Where are you from?: The 2nd question Azerbaijanis ask me
Even if you only have a rudimentary understanding of the local language, before long, you get the feeling that people are saying the same thing to you. Now, I know that the first question is whether I speak the language that they speak (usually, Azerbaijani or Russian, and they are usually a bit surprised that I am learning the former and not the latter), the second question is where am I from (the third question is why do I have a beard, but I will have to cover that in a later post). I usually say I am from the USA, but that I amMontanan. The second answer usually gets a thoughtful pause on their part as they try to figure out what that means. Then to solve the conundrum, they (usually) push for some type of "ethnicity" or "nationality." As most Azerbaijanis have a vague notion that America is chocked full of immigrants and the progeny of immigrants, they start listing off countries. I stop them at "Almaniya" or Germany. This, more often than not, meets a smile, a pat on the back and/or a thumbs up. They like Germany, for some reason.
Labeling me as "German" satisfies their curiosity, but, for me, is nearly devoid of meaning. The German side of my family left Berg, Pfalz, Germany around 1850 for the "free world." Along with the nearly 10 million others, my family was still speaking German in close-knit Germanic communities in the United States up to the 1910s. This included German schools, newspapers, magazines, churches, restaurants and bars. That is until World War I, when speaking German began to fall out of vogue, some states even barred the use of languages other than English in public spaces to "combat" disloyalty. As a result of anti-German sentiment at the beginning of the 20th century, I do not know the German language and I do not know any traditional German customs or mannerisms (except that German-Americans brought Christmas trees to the US. O, Tannenbaum!), and I learned about my heritage mostly from the Internet. As I subscribe to the camp that neither "race" nor "ethnicity" is genetic: I am not German, I'm Montanan.
Many people who live here have ancient histories (albeit, often contested histories). Perhaps the oldest ethnic group in Azerbaijan are the Udi, descendants of the Caucasian-Albanian state that existed between the 5th century BCE and the 8th century CE, and live in the town of Nij, Gabala (which is only a couple of hours from my home), and consists of only several thousand people still speaking the ancient Albanian language. The Avar, Tsakhurs, Lezgins, Budukhs, Rutuls, Kryz and Khinaligs all share northeastern Caucasus ancestry, though they speak distinct (yet related) languages. My first host family, in the suburban "village" of Saray on the Absheron Peninsula, are Lezgins, while in Zaqatala I regularly interact with Avars who predominantly live in the northwest of the country. Additionally, there are the Talysh of the southern Lesser Caucasus, and the Tats in the north (of which there are both Jewish and Muslim communities). At my main host organization, Bilik Ojaghi (lit: Knowledge Hearth), I work with several people who are Georgian, but whose family have lived in the same small towns (inside the current Azerbaijani borders) for hundreds of years (if not longer).
Azeris (which denotes the ethnicity and "Azerbaijani" describes the citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan) are the primary ethnic group in the country (about 90%) and are also a large minority in the northern provinces of Iran. The Oghuz-Turkic people, the ancestors of the modern Azeri people, spread into Iran and the Caucasus in the 11th century CE, from Central Asia and colonized the region. These Turkish Peoples only partly assimilated the aboriginal groups (above), who still live on in mostly isolated, mountainous areas (which is where I live).
The above is by no means a comprehensive list, especially if one were to look at the entire Caucasus, rather than just the Azerbaijani state. All of the ethno-linguistic groups mentioned, aside from Azeri, have no connection with any other languages outside of the Caucasus region (and most are considered vulnerable or endangered by UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger). I plan to cover this topic in later posts (perhaps, if you're lucky, with less date dropping and stat spewing), because I find it fascinating, but also as it is very much in my backyard.