Spending more than two years living in Azerbaijan, a writer examines the role of women, the fear of cold, tea–drinking babies, and…chickens.
Going to Azerbaijan was kismet, kismet idi, the Azerbaijanis would say: it was fate. My 27 months in that Post–Soviet, Muslim country bordering the Caspian Sea were some of the richest in my life, but how to sum up the experience? Plastic and French fries? Nope, wrong nation. If I had to choose two words to sum up my two years in Azerbaijan, I would have to say chickens and tea.
Every family outside the capital has them. And to enliven your waking hours, at least one rooster, too. A chicken flew right into my head during my first week in Azerbaijan, prompting my host sister to come over with a broom and gesture repeatedly from my feet to my head, chanting something as if to cure me from whatever evils or sickness the chicken might have brought me.
Was it the evil eye? No, that is supposed to be when people are jealous of something you have, if they admire you too much. That couldnâ€™t be, since, partly because of the language barrier and partly because of my feeble attempts to hang laundry the proper way and peel a cucumber with a knife, people there thought I was stupid. It wasnâ€™t until the end of training that I learned that my host grandmother thought there were many evil eyes on me, her way of complimenting me.
I soon learned, at least, that the cries of "Jeep, jeep, jeep!" by the neighbor women were for the chickens, to call them for feeding. Having chickens at home has benefits, like fresh eggs, so much tastier than store–bought, with their deep, bright orange yolks that are brushed on top of bread before baking to give just the right appetizing hue. The taste of the chicken meat is also much different from that of plastic–wrapped, store–bought birds. The new taste takes us Americans some time to get used to, but as a Peace Corps volunteer, I had the time, and now I prefer it to the hormone–injected, farm–fed one.
Having chickens is key for the frequent and often unexpected arrival of guests. As the Azerbaijani proverb says, a guest is a light in the home, so you prepare the best you have. Freshness of ingredients is of high importance in Azerbaijan. People wouldnâ€™t buy meat in the villages if they hadnâ€™t seen the animal first. Maybe it was sick! So, instead of rushing to the supermarket or calling in for delivery, you go out back and select the best chicken to be slaughtered for the special meal. The actual killing of the chicken needs to be done by a man, boy, or old woman, since menstruating women are considered not clean enough for this task.
The wife will then pluck and clean the bird and prepare it into a tasty dish with onions and broth and topped with egg and freshly chopped cilantro from the garden. This, like all dishes, is of course to be eaten with bread, which is also used as a synonym for "meal." Bread, too, is almost always made at home from scratch. In the villages, outdoors in a conical clay oven, the round loaves spread downwards on the inside walls, to be pried off and slightly toasted when done.
In rural Azerbaijan, there is no worry about taking care of the chickens, as someone is always at home. Home and family are the central point of life, especially for a woman. Apart from getting married and having children, what other goal is there for a young Azerbaijani girl? This is why, in addition to the preference of their husbands, many mothers hope to have boys rather than girls, to spare their offspring the suffering of life as a female.
Many rural Azerbaijani women rarely leave the house, unless they are schoolteachers or have a flexible enough husband who lets them have some other job. Since jealousy is considered a virtue among romantic relations, however, the latter case is rare. Each time a woman leaves the house, she must ask permission from her husband or in–laws. Forget independence! In my first host family, I was barred from the door because they thought it was inappropriate for me to take a walk alone. After Musa, the husband, comes home, they said, you can take a walk with him.
The difference in gender roles in rural Azerbaijan really troubled me, and I conducted many interviews with locals to try to understand their perspectives. Several men I questioned told me that yes, women are generally weaker and less bright than men, so men have to protect them. Like a rooster with his chickens. Men generally want their women to stay at home, not wandering about, because being out in public could lead to other men looking at them, and that would be intolerable and shameful. Yet, when the women do go out, they are expected to primp and make it a big occasion, with special fancy "outside" clothing made of ornate, synthetic material, high heels and makeup. Women are for beauty, as another Azerbaijani proverb says. And, it seems, for preparing all the national meals and serving endless cups of tea to their husbands, other family members, and guests.
Çay, pronounced as in "chai latte," is the word for tea, and also the word for river, both essential liquids of life. A frequent refrain in Azerbaijani houses is "çay getir," bring tea, said often by a husband to his wife or daughter, or by a father-in-law to his daughter-in-law. When another volunteer first told me that husbands constantly order their wives to bring them tea, I laughed. Surely he must be exaggerating?
But no, here the gender roles are strict, and there is no time that is not teatime. Tea is by far the prime beverage; many people drink nothing but, as plain water, especially cold water, is believed to make you sick. Tea drinking seems to rank higher in importance than nearly any other activity, as when someone is called on an errand and replies, "Qoy çay içim," let me [finish] drinking [my] tea.
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