Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New layout, Taking Requests, and a Trip to the Holy Lands.

Greetings and Salutations,

Things are looking a little different around here. The blog's layout has changed, for the better I hope. The beard is gone, although I thought I would add this picture as a small commemoration. The weather is changing, I'm quite certain I will prefer Spring. And finally, in eleven short days Alicia and I will be heading to Israel for a two week vacation. On top of all this we are currently looking for our own house, hoping to secure it before we leave for Israel. Things are changing.

In this installment of "derek and alicia in the 'zerb" I want to address these changes that I have mentioned, as well as an idea my good friend Tim Fisher has given me. In a recent effort to find a purpose for the blog, rather than the 'ole run of the mill, "this is what we are doing, this is how the weather is, yadda yadda", Tim e-mail me with a compiled list of topics he would enjoy reading about.

Tim and I are like minded, both studied history at MSSU, enjoyed the same professors, and had many a conversations of cultural, history, and life in general. For these reasons I jumped at this chance to discuss, in a historically interpretive modus operandi, my views of cultural life in Azerbaijan. "Grade A" academia you ask? Let's not set ourselves up for disappointment.

Perhaps my writing on a particular topic will give you a better insight to Azerbaijan, its people, and, as carefully, tactfully, and culturally sensitively as possible, their government. I would love to hear your ideas for topics to write on. Tim has given me more than enough to keep me busy, and in doing so, perhaps the blog itself will receive more attention from me, and possibly more reading from viewers like you.

So let's talk about what's changing. The Peace Corps has recently given us the go ahead to move out! Policy for all PCV's is to live with a host family for the first four months after moving to their respective permanent site. Beginning April 1st, we will have the green light. Many of our friends have already found a house to rent. Interestingly enough, reality companies aren't a big hit here in Sabirabad, so finding those vacant homes has proven tricky. Alicia and I have put the word out. We are anxiously awaiting a bite, even a nibble would work. Our host family has been fine, the majority of the time, but we are ready to spread our wings, get our own place, cook our own food, and wear a few less articles of clothing about 100% of the time.

My four month beard growing extravaganza, formerly known as "Whiskerino", is finished. This was the last chapter of Whiskerino, and I was happy to participate from Azerbaijan. My beard is gone. The people of Azerbaijan are quite pleased. Enough so to stop me on the street and tell me that I'm not ugly anymore.

Spring has nearly sprung. It's currently waiting in the wings. Because we are located in the south central area of Azerbaijan, we will be warming up a little quicker. The weather right now is much like that of Joplin, Missouri. One day it is 65 degrees and sunny, the next is cold and miserable. Every time I get the slightest bit anxious and ask my host mother if Spring has come and the weather will be nice from here on out, she tells me;
"No, it will be cold again, and I'm worried that Şamaxı will be hit with a hurricane. I know, I'm psychic."
Şamaxı is a town about 2 hours away, in the middle of Azerbaijan. I'm not holding my breath. But in all seriousness, she has been right about the weather before, and she isn't crazy, she is a sweetie.

To round out the winds of change, Alicia and I will be visiting Israel, leaving the 21st of this month, returning April, 4th. We are excited to visit. Alicia's brother Matthew lives there with his wife Robin and their three children. We are anxious to see the kids and spend time with them. Matt has planned for us to see the sites of Israel. It's slightly mind boggling to think about visiting a place with so much history. I have explained to my students that this is a Christian's Mecca, of sorts. Alicia and I are excited to see where our religion's history began, and to attend Mass with Matt and his family. We have missed having a place to worship in Azerbaijan. Israel will be just the "re-booster" that Alicia and I need.

Tim's Topic: #1
Q: Describe the society in Azerbaijan. Talk to me about the rural vs. urban population differences, education levels, average incomes. How do the poor live? The rich? What is an example of an average guy making a living?

Keeping in mind that everything I have experienced and "know" about Azerbaijan comes from a guy who has been here for 6 months. I think this is important to remember. You as a reader must determine how reliable my information is, given my lack of understanding of the culture, language barrier, and my interpretation of what happens around me, compared to what actually is. I personally feel I've got it pretty close to right. Decide for yourself.

It is safe to say that Azerbaijan is a developing country with a developing way of thinking. It is not safe to say, as a whole, their way of thinking is modern. Behold, the "Baku dynamic." Baku has a population of 2, 039, 7oo, in a country of roughly nine million. (baku site:wikipedia.org) It is quickly developing and home to a booming oil economy. The city, at a glance, is very westernized. Needless to say, what happens in Baku, really doesn't happen anywhere else. I've heard it described as "The Disney Land of Azerbaijan."

This gives natives in the regions, (countryside) a trump card defending modernity in Azerbaijan. When asked what is "allowed and not allowed", referring to gender roles and practices, the usual response is, "Well not here, but in Baku, they do that. It's okay in Baku."

The differences in rural vs. urban populations is drastic. It is what one would expect though, I would argue. The less developed, country side, or periphery of the core of the country and development, would, by default, be more traditional, conservative, and religious. In the regions people dress more traditionally. Typical dress for men would be black trousers, sweater or dress shirt, black jacket and black dress shoes. Professional women, dress the same, with respect to more feminine styles. Women who stay home wear sweat suits, heavy knit sweater vests, thick colorful socks (pulled over the bottom of the pant legs) and usually have a scarf head covering. These women are known as "Xanam", the azeri word for "lady". If someone refers to another as, "A nice old Xanam", they aren't talking about just any member of the female sex.

Gender roles are strong and well defined in the regions, and rarely broken. For westerners this is difficult to live with, especially western women. Opinions about gender roles become almost militant when outside opinion enters the circle of thought. I have had hands waved in my face, telling me to leave/shut up/go away, for asking if men would ever share domestic responsibilities, even if those men are unemployed and stay home.

Education levels and average incomes would seem to go hand in hand. They do not here. Keeping in mind my desire to be a-political and sensitive, I will simply say, a higher education does not imply that you will receive a higher paying job. Alicia has told me about her students in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. The boys are not interested in school, nor are they required, after 16, to attend. When asked, "What will you do?", the usual response is, "I will be a driver." Because the oil boom economy has not reached the regions, in the sense of providing jobs, work can be difficult to find.

In Sabirabad the most prevalent form of work is driving a taxi. Regulations to be a taxi driver are simple, pay a tax, and you're a driver. Each taxi drives his own car, the little yellow sign is extra. The problem with being a taxi is everyone is a taxi. Near the post office, on the main road in Sabirabad, the street is lined on both sides in each direction with drivers awaiting their next fare.

At the college, the majority of my students are female. Typically the girls will complete college and stay at home, unless they are later married off, at which point they will live with their husband's family, and stay home. College is not necessarily a means to a job, but a husband. When I poll my class, the majority of girls want to work. Laziness is not the issue.

I have not met anyone who is rich. Alicia and I guested at a family's home who had done well in their life. Their father had been a driver for a foreign oil company and had made enough to retire and send his two sons to universities in Baku. In my mind he had done quite well, and made good decisions, but I don't think rich is fair. I commended him for his desire to push his sons to succeed and to study English. In doing so he had produced two of the better English speakers in Sabirabad that I have met. They want to travel, experience different cultures, and to make their father proud. They will do well.

Those who can afford to go to Universities in Baku, go. Men mostly. Every once in a while you hear of a father sending his daughter to the University, but in the regions, that is practiced quite minimally. It is the sons who are invested in.

The government provides a pension to anyone over the age of 55. No one in Azerbaijan is starving. An extreme few are homeless. In this culture, families take care of each other. If a family is poor, they are poor together. They share what they can when they can. Because food is so inexpensive, and families pool resources, no one goes without. Poverty is usually best seen in housing conditions. Drafty homes, poor maintained pit or trench style outdoor toilets, no showers, or no hot water heater. Rarely are homes without gas or electricity. Because families stick together, homes are shared and maintained within the family. Pensions are almost exclusively spent on food. I have never heard of a house payment as a complaint. Utilities, by American standards, are dirt cheap.
In the regions, women and the elderly stay home. Men go to restaurants, tea houses, and the market. Because there is a lack of entertainment, people are spending their money on food, utilities, cigarettes (.60-$1 a pack), and occasionally clothes. I say this cautiously, and thinking not out of amenities, but necessities, poverty in Azerbaijan is not what needs reforming.

This concludes my first "topic". I hope you enjoyed it. Please let me know what would be interesting to hear about. Thanks for following along with us. If not before, I will update you all from Israel. Take care!



  1. Always great to hear from you. Glad to know everything is going well. Praying for you guys! Have a great trip. Hope to hear some awesome things about the Holy Land.


  2. Great topic suggested by Tim. I will give it some thought! We are all glad you are keeping a blog to, not only inform us of what you two are doing, but educate us as well. Have a great trip to Israel!

  3. Very insightful. Glad for Tim's suggestion. We will all learn more as a result. Thanks for taking the time to write. Looking forward to the next one.

  4. Now THAT, good sir, is the kind of cultural investigative writing that I'd pay good money to read. Alas for you, it is free. I really appreciate you writing it, as I already feel I understand the Azeris a little better. And yes, I did see you citing wikipedia, Teverow would be so proud. The upcoming trip sounds like a blast, and coming home to a place of your own will feel good. Take tons of pictures, as we just can't get enough of your wife......and your ugly mug too. I'd like to hear from the little missus as well, if she takes requests. I'm certain the gender issues she's encountered have to give her a unique perspective.

    Living vicariously through the Johnsons (as I am known to do),


  5. Thanks for the update and information. I really enjoyed reading about what you have observed during your time there. I would also like to hear about gender issues there. I know that Alicia was concerned about this when you two found out where you were going.

    I am so excited for you about your Israeli trip. Being there was such an amazing experience for me and I hope that yours will be as well. The country (and especially Jerusalem) is such a wonderful mix of cultures and eras. If you go to the Israel Museum (think Dead Sea Scrolls), go to the archaeology wing and look for a staff head piece that is similar to the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark (without the jewels) that was found in Caesarea. I found that during the dig I was on.

    My favorite places included Jerusalem, Ein Gedi, the Dead Sea (just to say you have done it before it disappears), Masada, and the Jordan River baptismal site.

    Enjoy and keep the blogs coming.

    Kimberly Fisher

  6. Derek-

    Enjoyed the post. Enjoy your trip and give that wife of yours a hug from me.

    Love you guys!


  7. Good writing, son! This will serve as a great diary for you and Alicia if you're not already doing that elsewhere. We are praying for you. Rest in the company of family while you're in Israel. I'm sure Matt, Robin, and the kids are just as excited about you coming - it's not often they get visits from family. I love you both! Mom