Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sağ olun

You will hear this phrase a billion times (and then some) in Azerbaijan. Sağ olun (or, more commonly, sağ ol) literally means ‘be healthy.’ It also means ‘thank you’ and ‘good-bye.’ Oh yeah, and it’s also what you say before you take a drink with friends. It’s a phrase with various meanings, and I’ve given it a bit of thought.

Why, you may ask? Well, it actually dates back some time ago, a couple months, give or take. My buddy Charlie who lives down the street just so happened to be locked out of his house (by the grandmother, who was in the house. We won’t delve into that subject here.), so we walked together down to my host family’s house, opened the heavy, metal gate, and walked onto the front patio to see my host dad and mom firing up the wood grill. They looked at us and said, “kabobs!” I can’t say I was disappointed, and neither could Charlie. So we sent a text message or two to our friends in our cluster, telling then we probably wouldn’t be able to get together for a movie that night, and kicked back for a tasty meal.

And a tasty meal it was. They grilled the meat mighty fine, set up the table outside, since the weather was nice, put out the plates, vodka, and whatnot, and Charlie and I spent time jacking around on the patio with Maharab and Nerman. It was delicious, quality time spent with Charlie and the host family. Heck, Our cross-the-street neighbor Abdullah even showed up, no big deal.

Anyway, as we enjoyed a fun night at the house, and we clearly had limited language skills, one of the things we could say was ‘sağ ol,’ especially as we were taking another drink of vodka. We would say it in thanksgiving to my host family, and eventually Charlie would say it as he walked out the door to his house. It has a few meanings, but I find it interesting that the same phrase for ‘good-bye’ is the same phrase for ‘thank you.’ Would you say that has any bearing on the culture? I would dare to say yes, because it seems like, when one enters a home, chances are he should not only say ‘good-bye’ but also ‘thank you,’ because it’s important to treat a guest very well in this country, and how convenient it is that there is one phrase that includes both.

And I don’t just pinpoint Azerbaijan in making this analysis, either. I was raised by parents who also take hospitality seriously. I used to wonder why the heck we needed to wash the sheets and all that before a guest entered our home. It seemed unnecessary, but little things like that: making sure they have a nice place to sleep, food to eat (whether they’re hungry or not), something to drink, heck, maybe even a shower to use, these things don’t just happen when someone enters a home. It takes effort on the part of the hosts, and, to me, the fact that one can say ‘good-bye’ and ‘thank-you’ at the same time makes all the sense.

The American National Dish

Can somebody please tell me what the heck this is?

Yes, regrettably it’s true. We Peace Corps folk in Azerbaijan are frequently asked this question. It’s nothing against the local crowd that asks it. They’re curious, and, frankly, they’re also from a much smaller country with distinctive (and tasty) national dishes.

However, when an American is confronted with such a question, he can be stumped. Now, I can say that when I was asked this question (more than once in a day) at my future school in Qumlaq, what first came to my mind was a hamburger and fries, so I explained that. It seemed to be pretty standard, but how often do you really eat that back in the States? I mean, I love it, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re eating a juicy burger and fried taters on a regular basis, you’re setting yourself up for problems down the road.

So, was I fair in telling these students that the national dish of the United States of America is a hamburger and French fries? My answer now is no. What I should’ve said was that the United States doesn’t have a national dish. It’s not feasible to pick one national meal from one of the world’s most diverse countries, not to mention the fact that it contains about three hundred million people.

When one heads off and does something like Peace Corps in another country, an image of the United States is not only what you give them, but it’s what they give you. Now, what in tarnation does that mean? It means there’s a good chance a particular vision of the United States and what it is like will already be instilled in some people’s heads before you arrive. You show up in a community, perhaps as the first U.S. citizen these folks have ever seen, and you have an Asian background. What? Wait, that’s not supposed to happen. We ordered an American, not an Asian. Well, it turns out the United States has people of Asian ancestry. Go figure. In fact, while many, many people in the U.S. are eating hamburgers on a given day, several others are eating kung pow chicken.

To be honest, I feel for the wonderful people in Azerbaijan that receive us every year. It might not be pleasant to receive what you did not expect, but how cool is it that we get to expose the rich facets of our great country? While they educate us, we educate them. How great is that?

I still stand by my fondness for burgers and fries, by the way.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

My Future Home

Hello, everyone! It’s been a little while since I’ve written in the ol’ web log, and I find this to be a pretty opportune time to give an update.

At this moment, I’m not typing, but, instead, I’m writing in a composition book (I’ll type it later, but that’s obvious, right?). My computer’s not with me because I’m on a three-day visit at the village in Azerbaijan where I’ll do my volunteer service! That’s pretty exciting, eh? I will be serving in a “rayon” of Azerbaijan called Oğuz. Let me give you the description of the rayon that the Peace Corps provided me (To be honest, it’ll be the first time I’ve read the description in it’s entirety as well.).

“Oghuz region was established as Vartashen on Augurst [August] 8, 1930. Vartashen had been the center of the region till 1961. It was established the status of the city type settlement from 1961-1968 and the status of a city in 1969. At the first session of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Azerbaijan in February of 1991 the region was renamed into Oghuz and Vardanly village into Kerimli. Oghuz is a region with ancient and rich history. The book of geography composed of 17 volumes and written by Greek historian Strabon who lived in the 1st century B.C. provided the full coverage of the Caucasus Albania and showed that the Sheki-Zagatala zone that include[s] of [the] region of Oghuz was the place of the [a] dense settlement of people 20-25 centuries ago (that is 2500 years ago [Thank you, Peace Corps, for clearing that up.]). Prominent archeologist[s], coming from Oghuz Saleh Gaziyev proved by the patterns of material culture discovered during the researches on the territory of the region in 1956-1959 that the people lived in collectives on this area in the Neolithic Era (that is 6-7 thousand years ago). Saleh Gaziyev conducted the archeological researches south of the Vardanly (present Kerimli) and Garabaldyr villages in 1948 and discovered ancient settlements and cemeteries. The ancient scientist discovered the following material culture patterns related to the period 2500-3000 years ago in the monuments of Dash gutu (stone box): a bronze knife, lance point, bashlyks [Don’t ask me what those are.], different jewelries (belt, bracelet, ring, pearls and others), ceramic patterns, and others. Some of them have a history of 500 years. The ancient graves of the unknown age belonging to the Oghuz tribes mentioned in the epos Kitabi dede Gorgut [?] and differing from other modern graves with their length are still preserved in the north of Filfilli and Bash Dashaghyl villages of the region. The ancient necropolises of the Kerimli, Garabaldyr, [and] Djalud villages and Oghuz city, the GKhachmaz Govur tower of the 7th century, the Mukhakh tower constructed in the 9th century, the Albanian temple of the early Middle Ages of Oghuz and Djalud villages also provide information of the past of the region. The names Vartashen, Oghuz, Maza, Vengey, Padar, Sazur, Shahra and other toponymies [whatever those are] date back to 12-14 thousand years ago to the times of Avesta and prove the area of the region to be part of Zardush.”

Ha ha. It appears to be a translation from Azerbaijani, and it can be hard to decipher certain words and whatnot. But you get the gist of the history and all that, right?

I can honestly say that I almost feel like I’m in another country. It’s amazing how, in this small nation, there exists such diversity. Some time ago, I visited the rayon of Ismayilli, which is on the way to Oğuz. Clearly I observed a similar geographical change on my way to Oğuz as I experienced on my way to Ismayilli. The elevation and general environment change drastically. The area of Sumgait, for the most part, is flat and not too green, but Oğuz is almost something out of a fairy tale. It’s beautiful, with mountains and rivers all around. According to my host dad, tourists come here in the summertime (Not too many come in the wintertime, though, if I had to guess.).

Culturally, it appears to be different as well, but that also may have something to do with this particular village where I will be serving (which is called Qumlaq, by the way. I probably should have mentioned that earlier.). Nonetheless, I’ve noticed a change, however slight it may be, in how folks dress, how the teachers interact with the students, how a girl interacts with a boy (Believe me. You would notice, too.), etc. Of course, it’s hard to have a firm grip after being here for just a couple days. I shouldn’t worry, though. I have plenty of time left to do that.

Qumlaq has a small, friendly school, and I’m grateful for that. It has about three hundred twenty-three students and forty-eight teachers. The class bell is literally a bell rung by hand outside that bears some resemblance to what you’d hear on the old family farm when dinner’s ready.

My future host family here in Qumlaq consists of a mom (Aybəniz), dad (Fedya), daughter (Hökümə), and son (Rustam). The daughter is about fourteen and the son is about eight (I should double check these ages (and their names)). The father is firm is his Muslim faith, which is wonderful. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and it was something to hear his chanting this morning…and afternoon. They also live on a beautiful piece of property. When I asked Fedya what he did for a living, he simply said that the home provides what the family needs. They live on a farm, fully equipped with chickens, turkeys, cows, sheep, hazelnuts, pecans, fruit, and whatever else. Aybəniz works somewhere, but I’m not exactly sure what that is at this point.

Anyway, this is, so far, a glimpse of what’s to come. It’s nice in that I now have an idea of what these two years of service will be like. I also think I speak for other trainees when I say that I look forward to actually starting the two years of service that haven’t even begun.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Toy – Part Two

Alright, so we’ve gone over the first kind of toy pretty well, I’d say. Sounds like a big, fun party, eh? But, little did I know that there’s another toy that’s also quite common. The party’s quite similar, but it celebrates something different.

Various cultures have festivities for when a boy becomes a man. In the United States, the most common occasion I can think of is a Barmitzfah, when a young Jewish person’s coming into adulthood is celebrated. This type of event is also quite common in Azerbaijan. It’s the ‘kiçik toy (sorry if this is incorrect)’, roughly translated as ‘toy for a young person.’

One of the first explanations I received on this type of toy was from my host brother, who put it bluntly. The usual gestures for a toy were given, like moving the arms in a dancing motion, but he also formed one of his hands in the shape of a scissors and made like he was cutting the end of one of his fingers on the other hand. Getting the picture? If not, I, too, will put it bluntly, and inform you that a ‘kiçik toy’ is when a young man is circumcised.

The only gesture I remember giving in return was a cringe and an, “Oooohhhh!” signifying the pain it must cause. My buddy Jordyn has also been to one of these, and he told me it more or less goes like this: The young man is the king of the party. It’s his day. The festivities commence like a regular toy, with the food, dancing, speeches from friends and family at the front of the room with the microphone (I might not have mentioned that yet.), vodka, etc. The boy sits at the front of the big room on a stage. When all’s said and done at the party, he eventually goes home, where the doctor applies an anesthetic of some sort and the snipping takes place.

Now let’s reflect here. What if you were in this position? What would be going through your head during this big bash, knowing your circumcision would follow? I went to my neighbor’s toy, and he’s around five or six years old. As far as I could tell, he was perfectly happy. However, Jordyn informed me that the boy at the toy he attended didn’t look too happy. I guess it just varies from person to person.

Nevertheless, I think this is a pretty cool occasion. How great is it that friends and family all come together to celebrate a boy becoming a man. I believe that’s an important thing to recognize, and, as far as my own case goes, it would have been nice for someone to formally let me know when I was no longer a boy. Ha ha, just kidding. Of course, I think many (if not all) would agree that Abdullah (the boy whose toy I attended) still has plenty of childhood left, but he has still, in fact, reached a pertinent stage in his life. The following day, I visited him at his house across the road from mine. He was lying in bed as the party was going on outside. He, of course, had plenty of love and attention, and I gave him a little money (also a tradition). Later that day, a couple Peace Corps Trainees and I came to the house, and we were warmly welcomed, as expected. There’s something great about seeing my friend Charlie kneel down and visit with his neighborhood friend at his bedside. It makes me feel even more like we are part of the community.

Toy – Part One

Okay, before I explain why I’m giving this entry that particular name, I want you to ponder for a moment what a ‘toy’ is.

Finished? Alright, well, in Azerbaijani, a ‘toy’ can be a couple things. Two, by my count. If you look in your handy Azerbaijani-to-English dictionary, a ‘toy’ is defined as a wedding. Ah, I see. A wedding. What a cool name for a wedding.

But let me get something straight here. In Azerbaijan, a toy isn’t merely a wedding ceremony one goes to every now and then when a friend or relative gets married, followed by a reception. Oh, no. A toy is a party. A rowdy party. A party Azerbaijanis love to attend. And they happen all the time. Seriously, all the time. Now, remember, a toy can celebrate a couple things, but I will concentrate on the ‘bride and groom’ toy first.

So my host family said one day, earlier in training, “Let’s go to a toy in a few days.” Wait. It wasn’t quite like that. It was more like, “In a few days, we’re going to a toy.” They were excited, and I’d already heard at that point that toys were essential events one must experience in Azerbaijan. So I put on my Sunday best and went.

I guess I expected it, but we didn’t go to the actual ceremony. We went to the party. Everyone wants to go to the party. We walked into the reception hall in Sumgait, which was already pretty full, and took a seat at one of the tables. Food and shots of vodka were being served all around (except the vodka wasn’t served to the ladies), and the bride and groom sat there, on an elevated surface at the front of the room, in all their glory. They had a nice border decoration surrounding them, and they looked dignified. To be honest with you, I’d say the folks below, merrily eating, drinking, and dancing, were having more fun than the newly married. I suppose that, as a bride and groom, you are more like the hosts of the toy, while your friends and family are the ones invited and welcome to carouse in raucous merriment. I’d say that’s a good reason to want to go to one of these events.

Anyway, I went along with the crowd, and as you could guess, plenty of folks were delighted to have a foreigner join in on the fun. I sat at the end of the table and ate several platters of delicious Azerbaijani food, with several shots of vodka in between. I appreciate my host mother’s caution with my drinking, though. She would intermittently glance at me and tell me to keep it under control. This was a good thing, seeing as plenty of others were drinking more than they ought to.

Along with the eating and drinking was the dancing. Azerbaijani folk love to get the music going (especially with the zurna, a long horn instrument that makes a bagpipe-esque sound, and the sach (most likely spelled wrong), a lovely-sounding guitar-type instrument) and move their arms to and fro in dancing revelry. And when a white American comes into the picture, they welcome him with open, waving arms. I love the Azerbaijani dancing style. It’s not overly complicated, and I don’t make too much of a fool of myself when I do it. However, another component of the classic toy is a video camera. Somebody walks around the camera and films what’s going on, with a short-circuit connection to television screens all over the room. So, when the white dude decides to get up and dance, he becomes the camera magnet. My friend Laura, who was at the same wedding, took a picture of me on thee T.V. screen. wonderful.

One typical characteristic of a toy that I didn’t see was a fight. I can remember our Azerbaijani safety officer telling us that a fight can break out at a toy, I’m guessing due to the crowd of gentlemen imbibing great amounts and talking smack. Unfortunately, though, I wasn’t on the lookout when one occurred, although Laura told me there was a small scuffle.

All in all, a toy is a good time, and I’m glad to have experienced one. But what about that other kind of toy?