built in 1960 and is located in Baku. It depicts a Muslim woman ridding herself of her veil.|
Still, a too-short skirt or shorts may garner some concerned looks from aunties (auntie-aged people, not literal aunties by the way...uncles too). They won't say anything to you about it (probably not unless you are a family member), but you will feel the eyes and the judgment.
When you take into consideration how women in the villages dress, you are able to understand why these garments can be offensive. Basically, older women in these parts don head scarves around men who are not their kin, during prayer, or when they are about to take a photo. They wear dresses and skirts that hit just below the knee or longer, but that's pretty much the extent of it.
|Traditional garb from the region of Karabakh common in 18-19th century from an exhibit at the Heyder Eliyev Museum.|
For years, I learned that women were expected to become housewives and mothers. I mean, I get asked where "the baby" is every time I visit! Still, a lot of that has been changing. The vice president of Azerbaijan is a woman, after all (even if she is the president's wife...), and many women today are leading their country in political representation and educational attainment.
3) If you do go the traditional route and marry early on--heck, even if you marry later on--weddings in Azerbaijan are a huge deal--like, YUGE (*Trump voice*)!
The spectacle of marriage is taken to another level in Azerbaijan. I actually wish there was some reality show titled "Azeri Brides," just so everyone could marvel at the grandeur of it all. Massive wedding halls are lit up like nightclubs and look like castles. Then there are pounds of makeup and hairspray that transform an ordinary village girl into a soap star actress, as well as princess-worthy, poofy white dresses adorned with one red sash delicately tied around the bride's waist (a proud symbol of her virginity remaining intact)--it's awesome! (That isn't sarcasm, by the way--I'm genuinely fascinated by wedding culture and am guilty of binging Say Yes to the Dress and Four Weddings, my favorite reality wedding shows).
|A beautiful Azeri bride is like a unicorn when you spot one. This cutie, found near the Carpet Museum in Baku, was on her way to take some wedding photos. Peep her flatform tennis shoes! How funny!|
In the same way Americans spend their life savings on one special day, most Azeris go as far as using credit or taking out loans for massive receptions, ceremonies, bachelor/ bachelorette parties, and even on proposals, which traditionally entail offerings to the bride's family to gain their blessing for marriage. So much is spent on decorations, on clothes, food and gifts, and even though the frenzy is so similar to American weddings, it's less reserved, which makes it more enjoyable as a witness. Gates and doors are bedecked in ribbons and flowers where a bride lives, so you get to share in the joy of an engagement. In the countryside, entire neighborhoods are invited to celebrate, and being a part of it, randomly, as I had been when I visited last and was able to crash a bachelorette party, brings a bit of happiness to your day. I know that sounds corny, but it isn't every day you see a dolled up woman in a big poofy gown walking past you on the street, so wedding stuff is exciting for lack of a better word.
City weddings I assume are more glamorous and reserved for invited people, of course. But from what my husband's shown me on Youtube, Azeri weddings, no matter where they take place, are fun, romantic, and super impressive, what with countless ceremonies and customs that take place.
|This bride and groom are getting posing tips from their photographer.|
By the way, please click on the links and watch when you have a chance! Not only are they worth it, but they give a really clear idea about the funny, beautiful, expensive, and expert level weddings thrown by Azerbaijanis.
4) Stereotypes are alive and well in Azerbaijan too. You'll remember I mentioned how American stereotypes worked in my favor during my visits. People wanted to know me so badly they cursed the fact that there was language barrier (I felt the same actually). But, my good people, now I'm talking about negative stereotypes and straight-up discrimination.
DUN DUN DUN!
I was really nervous to share this part with you all, but I've tweaked the information enough to make this post possible. Anyway, here goes:
While traveling throughout the different regions, my family and I settled in a terrible little restaurant, which usually serves tourists, so unfortunately, the food was overpriced and sub-par. I remember everyone in my party complaining a lot about the service, about the food itself, among other things, but the worst, and most ironic, thing that occurred happened after eating.
While waiting for our chance in the restroom, my family struck up a conversation with a lady sent to clean the toilets. This cleaning lady revealed that she was also the cook--I'll let that sink in...the lady cleaning the toilets was also the chef, got it? Okay. Moving on. This lady complained about how dirty a particular group of tourists left the toilets. She even went as far as to say that "they" always left a mess on their dining plates as well. She claimed, if "they" ate neater, the restaurant would be able to save their untouched food and re-serve (!!!) it to other customers. *facepalm*
The irony is, she hadn't realized how much of a pig she revealed herself to be while pointing fingers at others. This ignorant discrimination reminded me a lot of discrimination in the States. People are always cherry-picking which tourists or immigrants are ideal, which are desired. Our own president does the same, deeming Mexicans, for example, murderous rapists, while wondering why there aren't more European tourists around.
There, I was a cool American. But tourists from this particular country are undesirable to some Azeris (some, not all). By the way, this wasn't the only instance in which I observed discrimination against this particular group of tourists (who shall remain unnamed), but if I ever want to be granted a visa in Azerbaijan again, I'll just shut up for now.
I know this bit may infuriate some of you. Usually, when a group of people is called out for some questionable behavior, we react on the defense, claiming "not all of us!" But I know that, and yet, the issue won't go away until someone instead says, "That's true. I have heard people say so. Next time I will speak up against it." Right?
No? Still hate me? Okay...
5) Superstitions! We all have them! Regardless of what your background is, nearly every culture has some superstitions, and Azerbaijan has some funny ones.
Like, if you eat all the qazmaq (rice crust), it will rain on your wedding day (everyone wants to eat the qazmaq, by the way). If your foot is itchy, you will travel. If your right ear is red, someone is speaking nice things about you, but if your left ear is red, someone is speaking bad things about you. And you shouldn't cut your nails at night (can any of my Azeri friends tell me why not?).
So many of their other superstitions are exactly like the ones I grew up hearing about. For example, a black cat passing in front of you is bad luck. If your right hand is itchy, you'll receive money, but Azeris say if your left hand is itchy, you'll lose money, ouch! If a kitchen utensil falls on the floor, you'll be visited by a guest. A fork means a male is coming, a spoon means a female, but what about a knife (murderer is my guess...)?
Additionally, if your ear is ringing, not just red, someone is talking about you. All this negative talk though! What do you do if someone is giving you the evil eye? Well, sage and salt are your friends. Simply circle a person's head with the ingredients and throw them into the fire once done. The louder the fire cracks, the more negative things were wished upon you.
When I first visited Azerbaijan as a new(ish) bride, my husband's aunt performed a version of this ritual for me. She circled my head with salt in her hand, chanting, "Goz deyenin gozu cixsin," which roughly translates to, "Let whoever gives the evil eye become blind." Now, being Latina, I'm not averse to superstitious rituals, so I was happy for the extra protection, even if I giggled bashfully the entire time.
|Please accept this awful screenshot of a video of said ritual. That's my laughing face by the way. Leave me alone!|
If it seems like I'm prattling on, when I should be tying this whole post up, it's only because I can't really think of any more HUGE ways that Azerbaijan and the US are similar, and that's because so many things are the same. If you visited Azerbaijan, other than not being able to speak the language, or having to adjust to a different type of government, you could easily assimilate to life, because things aren't drastically different (and by then, you could learn the language!).
People are just living. Living with the old ways and the new, like us. Living to eat, and work, and shop, and make art, and party, and work, and change the world!
I know this to be true, because I'm living this life, where I was fortunate enough to meet my amazing husband, an Azeri man. Despite different upbringings, cultures and religions, we have so much in common. We're best friends, and I love him deeply. If it's possible for strangers from different continents to love each other, it's possible for us to be empathetic and understand our neighbors better, close and far. Beware of stereotypes, because when it boils down to it--and I know this is going to sound cloyingly naive and simplistic--we're all just human. It's true.
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