Autumn 1996 (4.3)
Know a Culture: Know Its Folklore
by Susan Cornnell
Folklore-if you really want to know what influences the way people think and act, delve into their folk epics, proverbs, anecdotes and traditions.
Art: Tea by Gaiyur Yunus
It's not always easy to penetrate the layers and layers of belief that have been carried down through generations for centuries, or, in the case of Azerbaijan, perhaps millennia. It's even more complicated when you're dealing with a foreign language. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.
The Magic Three
I'll never forget Sadakat, my first roommate in Baku. It was a Sunday night when she moved in. Naturally, one of the first things I did was to offer tea, the traditional hospitality drink. I was surprised when she rather demurely declined. Figuring she just wasn't in the mood to drink tea, I didn't pay much attention and started busying myself for the classes I would be teaching the next day. Again the next morning, I asked if she wanted tea or anything to eat. Again the same response, so I took her "no" at face value and dashed off to college.
By about Friday, it occurred to me that although I had frequently offered Sadakat food or drink, she had continuously refused. I finally spoke about it to my friend Mushfig, one of her classmates.
Above: Exterior and Interior of "Fantasia Bath House" in Central Baku which was built during the oil boom and has been in operation for more than 100 years. Interior is in the Tea Room.
"Is something wrong with Sadakat? Isn't she happy living with me? She never eats or drinks anything I offer."
Mushfig paused a moment, "How many times have you asked her? In these kinds of situations, you always have to ask an Azerbaijani three times before they'll accept. It's just our way. We don't consider it quite polite to say 'yes' the first time. We always try to give the impression that we are not in need."
That night I went home and asked Sadakat, "Want tea? Want tea? Want tea?" And sure enough, it turned out that Sadakat really did want tea and really was quite eager to accept my hospitality. It looks like the "Magic Three" worked.
It seems to me Azerbaijanis refuse out of politeness the first time. If they receive a second offer, it gives them a chance to judge how sincere their host is. With the third offer, they'll finally give you a frank answer.
Art: Pomegranate by Togrul Narimanbeyov
This particular custom of refusing initial gestures of hospitality is so prevalent in Azerbaijan that after awhile, I even became quite adept at it myself. There are some other advantages to learning how to deal with it, too. I'm not as easily dissuaded upon hearing an initial "no" anymore, and that's a great lesson to have learned when bargaining with shopkeepers or dealing with government officials. Many a "no" magically transforms into a "yes" with a little patience and persistence.
Once I remember deliberately trying to use this "Magic Three" tradition to my own advantage. Someone had given me some chocolate from Switzerland. Now I love chocolate and, at the time, Swiss chocolate was a rare and precious commodity in Baku and very difficult to find. To tell you the truth, I really wanted it all for myself. At the same time, I wanted to appear generous to others. I was counting on Azerbaijanis declining my first offer and then I would feign ignorance of their customs and not ask again. But these guys outwitted me. Maybe they had been around me too long. They graciously accepted my first offer without any coaxing at all and that was the end of my chocolate!
Returning The Plate
Once I was baking some cookies and ran out of sugar. Sadakat quickly suggested that a neighbor would gladly come to our rescue. I loved the idea that it's culturally acceptable to borrow a cup of sugar or anything else from your neighbors in Azerbaijan.
But borrowing is only half the story. The unwritten rule is that you can borrow nearly anything you like from your neighbor's kitchen. But you need to replace it-not with same commodity and not necessarily right away. Returning a cup of sugar back to the neighbor would not have been the accepted thing to do and returning the plate or bowl empty would have been considered rude. Solution? We filled the plate with freshly baked cookies-the perfect gesture to offer our sugar-lender.
The Token Present
Gift-giving is not only a way of life, it has become a refined art in Azerbaijan. There are many traditions associated with it. For example, it isn't polite to go to an Azerbaijani home for dinner or to a celebration empty-handed. You have to bring a token gift for your host family or the honoree.
Flowers are a favorite-carnations, roses and gladiolas - especially the red, white and pink ones. If you choose flowers, make sure to give an odd number, such as five, seven, eleven, thirteen, etc. Forget the dozen roses that are so popular in the States, as an even number is associated with death and mourning. You'll find the "Martyr's Cemeteries" strewn with even numbers of red and white carnations. The graves of these young soldiers, victims of the recent war with Armenians, usually have flowers placed in twos and fours.
Unwrapping Gifts Later
There's also another tradition about gift-giving that's quite different from what I was accustomed to. When you offer a gift, most likely the recipient will not open it in your presence. No sticky, pretentious "ooooh's" and "aaaah's." Of course, your kind gesture will be acknowledged with phrases such as "You shouldn't have done it," or "Why did you do it? You, yourself are a present." I've found that the recipient rarely ever makes mention of the actual item or its appropriateness (or lack, thereof) at a later date. In fact, it will probably never be mentioned again.
The same goes for birthday parties-even for kids. Unwrapping the presents later is one way to keep from embarrassing the giver if their choice doesn't quite meet up to the standard of everyone else's. It's much more discrete and subtle than what I was used to back home in America.
Symbolism of Water
Azerbaijanis have many traditions that relate to water, which is a symbolic representation of clarity and purity. For example, when we left the home of Yagub's mother in Guba (northeastern Azerbaijan), she tossed a ladle of water after us. It's a common practice when someone is starting off on an important trip. The water is believed to symbolically cleanse the way and make the journey smooth. The gesture is often accompanied with good wishes, "May God help you!" or "Good Way!" or "May your way be as clear as water!"
There are other beliefs regarding water as well. Some people believe that if they dream of water, something will become clarified and they'll become very lucky. When someone wakes up and tells his dream about water, others say, "Water is clarity."
Bathing or showering is also a unique experience in a country where no one dares take water for granted. In our case, we didn't always have running water in our apartment. It was sporadic, never seeming to come when we wanted or needed it most! I soon found it more efficient and predictable just to go to the public bath house where I could depend on a "good head of steam" in a private bathroom and changing room. There are quite a few public bathhouses in Baku; many are housed in very attractive buildings that were built more than a century ago and which have been in continuous use.
After the bath, there's a tradition of going to a dining area-literally a tea room-and enjoying fresh hot tea in an "armudu" (a delicate pear-shaped tea glass). It seems there's a practice of greeting people after their baths. In Azeri, they say, "Always be clean!" In Russian, it's "Easy Steam!"
It's interesting that in ancient villages of Azerbaijan, among the first buildings to be erected were public bath houses. This concern for personal hygiene and cleanliness is still part of Azeri culture today-though it may not be too evident from the outside of apartments, especially in the garbage-strewn apartment entranceways which are shared with many others. Inside individual homes, however, most families have quite a strong tradition for cleanliness despite the fact that many have to deal with unpredictable water supplies.
Recently, I brought up the subject about folklore while sipping tea at a Chai-Khane (tea house). Yagub rattled off proverbs, sayings, anecdotes, favorite family stories and superstitions. He told us that when your right hand itches, you'll be lucky, but when it's your left hand, you'll go into debt.
Some moments later I saw Yagub scratching his left hand, and so I teased him that it must mean he would be picking up the tab for our tea.
By the way, if your right ear is red, it means people are saying good things about you. If it's your left ear, alas, news will be bad.
You shouldn't cut your fingernails or toenails at night, it might shorten your life.
Some people believe that horses bring good luck. They say ancient people believed that God came in a chariot with four horses. So if you dream about a horse, your dreams are supposed to come true. Like many people worldwide, Azeris believe that a horseshoe brings good luck.
It's also believed that certain people themselves bear good luck, while others bring bad luck. In olden days, they say certain people with this positive power were invited to bless others' homes.
The same thing goes for good marks at school. I remember that when Ikhtiyar, a student in one of my classes, successfully passed an exam, his friend took Ikhtiyar's right hand and placed it on his own forehead. I'm not sure such a trick beats studying, though!
This past year I had been away from Baku and now again I've had a chance to go back. The visit made me realize there are so many fascinating traditions and practices for a foreigner to discover.
Of course, beliefs vary from region to region and from class to class. Some families I spoke with told me that they paid no attention to such folk beliefs, as they considered themselves "city folks." Others found such things amusing. It seemed that families who had come from the villages still believed these sayings to be tried and true and carefully tried to observe the signs and times through this ancestral window.
It seems to me that proverbs and anecdotes seemed to have a larger following than some of the other sayings that were attached to what we would call "superstitions." But the same thing would hold true in our country. Certain proverbs are so strong and so deeply ingrained that they are carried down generation after generation.
My visit made me realize afresh one of the proverbs we often quote here in the States about lovers who have had to be away from each other for a period of time. We say, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." I found it too true about being away from Azerbaijan. It was good to be back again in Baku.
From Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.