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The International Writers Magazine: Life in Azerbaijan

Baku Wedding
Jim Solan


W
hile I was living in Baku, every time I uttered "davaj", the imperative form of the Russian verb davat, which means to give, it seemed to roll off my tongue with ease, almost tickling my throat. This odd sort of pleasure from saying one word or phrase is one of the main reasons why I enjoy learning and speaking different foreign languages. It’s hard to describe this very personal pleasure, but I figured I’d give it try by wrapping davaj around one of my favorite Azerbaijani escapades – my friend Elhan’s brother’s wedding reception.

Davaj is a very useful word to master in Russian. It has many different colloquial meanings depending on the context and the situation. For example, after making plans with a friend by phone, you could close out the conversation by repeating the time and place where you planned to meet and then say, "davaj." In this case, it means something akin to ‘okay’, but also conveys a sense of ‘let’s do it’. Another example of the flexibility of ‘davaj’ is when drinking alcohol. When toasting others, you lift your glass and say "davaj," just as if you were saying, "cheers" or "salud."

By the time I attended my friend Elhan’s brother’s wedding reception in May 2005, I considered myself to be a fairly good Russian speaker and somewhat of a ‘professional’ vodka drinker (Davaj!). But, I am not talking about doing shot after shot at the local sports bar or slamming back shooters at TGIF’s. No, I am talking about a full night of drinking vodka and eating rounds of grilled meats, fish, and poultry at any one of the small family-owned restaurants that filled the streets of downtown Baku.

A couple’s wedding day differs greatly from the Judeo-Christian tradition. No public ceremony celebrates the couple’s love. A Muslim couple doesn’t get married at the local mosque. However, before the bride and groom and their families make it to the wedding reception, there are some interesting traditions, so my good friend Elhan invited me to his parent’s apartment in the cheap seats of suburbia Baku to soak up all of the pre- wedding reception festivities.

At about 12:30pm on a sunny Friday May afternoon, I hopped into a taxi and made the 30-minute journey out into the middle of one of Baku’s most dilapidated Soviet apartment block neighborhoods. When I arrived, Elhan was waiting for me in front of his building, and then we walked back behind the building, and I saw the line of cars decorated in white ribbon and flowers on the front grill, the last car was a long white limousine. Elhan introduced me to two of his four older brothers and his older sister. His other two older brothers couldn’t make the journey from Moscow. Times were tight, I guess. The rest of Elhan’s family was waiting upstairs in the apartment for the festivities to begin.

They had heard a lot about me. Elhan and I had become close friends. Before he left Baku to do his compulsory military service in November 2003, we had spent a fair amount of time together, and whenever he came home from the Army, we always went out for a few beers. Elhan and I spoke Spanish together almost all the time. He had studied Spanish as an undergraduate. I was always struck by the fact that I was speaking Spanish to someone in some far off country just north of Iran and south of Dagestan, Russia.

Out back behind the apartment block, Elhan, his brothers, and I seemed to be waiting for someone or something, but I wasn’t sure what. Then a small Russian-made Lada pulled up behind the last car in the wedding procession and three middle-aged men got out, popped the trunk, and grabbed their musical instruments. One man had an accordion, another a small bass drum, and the third a clarinet. I took this as the sign that this wedding celebration was about to begin.

We walked up three flights of stairs, with the band leading the way. Over thirty people were packed inside the living room waiting for us, including the bride and groom and Elhan’s parents, both of whom were in their mid 70’s. As Azerbaijani tradition goes, the groom’s family and relatives greet the bride at the groom’s house, welcoming her into the family. The main tradition before the wedding reception is that the younger brother or male cousin of the groom belts the bride’s waist threefold with a red ribbon. Elhan would do the belt tying honors. As he was tying the ribbon, the atmosphere was electric. I had no idea what was about to transpire. When he finished tying the belt, he stood up, clapped his hands, and then suddenly the band started playing and almost everyone who was crammed into the small living room began to dance, and I mean dance.

Watching Azerbaijanis dance is truly a sight to be seen. The energy is positive, cheerful, and playful. Azerbaijani women traditionally dance with both of their arms extended out in front of their bodies at a 45-degree angle with both palms of their hands facing the ground, intermittently snapping their fingers to the beat of the music. The men, on the other hand, have one arm extended with their hand erect as if they were greeting someone with a stiff ‘hi’, and the other arm makes a V with the hand almost resting on the back of their neck. The men switch arms back and forth and occasionally kick out one of their legs.
After 10 minutes of non-stop dancing, the music ended and the energy subsided, and then everyone slowly made their way out of the apartment, down the stairs, and piled into the 8 or 9 cars waiting outside. Elhan, his two older brothers and I got into our classic Russian four-door Lada, probably from the late eighties. The last ones to make their way down were the bride and groom and Elhan’s parents, who then got into the white limousine, which led the procession of cars to the bride’s parents’ apartment.
When we arrived in the small parking lot behind a similarly run-down apartment block where the bride’s parents lived, her father was waiting for us. Elhan’s father slowly got out of the limousine, helped his wife out, and then walked to greet the bride’s father. They shook hands, hugged, and exchanged a few words. Both of them smiled and nodded their heads in some sort of mutual agreement. They looked relieved that this day had finally come.

Elhan’s brother was about 36 at the time of the wedding, and his wife was in her mid 30’s. By Azerbaijani standards that was more than a little bit late to be getting married. After all, having children in their middle to late 30’s still living at home with their parents was a sign of social weakness, pretty much an embarrassment to the family.

The band made its way up the stairs first, followed by Elhan’s family and relatives, and finally me. Inside the bride’s parents’ apartment, the bride’s mother, sister, and relatives were patiently awaiting their arrival. I stuck myself once again in the right corner of the living room of the apartment and just observed.
The parents posed with the bride and groom in the middle of the living room, and I took this opportunity to capture the mood of this part of the day by taking their picture. The band was playing, but no one was dancing. The atmosphere contrasted starkly with the celebratory vibe at the groom’s family’s apartment.
It’s hard to say how many of the marriages in AZ are still actually arranged, but my guess is over 65%, and by the looks on the faces of the bride and groom, this marriage wasn’t one of love and affection. It was a union of social necessity, a means for both families to save face.

As I have written many times before in almost all of my AZ stories, to be a guest in AZ is like being a king. Azerbaijanis are a very proud people and love making sure that your every wish as a guest is fulfilled, because according to Muslim tradition a guest is a gift from Allah. This was even truer at a wedding reception, as I was about to find out.

When trying to imagine an Azerbaijani wedding reception, it is very important to keep in mind that although Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, it has still not shaken off many of the vestiges of living under over 70 years of Soviet rule, one being the love of vodka (Davaj!).

Besides men imbibing bottle after bottle of vodka, another Azerbaijani wedding tradition, albeit a purely modern one, is to have a pop singer or singers at your wedding reception. At my first Azerbaijani wedding, I witnessed five different pop singers belting out their hits to a star struck crowd. This time, however, just one aging Azerbaijani pop diva would entertain the 400 or so guests.

Yet another Azerbaijani wedding reception tradition seems to be ridiculous amounts of food. I guess it is connected to the whole Muslim thing of taking care of and providing for guests. I often thought there would be limits to their hospitality, especially financial ones, but in no way was that ever the case in my two years of being a guest ‘par excellence’ at all types of social events and family visits.

Azerbaijan was experiencing a construction boom during the two years I lived there (Sept. 2003 – June 2005), and I am sure it is still continuing today, probably at an even faster rate due to the high price of oil and the ever-expanding levels of corruption in the country that fueled the boom to begin with

(Old Baku image)

All the multi-millionaires find it easier to build apartment and office buildings than to try to pull some highly complex and convoluted money transfers to Switzerland, so Baku, a sprawling city of 4 million people, is littered with high-rise apartment buildings.

Besides financing office and apartment buildings, wedding houses were another favorite of the money washing business elite of AZ. The simplest way to describe one of these wedding houses is a mansion somewhat approaching a palace where several wedding receptions are held at once.

As I entered the reception room, I was surprised by the sheer amount of people and the size of the room. Elhan’s father was retired and his mother was a housewife all of her life, and his two brothers who lived in Baku were, for the most part, unemployed, just like Elhan before he entered the military to complete his mandatory 16 month service. Elhan had told me on many occasions that money was tight for his family. They had definitely found some money somehow for this special day. In many cases, the extended family and friends chip in to make a wedding reception a day to remember.

Elhan and his oldest brother led me toward the back three tables that faced the twelve-piece band and the table where the bride and groom were seated. Elhan introduced me to two of his childhood friends, one of whom was a policeman, notoriously one of the most corrupt public jobs in the country. They greeted me warmly, and we shook hands. Within minutes, his policeman friend opened one of the several bottles of vodka on the table and started pouring large shots, and I remember thinking – Davaj!

Elhan’s policeman friend, whose name escapes me, seemed to be awful curious about whether or not I could hold my liquor because we had said davaj three times before the first round of kebabs came out. The vodka bottle seemed to be glued to his right hand. Despite my ‘professional’ status, I couldn’t keep up with that pace. I was used to the long, drawn out drinking sessions consisting of several layers of food, preferably lamb, chicken, and sturgeon kebabs intermingled with vodka and an occasional beer to break up the monotony.

Luckily the kebabs started coming, as did the grilled chicken, fresh bread, goat cheese, and all kinds of other food. It was actually piling up next to me. There were Six of us were sitting at the back table, and there were eight empty seats to my right. The waiters not only kept shoveling out the food for us but for the eight imaginary guests as well. I asked the waiter why he was bringing out food for people who weren’t there. He calmly responded, "It’s my job to bring out food for every place at the table." Well, all I had to say was "davaj!"

Needless to say a half an hour later and several more glasses of vodka, I was a bit drunk and baffled at the same time by the growing mountain of food surrounding me. AZ isn’t exactly the land of plenty for 80% of their population lives on little more than one dollar a day. Then I imagined all this food being thrown out, which really started to step on my buzz.

Somehow sensing my dismay, Elhan’s older brother marched all the way across the room, grabbed my hand and led me out onto the dance floor. I loved showing off my Azerbaijani dance moves. It was one way of showing my respect for their culture, plus the locals ate it up. While working the dance floor, I noticed that one side of the room was staring at me and the other side was smiling and laughing, enjoying my Azerbaijani dance moves. Then it hit me. One side was the groom’s people and the other was the bride’s.

Dripping with sweat, I made my way back to our table. My drinking partner was waiting for me there, bottle in hand. I saddled back up on the vodka pony and had a couple more rides around the farm (Davaj!).
I tried to keep stuffing my face full of food as a means of preventing myself from getting too drunk, but with the pile of food all around me still growing, I was steadily losing my appetite and gaining a full fledged vodka buzz.

About an hour and twenty minutes had passed since we entered the wedding reception hall, and through the vodka haze I noticed that my drinking partner still seemed rather unfazed by our epic vodka drinking battle. I shrugged it off and hit the dance floor again. It was one of my patented tricks from way back – just dance off your buzz when it has a little bit too much sting.

I was cutting the proverbial Azerbaijani rug, when suddenly I was greeted by two stout men in their mid 30’s shooing me off the dance like I was a fly. They were giving me that international hand-flapping signal of ‘get out of here’. I was completely puzzled. I just shrugged my shoulders and moved across the dance floor, thinking that maybe they just didn’t want me dancing next to them.

However, moments later, they were by my side again waving their hands at me. One of Elhan’s brothers, I can’t remember which one, suddenly came over and escorted me back to my table, now I was completely baffled. I mean I was lit, but I wasn’t harassing anybody or dancing disco style with some Azerbaijani dude’s 16-year-old niece or something. I knew the boundaries of AZ.

I sat back down dejected. I had just got kicked off the dance floor. In my two years in AZ, I hadn’t experienced anything like that. I felt like I was not welcome. At that point, I was definitely drunk but psychologically aware of what was transpiring around me. I was quickly starting to sober up.
I decided to get up and go to the bathroom. Half way across the dance floor, Elhan and one of his brothers met me, and each of them grabbed one arm and walked me out the entrance of the wedding hall and into a waiting taxi.

It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to react or even think. I looked over at Elhan sitting next to me in the back seat of the taxi. He laughed and said, "davaj." I smiled back and asked him in Spanish, "Where are we going?" He laughed again and said, " A casa a davaj." "Why?" I asked, in a perplexed tone of voice. He didn’t answer, so I asked again. He just smiled and patted me on the shoulder. I figured a third time was useless, so I just kept my mouth shut.

The taxi pulled up in front of my apartment building. I thanked Elhan and gingerly walked back behind the building and up the stairs. I don’t remember much more from that night, but I know I had a restless night of sleep. I woke up the next morning and tried my best to piece together what had happened. My head was pounding. That much was clear.

One month later:
I finally met up with Elhan for the first time after the wedding reception. I had obviously been curious about why I was escorted out of his brother’s wedding reception. When we met that day, he just started laughing as we shook hands and hugged. I kind of nodded my head, a little embarrassed, as if to say, "Yeah, what a crazy night."

He wouldn’t tell me what happened though, but he did tell me that his policeman friend who was serving me up vodka all night was actually drinking water in lieu of vodka most of the time. I was livid. I told Elhan that his friend was a coward and how unmanly his friend was for tricking me like that. All
Elhan said with a big smile was "DAVAJ!"

As Azerbaijani tradition dictates, when the bride leaves the house of her father the band plays the traditional Azerbaijani song of Vagzali, signaling that the woman is passing from virginity into marriage. Neighbors and friends of the bride were anxiously waiting outside to greet them. All eyes were on the bride and groom as they got into the backseat of the white limousine.
© Jim Solan September 2006
jimsolan@gmail.com

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