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).
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.
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