Last week was the birthday of the father in my first host family in Masazir. I gave the family a call to sing happy birthday over the phone (I omitted singing our family-favorite from Big John and Sparky days, “Today is the Day, I Wonder for Whom…”don’t think it would have gone over quite so well). They proceeded to tell me over the phone that they miss me, and wonder when I will come to visit. Well, I miss them, too, and hope to visit them again; then we had a good laugh over the fact that every other day is still ‘elektrik yoxdur’ – no electricity in Masazir—good thing they have a good sense of humor and carry on.
Sunday was the birthday of the mother in my host family, and relatives from other towns in Azerbaijan and from as far away as Moscow arrived. She prepared a big feast of typical Azerbaijani foods, and I helped the other women with the Nar Salati and the Mimosa Salati, though peeling the pomegranates is time consuming; while doing so, I kept thinking of the big tubs of peeled and deveined pomegranates available at Costco—no Costco here, not anything even close to a Costco! From one visiting family is a little four-year-old boy who hid every time he saw me…understandably, I am different—and look different—than everyone else. But he smiled and laughed each time--he is so cute, and before the weekend was over, we were friends. It turns out that his mother is the cousin AND the sister-in-law of the mother in my host family—Vusala-- whose birthday we celebrated. Not uncommon here, Vusala’s brother married a cousin on the mother’s side of the family.
The father in my host family announced the gift he would be giving his wife—a sheep for the backyard! Not your typical birthday present in Seattle! But she seemed very pleased. What I did not originally understand was that the men were leaving right then to go to the market to buy the sheep. Soon it was in the chicken coop in the backyard, and I was invited to come out and take a look…I brought my camera. The father and little seven-year-old Ibrahim were busy trying to coax the sheep out of the coop when I arrived; as I got closer all the chickens flew out in a wild frenzy. Then the father grabbed the sheep by its front hooves and pulled it out of the coop, dragged it across the yard to near the patio, and we held it firm as we posed for photos with the sheep. I thought it was going to be a new family pet. I was wrong!
Soon Ibrahim fetched some twined and the father wrapped the four hooves together, laying the sheep on its side. While Ibrahim held the hooves and body firm (this took strength from the little seven-year-old), the father took out his butcher knife. In less than a minute it was over, and the head lay on the ground next to the body spewing blood. It happened so fast, before I realized what was going to happen, but I witnessed the whole thing—not for the faint of heart—and when it was all over, the skinning of the sheep and the butchering was made easier by stringing up the carcass on a pole in the yard; the whole process reminded me of dissecting class from college Biology. At one point during the skinning, the family pet dog got a hold of one of the sheep’s testicles, which had been discarded into a pan on the ground, while the strung up sheep carcass was being properly butchered. The dog was reprimanded severely with a thrown rock striking it in the hind leg, causing extreme yelping and hobbling. Later, the pet dog (Ninze) fortunately seemed OK again. Soon the meat from the sheep was skewered and on the grill; the men gathered round and sampled the first skewers together with a glass of red wine; interestingly, the wine goblets were first rinsed with very hot water so that the wine from the cold bottle could be warmed—here it is considered very unhealthy to drink anything cold! Hence, hot tea is the drink of choice in winter and in summer, and the concept of iced tea makes most Azerbaijanis shudder. Later during the evening meal, everyone had some juice, to which the mother added some hot water from the tea kettle off the stove, to make sure we didn’t drink juice that was cold. The children gave their mom some new bottles of perfume, and I gave Vusala a set of coasters, hand-made, from Kathy—she was very pleased, thanks Kathy!—and also gave her some of her now favorite chocolate that I have introduced her to—Rittersport from Germany! Fortunately, I found out later, that I showed respect and honor by partaking of the skewers of mutton, but was likewise honored and shown respect by being invited to watch the slaughtering. It is not an uncommon sight for Azerbaijanis, since every November for Qurban Bayrami, the Holiday of Sacrifice, a sheep is slaughtered as a religious ritual for sacrifice.
It always is a wonder to me how much Azerbaijanis are able to do for themselves…they know how to slaughter and butcher, and they build and remodel their own houses, too! Amazing!
The ingredients for national dish...Xash
Chickens enjoying innards...
Skewers on the barbeque
Nar (Pomegranate) Salad