The Good Samaritans
After being back in the States for my son’s marvelous wedding to his wonderful new wife, I have returned refreshed to Azerbaijan for more Peace Corps work. The time away has also allowed me to ponder a few of the wonderful and a few of the challenging aspects of Peace Corps work in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is a country rightly credited with outgoing hospitality towards guests, and this has certainly been true, as I have experienced it—an over-abundance of warmth and generosity. For my July birthday, every group of students, colleagues, work-mates and associates honored me, as they basically do all the time…all my Azeri friends assure me, that no matter what I need, they are always willing to help me in any way they can. I have helpful friends who respect and appreciate the efforts I make, and while I was gone in America, I missed my daily interactions with all of them.
But it is also noticeable that this hospitality, indeed respect, extends to the guests and individuals with whom one—Azeris included—has personal interactions. It is equally true, that showing common courtesies to nameless people one might encounter on the street or elsewhere—well, that is a different matter. Residents here have been known to throw garbage out their upper story windows onto the sidewalks below, and if a passing pedestrian is hit, it is a kind of “sport.” (Early on in living here, I was advised by some of my friends and associates to always walk away from the apartment buildings and close to the street curb, lest I be hit by garbage flying out of an upper story apartment window—and indeed once I could tell someone tried several times to drop eggs on me…oh, well…) Don’t want to walk too close to the street either though, because again pedestrians are a kind of “sport” for men behind the wheel of a car…if a driver can swerve quickly toward you and then back again (without hitting you), it shows he has “great driving skill,” if not careless disregard for pedestrians. Azeri friends recently returning from the States or Europe have remarked that one of the most notable and noticeable things for them is that, unlike Azerbaijan, pedestrians elsewhere have rights and respect, which is not afforded in this society where the more powerful (man behind the wheel) demands respect and greater rights than the less powerful (the lowly, nameless pedestrian). Cars here never stop for pedestrians (it’s the other way around!), and in fact cars speed up and head straight for pedestrians who might be crossing the street, and honk at pedestrians to get out of their way. Again, it is a kind of sport to see how fast they can drive, how close they can come to a pedestrian, without actually hitting him. This lack of common courtesy is also evident in the mounting verbal harassment toward women on the street; and for female American Peace Corps Volunteers this particular lack of respect for women is an especially unpleasant challenge.
In thinking about these challenges and differences of societal values, I began pondering how Azeris would react to a nameless fellow human being, if that human being were in serious trouble. Would the lack of common courtesies cause them to turn a blind eye (as happened once, when I witnessed a woman fall on the sidewalk and the young men standing near-by just gawked)? Do Azeris have any societal concept akin to being a Good Samaritan? And then it happened:
A day after returning from the States and an extended vacation in Berlin and Istanbul, my friend and fellow PCV Liz and I were traveling per marshrutka from my town to hers. Soon after being on the road a ways, in a fairly rural area, our marshrutka driver quickly pulled over to the side of the road, let out an exclamation, rapidly halted our vehicle, and jumped out from behind the wheel of our marshrutka. There, down an embankment about 5 feet lower than the road way, was an overturned car, wheels still spinning—the car must have jumped the road and flipped in mid-air, and the accident had apparently just happened. But within less than a minute, all the men riding in the marshrutka were down the embankment helping the marshrutka driver offer aid to the injured—a man, bleeding, but sitting bewildered in the grass next to the car; a woman, face-down, unconscious and partially trapped under the vehicle; and a young boy, on the opposite side of the vehicle, lying limp and unconscious. And immediately the passing cars from both directions stopped to offer help—pulling the woman away from the car, rousing her with some cool water, helping the young boy likewise, attempting to bandage the bleeding. Everyone who could ran down the embankment to see what they could do to help. Some were on their cell-phones. But I credit the quick thinking of PCV Liz: she had the foresight to call our very excellent Azeri Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer in Baku. After explaining to him what had happened, that she and I were not involved in the accident, he asked to speak to the marshrutka driver. The driver was able to explain to the Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer in Baku approximately where the accident occurred; then our Safety and Security Officer informed Liz that he would immediately notify the police in the nearest town. In a country without a nationwide 911 emergency service, this was a huge service that Liz and the Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer did. Soon a police car and an aid car did arrive from the nearby town. But I cannot help but also credit all the drivers and passengers of no less than a dozen cars who stopped to offer assistance. The out-pouring of help from this multitude of people to those strangers in very real need was truly amazing. There were many, many Azeri Good Samaritans on the road that day!