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Azerbaijan: Looking in from the outside

Photo from http://shekiazerbaijan.blogspot.com/

For those living in a particular country, many things can sometimes be taken for granted. But when others from outside discover it for the first time, often experiencing new colors and traditions, a fresh insight is often the result.

In an extended blog post, for example, Meaning Full details its experience of Azerbaijan, the oil-rich former Soviet republic in the South Caucasus, and touches upon many aspects of life from culture and identity to thoughts on Islam and gender. The Portuguese blogger says that at times she felt as if in a fairy tale.

I just could not imagine that to some extent I’d feel like Alice in Wonderland in this journey into a brand new country for me. In fact, many things simply don’t work under the same logic as I’m used to, but it is still a wonderful country with fine, warm, welcoming people.

[…]

Something that becomes obvious – at least in the interior Azerbaijan villages, […] is the abundance, the prevalence, the concentration of men. Men, men, men everywhere. Few women on the streets, few women doing things, at least outside, very few in hotel jobs. […]

[…]

Azerbaijan seems to want fiercely to be a modern country. I felt it for several times, in several details. It seems the government and the official structures want to get the pace and “catch the train” of the outside world. Azerbaijan is assumed to be a “moderate Islamic” country. One of the first things I asked Rachad, our Azeri guide, was how should I dress. Short trousers? Could I ware t-shirts without sleeves? Azerbaijan is a modern country, he answered!

Nevertheless, the blogger also admits to having some concerns regarding safety before her arrival, but says that they disappeared once on the ground. Although identifying some of the problems typical for a patriarchal and moderately Islamic country, she was fascinated by the vibrant rays of the capital Baku and its residents.

When coming to the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, I had no idea of how it would be. I had been worried if I could be safely walking alone in the city or not. My worries vanished, when my colleague Farida kindly offered to a guided tour. I had the opportunity to see the pleasure of the walking zones of the city. So many women and children, families walking by, relaxed and simply enjoying the city. So many water games and fresh gardens, and by night so many people walking by the long water front of the calm Caspian Sea. […] I felt the beat of a city that moves and breaths collectively, where people truly enjoy their own city.

Many foreigners in the country do, however, often raise the issue of gender roles. Relaying an experience with the matriarch of the family she live with, and affectionately calling her ‘mom,’ Making Wool from Eggs, the blog of a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Azerbaijan, notes the expections society has of its women.

[…] The week before Thanksgiving I decided to make a preliminary pie for my family. […] When we got to my house, I start making the dough, and Alise starts peeling the apples. My mom watched us intently and was very impressed with my abilities to make and roll out dough. She was so impressed in fact, that she remarked “You can do something!” […] She told me that I was “ready for marriage.” Here, when a woman learns to cook, she is ready to marry and cook for her husband However, my friend Alise is not ready for marriage. My mom does not like the way she peels apples. […]

Even so, foreigners in the country are also taken with how refreshingly simple life in Azerbaijan can appear Dream it, Plan it and Do it! , another PCV blog, for example, shares its thoughts on the lifestyle compared to back home in the U.S..

Every day, I have time to read, to write, to work, to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. I have time for my daily exercise, to shop in the bazaar and I even have time to bake a cake. My working hour at the bank is from 9:30am to 4:00pm. There are no deadlines, no pressure, no boss to make my life miserable and definitely no work on the weekends. In terms of material things and luxury life style, I admit, I have none. […]

But it is this simply life that makes me very healthy and fulfilling. I look at the mirror in the morning, the high humidity of this country makes my wrinkles disappear, my daily exercise keeps me strong, a well balanced, greasy free, and cholesterol free diet keeps me in good shape. Last but not least, a stress free environment helps me to maintain an optimistic altitude. I feel younger and happier each day.

Perhaps I am in fact living in a dream. […]

A Peace Corps Volunteer chooses from dried fruit offerings at a local market in Azerbaijan.

On a similar note, on From the Land of Fire blog, a former PCV also recalls good memories of living in Azerbaijan for more than 3 years and that this time spent has reshaped her priorities in a life.

[…] I find I miss so many little things about Azerbaijan that I'm feeling frustrated adjusting to life in the US. I often feel out of place here now that I've spent so long overseas.

I miss the cheap fresh produce every day. I miss the rusty, old, ridiculously fast driving public transportation that took me anywhere I wished to go in the city for only .20 qepik. […] I miss having a job, a place to go where I feel valuable, and feel like my work is important and means something. I miss my boss and my counterparts at work. I miss having someplace to go every day. […] I miss feeling connected to my community.

[…]

Sometimes we here in America tend to think that life is so much better here than it is in other places. […] Honestly, I felt, and still do, that life in Azerbaijan was more simple. It gave me a chance to learn to love my job, figure out what my passions are, and gave me a chance to enjoy life and everything in it. I'm feeling a little “homesick” for Azerbaijan.

True, life in a country such as Azerbaijan for a foreigner can be more privileged than for most locals who still lead difficult lives in other ways, but they also offer a colorful image of life which is sometimes taken for granted and forgotten by many during an often painful period of transition.

1 comment

  • Igor

    I wish that Portuguese blogger had not visited Azerbaijan in late 80’s. What an awful fairy tail she’d been in.

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