Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Americans in Baku: The Azeri Spirit

In my last post I described the superficial features of our temporary home – Baku, Azerbaijan. Here I will focus more on the Azeri people and their spirit, which I have gotten to know better over the last three weeks.

Azeris are stoic. They accept adversity easily and march on, without ever questioning the adversity, or any status quo for that matter. This is most likely a trait of their Soviet experience, and it is unlikely that it will change in the near future. They are also polite and extremely hierarchical. On the crowded metro, young men and women routinely get up to yield their seat to an elderly person, or to young children. Our five-year-old twins, falling into the latter category, are usually offered a seat within seconds of boarding on an overly crowded train. New Yorkers would have a lot to learn from this (on a crowded, rush-hour Manhattan subway, nobody leaves their seat – unless the train has arrived to their stop). Students are also respectful and deferential to their teachers. When I enter a classroom, they all rise (we were taught to do this in the communist Yugoslavia schools, but I do not think that this custom extended all the way up to the university level). When they need to leave the room to use the restroom, they politely ask. They address me as “teacher” – not Professor, not Mrs. or Ms. Sterio, simply “teacher.” Apparently, in the Azeri language this is a common term that students use to address their teachers, and it means more than just teacher. It means someone in a position of authority whom you respect, and in many ways I feel honored that they address me this way.
Azeris are also resourceful. Because many rigid rules exist about various things, people are always coming up with ways to (semi)-legitimately bypass the rule. It suffices to know the right person and to come up with the right strategy.
Azeris rarely smile. Not because they do not like you or do not like to smile, but because smiling is reserved for close family members and friends. Otherwise, smiling is considered inappropriate. I have seen many official portraits of the president, his family, of the university president and various deans and nobody ever smiles. And in public, Azeris are very quiet. Nobody raises their voice about anything, even when ten people cut the line in front of you, or when you are experiencing any other kind of a frustrating situation (and there are many here in Baku), you simply do not shout, yell, or otherwise exhibit any other kind of abnormal behavior. Again, New Yorkers would have a lot to learn! Everywhere we go, our children are the loudest. Azeri children do not scream, yell, or act unruly. Or maybe they do, but not in public. We recently went to a health center to get medical exams (this is part of a ridiculously cumbersome procedure for obtaining our long-term visa or residency permit); two boys were chasing each other and just going crazy. I was surprised at first, because I had not seen that kind of behavior here, but then they started speaking to each other – in English!

Azeris do not easily share information. Many times so far, I was in a situation where my Azeri counterpart had crucial information for me, yet chose not to share it with me at first. Not because they were trying to intentionally subvert or harm me, but simply because it never occurred to them that the information may be valuable to me. Or because they thought that I did not need the information right away. As much as this kind of attitude can be frustrating, one has to accept that Azeris simply do not believe in information overload – as the French say it, “chaque chose en son temps.”

I will post more soon about the university, and the Azeri spirit at play in that setting.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Americans in Baku: So Far, So Good

Due to popular demand, I have decided to temporarily devote this blog, which I otherwise use for professional posts, to weekly updates about our stay in Baku, Azerbaijan. Enjoy! It has been two weeks since we arrived to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and our temporary home for the next five months. Baku is a fascinating city in every sense of the word. It is a metropolis at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Asia, influenced by both its Persian origins as well as decades spent under the Soviet rule. Baku, or Baki in the Azeri language, is today a city of 3 million people along the shores of the Caspian Sea. It has developed incredibly over the past few years. Construction sites and cranes can be seen everywhere throughout the city, having popped up to restore old buildings, to erect new ones, and to transform Baku into another Dubai – a modern, elegant, luxurious, dreamy city of the future. Our apartment is a large 3-bedroom, on the third floor of a 10-story tower, a few minutes away from so-called Fountain Square, a large, marble-floored and fountain-ornamented square, which for all purposes constitutes the city center (one of only two McDonald’s restaurants in Baku is located in Fountain Square). The city has several other squares built in the same style – with elegant marble floors and spectacular fountains. All squares are immaculately maintained, and city-employed cleaners can be seen everywhere, wiping marble tiles, fixing any fountains that do not work, picking up garbage. Littering is inexistent, either because people are culturally predisposed to not littering, or because garbage cans can be found everywhere, literally within 20 feet of one another. We haven’t tested it, obviously, but littering could also be punishable by heavy fines and/or cause one many problems with the local police (police officers can also be seen everywhere throughout the city). Another beautiful feature of the city is a 5-mile long promenade along the Caspian Sea, the so-called “bulvar.” Although the Sea is polluted and grayish during winter months, the promenade is gorgeous. It is wide, marble-tiled, beautifully lit at night, neighbored by parks and more fountains, and full of Azeri couples, families, young families, and teenagers, strolling and just enjoying the scenery. On weekend mornings, runners can be spotted as well (yours truly also), but most of them seem to be foreigners with light skin and Nike running clothes. For local purposes, our apartment is luxurious. It is centrally-located and big, with ornamental hard-wood floors and flashy crystal chandeliers in every room. For our spoiled American standards, it is fine but lacking in basic amenities, such as a clothes’ dryer, a coffeemaker, or a proper wall-mounted shower. These would be luxuries in Baku, and would require another $1000 if not more in monthly rental payments. We have learned to live without them – we line-dry our clothes, make Ness instant coffee in the morning, and take showers while crouching in a large bathtub and holding the shower head (I had of course learned this skill while growing up in the former Yugoslavia, but after years in the United States, I do long for a long shower while standing up). Our landlord does not speak English, but his son does – sort of. When Fred texted the landlord’s son to ask him what to do about our electricity bill, which had been just glued to our front door, he texted back: “Mister, I do not understand.” He did show up at our place the next day, and when we showed him the bill, he was able to explain to us what to do with it. When we first met the landlord, the night that we arrived to Baku, he met us in the apartment, and after we discussed all the rental details and he was satisfied with our general appearance, he shook hands to seal the deal with Fred only. As a woman, I did not have the cultural right and privilege to conclude such an agreement with an older man. Even though I am the reason that we are here, and even though the landlord knew that I was the one working here and teaching at the university. This is a remnant of the Azeri Persian, and Muslim, heritage and culture. Although Azerbaijan is officially a secular nation, and although most people are not religious in the true sense of the word, the Azeri society is de facto segregated, with women mostly hanging out with other women and with each gender holding a specific post within their society. Women dress in provocative clothes (tight skinny jeans and high heels seem to be the norm here), drive cars, attend the university, and work, but they are not really equal with men in the family structure and the traditional culture. Teenage boys and girls do not really hang out, and it is common to see large groups of girls or boys hanging out at Fountain Square or drinking tea (“chai”) at a local cafĂ©, but not boys and girls together as friends. The exception to this seemingly predominant norm is if a boy and a girl are dating – young couples holding hands and lovingly looking at each other routinely stroll the Bulvar along the Caspian Sea. Another way in which the Persian history and culture manifest themselves is through the local cuisine, and in particular, the local obsession with rice. Rice here is excellent; it is difficult to describe what it tastes like, but let’s just say that Uncle Ben would have a lot to learn from the local rice producers! Meat also seems to be a local staple, but only chicken, beef and lamb (pork is virtually nonexistent, except at foreign restaurants and European-style grocery stores). Finally, although the state is officially secular, every morning at 6:30 we hear the call for prayer from a local mosque. I am not sure how many people actually pray at the requisite times, but the calls for prayer continue throughout the day, for a total of five times. On another level, Azerbaijan seems still heavily influenced by its Soviet past. Azeris are stoic and orderly; they never lose their temper, even in the face of chaos and adversity (my kids need to learn from this, but more on that later). This is most likely something that they learned through decades of the Soviet rule – that it is not possible to change things and that you should just keep going, without complaining, no matter what happens. They are polite, with Soviet-instilled values, such as yielding your suit to an elderly person on the metro, or rising when the professor enters the classroom. They are hierarchical – it is normal for a professor to cut the line for the elevator at the expense of students, as it is normal at the university to have separate bathrooms, the nice ones for the professors and the Turkish-style hole-in-the-ground for students. A young person does not address an older one in a position of authority without being spoken to first; a younger colleague does not challenge an older one; a child obeys his or her parents (again, my kids could learn here too!). A final point on Baku State University, where I am teaching at the law department. The university is state-owned and operated; all curriculum is state-dictated and all class instruction is filmed (I was warned against engaging in any political discussions with my students). The class schedule is determined literally the day before the semester starts, and during the first few weeks, schedule changes are frequent. Students do not seem to mind; they consult daily bulletin boards which tell them where to go and at which times. It seems that professors are routinely asked to switch classes – I had to decline when I was asked, a week before the semester started, if I wouldn’t mind teaching Intellectual Property Law instead of ADR (I have zero knowledge of the former). My students seem very nice and glad to have me here; we will see whether this continues throughout the semester. So far, so good. More updates will follow on a regular basis.