Baku - culture shock

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July 13th 2008
Published: July 12th 2008
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View over the oilfields View over the oilfields View over the oilfields

taken from Ramana fortress
So here is my first update from Azerbaijan.
I am at the moment participating in an AEGEE-summer university in Baku, learning the Azeri language, which is related to Turkish. We are approx 13 participants and at least as many organizers from the universities in Baku.

So let's begin,

Baku, where East meets West, where Islam co-exists with capitalism and where Ladas and Mercedes fill the street. - And where a young and ignorant western girl such as myself

The first thing I noticed as I arrived in Baku was the noise. The streets are full of honking cars and police speaking in the microphones as they try to make cars pull into the side. It seems that car drivers will honk at anything; when they are about to turn a corner, when they stand still for red light, when they have to slow down - all the time, honk honk. The very first night all the honking had me going crazy, but after a little while I have become so used to it that I hardly notice it anymore.

Even with all the honking and all the making-sure-that-everyone-knows-your-here, accidents still hapen. On our way home from
People in the beachPeople in the beachPeople in the beach

Abşeron peninsula into the Caspian Sea
the beach one day, after having had a marvellous swim in the oils of the caspian Sea our bus hit a blue Lada which was parked around a corner. Don't worry mum, no one was hurt - except the Lada offcourse, which was cracked open on the side. As sorry as I feel for the proud Lada owner, there was something else which in the situation seemed much more interesting to me. And that was the actions taken by the drivers shortly after the accident. They fled the scene. Together they drove away from where the accident had occured and into a back alley. I might remind you that in one of the vehicles sat 13 or so young westerners with a very surprised look on their face.
But why did they flee?
It seems that very often there is no such thing as a car insurance in case a car should be damaged. Instead the norm of practice is to handle this at the scene and for the driver who's fault it was to pay up or offer to have his cousin repair the damage. This seems rather problematic in my eyes, considering how selfish humans can be. Conflict

The blue Lada that our driver collided with
would be unavoidable if this practice took place in for example Denmark. But not in Azerbaijan. For here there is one more consideration to take and that is the involvement of the police. Police means money, police means bribery or court or something else much more expensive than a visit to the cousin's autoshop. Therefore, the matters on hand are handled as soon as possible and preferably down a back alley. And with the scare of police involvement they also seem to be handled relatively unproblematic.

In Azerbaijan the culture of gentlemen persists. The man holds the door, carries the bag, paying the drink. Though this is not completely uncommon in Western Europe, it is nonetheless seen as a real treat. In Azerbaijan it is custom. Personally I have always prouded myself that I could pay for myself, carry my own stuff and even open the door for a guy once in a while. And therefore it took some time getting used to. However, letting go of my own feminism, which is not unlikely a product of the battle of gender roles from½my parents generation, it felt nice to be surrounded by observant and considerate
Waving at the touristWaving at the touristWaving at the tourist

Center of Baku

However, I never came past the discomfort of physical helpfullness as I have chosen to call it. It is not an unknown fact that in the North where I come from we tend to be less physical in for example our greetings. We do not kiss and hold hands, but instead hold an invisible line of respect for each others personal space. In the South and also in Azerbaijan this is not always the case. And as open as I try to be when meeting people with different behavioural norms than my own, I do not always succeed. I felt incredibly uncomfortable when each time I went into a store to buy water (which is basically every half an hour due to the heat) or every time I got a little behind from the group, someone would grap my shoulder and lead me as if I was a child. This shoulder grapping was particularly terrifying when I had to cross a street. I know they mean well and only want to protect me from the wild driving of the Baku streets, but it only lessened my possibility of reacting to a car. Fortunately for me, the Azeri guys
Ladas are still popularLadas are still popularLadas are still popular

Ladas made after Soviet can still be seen in Baku
have also been taught that one shall be open to other cultural norms of behaviour, and after a talk or two, I have been given a bit more space around me.

Another difference which I observed is in communication. I often asked questions out of curiosity or in order to get some basic "just in case" information. For example, it took a longer convincing before I could get the name of our closest metro station. The first answer I got to the question was but you have our number, you don't need the name!. It seemed to be a personal insult to them that we didn't trust that they would take care of everything and find us and bring us home in case we got lost. In this way, I often find myself insulting them without even knowing that I do so. But time is the best friend in such cases, and as the days go by we seem to adapt to the circumstances and each others differentf understandings of the given context. The accident with our bus is a perfect example of this. The situation to me was extremely odd and asking what happened I got the standard reply of not to worry. But after a bit of fancy communicative action à la Habermas; they came to understand that I was only curious and I came to understand why the bus driver acted as he did. We have now agreed that I should start all my questions with a I find this cultureally interesting, so please explain....


It is rather common to see men kiss and hug each other as greetings in streets in Baku. But you rarely see a man touching a woman for other reasons than to protect and guide her. Question: What about all the young couples in love?

Answer: They seek out the dark corners of Russian caffées!
At least that is where I met them. Walking around for a coffee one day, I and some other girls from the language course happened upon a small and dim Kafe in the basement of a larger building. The Kafe, it seemed, was run singlehandedly by a grand babuska, speaking Russian and looking very authoritative. The room had red lamps and hearts in various sizes all around. This surely had to do with the recent celebration of Valentine's Day, but it was in every way a place which screamed of secrets, and around at the tables and behind large Soviet-style curtains couples were having their little piece of privacy. Here they could hold hands, sneak a kiss and just be together for a little while.

In case you wonder how it could just have been Valentine's Day when this journal is written in July, check out my later journal A Baku celebrity about the Azeri Valentine's Day

Well that was a bit about Baku after the first couple of days!


Additional photos below
Photos: 10, Displayed: 10


and she took a picture of meand she took a picture of me
and she took a picture of me

the pretty Azerigirl also showed out to be an amazing fotographer!
The biking boy and the LadaThe biking boy and the Lada
The biking boy and the Lada

Outside Ateşgah temple
With a viewWith a view
With a view

View over Baku at the Caspian Coast

22nd July 2008

Pretty Cool!
It was interesting to hear your perspective on some cultural differences between what you call your culture and that of a typical Azerbaijani, if there is such a thing. I think you will find that as you leave the city and travel to different corners of the country, people's attitudes and behavior change as well. I will be going back there again next year(hopefully), but I found Azerbaijan to be a magnificent experience, so much that by the time it's time to leave, you start to feel sad already. I laughed when I read about the honking(so true) and avoiding cops. I don't know if they are still as corrupt as they were a few years ago, but it definitely helps knowing some locals that can show you around and escort you. I look forward to hearing more about your experience there and hopefully see more photos. Cheers from the US!
19th November 2013

I like culture. Look like a great country.

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