When invited to be a lunch guest in an Azerbaijani home, be prepared for cultural difference and great hospitality.
Azeri tea setting
Aired on American Public Media’s “The Splendid Table” on November 1st, 2008, this radio piece documents Carla going guesting in an Azerbaijani home and receiving an unexpected gift.
“Four Eggs” shows how integral hospitality is to Azerbaijani culture and also illuminates how food often represents a forging of human relationships. Carla recorded this piece while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan. The language you will hear spoken underneath her English narration is Azerbaijani.
The piece is also featured in this blog posting from the University of Chicago Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies.
My experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan was wonderful, but I know other volunteers whose experiences were less than positive. Before making a commitment to spend over two years of your life away from family and friends in a far off and in many cases unheard of part of the globe, you might want to consider these questions:
1. Are your goals broad enough?
The key to a happy Peace Corps experience is flexibility. Your work assignment may not be clear. The people you live with may speak a different language from the one you expected. Your co-workers or neighbors might not be interested in working with you in the way you would like. What to do about these things? Adapt! Make new plans. If you are joining Peace Corps because you want to become an expert in teaching forest ecology to eighth graders and you want to learn how to live in a hut, great—you may get to do just that. Or, you may be placed in a relatively modern apartment building in a large city surrounded by desert. So make sure your goals are not too specific.
2. Do you like to “rough it?”
Before heading to Peace Corps, I had completed an Outward Bound wilderness course in which I didn’t shower for three weeks. This made showering only every few days during my Peace Corps service more bearable. Azerbaijan is actually pretty cushy as Peace Corps countries go—running water (usually), good electricity (in most areas), normal furniture (besides the mattresses), nearby Internet access (maybe even in your house!), low risk for tropical diseases. However, out of necessity, I wore the same clothes for at least three or four days in a row, bathed in a bucket in winter, survived countless dusty, crammed, long, lurching bus rides, and once, when my tea bag ripped while drinking a cup of tea, I immediately thought of getting out my thread and needle to stitch it back up. If your idea of “roughing it” is leaving behind your hairdryer or changing the temperature of your room’s thermostat by a few degrees, you might have extra difficulty with the Peace Corps lifestyle.
3. Are you an experimenter?
You will eat a lot of food in Peace Corps that you’ve never had, and that you may never want to have again (and some that you will miss dearly when you return to the U.S.). It may be insulting or culturally inappropriate to refuse to eat or drink certain things. If you’re a picky eater in the States, freaking out if there’s a slice of pickle in your burger or using only Splenda-brand sweetener in your favorite blend of fresh roasted coffee, take a reality check. In Azerbaijan, they don’t even have coffee that’s not instant, and most people drink it only occasionally. You will never get ice in your beverages, and you may be reprimanded by people for drinking plain water (tea is life there; cold water is said to make you sick). During my service, I had to get used to eating butter and sugar—a whole lot of it. However, I grew to love fatty, fresh yogurt, lean green stalks of cilantro, stuffed cabbage leaves, and pickled garlic. Who knew?
4. Are you resourceful?
For the most part, in Peace Corps, you are left on your own, with minimal resources and not a lot of direction. You will probably have more free time than you have ever had before. Being creative with limited materials and services and making good use of this free time are essential to a fulfilling two years. Imagine what you would do in the U.S if your flight from California to New York were delayed seven hours. If you’re the kind of person who would take that opportunity to make a new friend in the waiting room or pick up a book from the magazine shop that you’ve always been meaning to read, that’s a good sign for your Peace Corps compatibility. If you wouldn’t be able to do anything but gripe or silently fume about your thrown-off schedule, however, adjusting to Peace Corps life may be as enjoyable as jumping off a cliff and realizing mid-air that you don’t have wings.
5. Are you open to a change in outlook?
Peace Corps forces you to challenge a lot of your values, even ones you weren’t aware you had. In Azerbaijan, seeing the emphasis that people there put on family and family responsibility, for instance, I found myself starting to think differently about things like divorce and gender roles. As a woman, I certainly had to act differently to fit into the culture, for instance, never looking a man in the eye when I walked down the street so as not to be seen as promiscuous, never wearing shorts or tank tops, and not walking alone at night. In order to live harmoniously in the culture, I had to accept the way men demanded that their wives serve them tea all the time as a normal mode of behavior (at least for that country). If you come into Peace Corps with a lot of fixed ideas about the way things should be rather than an openness to the way things are, you may have a tougher time adjusting to and enjoying your time at site.
While in Azerbaijan, I was rewarded by many things: I learned how to roll dough into thin circles using a rod-like rolling pin, I enjoyed scrumptious fresh figs, pears, hazelnuts, cucumbers, beans, and tomatoes, and I gained an appreciation for slow, care-filled food. I learned a completely different language, got to appreciate a new style of music and dance, and received an enormous amount of generous hospitality. I made new friends, became a more patient, easygoing person, and experienced the joys of teaching. I also had my share of frustrations and down times, of course, but these were lessened by my answers of “yes” to the questions above.
Peace Corps provides the opportunity to live in a supported way for an extended period of time on the level of local people from another culture and really make a difference. For more information and to apply, see www.peacecorps.gov. There is no doubt that everyone’s Peace Corps service is different, but with the right attitude and personality, it can be the richest experience around.
I learn that to say, “My name is Carla,” I have to add an ending on my name that sounds like “durr,” rhyming with burr. But for Mike or Amy, the “durr” ending changes to sound like “deer.”
And the difference, which comes up frequently, doesn’t depend on gender, or length of the name. To know when to use which ending, you just have to do it by sound. This is the Azerbaijani way of making their language flow smoothly, and sound good. It’s called vowel harmony. You can’t have this vowel next to that one, so change the subsequent one to fit in with the first.
I would soon learn other rules for harmony:
Drink tea. Lots of it.
No plain water, or you’ll get sick.
Respect people older than you.
Serve them and do what they say.
Call meals “bread.”
Never leave bread upside-down.
Wipe dust off of your shoes before you leave the house.
Say, “May we always meet in cleanliness” when someone emerges from the hamam.
Hang clothes shoulders down, overlapped just so.
Slice onions and tomatoes in the hand.
Prepare national meals exactly the way you were taught.
The more butter a meal has, the better.
Phil Nyokai James teaches shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, in Portland, Maine. For Phil and his students, the lessons of the shakuhachi extend beyond the music to teach them about listening and presence in their daily lives. This 6.5-minute piece was produced while a student at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. It aired on Weekend America in 2006.
Escuela del Relato, Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 2003
Carla: I’ve heard mentioned the notion of the “Argentine Storytelling School.” What is the position of the Escuela del Relato in terms of this idea?
Ana: That idea…I first heard about it while out of the country…in Spain. And it caught my attention, because the storytellers that [the Spanish] are familiar with from Argentina have very diverse styles. Perhaps [the Spanish] have noticed, in the works that they have seen, greater rigor in the work than they are used to seeing from Spanish tellers. But I think that there are fairly significant differences between…the storytelling here. And it seems to me that the Escuela del Relato is occupying a space of great professional consciousness of the work. And great consciousness of the necessity of preparing oneself for the stage, of having a theatrical preparation in order to present this model of the spontaneous storyteller onstage. The people here at the Escuela acquire a consciousness of the increasing difficulty of this task….
Carla: And do you think that this aspect of the difficulty of the task of narrating has some particularly Argentine aspect to it, that is, do you think that this style of school could integrate itself into other countries?
Ana: I think that, in Spain, it would fit smoothly; in Colombia, Chile, and Venezuela, it could be of interest as well….There is interest for this type of work, but I think that there is very little theory, very little theoretical reflection about the characteristics of this work. And that the investigation that Jorge Dubatti is doing, or the reflections that appear in my book…we are of the very few who are beginning to consider the matter of a theoretical reflection.
Carla: Have you noticed, during your trips to other countries to tell stories, any particular characterizing elements of the storytelling in these countries, for instance, a Mexican or Colombian style?
Ana: Always when one sees a Latin American storyteller, for instance, an Argentine, a Mexican, or a Colombian, they have an advantage that is their accent. This generates a certain enchantment. It’s like a handicap, a plus that generates curiosity. But later, it can happen that fifteen or twenty minutes into the show, it gets tiresome, and the structure of the story being told can no longer sustain this fascination with the accent, or the charming qualities that the teller might have….At times there starts to appear that terrible monster that is boredom….I have seen German storytellers telling in Spanish, also Africans and Japanese….There is usually a common problem. Apart from personal charisma, there is a lack of mastery of narrative structure, lack of time management, for instance, or use of conflicts….often tellers will stretch out their story in order to prolong their time on the stage and enjoy the public’s reactions. The danger of this…is that the performance becomes extremely tiresome. What is new about the Escuela is its emphasis on solid narrative structure. That the conflict, the characters, the setting, the elements of the plot be condensed in time. In an amount of time in which a spectator can remain attentive. Often, in place of consciousness of storytelling as performance, storytellers have a love of the materials they choose, and don’t have a lot of consciousness that they are using the stage.
Carla: I am interested in how the Escuela resolves this stress on narrative structure with the model of the spontaneous teller. How is it that you consider consciousness of structure and technique to be a prerequisite for spontaneous telling?
Ana: The idea of the school is to bring to the stage what storytellers who are not actors do….A spontaneous teller who is effective in an intimate environment, such as a taxi driver, or a certain fisherman I once knew, has no guarantee of having the same effectiveness in front of an audience. The idea is to translate the effectiveness of domestic telling – maintain all of what that has, but acquire in addition a number of tools to sustain this in every performance in the same way, as if you were telling the story for the first time. For this you need to understand the mechanics of the art of repetition, which is theater, without losing the freshness of the first telling.
Carla: I’m under the impression that many students who come do not want to go onstage. How does it help them to learn all of these tools for performance?
Ana: I believe that it is a preparation…through which one learns to communicate. Whether one is a lawyer or a grandmother, stage training and learning about the concept of others’ time is important in practically any field.
Carla: Is there an assumption in the teachings of the Escuela that the people of Buenos Aires are contaminated by literature?
Ana: It’s true that we have a profile of students that is very literary…they hold literature to be on sacred ground, of great prestige. Orality has become disvalued….It’s as if orality were a poor relative, disinherited by literature. When in reality orality came first, and then literature. So the idea is to recuperate a language for orality in which common shared meaning is present, that what one says be enjoyable and necessary, that it be true in some sense. We want to return to ascribing beauty to the literature of memory and the literature of experience.
Carla: Why choose sources such as literature, film, and theater, if the idea is to return to a state of spontaneity?
Ana: The fundamental idea is that orality serves to transmit experience. In the life of every person there is the experience of the private, and the experience of the public, where the production of literature and cinema appears….The stories of the cinema are a source of orality in that people tell others what happens in a given movie. All sources of human experience are welcome. But most importantly, we try to revive and emphasize the capacity that each person has to express experience orally.
Carla: Traditionally, the role of the story has been to transmit wisdom and experience….
Ana: …Yes, exactly. The role of the story as taught by the Escuela is just that.
“We have fruit year-round.”
“Yes, a lot of fruit we have here.”
“In all the seasons.”
“It just comes from the trees, year-round.”
“Nice. How lucky you are.”
“A lot of fruit.”
“Every season, we have fruit. Different kinds.”
(Nod. Pause.) “What kinds?”
“Lemons, now we have lemons.”
“Yes, I’ve seen them.”
“We always have lemons this time of year.”
“What other fruits do you have?”
“Mangos, bananas, maracuyá…”
“We have fruit year-round.”
“Yes, it sure is.”
“This morning, I got up, and felt it was hot.”
(Smile. Nod.) “It was really hot in the sun.”
“Yes, in the sun it is always hotter than in the shade.”
“Would you like some agua dulce? It’s good for a hot day.”
“Yes, thank you.”
(Pause.) “It is quite warm, isn’t it.”
“Tomorrow, it could be even hotter.”
(Look of dismay).
“But maybe it will cool off.”
“Yes, it’s hot, isn’t it?”