Caucasian hospitality: Being a guest in a country of hosts
There are a few predictable questions most people ask you, after "
" it is often "What do you think of Azerbaijan?" There is sometimes a tinge of self-consciousness in their voice - some very unsure what you may say, and pleased when I respond with "
Azərbaycan çox xoşuma gəlir
" (I really like Azerbaijan). Then they delve into the specifics, and often will ask if the people of Azerbaijan are "
" or "
" (hospitable). And, they most definitely are. This sort of a hospitality is not just those who invite me over to there home, but also those in the market or on a bus. It seems that most people feel that as I am a "
" (guest) to Azerbaijan, all (or at least many) people are responsible for my wellbeing.
Prior to coming, I stumbled on a few articles about the unparalleled hospitality of the peoples of the Caucasus. In my experience, these accounts have mostly discussed the idealized form of this hospitality -
- but little has caught my eye discussing the actual form it takes. This joviality toward foreign strangers is a special form of "gift-giving" as, many anthropologists and sociologists have note, giving a gift often locks individuals and families into networks of mutual support and indefinite reciprocity. Gifts, and kindness toward the foreigner, I would argue, is of a different sort as they are ephemeral relationships.
During my time in-country, I have experienced the much-discussed "guesting," where an invited (or uninvited) guest comes over to be treated to a full course of meals and treats. When visiting friends, I'm sure to be quick, lest the host rustle something up before I can protest. One time, I was tricked into a full meal - first the invitation for just one glass of tea, then a few sweets, then bread and vegetables, and before long "just a small meal" which filled me for the day. Even more interesting than this (for me at least) is the hospitality that occurs outside the home.
On a snowy January day, I moseyed through the local bazaar, on a futile search for postcards (I have only found a few in Baku). It was cold and a group of men huddled around a fire (behind a sad collection of fruits). My odd clothes, and (at the time) rather large beard alerted them, and I overheard them say "American." Turning, I locked eyes and they called me over. We made small talk about where I am from and what I was doing here, and not long they rushed me into a very nondescript shop. It turned out to be a cafe - it had a few small plastic tables, and the walls were a light, pastel green-blue. The overcast sky, and the layers of jackets dampened the scene, while two tables of middle-aged men chatted and drank tea. Before I could say much of anything they told me to sit and eat (and mimed eating to drive the point home). A small metal pan, about five inches across was placed in front of me, with chunks of lamb, onion and cilantro still sizzling in butter. Topped off with delightful, fluffy, fresh bread, and tea. Our discussion lead from sports, to family, to the poor job market in Azerbaijan, none of them men had jobs aside from selling small produce (and I assumed one of them had owning interest in the cafe). Despite the talk of no jobs and low wages, they adamantly refused my money, despite insisting.
Several trips on the train involved people offering me food - one I've already recounted in
. In fact, only once have I not received food from fellow passengers, and I have a suspicion that riding in the cheapest class (plaskart) will increase the chances of getting fed.
On when recent trip, I sat on the top bunk of in plaskart class reading, while a middle-aged couple sat below me. We had exchanged the usual conversation, and I had read in silence for an hour, before they produced a loaf of bread and the man didn't ask, but more-or-less told me to come down and eat. I've grown so accustomed to this, that I didn't even try to protest, I hopped down, and reluctantly grabbed a chunk of bread. The women then produced a bag, wrapped around a cloth with five pieces of fried chicken, she waved a hand toward the food and told me to "
" (eat, eat). We ate in silence and I conscientiously slowed my chewing, trying my best to eat very little of their food. Realizing returning to my bunk would be awkward, I excused myself to the bathroom, and upon returning I offered the couple some of the cookies from my bag. They refused.
Even further removed from the host-guest paradigm is the "hospitality" of sellers. One of my local friends and I often discuss the strong sense of reciprocity in Azerbaijan. Family and close friends tend to help each other with little forethought - it is expected. When it comes to a persons profession, however, my friend tries to refuse their goodwill. If it is a persons' livelihood, how they feed their family, then he would rather not accept their gifts. I would tend to agree, but often people are very persistent, even after my equally persistent insistence.
During the winter months, my masochistic feet decided to take my person for a very long walk to the next town east. Along the way, various tarp-huts next to small cars, sold hazelnuts by the kilo. My path was on the opposite side of the street, but my blue attire against the pale backdrop roused their interests, and they enthusiastically waved me over. Without asking, they poured a cup of tea out of a thermos (which reminded me of the puke-green Coleman thermos my dad touted around during my childhood). They handed me three cubes of brown sugar cubes, and we got down to the matter of what-the-hell I was doing walking around in the middle of winter, in the mountain back-roads. After the hot tea and the conversation, I felt more inclined to purchase a pile of hazelnuts (which, my American mindset assumed was the point of the hospitality all along). They filled a large, clay-orange bucket with nuts from a large white sack, and asked me where they should dump it - not having an extra bag, the hazelnuts found there way into the spaces between the extra layers in my backpack (I rattled when I walked).
Per usual, I asked how much. They refused. I handed them money. They pushed it away. I said I must pay and he replied that God would reward him. After a while you stop trying so hard to refuse people's offers of kindness, and just look for opportunities to help someone else.