International Writers Magazine: Life in Azerbaijan - Archive Travel Stories
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. Its hard to describe this very personal
pleasure, but I figured Id give it try by wrapping davaj
around one of my favorite Azerbaijani escapades my friend
Elhans brothers 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 lets 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 Elhans brothers 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 TGIFs. 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 couples wedding day differs greatly from the Judeo-Christian
tradition. No public ceremony celebrates the couples love. A Muslim
couple doesnt 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 parents 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 Bakus
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 couldnt make the
journey from Moscow. Times were tight, I guess. The rest of Elhans
family was waiting upstairs in the apartment for the festivities to
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 wasnt 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 Elhans parents, both of whom
were in their mid 70s. As Azerbaijani tradition goes, the grooms
family and relatives greet the bride at the grooms 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 brides
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 Elhans parents, who then got
into the white limousine, which led the procession of cars to the brides
When we arrived in the small parking lot behind a similarly run-down
apartment block where the brides parents lived, her father was
waiting for us. Elhans father slowly got out of the limousine,
helped his wife out, and then walked to greet the brides 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.
Elhans brother was about 36 at the time of the wedding, and his
wife was in her mid 30s. By Azerbaijani standards that was more
than a little bit late to be getting married. After all, having children
in their middle to late 30s 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 Elhans
family and relatives, and finally me. Inside the brides parents
apartment, the brides 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 grooms familys apartment.
Its 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 wasnt one of love and affection.
It was a union of social necessity, a means for both families to save
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.
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
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. Elhans 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
Elhans 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 couldnt 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
werent there. He calmly responded, "Its my job to bring
out food for every place at the table." Well, all I had to say
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 isnt 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, Elhans 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 grooms people and
the other was the brides.
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 30s 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 didnt want me dancing next to them.
However, moments later, they were by my side again waving their hands
at me. One of Elhans brothers, I cant 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 wasnt harassing anybody or dancing
disco style with some Azerbaijani dudes 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 hadnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 dont
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 brothers
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 wouldnt 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 at gmail.com
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