The Same, and yet Different…
In some ways it seems like Christmas is around the corner—and in many ways, not. In this predominately Muslim country, Christmas is not celebrated, but in the local bazaar you might think otherwise. Plastic ‘Christmas Trees’ are for sale, tree decorations and lights, as wells as Santa costumes—albeit a bit scrawnier than the American counterparts. Even before Azerbaijan was one of the republics of the Soviet Union, this region of the world was always under great influence from Russia. Hence, many winter-time customs are partially borrowed from Russian Christmas customs. My host family has a lovely little tree in the corner of the living room that the children decorated with typical Christmas ornaments last Sunday—plastic stars, santas, bells, gingerbread houses, globes, and tree lights—but as they explained to me, it is their ‘New Year’s Tree.’ The ‘santa’ here is referred to here as Şaxta Baba (Shakhta or Schachta Baba) and he is accompanied by Qar Qız or ‘snow girl.’ On New Year’s they arrive from the North Pole to bring presents to children, which are placed beneath the tree. Students in school know the songs of jingle bells and other Christmas songs, but the holiday which they are actually celebrating is New Year’s, as they do not celebrate anything on the 24th or 25th, just the 31st of Dec. and 1st of January. At the university I have been asked to help the students organize a presentation of New Year’s customs—songs, skits, etc.—for the English Department holiday celebration on the 22nd, just before the end of term. I’m racking my brain a bit, since I’m thinking of all kinds of Christmas presentations, but not so many New Year’s customs—unless, of course, we all play Yatzee, Apples to Apples, and Catch Phrase, which is our family’s way of celebrating New Years, which I certainly will be missing this year; and if anyone scores a Yatzee—well, are you going to give me a call to brag about it, as that is also a family tradition??!! ---- However, thanks to Christina, I might have hit upon a good idea for the school celebration—we’ll see!
The electricity went out today in the university, we lost lights, printer usage and—internet! Guess it was wishful thinking that it might be different here than in Masazir. My host family mother from Masazir called me today; that was the first thing I told her—even here in Mingechavir, we lose the electricity, too! Oh, well, I resorted to the old-fashioned way of researching materials—I used the books in the small shelf-library in my room. We hope to write a grant to expand and make it a fully useful resource room, complete with many varying media and materials.
Mingəçevir is a very pleasant town. The main street, as in almost all Azerbaijani towns, is of course called Heydər Əliyev prospekti and the main park is the Heydər Əliyev Parkı. (Heydər Əliyev—Heder Aliyev--died on Dec. 12th 2003 and is revered as the founding father of the country—the George Washington of Azerbaijan). On the 12th, in commemoration of his day of death, there was a large ceremony in the middle of town; I accompanied masses of students and others to the large statue of him in his park, where we all in solemn fashion placed red carnations below his statue. The town is laid out with very broad boulevards, wide streets and very large traffic circles encircling big fountains—like Paris, Rome, and other European cities, albeit here with relatively little vehicular traffic—very pleasant, since pedestrians can cross safely in any direction, there is so little traffic! The sidewalks are wide and parallel the streets with several paths and park-like strips of green, park benches, and trees between the sidewalk paths. There are even paths for cars to park on or bicylces to ride, though few people ride them, unlike in Europe. The housing consists mainly of large apartment blocks which often face each other with strips of open space between them for play areas or other activities, not unlike the housing area in which Bill and I lived in Perlacher Forst in Munich in the ‘60’s and the ‘70’s. Much of the town was after all German-built--built by the Soviets and German POW’s after WWII. The town is laid out in a fashion that reminds me of many neighborhoods of German towns—particularly from some decades ago. Walking the streets and admiring the design of the town, and its near-by hydro-electric plant (also built in part by German POW’s after the War), I cannot help but think of my classmate Roswitha from Johanna-Sebus-Schule in the early ‘60’s. Her father was one of those German POW’s who was not allowed by the Soviets to return after the war, and indeed, the last the family heard of him, he was being forced to work on rebuilding projects in the republics of the Soviet Union. He never returned home, and by the early ‘60’s the family assumed he had died in captivity, but they never received any official word to confirm that. I have sometimes a very strange and ironic feeling, that perhaps my classmate’s father was one of those who built this town in which I now live.
Somethings have not changed since the apartment blocks were built in the late 40’s. Often the stairwells are not lit, because they were never wired for electric lights, concrete walls and steps are crumbling, and many of the side-walks are uneven with pot-holes, tree trunks, even pipes and rebar, poking through. Some apartments have been modernized since they were first built, and others obviously not, with toilets that are flushed with a water bucket, hot water that is available only when one lights the gas heater and waits about an hour for the water tank above the tub to heat up. But the lay-out of the town and many of its public places are charming and attractive. And it is a very clean town—with small German-style garbage baskets dotting the public walk-ways down the boulevard park-strips. Indeed, as a town, it prides itself in being the cleanest and most pleasant town in Azerbaijan. Every morning there are the sweeping ladies out with their twig-brooms, sweeping up leaves and any other debris. The town is very well kept. Near the university are several bazars and in the morning hours it is interesting to see the cars piled with their fresh fruits and vegatables to sell, sometimes right out of the trunks and back-seats of their cars; everything sold is in season somewhere in this country with nine climate zones, but particularly common now are the cabbages, which are the largest I have ever seen—larger than a basketball. This is a very friendly and hospitable town.
The first day at the university, I met the director of the institute, who gave a me brochure advertising the university, complete with reference to the American Peace Corps supplied computer room, which was funded by a grant written by a former volunteer. And the dean of the department of languages graciously welcomed me, too—in German—since that is the language he teaches. I felt right at home!! The students and teachers are very friendly, warm, and embrasing. I feel welcomed and happy to be here.
Mary Branom, Peace Corps Volunteer
Azerbaycan Müəllimlər İnstitutunun