Riding in Cars with Men in Azerbaijan

I woke up early on the 1st to pack my things and find breakfast at a nearby market before heading out to meet someone from an environmental NGO. I looked up the bus route and left the hostel confident that I would find the place I was looking for. Thirty minutes later, I found the address I was looking for, but not the office. After calling the man, I realized I did not have the correct information about the office’s location. I had to take another bus to the correct place, which ended up taking over an hour. Finally I made it to the man’s office, and after a nice chat, he set up a meeting at the Ministry of Environment. I was whisked off to the ministry, where I somehow managed to gulp down tea in a sweltering hot office. I finally was able to head off to the bus station for my trip to meet Elza in Gabala.

It was a strange trip, to say the least. I found myself in a car with a woman wearing a black and gold sequined headscarf and two Azeri men with gold teeth. This was after a bus ride with the doors open to the bus station, where I learned there wouldn’t be a bus to Gabala until tomorrow. A man asked if I want to go to Gabala and said it would be 20 manat for a spot in his car. After failing to haggle, I bought some fruit and took a few big breaths before climbing into the backseat.

About ten minutes in, we picked up a dude on the side of the road to make us a party of five. For much of the car ride I slept, and along the way we dropped off the hitchhiker, the man in the passenger seat, and the woman. I was alone with the gold-toothed driver, who spoke no Russian and no English. We sort of managed to communicate, if only because a Tarkan song I recognized played on the radio. He blasted Tarkan’s dreamy Turkish tunes and rolled down the sun roof. We drove like this for about twenty minutes, until we finally pulled up to Elza’s home in Gabala.

After putting my things away, I had tea with Elza and her mother-in-law. Murad, a neighbor boy, ran in to show off a new toy Rufat had bought him. I learned that Murad, who has seven sister and no brothers, comes over every single morning to play. Once Murad left, more guests came to take his place. This required more tea and sweets, and I sat quietly as the group talked in other languages. Once this crew had finished their tea, we packed up to go to another aunt’s house for more tea and more sweets. Again, the conversation took place in a language I don’t understand, but questions to me were translated by Elza or her mother-in-law.

An uncle picked up Elza, Rafael – a cousin – and me to go to a classical miso festival in the mountains. In the car, Elza’s uncle asked me many questions, such as: What do you think of men’s clothing here? Was it difficult to get used to the high fences we have in Azerbaijan? These were not questions I was expecting, and my answers were probably less than satisfactory. We finally reached the music festival, whig consisted of about 100 chairs set up in from of a huge half-done for the musicians. The orchestra was from Russia, and the conductor from Azerbaijan. Elza’s uncle met us after to bring us home.

While on the way home, though, we passed by a mosque that was recently built. Elza’s uncle decided we should stop to look at it, and informed the imam that I had come from America to visit Azerbaijan. Crowds of kids came running, all saying the few words in English that they knew. The imam was incredibly friendly, and he explained to me that they had just finished their only meal of the day, due to fasting during Ramadan. I was showed upstairs, to the space where women pray. There was a group of women sitting, who invited me to join them on the floor. Questions were fielded in several languages, and the wine were curious about my reason for visiting, what I knew about Islam, my religion, whether I would like to become Muslim… After this conversation and many photographs with children later, we finally left the mosque.

Once we finally got home, I had a midnight dinner of plov (a rice and meat dish) and tea before heading to bed. After that day, which seemed to stretch impossibly long, I could only say: wow.

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