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."
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
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.
University of 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
Index AI 15.1
| AI Store | Contact us
Other Web sites
created by Azerbaijan International
AZgallery.org | AZERI.org | HAJIBEYOV.com