One of the really popular ideas about travel in foreign countries by tourists and other ex-pats is the concept of the “Real (insert country name here).” The Real Thailand or the Real Ethiopia or, in our case, the Real Azerbaijan. Somewhere underlying this phrase is the belief in an experience that we call an “authentic cultural experience.” Usually that involves participating in some sort of traditional event (dance, music, etc.), hanging out in a po-dunk village, and talking with people outside of the big fancy cities. It’s a romantic idea, somehow associated with adopting a more simplified life, talking to “real people,” seeing “real problems.” While that sounds very exciting, I think it’s worth examining what I’m doing here in Azerbaijan and how it relates to that Real Azerbaijan idea.
The reality here is that I’m living in the regions of Azerbaijan, essentially a different world from that of the capital city, Baku. Most aspiring folks here talk about going to Baku for school or for jobs. But there are also not a whole ton of those aspiring folks. Instead, my fellow PCVs and I are spending a lot of time with a more rural, less educated sector of the Azerbaijani population. It’s not a terrible place to be. In fact, there’s a lot to learn here. However, the truth is that, were I in America, at home, these are not people I would generally spend a lot of time with. My Azeri community is not quite the university-educated, bookish, nerdy, and eccentric folks I’m used to. I come across those people occasionally, like Miri or a few other Azeris in Lənkəran, but the majority instead have much more in common with more rural populations in the US. We talk about people who “get out” of their villages much like the occasional American who gets out of their one-stoplight town. It just doesn’t happen that often. They take over the job their parents do and stay a part of that same community. For me, personally, it feels a lot like I’m living in the Azeri version of the romanticized “Real America” of conservative American politicians. And it really is romanticized, both here and there.
So while I may be getting a very detailed look at what someone’s “Real Azerbaijan” may be, I’m not even part of a community where I feel like I have peers. And when I look at what is available here in Azerbaijan, it becomes very clear that there is no definition of the real Azerbaijan, it’s all a part of it, whether in Baku or the regions. I can show you a traditional dance or wedding or whatever may constitute “authentic Azeri” anywhere in Azerbaijan and it would likely be the same, but there’s so much more to actually understanding what is going on, how people live here.