Summer 1994 (2.2)
by Susan Cornnell
Photography by Oleg Litvin
Rare Scenes of Snow in Baku
February: It's been snowing here in Baku for the last couple of days. It's quite a sight! Palm fronds laced in white! Snow is rather rare here.
Three continuous days of the stuff and the lively, playful nature of the people is emerging all over the place. They are amazed and joyful, even cavalier as they palm together little "messages of mischief" to toss mostly at strangers. Then you'll see an elderly little fellow take a tumble and the snow balls are dropped and everybody runs to grab an elbow, dust off his bag and help "baba" precariously on his way.
During the 20 years that I used to live in Boston, snow always meant organized rows of giant plows, meteorologist's forecasts, school cancellations and snarled traffic. In Baku, it means "Let's be kids again!" It's like a Winter Carnival!
As a few cars venture out over the unplowed streets, young boys grab hold of rear bumpers to be dragged, slipping and sliding along as the vehicles bump down cobblestone streets. In every park perfectly dignified young men toss young ladies (pretending to be indignant) into snow banks. Few buses are running and in the traffic circles, cars squirm to get a grip. Snow tires, plows, chains, and salt are unknown here in this sunny capital. To get anywhere reliably, people walk or take the Metro.
Carpets are hauled outside into the snow. Water is a problem here and vacuum cleaners, scarce so whenever God sends a natural cleanser, they drag their carpets out, cover them with snow, swish them around, and hang them on lines or over balconies and "beat the daylights" out of them.
So, anyway, I'll make my point. I come from a land of predictability, order, and systems-where there's an organized plan for everything. Since I've been living here in Baku, I'm beginning to learn a new way of living from the generous-hearted people of Azerbaijan.
I was a corporate executive in the travel industry for 17 years. Things worked, appointments were kept, strategies were displayed on overhead projects and even leisure time was scheduled on the essential pocket calendar.
But in Azerbaijan, those hundreds of lists of things "to do" have been replaced with an attitude of whatever-gets-done-today-is-great but the most important thing I can do is to get to know someone. Somehow, Azerbaijanis still cling to the belief that it's people that make all the difference and that, in the long run, relationships are the highest prized possession.
Let's say you have to rent a hall for a meeting like I did the other day. In my "previous life," I would simply have made a telephone call, scheduled an appointment with the manager's secretary, arrived at the appointed time with my proposal in hand, been prepared to negotiate and then finally signed the contract.
But here you'll out that it's still extremely difficult to set up appointments by phone. You can try, but it takes a great effort. You pray, you punch those numbers on that "Western phone" you bought at the local "Commission" shop and hope that the number goes through.
You'll soon realize that the most important key on your touch-tone phone is the "re-dial" button. A busy signal can mean one of two things: either the line really is busy or it could be dead so you keep trying. It can take several attempts to make the right connection. In fact, dialing five times can get you five different parties, none of which is necessarily the person you were originally trying to reach.
Once you do get through, don't be surprised if you're suddenly somehow interrupted by another line that cuts into your conversation. If you know the language, you may find their conversation more interesting than yours, but more often than not, they'll listen in on your English and even join in.
First Priority in Business: Getting To Know You
The other day I had to rent a hall. I didn't call; I simply stopped by the office of the director who welcomed me, "Oh, come in and have some tea!" Now, he had no idea of the purpose of my visit but he didn't press me. He was just interested in becoming friends. It turned out that he is a Member of Parliament, a famous author, and, like me, loves to take photos.
We had a lively exchange for quite some time. Finally, I felt compelled to state my mission which by then somehow seemed so intrusive on our marvelous conversation. But in 30 seconds, the business aspect was concluded. "Whatever I can do for you, I'm at your service." There was no need to negotiate or sign a contract. Sometime later on, we'll agree on a mutually acceptable price, but that's a mere detail compared to the greater task that we accomplished in building a friendship.
Everything So Time-Consuming
In the nearly two years that I've been living here in Azerbaijan, I've come to realize that getting anything done involves an incredible amount of time. Here, you're dealing with people, not plans. Friendships take priority, not schedules.
Well, you say, that's not such an efficient way to do business-all this tea and these niceties.
But the Azeri people are known for their hospitality. It doesn't matter if you're in a corporate boardroom or a refugee tent, you'll find that their first priority is always in getting to know you. Maybe that's why the life-expectancy rate for many of the people here in the Caucasus is among the highest in the world: less stress, more love.
It's a value inherent in the Azeri character. These people are survivors. They have survived generations of oppressive rule from invaders and cruel khans to organized socialism and the deprivation of their individual worth. Now their lives are torn by a struggle with a bordering country.
Surviving Through Relationships
Azerbaijanis are used to disappointment. They're used to their "well-laid" plans and orderly lives being pulled out from under them. One day they can be preparing bread in their home and the next, plodding across mountain passes and forging rivers in search of shelter-even a simple tent to protect them from the hostile elements. The indomitable character of the Azeri people has survived not because of plans, but because of relationships.
Maybe we don't know so much about this in our "civilized" Western world. Most of us don't know what it's like to experience war within our own borders. We don't have a "Martyr's Cemetery" where graves are dug nearly every day for our young soldier sons. We haven't had to invite our cousins and their families to live with us in cramped two room apartments and to share limited resources because their own homes have been looted and burned by the enemy's army.
If we had, perhaps, we would better understand the value of human life and better understand that we weren't placed on this earth just to hurtle through it. Perhaps, we'd stop more often to share a cup of tea-or share a meal-"bread and salt" as they say.
Some of the ways of the Azeri people may be difficult for us Westerners to understand. We look askance at men kissing each other and at women walking down the street holding hands. We come from a mentality that places great emphasis on individual expression which may ignore how our actions effect others. But here in Azerbaijan, relationships are primary. And when Azerbaijanis say, "Khosh Gelmish-siniz" (Welcome! My home is yours!) they really mean it.
So, if you're privileged to visit this land where telephones may still be rather temperamental, where electrical and water shortages are the norm, where nothing seems to work in a systematic, predictable way, then let me suggest one thing. Leave your American Express Card at home along with all those well-organized, immaculate proposals. First come and establish deep friendships with the Azerbaijani people. All the rest will follow in its own time.
From Azerbaijan International (2.2) Summer 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.