Winter 1995 (3.4)
Pages 8, 10
The Best Cure of All - Healthy Relationships
by Susan Cornell
Medical science can wax rhapsodic about chemical cures, antibiotics, and surgery, but despite inadequate medical facilities, you'll find some of the oldest folks in the world live in Azerbaijan. During their propaganda war with the West, the Soviets used to boast of the oldest living person, Shirali Muslimov, using his longevity as one more proof of the superiority of their system. Muslimov, an Azerbaijani, died in 1973 at 168 years old-well, that's how old they said he was! (See AI, Summer 1994, 34) Though scientific proof cannot attest such longevity, there are, in fact, quite a few Azerbaijanis today who have celebrated beyond their hundredth birthday.
Left: Flower shop in Baku. Flowers (carnations and roses especially) are typical gifts to present to friends but always in bouquets of odd numbers-3,5,7 etc. Even numbers are sent as condolences at death.
Among their secrets of survival and long life is their ability to express human emotions and reach out and physically touch the people they love. Is their power in the human touch? Can it heal a broken heart? Can it extend life? Just ask an Azeri and you'll likely get a resounding "Yes!" In a world, increasingly isolationist and independent, Azeris still literally cling to families and friends for life.
Absolutes in Life Shattered
This last decade has seen incredible changes in Azerbaijan as in the other former Soviet Republics. Life has been turned upside down by the events leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Then after independence, for Azerbaijan, there has been war, massive population displacement and economic chaos. Almost everything that once was taken for granted as "absolute" and "dependable" has collapsed.
Through it all, one constant has remained-family love and support. The family still exists to sustain life when the walls start tumbling down. This is not to say that everything is "rosy" in all relationships. Of course, pressures bear down and couples separate and divorce. But still family members generally stand by to support one another. The tenacity of relationships is even considered to be one of the major reasons why older people do live so long-great grandmoms and granddads feel so useful and needed in the extended family. The family basically is one solid unit, intertwined emotionally, physically and economically.
Value of Touch
People touch in Azerbaijan. All the time. They meet and greet with hugs and kisses and do the same when they leave each other. Girls, whether six or 60, can be seen walking arm-in-arm, or holding hands and chatting as they stroll down cobble-stoned streets or the Boulevard. Men-both young and old, embrace, welcoming each other with handshakes and kisses (on both cheeks). And it's not unusual to see ten-year-old boys taking the hands of their moms or dads as they walk to or from school-and that's not just when they cross heavily-trafficked streets.
Symbols of Care
When you're loved by an Azeri, you're touched all the time. They'll even wipe the sleepy dust out of your eye, lipstick off your cheek, lint and dandruff off your jacket. I realized I had become a "member" of a prominent family when the eldest son picked a stray hair off my sweater.
These may seem like minor gestures but they are highly significant to me since I come from a culture where we generally don't take responsibility for another person's appearance. Lipstick on your teeth? Mascara smudged? Tie crooked? Too bad for you! Fearing that we'd embarrass someone, we pretend not to see the flaws glaring out at us.
But in Baku, even strangers are helpful if something is amiss about your person. Once I walked down the street for two blocks with my shoelace untied. It was intentional. And honestly, three out of every four people drew it to my attention. I counted. Try that in the "Big Apple" (New York)!
A girlfriend of mine was riding in a car in Baku. Drivers were continually beeping their horns at her until she finally realized they were trying to let her know that her skirt was caught in the car door.
It may seem odd to have a stranger caring about your appearance but it's just one more indication of how much people really do care for one another. I'll never forget walking down a pot-holed alleyway near Fountain Square in the center of Baku when a "babushka" (Russian for "grandmother") fell on the sidewalk. Immediately, a driver slammed on his brakes, leapt from his car and ran to her aid, heedless of all the traffic jamming up behind him. At the same time, neighbors flew from their doors, all offering soothing words, steadying the dear old lady to her feet.
Soothing Words Long-Distance
If Azeris can't be together physically, they still find ways to reach out and "touch". I've just moved back to the States after living and building life-long friendships in Azerbaijan for the past three years. When I said good-bye, we all promised to "stay in touch", of course, and that's exactly what has happened. These days, I'm discovering that Azeris are just as "up close" and personal in written letters as they are when they speak face to face. Let me share a few memorable passages from my recent mail sack (by the way, these letters are all from ladies).
Lali: "I'm missing you. When I come to our college, the atmosphere seems too quiet and something is lacking. My eyes search for you because I was so accustomed to watching you and listening to your voice. On Saturdays, I get up early only to realize that I won't be going any place with you. I'm so sorry that I'm not near you and that I can't see you, care for you."
Inna: "Maybe you don't know how much I love you. How I miss you. I'm telling the truth. These words are right from my heart. Believe me."
Rasima: "You can't imagine how much I love you and how much I miss you. I really can't wait to see you again. I always remember you. I am everyday thinking about you. I can't forget you. Do you remember that you told me that when I got a job, I would forget you and that everyone would forget you. Well, everyone is asking about you. When I think about you, I start to cry. When I saw the card and bag and little box that you sent, I read the card and cried and cried."
Shabnam: (whom I had introduced to her future husband) "You are really our dear mom, because you were the reason that two single people have become one sweet family. Never forget who you are for us!"
Since the mail service is still sporadic and unreliable from Azerbaijan, every time someone arrives from Baku, they carry a stack of such letters and I commence my "crying time", remembering each beloved friend. Their letters are written on pages torn from notebooks or previously used on the other side. But they're more beautiful than the finest stationery. The authors usually take time to draw little sketches or include some of their handiwork-knitted doilies or cross stitch.
It's important to return greetings to each and every one. Just like when you enter and leave their homes, each person traditionally must be acknowledged. In Baku it doesn't take long to learn that when you get ready to say good-bye at a social gathering, you'd better give yourself at least an extra half hour just to make the rounds of warm wishes, and offer sincere expressions of thankfulness for sharing a special time together.
Azeris know how to express feelings deep in their hearts. Duplicity and manipulation are generally not evident. If they love you, they'll tell you, over and over and over again. They bond to you like Super Glue, tenacious in their love. They cry when you cry, laugh when you laugh.
In the Spirit of Solomon
This healthy outpouring of emotions renews and invigorates the spirit. Three thousand years ago, King Solomon attested to the medicinal power of words: "Pleasant words are like honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." "A cheerful look brings joy to the heart. Good news gives health to the bones." These same sentiments are as alive in Azerbaijan today as when they were penned millennia ago.
Azerbaijanis have taught me many useful things, causing me-a highly intense person (they say I'm a "Type A Personality")-to slow down, relax and "smell the roses". They've taught me to look directly into other peoples' eyes. To really listen and care about what another person is saying. They've taught me to freely express the sentiments which I feel deep inside but was reluctant to share, concerned that such things were somehow inappropriate to verbalize. They've taught me to reach out and physically touch other people in a healthy, supportive way that expresses warmth, compassion and empathy. I may not grow old enough to celebrate my hundredth birthday, but I do expect to live a lot longer simply from having known and been touched by the people of Azerbaijan.
Susan Cornnell's "Baku Diary" has been a regular feature in our magazine since September 1993.
From Azerbaijan International (3.4) Winter 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.