Guesting is the foundation of any PCVs experience, but for a volunteer in Azerbaijan, March is the high season. Novruz is the national Muslim holiday that celebrates the New Year and the coming of Spring. The word ‘Novruz’ comes from the Farsi for 'new day', and is a celebration of the spring Equinox. The first day of spring on the calendar is determined by the annual circling of the Sun. According to the first inscription, the holiday of Novruz was established in 505 B.C. Although it is widely celebrated in Muslim countries, it cannot be strictly considered a religious holiday. Prohibited, but celebrated discreetly during Soviet years, Novruz is now one of the most anticipated holidays in Azerbaijan. The Soviet government prohibited the celebrations and persecuted people for following the age-old traditions of Novruz.
As a volunteer, we have been hearing about Novruz and its accompanying festivities since we first arrived. On each of the 4 preceding Tuesdays, Azeris celebrate one of the four elements: wind, water, fire, and earth (very Captain Planet-esque right!). You can read about it more on the Wikipedia page (hyperlink), but all sorts of traditions are followed. Houses are spotlessly cleaned, trees are planted, plates of wheat grass (Samani) wrapped in red ribbon become everyone’s center-piece, pastries like (Shakabura and Pakhlava) become the staple at EVERY meal, eggs are ornately painted, and small bonfires are made to jump over every Tuesday night – regardless of age or gender, people jump seven times over one bonfire, or once over seven bonfires and say, “Give me your redness and take my yellowness.” This can also be translated as, “Take my hardships, give me your lightness.” Thus, hardships and troubles from the past year are “dropped” into the flames of the bonfire.
Apparently, Avars (the majority ethnic group here) do not celebrate the holiday with as much zest as other ethnic Azeris. This was quite a disappointment for me to hear. The first few Tuesdays occurred with little celebration and I became worried that Novruz would pass me by. Come March 17, however, all hell broke loose (probably not the best choice of words) and I have not had a moment to rest since!
On Friday the 17th, (fittingly the most beautiful day we have had yet) Stephanie and I nonchalantly made our way to Heydary Park, where we had heard there as a large Novruz celebration. Many people had invited us to join them there, but the details of the event remained unclear. As we entered the park, we stopped dead in our tracks, mouths gaping wide open in absolute awe. Hundreds of people were seated at tables lavishly covered with beautiful flowers, colorful fruits, juices, and cakes. Old women were spinning yarn and making traditional Azeri foods like balgabaq qutab (pumpkin quesadilla), men were grilling kebabs and toasting with vodka that never seemed to empty, and children danced to the beautiful sounds of the many musical talents that frequented the stage.
I hope the pictures below help explain what an exceptional event this really was. So much happened that an explanation in mere words could not possibly do the day justice.
We were given seats at one of the head tables, but there was not much time to actually sit. We had to do our rounds, going from table to table wishing everyone a happy holiday, taking pictures, trying people’s dishes, and taking shots of vodka whenever asked (Trey and I only). My good friend Elvin stayed with us most of the day, explaining the various dishes and performances and their significance. The spread, the decorations, the performances; it was like nothing I had ever seen before. It almost seemed profligate, but sitting there, seeing everyone smiling, socializing, and working together to celebrate this wonderful holiday, I realize just how important it was to their culture, and I became overwhelmed with feelings of pride and elation for my site and the people that I am serving.
Trey, Stephanie, and I spent the rest of the day enjoying the beautiful weather in the Park with Elvin and his wife Elnura, reflecting on what a remarkable and wonderfully unexpected day it had been.
Since then, my sitemates and I have struggled to accept every invitation to guest. The celebrations, along with preparing to move into my own apartment (more on that to come soon), have made life almost impossibly eventful, but also very exhilarating!
Here are the highlights:
One day, we went fishing with Elvin at a river near Georgia. Spring run-off from the mountains made the water very fast and murky, so catching anything was out of the question. That didn’t prevent us from rolling up our pant legs and enjoying the sun.
We also went guesting at the house of two of our students. Ayla and Pirdas, sisters, were incredibly hospitable. Their mother cooked us a wonderful spread, and then proceeded to leave the room. When we asked why she was not staying, she said that it was because we were her daughters guests – very cute. We ate, joked, and had a dance party in their room. Before that night, their mother had recently forbade them from coming to any clubs that were not specifically dedicated to their schooling or studying English. Upon getting to know us, she gave them permission to come to any club they wanted, as long as it did not conflict with their lessons! It was so uplifting to see Ayla give me a discreet thumbs up as her mother granted them permission. They will both make excellent softball players!
When it got dark, we went “hat throwing”. Another Novruz tradition, it is very similar to trick-or-treating. You sneak up on a house, throw your hat at the door, and then scream “Papaq Doldurun” (fill the hat) before running away. You return a few minutes later hoping that the family has filled your hat with candy and nuts.
Of course, as Americans throwing hats, no one was satisfied just giving us candy, and we were forced to enter people’s homes for 2nd and 3rd dinners.
That’s all for now. I am going to spend the rest of the vacation week cleaning and moving into my new apartment. The first day of cleaning was a success (thanks in large part to the help of Trey and Stephanie), but it was not without its difficulties, including a concealed corner of mold, hydrochloric acid, and more dead spiders than in “Arachnophobia”. Wish me luck.
|Green Beer for St. Patty's Day|
|Horse men escorting the Princess of Spring|
|The Novruz Festival in Heydar Park|
|The Princess of Spring|
|Azeri Dancing at the Festival|
|Women making Qutab and Spinning Wool|
|My Friend Elvin and I|
|Me, Elvin's Mother, Elvin, Elnura (Elvin's Wife), Stephanie, Trey|
|The girls playing softball at sports club at the Olympic center|
|Trey and Elvin fishing|
|Probably why they didn't catch anything|
|The spread that was put out just because we knocked on their door!|
|Not too shabby!|