4 April 2009
There’s a verb that exists in the Azerbaijani language that really amuses me. It’s "qonaq etmək", which, if translated literally, means "to do/make guest", with "qonaq" being the word for "guest" and "etmək" the word for "to do" or "to make". Okay that doesn’t make a whole lotta sense, but let’s try and translate this in a better way. According to my big, clunky Azerbaijani to English dictionary, "qonaq etmək" means "to entertain", "to treat", or "to feast". Ah, perhaps it’s ringing a better bell with you now.
Being or entertaining a guest is a big part of the culture here, or anywhere, really, but I’ll concentrate on how it’s done here. We Peace Corps volunteers typically just say that were "going guesting" every now and then, signifying that we’re heading to an Azerbaijani’s house to eat and spend time with their friends and family. Let me paint the picture for you:
You approach the host’s house, and they warmly welcome you, immediately telling you to take off your shoes and put on a pair of slippers. Then you walk into the house and sit right down. In my experience, there’s never been the American custom of showing the guest around the house. You come, and you sit, and the T.V.’s usually on, too. I guess it serves as an extra diversion for the people’s attention. As you get accustomed to the surroundings and Turkish pop songs are playing on the tube, çay is served, along with various little cakes and candies. You gotta love this custom that would get you slapped by your mama if you were back in the States. Folks here eat sweets before and after dinner. Priceless.
After having a spot, or several, of tea and chatting it up with other folks at the table, the sweets are taken away, and the meal comes out. An interesting aspect I’ve experienced that isn’t so common back home is that the women are often going back and forth from the kitchen while only the men sit and eat. I suppose the locals are used to it, but I keep wanting to say, "Come, sit down. We got things to talk about," while they’re pacing to and fro.
Nonetheless, the food is tasty. It typically consists of a few dishes. One of them is dolma. You’ll rarely guest at someone’s place and not have this. Dolma is either grape leaves or cabbage stuffed with meat and rice. It’s good stuff. Then, of course, there’ll be plenty of fresh bread to go with it. I’ve become a world-class bread eater since being in this country. Every time I go for a run nowadays, I can feel it there, weighing me down, but it’s so good that it’d be a crime if I refused it.
Also, they might serve up some cutlet, which is cooked ground beef patties, kind of like a chop steak or burger, without the bun of course. Sometimes it’s served with scrambled eggs, too (providing enough fat and protein for the next few days). They also might serve some turkey or chicken stew with potatoes, and, of course, no bout of guesting would be complete without dovğra. It’s a type of yogurt-based drink with cilantro and other little greens in it. It’s served hot or cold. When I first tried it, I was like, "You gotta be kidding." I can remember when Charlie first gave it a whirl, at his host family’s house in Ceyranbatan. I was sitting next to him, and when I asked, "How is it?" he responded, after swallowing and making a priceless face, "It’s interesting," which, for some reason, made me laugh consistently throughout our meal there, perhaps to the chagrin or simply confusion of the host. Anyway, I’m getting off topic. Yeah, it seemed kinna weird at first, but it grew on me, and Charlie, too. It’s definitely an acquired taste.
Being the good hosts that they are, the Azerbaijanis will also insist that you eat more and more…and then more. My old football coach, Darly Hayes, would’ve been pleased. You gotta be careful, ‘cause, you know, you gotta save room for dessert, which is, well, what you had before dinner, with more çay. Oh, well, what the heck. Indulge. Life is short.
I’d say guesting is a pleasurable experience, and it’s certainly a testimony to the hospitality of folks that’re glad to have you. I’m also amazed to see the word "qonaq" have such a strong presence in the Azerbaijani language: "çağrılmış qonaq" (invited guest), "çağrilmamış qonaq" (uninvited guest / intruder (I guess it wouldn’t be good if you were this person.)), hörmətli qonaq (respected guest), şərəfli qonaq (guest of honor), qonaq getmək (to visit, to pay a visit), qonaq gəlmək (to come to see), qonaq qəbul etmək (to receive visitors / guests), qonaq qalmaq (to be on a visit), qonaq otağı (living room). If the handful of phrases with the word “qonaq” is any indication, I’d say it’s a big part of the culture, and that says a lot about these folks.