Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Wedding, a Funeral, and the Holidays...

A wedding, a funeral, and holidays…

Recently a PC friend invited us to her brother’s wedding.  It was the first time I was able to attend the entire event, which is really like a very large sit-down dinner party—therefore, showing up ‘fashionably late’ was not the best idea.  By the time we arrived about 15 minutes late, everyone was seated in the large hall, eating the appetizers.   All Azerbaijani parties involve eating the national dishes—these foods are always served at special events; it is a bit like having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (the closest thing we have to a ‘national dishes’) for every other event and/or party, that we might have or be invited to.  But the food is great:  cold chicken, fish, Russian potato and egg salads, types of rolled-up wraps, breads and rolls; then those plates are removed and we receive additional courses of wonderful fruits and kebabs—grilled meats and various potatoes; then those plates are removed, and everyone gets ready for the entrance of the plov—a special rice pilaf, which is carried into the hall flaming in a bowl  on a special platter, held by a man while he does a very intricate Azerbaijani plov dance; the plov is served with a type of beef and dried fruit stew.  Dancing is a very big part of any wedding event, and a band plays traditional music.  All can participate in the dancing, which may be circle dancing while holding hands and rotating around the dance floor, or dancing singly or with partners using elegant hand-movements (girls) or very fast and fancy feet (boys).  All in all, it is great fun.  Most everyone, as I found out, is also expected to offer a toast or say something, so all of us (PC Volunteers) at one point were called forward to say something from the dance floor to the couple.  Those who have been here longer said the appropriate things, but when the microphone was handed to me, all I could get out was a feeble ‘hello.’  I’ll practice up before the next wedding I go to.  By the way, the Azerbaijani word for wedding is “toy,” but don’t ever tell someone you would like to have a small wedding (“kichick toy”) since that refers to the special party celebrated for a young boy at the time of his ceremonial circumcision…it, too, is celebrated with party and all the national dishes!  Another interesting tidbit:  in some regions it is easy to tell unmarried women from married women by looking at their faces—unmarried women do not have their eyebrows plucked, but married women do.

 Traditional 'mirror of fate, or mirror of the future' is to the right of the bride, on the table...it is carried into the hall by the one who acts as our version of Maid of Honor
Peace Corps wedding guests

One day while walking home from work I noticed a funeral procession on its way to the local cemetery.  As typical, only men were following in the procession down the middle of the street.  Six men carried the body, wrapped in cloth and carried on a small platform, which was draped in elegant middle-eastern -type Azerbaijani carpets and held on the shoulders of the men by two long sturdy poles.  On a separate occasion, I went with some co-workers to the home of a woman whose husband was killed in Russia (by six men, it turns out!) for the mourning ceremony.  The funeral, as is customary, had already taken place, since by Muslim tradition, the body must be buried as soon as possible, even the same day as the death, if possible.  Mourning, however, continues.  Large tents are set up in the road outside the family home.  This is where men gather and listen to the mollas recite the mourning passages from the Qoran, while the women go into the house.  The large living room, in this case, had been emptied of its furniture, cushions were placed around the perimeter, and the women sat on these cushions or on the floor, covering bare feet (shoes are always left at the door) and legs with sheets provided for modesty sake.  The two female mollas (professional grievers) recited phrases, Qoran passages, and prayers over and over again until reaching a fevered pitch with crying, almost wailing.  As new female mourners enter, we left to make room, and were offered water from a special pitcher outside to wash hands and face.  After retrieving our shoes, we made way to the tent reserved for women mourners, where we received the meal—again with the national dishes, similar to the dishes served at the wedding.

The largest and most favored of all the national holidays is Novruz, celebrated on March 20, 21, or 22, as a time to welcome Spring and rebirth.  They even celebrate with colored eggs, and a few other unique traditions.  First of all, there is the very special Novruz meal, again with all the favored national dishes, grilled chicken, fish, specialty salads (Nar, Mimosa, Paytaxt) followed by grilled kebabs (meat) and of course Plov with beef and dried fruit stew, and of course, the special pastries of Paklava and Goral.  But great fun is had in  gathering around the bon-fire in the yard, dancing the traditional dances, and then jumping over the fire—at least three times—and leaving all worry and evil in the fire!  My friend Kathy from Sheki visited us for Novruz, and it was special for my host family to be able to share the event with several Americans.  At one point, they wanted to invite another American PCV over to our house to join in the fire-jumping, but then decided, it might even be more fun to go visit her and join in her host family's bonfire.  Knowing that it is common to go guesting to others’ houses, I thought this might be part of the custom, but nonetheless, I texted my PCV friend to give her a heads-up.  Only then did we find out, that she and her host family had done their celebrating the night before and were quite tired, but by the time we got to their place, it was insisted upon that we, at the very least, must come in for a cup of tea!  This is country which prides itself in social graces of hospitality, and having a cup of tea is paramount—and to refuse is basically an insult.  Well, after the confusion over whether we should go, or not go, we ended up having a fun and memorable evening!  Since there is a week-long celebration, with no school and many places closed, we enjoyed the sunny days with hikes to the Mingechavir Reservoir and marveled at the scenery along the shore and in the distance—the mighty Caucasus Mountains.
 Dinner Most Foul, ready for de-feathering, plucking, then grilling for a part of our Novruz feast
 Mingachavir Reservoir with Caucasus Mountains in background...water and mountains, *almost* like Seattle
 Fellow PCV Kathy does well at the Novruz bon-fire jumping
 Readying for the bon-fire leap

 Jumping the Novruz Bon-Fire

Novruz plate decoration, with the sprouted wheat, nuts, fruits, and candy

Easter is not celebrated here, but by the few members of the Russian Orthodox Church, the international church, and my friends at the German Lutheran Church in Baku; after several days of PC training in Baku, I stayed on with friend from the German Lutheran Church and attended the services Easter Sunday.  To my surprise, they honored me by asking me to read the Scripture lessons in German, since most members are not native German speakers, albeit much of the service is conducted in Russian, with German translation.  The children presented a nice part of the service as well.  Afterwards we were treated to tea and Apfelkuchen at the church offices—this is after all a German church!  As I left, I heard the bells of the Russian Orthodox Church pealing the call for Palm Sunday (Orthodox Churches celebrate Easter one week later this year), and discovered that because of the religious holiday, the church received special permission to ring its bells.  Despite its Muslim traditions, Azerbaijan practices religious tolerance.

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