Azerbaijan International

Volume 15.1
Page 20

Readers' Forum
From Around the world
Religions Don't Have to Collide

In 2004, I received a research fellowship that would take me and my family to the Republic of Azerbaijan for two years. Like most Americans, my relatives had no idea where Azerbaijan was or anything else about this country. It wasn't long before I received a call from Aunt Helen at her retirement center.

"Look here, missy, me and the girls looked up this 'Azerbaijan' in the atlas. Did you know they are 99 percent Shiite Muslim?" Her alarm was hardly a surprise, given that the U.S. media coverage of conflict and war are the only images of the Islamic world that most Americans see. And while the words "Sunni" and "Islam" have become increasingly frightening, so few Americans even know what a "Shiite" is, except that they seem even more mysterious and dangerous than "plain - old Muslims".

It took me the next hour to convince her that Azerbaijanis were not terrorists, that they would not kidnap me or our four-year-old son. And no, I would not have to wear a headscarf or "one of those Taliban things."

I sent her several issues of Azerbaijan International magazine, and noted articles of interest about the culture, extraordinary turn-of-last-century architecture, and the progressive legacy and friendly nature of the people in this country.

Frankly speaking, when we arrived in Azerbaijan, I didn't exactly know myself what we would be facing as an American family in a country where there was a majority Shiite population. Though to be fair, Azerbaijan has people of various faiths including Sunni Muslims, Orthodox as well as evangelical Christians, and Jews - all of whom, it might be added - live in peace in a small country the size of Maine.

All of a sudden, our world was filled with Azerbaijanis looking an awful lot like ordinary people - kids, teenagers, teachers, students, musicians, taxi drivers, old folks, shop-keepers and doctors. People welcomed us and treated us with great hospitality, and soon became our friends, helpers, babysitters, translators and teachers.

It's true; they did some things that I didn't do. Some of them fasted to honor the Muslim holiday of "Ramadan". Some mourned the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson Husein on the day of "Ashura". Some jumped over bonfires on the Tuesdays leading up to the ancient spring holiday "Novruz" [Spring Equinox, March 20-21] which ushers in the first day of spring.

But on closer examination, I discovered that they did a lot of things that were familiar to me. They decorated pine trees at New Year's [January 1st]. They celebrated their children's birthdays, honored their veterans from WWII. And just like in the U.S., they made their own personal choices about their faith - some people were very religious, some passively religious, and some were intellectual atheists.

All of them welcomed me and respected my right to my own beliefs. On Christmas and Easter, I received call after call from my new Azerbaijani friends and colleagues congratulating me on these holy days. It amazed me how welcome I was in their society, and how little the Christian / Muslim difference actually meant in a practical, day-to-day sense.

Of course, there are differences between Christianity and Islam, and differences between Sunnis and Shiites. But there are also differences between the many denominations in Christianity. And there are many books and articles that one can turn to understand these theological issues. But leaving these issues aside, what I experienced in Azerbaijan was the basic humanity that all people share. Or, where in Turkey (despite the media hype and faiths that do not collide), Pope Benedict said: We must increase "dialogue as a sincere exchange between friends."

After returning home, I was showing Aunt Helen photos of my son playing with his Azerbaijani friends. "They sure look like nice folks," she told her pals, with a twinkle in her eye, reassuring me that it is never too late to learn.

Anna Oldfield
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin

Editor: Anna Oldfield spent the years 2004-2006 as a Fulbright Fellow in Azerbaijan researching the art of women "ashug" poet-minstrels, who were active in Azerbaijan beginning from the 18th century.

During these years she coordinated several projects that served to bridge American and Azerbaijani Cultures, including the coordination of the performance by two women ashugs at the San Francisco World Music Festival, a visit by the Rector of the Azerbaijan University of the Arts to the Art Institute of Chicago, lectures and various concerts of Azerbaijani music in the United States.

Recipient of an Evjue Grant project, she purchased 3,000-plus books (including literature, history, science and folklore) for the University of Wisconsin library. Her latest project is a collaborative effort with the Azerbaijani State Sound Archive and the British National Library to create digital copies of endangered musical archives from Azerbaijan.

Anna is currently completing her dissertation at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and has two book projects in the works - one on the Azerbaijani epic, and the other on Azerbaijani women writers.


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