Merely a week after we arrived in Baku, we were invited to the wedding of a family member of our Azeri office manager at Operation Mercy.
Azeris are hospitable people, but to get an invitation to a village wedding so soon after our arrival was indeed an honour. Azeri weddings are open affairs with anyone welcome to attend. Invited guests are however expected to pay an amount to the father of the bride for attending the wedding. In 2013 that amount was equal to R300-00 per person in the rural areas and up to R600-00 in the city.
We were still strangers to the Azeri culture, but the few Turkish words and phrases we remembered from our time in Turkey allowed us to book our places in a cabin on an overnight train to the village. We were the only passengers in the cabin. We were nervous because we felt uncertain in the public domain where everything felt so foreign to us. We managed to speak to the conductor and asked her to help us to get off at the station closest to the village we will visit. It was not easy, but we felt relieved that we were able to communicate in broken Turkish to get the message across. Azeri and Turkish belongs to the same language family and is related in the way that Dutch and Afrikaans are related. They share a large vocabulary, but there are also many differences that we were still ignorant too.
It was still winter and cold. The cabin was warm, but we could not control the temperature. It became quite hot in the cabin during the night, and we could not open any window. We did not sleep well, because of our anxiousness. Are we doing the right thing? Will we get off at the right station? How will we relate to our host family and what about customs at the wedding that we know nothing about? Despite these questions fuelling uncertainty, we were also full of anticipation and willing to learn more about the people and culture of our new host country.
When the conductor came to alert us to get ready to disembark, we were already dressed and prepared. With the help of the conductor, we managed to disembark without incident and as soon as we set foot on the perron, our new friend and office manager were there to greet and welcome us. We were relieved to realize that his English is good, and we felt a little more secure in the new environment.
Rural Azerbaijan is far less developed than the cities. It felt like going backward in time. Most of the roads in the small village were gravel roads with only the main road connecting the villages being a tarmac road. The homes where all similar in appearance and size. Most of them were situated on a small plot of land with vegetable gardens, chicken coops, cattle sheds, and various other farming related equipment and activity scattered round the homes.
We quickly learnt that it was not polite to ask for a bathroom or toilet. Upon arrival at our hosts, we were greeted warmly by the parents of our friend and left to settle into our room. It was a long trip, and we needed a bathroom. We explored our immediate environment but to no avail. We only found a basin outside our room where we could wash our hands and faces. As we venture further out of our room, we discovered that the toilet was situated away from the main house in the far corner of the plot. To reach it, you need to walk past the chicken coop and through a gate past the cattle shed. We realized that we would not be able to reach it during the night!
We were served sweet Azeri confectionary with Azeri tea for breakfast and then it was time to get dressed for the wedding ceremony. I brought a tie, and it was appropriate because the men were all smartly dressed in mainly black trousers, ties, and coats. Magda decided to wear a skirt, warm blouse, and jacket.
Men and women arrive in separate parties at the venue and stay separate for most of the celebrations. This posed a challenge because Magda felt insecure about her ability to speak Turkish and she knew no one. I had to leave her to cope on her own whilst I had the privilege to roam around with my office manager and translator.
Magda was surprised by another observation. She had the dress code all wrong! All the ladies where very smartly donned in dresses and high heels with no regard to the low temperature. It seemed they were adamant to look smart even if they froze to death!
The event was staged at the town hall and the interior was filled with tables and bright blue and gold decorations. It looked as if the whole village was attending the wedding celebrations. Waiters walked around with trays full of finger portions of lamb, beef, and chicken. On the tables were vegetable dishes, salads, and fruits. Men and women were excitingly chatting amongst themselves about village life and the expected arrival of the bride and groom. A live band were playing Azeri folk music and it all made for a very festive atmosphere.
We were treated like royalty by the villagers, and they made sure that our plates and glasses stay filled with food and beverages. We had no say or choice! They just filled our plates and glasses whenever they observed that our plates and glasses were empty.
During the ceremony the guests have an opportunity to pin money to the dress of the bride. This is a very popular moment towards the end of the ceremony and the last opportunity for the guests to show their appreciation for the hospitality of the hosts.
When we got home that night the mother of the house gave us one look and decided that we did not eat enough. She slaughtered a chicken on the spur of the moment and proceeded to cook it for us. Magda and I was already full, but we could not decline the portion of chicken and rice she served us with. She was convinced that the fresh village chicken was far better than any chicken available in the city and she wanted us to experience it too!
After a long day we had a good nights’ rest and returned the next day with our Azeri friend and Operation Mercy staff member to Baku in his vehicle.