I Think She Disagrees…
This was my phrase of choice for Saturday evening. Katie has two sisters, Gunai and Gunel. Gunai goes to university in Baku, studying english to be a translator. She asked us to come and meet her friends for an informal conversation club. After going around Sumqayit rounding up her classmates, we headed to a small restaurant and I proceeded to witness the contrasts in attitudes in young Azeri women.
I sat next to Leyla and Gunai (this Gunai was not Katie’s sister), and we started talking about America, what they did at school, favorite foods, and other things. Gunai is studying english and plans to go abroad for her masters (in what, we don’t know); Leyla studies Italian, while practicing english on the side. They both spoke english well, but the most interesting aspect of the conversation was their divergent attitudes toward Azerbaijan. Leyla would begin saying she doesn’t like how life is in Azerbaijan, so family centered, and stifling at the same time. She complained that she doesn’t like Sumqayit, and explained that she spends most of her time in Baku, coming home at 8 or 9 at night. With Gunai, this did not sit well. She couldn’t hide her surprise at what Leyla was saying. She was visibly dismayed. Gunai insisted that she very much enjoyed Sumqayit. And that she like living in Azerbaijan, that it was a very good country.
Katie and I were witnessing a miniature clash of civilizations (apologies to the political science majors among you). On the one hand we had Gunai, who, while outward looking, is content with what she has here in Azerbaijan taking pride in what it has given her. On the other hand was Leyla, nearly completely breaking with her cultural mores, and even admitting her dissatisfaction to a foreigner whom she just met. This is the first time I’ve heard a non-Peace Corps affiliated Azerbaijani express any sort of criticism of Azerbaijan. The Azeri pride runs deep, maybe deeper than anyone would expect people to be proud of their homeland. Or maybe not. For most of what Leyla said, it was almost guaranteed that Gunai would get the look on her face. And then I would have to coax her into explaining by saying, “I think she disagrees…”
The second notable thing about these conversations was that these are driven young women. There were about 10 of them in the group, and they all planned on traveling or studying abroad, studying for master’s degrees or getting high-paying translator jobs. Contrast this with young Azeri men, many of whom don’t bother with studies after high school, and you see why there are so many groups of young men standing around on the street, or just living at home, without a job. This is why a lot of young Azerbaijani men are much less interesting to talk to–the motivation and drive lies not with the men, but most certainly the women. (Unfortunately, due to cultural barriers, it might be even more difficult for me to talk to women, in any sort of informal or conversational context.)