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.


  1. Milena! I cannot believe you are in Baku! I practically grew up there, visiting my family every summer up until I turned 13. My grandmother is from Armenia and she lived in Baku for a long time, where she met my grandfather. My mother and her sister had been born in Baku and grew up there as well. My aunt and her family, including two of my cousins still live there. Please do let me know if you need any help or want to try to get to know people. My aunt is a high school teacher, so you may have something in common. My cousins are my age and I am sure they will be glad to show you places if you want. Please email me I hope your stay there is pleasant and enjoyable!

    How long will you be there for? I was planing to come visit my cousins in summer!

  2. I'd purely tell you all “awesome information”

    dwi new york