Distance and the Dilemma of Greetings and Farewells


"Mobility is a fact of life" Tim Cresswell states in his geography treatise: On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. In many ways, this mobility becomes a paradox in the frame of development. As Cresswell points out, movement is a token of progress - we want mobility, we want to shuffle off the chains of stagnant tradition, of poverty, debt and disease. Mobility is freedom. To a certain extent we romanticize movement, the liberated soul, the adventurer. On the other hand, mobility can be painful and deviant. We are forced to leave behind loved-ones. Live surrounded by strangeness. History recounts many tales of raiding marauders attacking agrarian-states, and contemporary stories of shady vagabonds and traveling killers. In the United States, finally "settling down" is a sign that "you've arrived," while many consider it a city's duty to clean the transients from the streets.

High-mountain summer pastures called yaylaq

In Azerbaijan, there are still seasonal nomads - the çoban (shepherds) - who lead their flock to the "yaylaq" or high-altitude summer pastures. Many çoban move between the borders of Azerbaijan and and the Russian Daghestan - on remote mountain passes, difficult to guard. Many still traverse through the Şahdağ National Park - the most isolated part of Azerbaijan. And there are those Azerbaijanis who move to Baku from the regions or even Moscow seeking greater opportunity. Still, many live very nearby, where many generations ago their "nəsil" (patrilineal family) harvested hazelnuts and chestnuts, fired-up təndir ovens, and tended to the livestock. It is tradition for women to leave their family, sometimes moving only a few kilometers, but moving, nonetheless. For mothers seeing off their daughters, it is a great emotional distance. Women sometimes talk of their family's "kənd" as a far-off land.

Thus far, my adventure has proven one thing above all: distance is relative. While, the Caucasus may not be a large physical area - this small linchpin of the world, locked between Asia, Europe, the Mid-East and the Mediterranean - crams several worlds, miles of experience, leagues of emotional depth, mountains of myths and languages, traditions and struggles - into an area not much bigger than Montana. Live here for just a short while, and you feel as if you've traveled the world over in memories.

For a lot of my childhood I was a bit of a nomad. And, through most of my fledgling adulthood, I've desired to remain that way. A necessary and unavoidable part of the flow of traveling, and tides of life are the many greetings and farewells. For modernist-nomads, the farewells seem to come sooner, as they leave behind the mostly sedentary. Forced mostly be economic hardship or opportunity to uproot and split. This is different, I would argue, than other nomadic peoples, as they had the luxury of moving as a community. Now, job-pilgrims can only hope to move as a family.

On a more interpersonal level mobility presents a deeply intimate dilemma. Leaving Azerbaijan, I realized - perhaps for the first time - that the Earth is really, really big. On many levels the world is not as flat as Thomas Friedman contends. Technology has changed the landscapes, but we are still subjects to physics and inequality. We are too aware of the caricature of super-rich folks and, maybe, they live in a reality where all things that money can buy are within their grasp. The rest of us, we can't go anywhere, we can't see everything, we can't meet everyone, we can't return to everywhere we once were. We can't meet every old friend. We only have so much time. Movement must be prioritized.

A row boat on the Caspian Sea

The people of Zaqatala, Azerbaijan openly welcomed a stranger into their community and, eventually, treated me as a member of their family. As I heard many times, it was very important to be kind to the foreigner. "Respect the foreigner, he will respect you," they told me. People passing on streets would often welcome me to Azerbaijan with a happy "xoş gəlmisiniz!" Some ask my opinions of Azerbaijan - and they were often waiting (hoping) to hear the word "qonaqpərvər" or "hospitable." And, they did welcome me, and feed me, and offer to help many times over (as I've discussed before)

Most people, even those who don't speak Azerbaijani, greet with the Arabic word for peace: "salaam" or the full "salaam alakum" meaning "peace be upon you." In Azeri, they would quickly follow-up with "necəsiniz?" ("necəsən" for informal) or in Georgian "rogor kar?" (how are you?). Or in Caucasian Avar: kansa ruqu? (for general audiences); kansa vuqu? (for males); kansa yuqu? (for females). For the first month or two of my stay, my role was meeting new people, in Azerbaijani "salamlaşmaq."

Over a time (shorter than I thought), the relationships transformed. Boundaries became fuzzy, cordiality dropped, but still the kindness and warmth remain. Despite such a snippet of temporal distance, many Azerbaijanis leapt fathoms in social distance. My host family and friends became closer than many of my childhood companions back home. Despite cultural and language blockades, a general agnosticism facilitated our companionship. While, perhaps most relationships are built on commonalities, we managed to form our connection around a discussion of the differences. And, there were many differences and many disagreements.

Yevlax, Azerbaijan

The ebb and flow brought that chapter to a close for me, and with it came the painful good-byes; in Azerbaijani "saqolaşmaq." One of the first things we learned about "saq ol" or "saq olun" (for the plural/formal), is that it is used both for "thank you" and "good bye." At first, I was confused when someone would reply to my "saq ol" with "sen da" (lit: "and you"). After I found out the literal translation it made more sense. It means "be well." A pleasant thing to say. I soon enjoyed shooting out a "saq ol" with more frequency than my Azerbaijani counterparts (which was perhaps a bit awkward).

To the departing guest, it is also common for people to say "yaxşı yol" - which very literally means "good bye," but in this sense "bye" is to mean: way, road or path. Have a good road. Safe journey. (now, I find it humorous that we English effectively say "road" to each other). Common Azerbaijani good-byes include: "helelik" (lit: until our next time), "goruşerik" (lit: let's meet again) or if someone is going on a long journey, "saq salamat" (similar to "safe and sound).

Statue of Heydar Aliyev in the Capitol of Baku Azerbaijan

There is also a word in Azerbaijani that translates to "farewell," but is only used when you will never see that person again. Good bye forever. Əlvida. They often joked that they use it when breaking up with friends. Despite its lovely sound (to my ears, anyway), it has somber connotations - it is about endings. People seldom use this word. Likewise, in Georgian, good bye is accomplished with the word "nakh'wamdis" which is closely translated as "see you later." I never felt comfortable using it as thought it unlikely to meet most people in Georgia again. However, my good friend (hailing from an ethnically Georgian part of Azerbaijan) said that even if you might not see them again, you don't know for sure. To say otherwise is to imply that you will actively try not to avoid meeting - and it would be offensive.

During my last two weeks in Zaqatala, many people invited me over "to guest." No one said "əlvida." And many friends offered their homes for my return. "It doesn't matter if it is a year or ten," my good friend joked "if you return to the Caucasus and don't visit my home, our paths better never cross again!"

It's true that not all my time here has been sunshine and butterflies, not everyone was warm and inviting, and there were many things that frustrated me, but the generosity of these people, and the charm of their history remains the most potent aftertaste. I will return. While, I can't predict my future, I feel as though this can't be an ending. We can't return to everywhere we once were, but Azerbaijan, and the people of the Caucasus are forever pressed on my mind. To those mountains, and those people, this is not əlvida. This is helelik. This is nakh'wamdis. Until next time.