Study Abroad Column
By Isaak Belongia | Photos courtesy of Isaak Belongia
Azerbaijan is a nation of 10 million, bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, and the Caspian Sea. Personnel at each of the two banks I called to notify of my travel there asked me whether it was a city or a country. The fact that some Americans know next to nothing about Azerbaijan is something I have had to come to terms with since returning from one of my life’s most amazing experiences. I decided to write this article to express some of my favorite things, as well as a bit of history and context, about this country.
Language and History
I traveled to Azerbaijan in the summer of 2019, with a U.S. Department of State program called the Critical Languages Scholarship. I studied Turkish during my summer-long stay. This was somewhat challenging at first given the fact that the native language in Azerbaijan is Azerbaijani (or Azeri), a cousin of Turkish. Azeris consider themselves ethnically Turkish, and there is a saying for the relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkey: “Two countries, one nation.” Much of the popular television and music in Azerbaijan is Turkish, so almost everyone can understand it, even if they don’t speak it.
So then why are the groceries in Russian? For a brief period in 1918, Azerbaijan was the first secular, Muslim-majority democratic country in the world. Twenty-three months later, the Red Army invaded, and Azerbaijan was a Soviet state for the next 70 years. Russian became the language of education, high culture, and economics, and remains spoken by many today. (I once found myself in the basement of an abandoned Soviet radio station, which contained crates upon crates of largely untouched gas masks. It was an eerie time capsule, to say the least.)
Food and Drink
Azeris are wonderful hosts. Despite many warnings, I quickly fell victim to my host grandmother’s persistent ability to feed me way too much food. Sometimes, she would sneak more food onto my plate when I wasn’t looking and shoot me a wink. It is considered the job of the host to coax a shy guest to eat to their full desire — a duty which is not taken lightly.
The food itself would warrant a larger discussion, but it will suffice to mention the quintessential fast food: döner (dönər in Azeri). It is a Turkish food, which consists of meat (usually beef or chicken) shaved from a vertical spit, served in bread with various toppings. I ate this almost every day for lunch, and it cost 1.70 manat, or the equivalent of $1. I also enjoyed a great selection of fresh fruits and juices (a forgotten luxury, I think, to adults in the U.S.).
Most important when it comes to beverages, though, is tea. One could try to compare it to U.S. coffee culture, but it’s hardly accurate. Yes, people drink tea every morning, but also every afternoon and evening. Most social outings involved at least an hour of teatime. Additionally, tea is not just tea. It is often served with some sort of jellied fruit or sweets, baklava, dried fruit and nuts, or even a whole array thereof.
Daily commute is oddly one of the things I look back on most fondly about Azerbaijan, despite its double-edged nature. On the bright side, in the capital city of Baku, home to 4 million, the metro and bus system was the simplest I have ever experienced. As far as the metro system goes, there are just two train lines — a far cry from the tangled web of colored lines you see in most other major cities. And you don’t need a schedule; when you arrive at a bus or train stop, you only have to wait about a minute.
The downside is unbelievable rush hour crowding. I took countless rides squeezed in with arms trapped at my sides, or getting squashed as a bus door tried to close. Needless to say, it was rare to arrive at school not already sweating through my shirt.
Nonetheless, there is an admirable camaraderie among the passengers. For one, if a sudden jolt causes you to stumble, there is always somebody reaching to catch you. And whereas it is customary for men of almost all ages to give up their seats to women of almost all ages, common etiquette is that a sitting person will hold a standing person’s bag. Further, I had several encounters where strangers helped to pull me into a train just before the doors closed.
Azerbaijan’s nickname — “The Land of Fire” — comes from its natural fires, which have been burning for 4,000 years. Historically, these sites have had religious significance to both Hindu and Zoroastrian pilgrims. The fires are caused by underground natural gas. Though some of these natural flames have been diminished or destroyed by oil drilling (the main economic industry of Azerbaijan), they remain a vital symbol of the country.
Azerbaijan also has mud volcanoes: 300 out of the world’s 700 are located just in the area of Gobustan. Apparently, the mud is good for your skin, but it’s also super fun.
Additionally, Azerbaijan has breathtaking mountainous regions. My host brothers once took me on a trip to some villages in the west. At one point we came to a single hand-built homestead amid wildflower-covered mountains. Only photographs could possibly convey the natural beauty of the area, which was legitimately one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen.
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In the end, I couldn’t have left Azerbaijan without it taking a special place in my heart. I think that’s what happens whenever you live somewhere, and you speak and eat and interact with the people of that place. While there’s plenty more to be said about Azerbaijan as a country, I hope this article was able to convey a few interesting things about a place that few in the U.S. hear much about.