Mr. Ambassador…a wedding…a birthday
What an honor it was to have the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan (a Stanford man, no-less!) pay us all a visit on one of our group training days. Very interesting discussions were held about the challenges and benefits of serving in this part of the world. We are truly at the cross-roads of Europe and Asia, not only in a geographical sense, but also in mentality. It is important to keep a focus on enhancing our mutual interests, for the betterment and benefit of all. Understanding and learning to appreciate the cultural differences, including values that our different from our own, is important—and quite fascinating.
Tomorrow I have been invited to the wedding celebration of a niece of the father of my host family. Weddings here are very lavish affairs. Every town, indeed most villages, have very elaborate “wedding palaces,” beautifully and ornately decorated halls for fabulously catered events. The wedding couple sits at the head table and is honored by hours of feasting and merry-making, singing and dancing. Marriages here are still frequently arranged, or semi-arranged. Protocol calls for the prospective groom’s family members to go calling on a prospective bride’s family for tea. (The couple is not included). If all goes well during this visit, it may be agreed upon that the couple in question may become engaged. In many families dating between a young man and woman can takes place AFTER they have become engaged in this manner, meaning the families involved have agreed to the marriage. Given that this is their custom, one can understand why family reputation, as well as individual reputation, is very important. Families will go to great lengths to preserve the reputations of their members, especially of their daughters, so that they will remain marriageable. Some of the mores imposed on young women in this society are therefore meant to preserve the family structure. We Americans might ponder that out of love for our children, we will give them the freedom to develop their individuality; Azerbaijanis might ponder that for the very same reason--out of love for their children, they will protect and control the manner in which they are raised up to, including, and even after they are married. In all societies, as here, parents want what is best for their children, but what is best in American society is not necessarily what will be viewed as what is best in this society. Growing up in Azerbaijan, children here are very well aware that their behavior and outward appearance greatly influences their reputations and the reputations of their families. As Americans, we might say, it doesn’t matter what others say or think about us, it is important that we have the freedom to do as we please. To Azerbaijanis, it does matter what others think or say, because preserving a good reputation for oneself and for the sake of the family influences the success and future of all involved. These arranged marriages and the social restrictions on young people can be viewed as trying to protect that which will enhance a young person’s opportunity to marry and to eventually have a family of his or her own. It is how they preserve their society and the social fabric of their culture that is of value to them.
Maintaining good a reputation is similar to the importance of outward appearances, which is also very important here on many levels, and this is sometimes quite a challenge. For example, in many regions of Azerbaijan, very professional attire is necessary for a classroom teacher—it shows respect for the profession, and means suits and ties for men, skirts and dress shoes for women. The challenge is that the roads are dusty and dirty in dry weather, and very muddy during winter months (few if any side-walks). Some take extra shoes along to change once at school, but there is also a small fountain on the playground, where teachers and students alike can wet a rag and wipe off the mud from their shoes or trousers before entering the school building. And just to make sure, there are the “shoe patrol” ladies by the front entrance who will reprimand and send anyone back over to the fountain if their shoes are still muddy or dirty. So far I have managed to always pass inspection, and have even been told several times I dress appropriately and professionally. Good thing I brought along those black skirts and good shoes!
Lately we have had many power outages, indeed everyday at least! The electrical infrastructure cannot handle the load, and with the weather getting colder, there are more demands. My host family’s modest home is heated by several electric space heaters, so when the electricity goes out, we lose our source of heating. The house is not insulated, and there are cracks around the door frame, so it is difficult to keep the home warm. There is a small wood burning stove in the corridor, and that does help some, but it basically just warms the entry-way. But the hearts of these people are so warm, it is easy to forget about the minor discomforts.
Today is son Mark’s birthday. My host family wanted to help me celebrate it, so in honor of Mark, the father in the family brought home a nice birthday cake from the bakery, and we sang happy birthday to Mark. What kind and thoughtful people! They wanted to wish Mark, a Californian, a happy birthday all the way from Azerbaijan! Our meal, too, was a special “birthday meal,” just for Mark; unbeknownst to me, the big chicken the mother in the family de-feathered and plucked the day before, was for the special stewed chicken dinner, which she prepared for “Mark’s birthday dinner.” The fact that I thought de-feathering and plucking a chicken (toyuq) was worthy of photos and video-taping was a source of huge amusement here.