Azerbaijan, best defined as Eurasian for a lack of clear belonging to any one region, is mostly hidden from the American conscience. But I question why this is, especially when considering the country’s tumultuously fascinating history, the paradox of ancient monuments side by side next to modern skyscrapers in the capital Baku, the hosting of a smattering of global events, and most of all, the warm and hospitable nature of the people.
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Sheki, a city nestled in between the lush mountains of Northern Azerbaijan. Making my away around the historical sights, I approached an older gentleman standing on the street and requested directions. He picked up on my foreign accent and grammatical mistakes, and asked me where I was from. After the mild shock that I have come to expect when I reveal that I am an American studying Azerbaijani, he jovially grinned and asked me a variety of questions about the experience, and my thoughts on the city where he was born and raised.
Almost instantaneously, I found myself being treated to local cuisine at a nearby restaurant. Over Dolma and Düşbərə, we exchanged stories about our respective lives and compared our two cultures. At the conclusion of the meal, I gave him my contact, not imagining he’d ever contact me and redeem the somewhat lighthearted offer I made to come visit me in the U.S. one day. But that very evening, I got a call for a different reason from him. As he knew that I did not have any concrete plans for the next day, he proposed that I visit his village, just outside town. Without hesitation, I accepted the offer, knowing that it would be far more significant, let alone more interesting, than anything else I could do.
Unbeknownst to me beforehand, his son (who had a day off unlike his father) would be the one to meet me the next day. After welcoming me with the same hospitality and open arms, he led me to a centuries old church, to his home, and to a “Şirniyyat evi,” a brilliant concept of a restaurant that specializes in tea and homemade sweets to customers. As we walked up the hill to his (and his father’s) home, I observed that he would wave and greet all that we passed, -introducing me as “his friend from America.” In essence, I recognized that by the most peculiar of circumstances, I was partaking in a truly unique opportunity to be a part in this village community for a day. But after two months here as a guest in various places with various people, I was not particularly shocked. I’ve seen firsthand in all aspects of life that there is a truly genuine goodwill that marks Azerbaijani’s hospitable attitude, whether it be in a big city or a small village. From my incredibly warm and considerate host family to my generous newfound friends, I am treated exceptionally at every turn. When my language skills suffice to convey my appreciation for the welcoming nature of my hosts, I am always met with a satisfied smile. Azerbaijanis take immense pride in their hospitable culture, and justifiably so.
But it’s not because I’m an American or a foreigner that I have experienced such kindness. Countless times I have witnessed people swipe their Baki Kartı on the bus or metro for their needy compatriots. I’ve seen waiters track down guests who accidentally paid an extra manat, and metro riders apologize profusely for accidently bumping into one another. It’s the little things that add up to a profound communal respect here.
It should come as no surprise then, that the Pope, during a recent visit here, praised the predominantly country as a model for religious tolerance around the world. Azerbaijanis take pride in the history and contributions that Christians (of multiple sects), Jews, Zoroastrians, and other religions have made to their society, a truly stunning demonstration of interfaith peace in the modern world. My first month in the country, I spoke with a Mollah in his mosque about his deep respect for other faiths, followed by an invitation for me to watch Namaz (Prayer). Not only did he interrupt his praying to ask me if I had any questions, but he did so with a vested interest in ensuring I had a favorable view of the experience. When you’re treated with that combination of hospitality and generosity, it’s hard not to.
By: Matthew Hebron
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Fall 2016