Thursday, April 29, 2010

Man on the Run

Imagine for one moment that a young man left his family and all that he knew to venture off to a foreign land, better known as Azerbaijan. Little did he know what would be waiting for him. Little did he know that a brown eyed beauty would sweep over the landscape that was his life like a tornado. Little did he know that this tornado was about 120 pounds of sheer craziness.

So, we will leave this boy (and girl) nameless for mystery sake, but we will tell you that this young man is a friend of ours and a fellow volunteer. Derek and I are conjoining our writing efforts on this very special (and entertaining) edition of our life here in the ‘Zerb.

Our friend, let’s call him Jack, lives in a small village here in Az. He fell in love with his Azeri tutor, let’s call her Jill, after a month or so of lessons. Dear Jack is an easy-going, fun loving, and always very interesting guy.

Stories of this nature, no, sagas of this nature cannot be told with a simple introduction, body, and conclusion. To tell the story of Jack in Azerbaijan is not a beginning to end story. If it were, the narrator would be sure to forget things like; Jill breaking her foot after jumping out of a window to run away with him, or about the time he had all of his money stolen out from underneath his nose, due to his mistake of keeping his pin number with his bankcard. It is examples like these that one would retreat to in a moment desperately in need of comic relief, that would otherwise be unappreciated or overlooked had they been inserted in a body of a story.

Back to said story: So Jack loves Jill. Why not get married, right? Naturally. What do you gotta do to get married in Az? Run away for a few days, duh. Let’s not let the cat out of the back too early, though. We were not clued into any of these things until yesterday when Derek got a phone call from a man on the run: Fugitive Jack.

D: Hey, man. How’s it goin?

J: Uh, yah. Good. You guys got your own place now, right?

D: Uh, yah. We do. What’s up?

J: Well I’m kinda in a pickle. We’re on the run.

D: “We”? Who’s after you?

J: Everyone. We need a place to stay.

D: (laughing nervously) Well, we might be going out of town tomorrow, but let me call you back in the morning.

J: No, I’ll call you.

D: …Ok, are you safe?

J: Yah, yah…they’re just really mad. Ok, call ya tomorrow.

Next morning: Jack calls early (we’re still sleeping). Derek tells him we need a few minutes to wake up, call back in a few. Thirty minutes later, Derek gives him the go ahead to come on over. When Derek asks where they are, Jack responds with, “I have no idea. I think we’re close to Sabirabad.” Meanwhile, we know absolutely nothing about what he’s in and what we might have gotten ourselves into.

Around lunchtime, Jack gets into town with Jill. They come over, have some lunch, and Jack proceeds to fill us in on his interesting past three days. Apparently this wasn’t their first time running, which they casually told us by explaining why her foot was sore. You see, she broke it while jumping out of a window trying to escape her father while Jack was hiding in her cousin’s closet.

After getting the basic low-down if you will, we sat and got to know a little about Jill. They really are cute, the two of them. The language barrier…wow, what to say. Jack’s English sounds more like an Azeri’s now. On more than one occasion he said something to the effect of, “I told you, say him” or “Speak her now!” Awesome, really. He also asked me to translate between the two of them. He asked me to translate between he and his fiancée and he was serious. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

I think it should also be noted that while we are writing this, Jill and Jack came to our bedroom door and knocked. Jack wanted us to know that Jill accidently erased all of the pictures on our camera and she’s sorry. So, now you know that we came to our room immediately (while they’re still here, even) and began writing this fantastic story.

Later this evening, Jack gets a call from his host family. Apparently they want to speak to Jill. Jack is frantically trying to get his host mother to hold on, speaking his broken Azeri until he finally comes out and tells her “Jill is in the toilet”. This is even funnier knowing that any talk of the “toilet” is olmas or completely embarrassing here. Gotta love Jack.

So one minute they’re talking about how many kids they want to have and the next Jack is saying things like, “Sure hope I don’t get kicked out next week.” Meanwhile Jill’s telling us that Jack wants to stay in Az forever. “Really?!?” we ask. “Sure,” Jack says with a grin and a wink that really says ‘No way’. Which brought a slap on the arm from Jill, saying, “Lie. Don’t say.”

When they don’t understand each other, they just speak louder. Jack get’s impatient, but then they’re both laughing about the whole thing a minute later. It’s unbelievable. They’re in a hurry to get married before Jill is married off to the boy her parents have chosen for her. When we show any concern about her family being upset she smiles and assures us that everything will be fine, that is why they run away. Apparently this is some kind of custom?

Maybe someday they’ll tell their grandchildren this same story and laugh about it. You might shoot up a prayer or two for Jack and Jill. Both Derek and I gave the advice that we felt obliged to give, and are now being supportive. They are determined.

Here’s to Jack and Jill. A true American-Azerbaijani love story. Just a day in the life, folks, just a day in the life.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Passing the time; An Update from the Other Half.

So, I (Alicia) have not written in quite some time. I apologize; I guess you could say there’s been a lack of motivation (and let’s be honest, D does a much better job than I). We’ve “settled” in to our new place and have been more than blessed by our landlords with the things we’ve needed. For instance, it’s still fairly cold here and we had no heat source in our first-floor apartment. We waited a few days and finally decided we were cold enough to go out and buy a space heater. We decided we would the next day. But before we could, our landlord dropped one off. I’m starting to wonder if he’s got this place wired. No, but really, they’ve been very good to us.

I’ve been making five-course meals on a hot plate. Okay, so maybe it’s more like beans, pasta, things of that nature, but I’m really REALLY grateful to have my own kitchen. We don’t have any kind of oven, so I can’t bake, but I’m happy to at least have a little opportunity. As most of you know, cooking is a huge stress reliever for me and I think the past few months have been especially hard because I haven’t been able. I also love to cook for Derek and I think it’s safe to say he’s glad I’m back at it. He actually said our first night in our place, “Baby, you’ve still got it.” I really was worried I’d lost it. To those of you that sent mac-n-cheese, I’m still a bit embarrassed. Thank you!

I know D already said, but Israel was phenomenal. I am so grateful that we were able to go. I literally spent thirty minutes at the airport trying to convince Derek that the Peace Corps wouldn’t miss us and we could just stay. I might have cried when we landed in AZ. Not ten minutes off of the plane, a lady stepped in front of me in the customs line (only one, surprisingly). She smiled at me self-approvingly and said “Babushka” (grandmother in Russian). Welcome back to Azerbaijan.

Before I answer a few of our good friend Tim’s questions, I wanted to talk a bit about the friendships we’ve made with our fellow PCV’s here. To be honest, this wasn’t something I thought much about before we left, but the people we are serving with here have proved to be a vital part of our lives. There are some amazing folks here. Some are fresh out of college, others have grandbabies that are being born back home without them. I have learned so much from them and they have been so encouraging. I am humbled by the kind words they say to Derek and I about being a married couple. I am proud of the work they do and their hopes for Azerbaijan. We can cry together, sing karaoke together, and share our different views together. I wish you could meet them.

On to some of Tim’s questions: Topic #3

What is dating/courtship like? What do people do for fun? What do people do for fun at night? At what age do people "settle down"? At what age do people not go out and party at night any more/become fuddy duddies?

Dating/courtship…great question and a bit hard to answer. Marriages are usually arranged in Azerbaijan. When you ask many people how they met their husband/wife, they are likely going to tell you that 1) they are relatives (ex. Their mothers are sisters and arranged the marriage. Marrying a first cousin is legal and normal), 2) Their family found their spouse for them. Because things are arranged, there is no “dating or courtship” going on. If you ask people if dating goes on here, they will tell you yes, but only in Baku. Especially in our conservative region, it is shameful for a girl to spend time with a boy alone. Women are also not “allowed” to go to restaurants and tea houses here, so there is very little to do on a date. People do meet on the internet, though, and talk on the phone. In some instances, girls that are very assertive decide to stay single and pursue a career (very rarely). I would say that the dating culture here is part of what is developing. More and more people are choosing spouses for themselves.

Once a couple is engaged, they might spend time together at family functions, but never alone. Marrying for love, as most of us do in America, is kind of a different concept here. Some do, but most often they do not know their spouse before they are married.

What do people do for fun and at night? I would love to know, ha! Men can often be seen at “çay xanas” (tea houses) both during the day and at night. In Sabirabad, there is little work right now, so men are often out during the day with their friends. Once, while one of my students was walking home with me, I asked him why there were no women at the çay xana (though I knew the answer). He said, “They don’t go.” I said, “Don’t women like to drink tea?” To which he responded, “Yes of course, but at home.” Men also get together at home or çay xanas to play dominos or checkers. There are no bars in Sabirabad. The only place I’ve really ever seen them is in Baku.

For women, all of this is a different story. As I said before, women do not go to çay xanas or restaurants because it is shameful. I have even had a lot of trouble finding women that will meet with me at the youth center (by trouble, I mean no one will come). Women are, for the most part, very busy. For instance, the teachers I work with will teach until 1:00 p.m. or later, then go home and do laundry, make meals, clean the house, and other household responsibilities. They have no “social” time available to them. This does not mean they would not like to, though.

In the summer, many people go to the river to have picnics. Men and boys might swim. They will grill kebab and lay on blankets when the weather is nice.

“Toys” or weddings are a big social extravaganza. There is delicious food, dancing, and large tables with many guests. We have been to two so far and, though some things were similar, they were very different. At the most recent toy we went to, women sat on one side of the room and men on the other. Men and women also did not dance together. While men were on the dance floor, women were sitting down or having their picture taken with the bride and groom. Toys are a good opportunity for people to dress in their best clothes and spend time together. Most girls here love hair and makeup.

At what age do people “settle down”? There are a few ways to answer this question. First, I will return to the marriage talk. It is very common for women to marry as young as eighteen. If they do not study after High School, they marry. In some regions, it is rumored that girls marry as young as thirteen. For men, on the other hand, it is common for them to marry later. Many men are in their late twenties before they take a spouse.

After marrying, it is most common for the bride and groom to move in with his family. The bride will assume many of the household responsibilities alongside her mother-in-law. Children are also very prized here, so many times young couples start having a family right away. I am asked all of the time why I don’t have any children because I have been married for almost four years. They are also very intrigued with methods of birth control J. I have had some pretty interesting conversations in my limited Azeri. Ask me some time in person. I’ve got stories.

Over all, marriage is very, very common and at a young age. To remain single is somewhat odd and many parents discourage it. Just because you marry, though, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “settling down”, specifically for the man. I can elaborate on this in person as well.

At what age do people not go out and party at night any more/become fuddy duddies? Well, as I’ve already said, not much “partying” goes on here. It is very common, though, for men to stay out as late as they please. I have not really seen an age limit to that, yet.

One interesting topic about girls here is how they transition from trying to be “trendy” to wearing “xanam” or lady attire. Everywhere in Azerbaijan you will find women wearing “xanam” clothes or house clothes. We’re talking polyester jump suits or long moo-moos. Girls as young as High School age can be seen dressed this way. My friend Shira, a volunteer here, definitely just bought her “summer” xanam wear. It doesn’t get much more settled down than that.

An example of the difference between people here, though, is our previous host family. Our host father is a homebody. He enjoys watching T.V. and working in the garden. Our host mom, however, loves going to the neighbor’s or out to the country where most of her family lives. Whenever she gets a chance, she will leave to see her sisters. Spending time with family is the biggest social scene among women I’ve witnessed here and I must say, it’s refreshing. I miss my sisters even more by watching my host mom interact with her own.

I hope I’ve at least begun to answer these questions for you. Please know that there is much more I could say, but I must remain politically correct (at least I tried to). As you can see, being a woman here is very different than being a woman back home. You might consider my friends here next time you’re having lunch with a friend or meeting up for drinks after work. Also, I must say that I am so grateful for Derek and the help he is in our home. Thanks Mama Debby, Deidra, and Dacia for grooming him for me!

Keep the questions comin’ and God bless! - Alicia

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Living Alone at Last

For the first time in about three years, Alicia and I have our own place.

Wha? Three years? I don’t understand.

Well about a year after we were married, Alicia and I, along with a few friends, all rented a house and moved in together. After we were accepted by the Peace Corps to come to Azerbaijan, we moved out of Joplin, and in with each set of parents for about a month apiece. Upon arriving in Azerbaijan, we moved in with a host family for training, another host family after moving to site, and now, for the first time in three years, we have our own apartment. It was quite an adventure getting here.

I won’t bore with the play-by-play details of how many hoops we painfully, strategically, and luckily jumped through in order to acquire our apartment. Let’s just say that we are grateful to be here, and it quite literally took divine intervention before we could convince our faux realtor that a “house that isn’t so bad, has no indoor plumping, and no heat, but is within our price range, and we would be completely alone except for the fifty three year old woman living in the next room” was not what we were looking for, nor would we take.

So I am pleased to say that I am writing you from an old soviet style apartment, with two chairs, (one of which I am seated), a rug, refrigerator, a hot plate and electric kettle, and two beds pushed together. Home sweet home.

We have returned from Israel. Entirely too soon I may add. Our time with Matt, Robin, Hadassah, Matan, and Gabriel was exactly what we needed. It was so good to see the kids and to spend time with Matt and Robin. We had a first class tour of Israel without looking too much like tourists. Using their residence in Beer Sheva as “home base”, we traveled to Nazareth, Tiberias, Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, and the Dead Sea in the Negev Desert. It was an incredible experience to see the Holy Lands. Sites visited:


Church of Annunciation, (Mary’s home), St. Joseph’s Church, Mary’s Well.

Sea of Galilee:

Mount of Beatitudes, Tabga (feeding of 5,000), Job’s Spring (where disciples washed their nets), Jesus’ Cave (prayer site), Capernaum, St. Peter’s House, Synagogue where Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”, Mount Tabor (Site of Transfiguration), Nain.


Church of All Nations, Garden of Gethsemane, Grotto of Gethsemane (Judas betrayal site), Tomb of Mary, Via Dolorosa and Stations of the Cross, Church of Flagellation, Church of Condemnation, Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Golgotha, Jesus’ Tomb), Mount Zion, Tomb of David, The Upper Room, Western Wall (Wailing Wall).

Day 2:

Kideron Valley (Tomb of Absolom/Zecheriah), Temple Mount, Palm Sunday Procession from atop the Mount of Olives down the mountain through the Lion’s Gate, Church of St. Anne (Mary’s mother/Mary’s birthplace), Pools of Bethesda.

Day 3:

We tried to go to Bethlehem, but were turned away at the wall due to riots. Jewish holy site; Rachel’s Tomb.


Herod’s desert fortress near the Dead Sea (Negev Desert), floated the Dead Sea.

I apologize for the long list, but I feel I would have left something great out had I not included a list of where we went and what we saw. If anyone has any further questions on the historical or spiritual significance of these sites, feel free to leave a comment or consult your closest Bible, Theology major, or Google™ web browser.

If you thought you were getting off the hook that easy, think again. Keeping up with my theme and my word, I will answer another question posed by my good friend Tim Fisher. Tim has given me a broad range of questions to choose from. If you would like to ask a question, no matter how broad or specific, please do.

Tim’s Topic: Q #2.

How important is religion? Is the religion primarily Muslim as you expected? Do people really take their religion seriously or just "go to church"? How is religion (if at all) entwined with custom and law (requiring headscarves, no drinking, taking shoes off when entering a building, that kinda thing), have you experienced a religious service at the state religion's church?

This is a fantastic question that does not have an easy answer. I will do my best to convey my findings in an understandable, easy to read manner. However, please remember that I will apply what I have seen and heard in Sabirabad, not the country as a whole.

How important is religion? It is difficult for me to determine exactly how important religion is, because I tend to compare it to how devoutly it is carried out. I would argue that this is not fair. Azerbaijan is primarily Muslim. Ninety-three percent is what Wikipedia says. Sabirabad, so I have been told, is one of the more conservative regions in the country. What does this mean?

When I say conservative, I am referring to the bylaws of Islam. I do not want to overstep my bounds, nor sound like any kind of an expert on the subject, but within Islamic culture there are rules, specifically gender rules, that can be applied, and perhaps exaggerated. I would argue that Sabirabad is an exaggerator of those bylaws. Of course we cannot apply this to Islamic culture, nor peoples, worldwide. Many western Muslims would not be able to relate with the “status quo” of Azerbaijan. I will not address Islamic culture elsewhere, nor will I pretend to know much of anything about it. Simply put, I see a lot of emphasis on Islamic rules/culture in favor of everything alpha patriarchal, for reasons other than religious devotion.

Islam gives the Azeri people an identity. For such a young country, whose history is riddled with different rulers, Islam is a place to put ones foot down and say, “Yes, we are Muslim.” Such assurances are harder to come by when asking different questions, i.e; Ethnicity, education levels, average income, ranking on global status, etc.

“Going to Church” theology is not as common here. I walk by the local Mosque nearly everyday. I usually see a few sets of shoes beside the front door. There is a call of prayer everyday, five times a day, three at the least. If I am not mistaken, in more devout Islamic countries, if it is time to pray, you stop where you are and pray. Obviously not every person does, but at least it would not be uncommon to see someone praying in public during the call. I have never seen anyone praying in public here. Perhaps it is happening much more often at home. The one Azeri that I have seen pray, was our first host mother. In our two months there, I saw her pray a few times. Again, I’m unaware of what she did in her own time. Perhaps she began praying in her room in order to make us feel more comfortable. Perhaps she prayed silently. For all I know, every person in Sabirabad may pray silently when the call of prayer is on.

Along with the bylaws/cultural impact of Islam in Sabirabad are the head coverings. I see a lot more hijabs in Sabirabad than I have seen elsewhere. There is a difference between a hijab and a scarf. Many women in Sabirabad wear a scarf while walking from home to the market, or if they are outside, to keep their heads warm. It’s also culturally trendy. But I see many more hijabs here than I have seen elsewhere.

As far as I know there is nothing in the laws about head coverings. The customs here though do represent an Islamic majority, but not everything. Many customs are native to Azerbaijan. A few, for example;

Wearing shoes indoors – Never

Showing someone the bottom of your feet – Okay, no big deal.

Tea tea tea tea and more tea – Always drink it, always have it, always serve it to anyone who walks through your door.

Feed your guests – If someone stops by to borrow a cup of sugar, they will be told to: “Come, sit, eat bread!” Usually three times before refusal is accepted.

Bread - Always have it, eat a ton of it. Never place it face down on the table, never let it touch the ground, after eating immediately wipe the table! No crumbs left behind. If the bread has gone stale, it is improper to throw it away with the rest of the garbage. It is placed in a separate bag, hanging off the ground, and disposed of later, after all the other trash has been removed. Bread doubles as a napkin.

Cigarettes – Everyone except their mother smokes here. It is inappropriate for women to smoke here. It is rare to meet a man who does not smoke.

Whistling Indoors – Only if you want to welcome the bad spirits. Don’t do it.

Shaking hands. Men with women, vice versa. - It happens here a lot more than I thought it would. Pretty much every woman I meet who is married or older than me will extend her hand. The only women I don’t offer a handshake is younger single women or teenage girls.

Men holding hands/interlocking arms/kissing - It is totally normal for two male friends to walk down the street hold hands or interlocking arms and to have their heads close together as they walk and talk. When they depart they kiss whilst still holding hands/arms interlocked. It’s totally normal.

There are a lot of cultural things here that I have picked up on that I am sure I am forgetting, but I think you have heard enough for one day. Remember, if you want to hear about anything, please let me know. Thanks for reading. Hope you have a great one.


-Derek and Alicia