Sunday, January 25, 2009


22 January 2009

Today, I wanna talk to y’all about something that’s as important in Azerbaijan as it is anywhere. What do you think about what I mention the word “friend”? It’s not such a complicated question, really. Hopefully, what comes to mind is that person whose company you love. The one you can sit down and have a cup o’ joe with every day, talkin’ about whatever. When I was at Sewanee, Shep, Harcout, and I would hang around the frat table at McClurg dining hall and just shoot the breeze after dinner, and it’s one of the fondest memories I have of college.

About the second day I was living in Qumlaq village, I wanted to join Aybəniz to the “klub”, the community center where she works. It’s a nice little place where folks gather every so often (although I haven’t been to any events there yet). It has a big room with a piano (a bit out of tune), another room with firewood, and another small room with a couple chairs and a peç (pronounced “pech”), or stove.

She works alongside a woman named Aygün (Interesting fact: “Ay” means moon, and “gün” means “day”. “Bəniz” also means “face”. See if you can put those together.), a lovely twenty-nine year-old lady. There’s not a whole lot involved in their work. They sit in the small room with the peç and have a cup of çay or two. That’s about it. To be honest, there isn’t much else for them to do, but it’s what they get paid for. There’s also a good chance they’re up to a lot more when something’s going on there, but, nevertheless, I’m digressing.

So we chilled out there for a little while and eventually went home. Aygün went her separate way, and I asked Aybəniz if Aygün was married. She wasn’t. Although it’s wrong to stereotype, I must say that in the rayons of Azerbaijan, you don’t find a whole lotta single, working twenty-nine year-old women. After asking why she wasn’t, Aybəniz went on about how there aren’t any good men in this town. “Aygün’s an attractive, intelligent lady, and she needs a good man,” she said. I nodded in agreement and was impressed by such boldness. Clearly Aygün was a good friend of hers, and it was also clear that Aybəniz cared about her.

Alright, now let’s flash forward a few weeks. I was in my room, wood stove cracklin’, doing some exercises and trying to stay fit after spraining my ankle (I was running in the dark, nobody’s fault but mine.). Aybəniz knocked at the door and walked in, quietly asking me if the peç was going okay. She kinna paced around, and I could tell something was up. Then she spilled the beans: “Aygün kişiyə getir” (Literally “Aygün’s going to a man” or, simply, “Aygün’s gonna get married”.) I stood there and acknowledged the news, and then placed a hand on Aybəniz as she began to cry there next to me. Aybəniz went on to say that Aygün was her good, good friend, and her leaving to get married was a hard fact to face. I mean, think about it. Put yourself in that position. You’ve been working with someone for years, sitting in the same room together, talking about whatever. In other words, a friend real close to your heart is leaving your side. We know the feeling. But Aybəniz also expressed: “Aygün xoşbext olsun” (May Aygün be happy). That’s also what a friend says.

So what came of it all? Well, a week or so later, Aygün was over at my host family’s house, and I asked her, “Toy nə vaxt olacaq (When’s the toy? (You remember toy, right? Don’t even get me started.))? And she responded, “Toy olmayacaq (Ain’t gonna be no toy.).”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I thought.

Turns out a little research was done on the “dude” she was gonna marry. Although I didn’t entirely understand the situation (I mean, c’mon. I’m an “intermediate-mid” Azerbaijani speaker. Real middle of the road here.), it seems he wasn’t too great after all. With Aybəniz also sitting there by the peç in the living/dining/Turkish-music-videos-watching room, I asked her, “That’s not too common ‘round here, is it?” and she said, “Nope.” Then I said, “But you’re different.” And, to that, I got two of the biggest grins I’ve ever seen from those two lovely, amazing women I have the privilege to know, and who’re privileged to have each other.

İyirmi yanvar

20 January 2009

Okay, so on Monday the nineteenth, I walked into the teachers’ room of the Qumlaq village school to find a big, heart-shaped bouquet of flowers. In an attempt to be the comedian, I sauntered in and said, “Ooohhh, who sent me flowers!?” My fellow teachers, who typically laugh at my jokes, no matter how bad they are, gave a pretty tame response, if one at all. It struck me as kind of weird, but after I thought for a second, the circumstances made sense, and I felt like an idiot.

Let me give you a quick Azerbaijani history lesson. Although, in 1917, Azerbaijan was proclaimed the first democratic republic in the Islamic world, it soon after, on May 28, 1920, became a Soviet Socialist Republic. In the 1930’s, the Azerbaijan S.S.R. was affected by Stalin’s purges, as thousands were killed (mainly members of the intelligentsia (who, I might add, were influenced by European ideas, rallied against poverty, ignorance, and extremism, and supported education and the emancipation of women) and other suspected opposition sympathizers).

In the 1940’s, the Azerbaijan S.S.R. was integral in the Soviet Union’s struggles against Nazi Germany, as it supplied a lot of gas and oil. Several Azerbaijani’s fought vigorously in this war, and about 400,000 died.

Policies of De-Stalinization, rapprochement, and Russification followed in the 1950’s, which led to urbanization, industrialization, and anti-religious sentiment. Although education and welfare conditions improved, the Azerbaijan S.S.R.’s economic output and productivity drastically decreased in the 1960’s, mainly because its oil industry lost much of its importance. Heydər Əliyev was then appointed as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan in 1969, in an effort to fix the Soviets’ structural crisis in the area, and economic conditions temporarily improved. However, he was forced to step down in 1987, when Perestroika began.

More nationalist sentiment began to emerge during this time, which was characterized by great civil unrest in the Azerbaijan S.S.R. This unrest reached the boiling point on the twentieth of January, 1990, when Soviet troops killed 132 nationalist demonstrators. Azerbaijan declared its independence in 1991, but not after a long period of ups and downs.

Ah, now do you see why I was a bit embarrassed? Schools and offices are closed on this day (which, in Azerbaijani, is “iyirmi (20) yanvar (January)”.), but it isn’t exactly a holiday. It’s a day of mourning, in which those 132 people are remembered, but, from my perspective, I look at the entire twentieth century: the government changing hands three times, thousands dying in Stalin’s purges, about 400,000 dead after the war with Nazi Germany, great civil and ethnic unrest, and 132 nationalists killed by Soviet troops. After something like that, I’d say it’s good a nation chooses to stick together, remembering its history and moving forward, and as the United States of America inaugurates a new president, I’d say it’s important that we take a hard look at past years and move forward too.

Amerikada var?

19 January 2009

Let me tell you a little somethin’ about livin’ abroad. This is the most challenging part of it, while, at the same time, it’s the most rewarding. Let me explain.

While I was living with my first host family in Ceyranbatan, I got this question a lot. “Amerikada var?” means “Do you have this in the United States?” On any given day, I could get it about everything: cows, bananas, cars, roads, hospitals, mosques, whatever. And, well, the answer is pretty easy when it comes to questions like that: Yes, we do have those in the United States, or no, we don’t have those there.

Whether or not something exists in the United States is one matter. However (And, like always, many Peace Corps volunteers can attest.), what about those “What’s life like in the United States” type questions. Yeah, those are different.

When you’re plopped down in the middle of a different life, you make great adjustments without even realizing it. The fact that I need to take off my shoes every time I enter a home and put on a pair of slippers never struck me as such a huge change because I didn’t really have time to think about it. You integrate one step at a time, being careful not to embarrass yourself. However, on any given night, when I’m laying in bed with nothing but my thoughts, I can sit back, reflect, and think, “Holy crap, if I was back home, who would give a darn if I wore slippers or not? We don’t put our bread and turkey bones on the bare table in Texas. I can sit back and cross one leg over the other in the U.S., and no one would give it a second thought.” Before I know it, my mind is blown.

So what am I getting at here? Well, what if you’re in the middle of a dialogue with someone from a different culture? This person has not been to the United States, and her only real impression of the U.S. is you. It’s easy for her to go on about her own culture because, well, you’re in it. You’re living it every day, but once you begin describing the intricacies of where you come from, things can get a little sticky: “What do you mean your mother drives to work every day?” “You can buy what at the grocery store?” “Coffee shops?” “How many rooms do you have in your house?”

These are just a few examples, and explaining yourself ain’t always easy. Most of all, you don’t want to leave a false impression, but how can you do that when you’re describing to a person that lives in a village with muddy roads that all the roads in your “village” are asphalt? How do you tell people that teenagers in your community go to a high school in an adjacent town with two stories, a huge gymnasium, a library, and a football stadium? I had a gentleman tell me the other day that my village was good and his wasn’t. “Well, no” I thought, “That isn’t it at all. It’s just different.” And that’s the truth.

And here’s the end-all question that has put many a volunteer in an awkward situation: “How much money does your brother make?” My school director asked me that (more than once), because he knows that my brother, Clay, is a teacher. “I don’t know” is my answer, and I stick to it. To be honest, I don’t know how much he makes, and don’t care to, and we Americans also tend to believe that money is a taboo subject to bring up, especially with folks we don’t know real well. But let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine a situation in…whatever country…in which one person makes two grand a month, but his neighbor makes three grand a month. That’s a heck of a difference. It would give one good reason to ask around, seeing where the good jobs are. I know that making a comparison in salary between my director, who works in a school with wood stoves in each classroom and sheep wondering around in front, and my brother, who works at a private school in Chattanooga, would be futile, but I don’t blame the man for asking. I just have to play it cool, being careful not to leave them with the wrong idea. A lady who speaks good English told me, “Our lives can be difficult here, but in America, you make much money.” Okay, I admit that contrasts may exist in salaries, but that’s not to say that two working class parents in Wimberley, Texas, making minimum wage and trying to raise their three kids, live an “easy” life.

So how do you answer these cross-cultural inquiries? Well, you tell ‘em like it is, no matter how hard that may be. It doesn’t help to beat around the bush, and, to be perfectly honest, that’s why Peace Corps sends U.S. citizens all over the world: to give people an understanding of America. For me, sitting down with local folk and verbally painting a picture of where I come from is beautiful. It gives me great pleasure to describe my hometown to Firuz and Aybəniz, and see their heads slowly nod up and down. Whether folks leave your side saying, “Wow, America sounds cool” or “Good gracious, what a weird place he comes from,” you did what you should do, and you should keep doing it as best you can.

Brother and Sister

17 January 2009

How many of you can relate to this concept? I know I can. My sister Catherine Grace is four years older than I am, and we have many memories growing up together.

Well, these themes don’t stop at the border. In fact (And every Peace Corps Azerbaijan crony can agree.), family is a prime topic of conversation around here. They wanna know about your parents and grandparents, how many brothers and sisters you have, what they do, whether they’re married and have children or not, and so on and so forth. They’re very interested in that, and they’re especially pleased to see pictures. Just today, I brought a picture of my parents and me to a friend’s house, and the picture was passed around to everybody. Everyone made sure to give his or her input about who I looked like (Some said Mom, and some said Dad, which is interesting.).

But in this entry, I’m not specifically talking about my family. What I wanna get at is my host family, in particular, Hökümə, my host sister, and Rustam, my host brother. The sister is a teenager, and the brother is about nine. Now, think about that for a second. What’s the dynamic that comes to mind when you think about the relationship between a teenage sister and a kid brother?

Well, I had my own preconceptions, too, seeing as I am a kid brother and, at one time, was nine when my sister was thirteen. However, those preconceptions were blown away when I saw how these two got along. They do everything together. They’re like best friends. So far, one of my most vivid memories occurred on a snowy day. We were having lunch after school, and right when the two were done eating, they raced outside and immediately started playing in the snow together. It was beautiful, really, and I’m personally amazed at how two young people spend their free time here. I mean, it’s a little village that’s pretty dark at night, not a street light to be found, so what do they do on the weekends? Well, they stay at home. A Friday night is simply a night to stick around the house and relax, and Saturday and Sunday are the same way. There’s no movie theater to go to, no sleepovers like we have in the States. Home is where it all happens, and, with this being the case, I’d say it’s a pretty darn good thing these two get along so well. Nonetheless, it’s cool to see.

Changing Places

17 January 2009

Well, it appears I’ve been quite lacking in my web logging lately. I mean, really lacking. What happened? I can’t even give a straight answer, but what I can give is a sincere apology to all my dedicated readers (Yes, all four of you). Sorry ‘bout that.

This entry concerns a pretty prevalent theme in my life, and, to be honest, a common theme among many Americans. It’s about moving from one place to another. I know many of you have been there and done that. I, for one, began moving from when I was two, going from Tennessee, where I was born, to Texas, with my family. Since then, we haven’t spent more than five years anywhere. Although moving isn’t always fun (You gotta pack everything up, say your goodbyes, then unload everything again.), I now feel (And I think other members of my family can agree.) that everywhere we’ve lived brings back such specific, vivid memories that we all share.

And who recognizes the aspects of going to a new place better than a Peace Corps volunteer? That’s not to say that we’re experts, but we’re all in the same boat in that we’ve all packed our bags and moved far away from home. And the moving doesn’t stop in just one place, either. Nope, sure doesn’t. You see, the last, longer entry I wrote was from Ceyranbatan, but I don’t live there anymore.

Ceyranbatan was where I was living for training, and now that training’s over (It’s actually been over for a bout five weeks.), I’ve packed up and moved to Qumlaq village, Oğuz. I wrote about this place before, and it’s great to finally be living here. Training can be a pretty taxing time. You got a lot on your plate, and it’s like a big breath of fresh, mountain air (literally) to be settled and working at my site of service.

But it’s not like I left Ceyranbatan and then put it out of mind. Luckily, my good neighbor from Ceyranbatan, Charlie Djordjevic, lives in the same rayon as I. Our memories of training will always be with us, like the time Charlie was locked out of his house by a certain unnamed grandmother and came to my host family’s place for kabobs, or when my “host uncle” randomly took me and Charlie for a drive to a wedding palace in Sumgait, and a huge feast magically showed up while we were sitting in some gentleman’s (who I guess lived at the wedding palace?) apartment area, or when we showed the kids at the local school how to play touch football. We left Ceyranbatan, optimistic about where we were going, with great memories, and, hey, that’s how it outta be. If I’ve learned anything in Peace Corps (and in my life in general), it’s that packing up and heading to a new place shouldn’t be something you dread, even though it can be a pain. It wasn’t fun loading all my stuff into a marshrutka (Remember what those are?), talking the driver into not charging us extra, and hauling it to Oğuz, but now I’m here, and it’s great. And even if you’re not too fond of where you’re going, it makes where you came from mean that much more. As much as my family liked living in Maryland, it still meant a lot to us to move back to Texas, where we’d lived most of my life. Things like this are important to remember when you’ve made a two-year commitment to live in a foreign place. There are good days and not as good days, but we can all count on the fact that we will go back eventually. Maybe home will mean more to us when it’s all over. And let’s be honest; that wouldn’t be a bad thing.