“Our doors and windows are open to you,” we were told. “Come any time, announced or unannounced.” My husband and I had landed in Baku just a few hours before. Entering the home of strangers whom we “knew” only through a third party, a shared acquaintance, we were feted with saffron-spiced rice, chicken and salmon, potatoes, salads, sweets, fruits and nuts, and far more than we could possibly eat. From the moment we set foot in Azerbaijan, in fact, we were generously given advice, support, and copious food and friendship, though we did nothing to merit such kindness. Yet everywhere we turned, we–the strangers–were treated as a gift meriting a gift in return.
The entire Caucasus is known for its hospitality–its culture of gift and exchange; yet Azerbaijan seemed special, a place marked by particular delight in the stranger. Although I grew up in a faith community where fairness, justice, sharing with the less privileged, helping the sick, and similar values were both praised and practiced (not perfectly and yet in demonstrable ways), nothing prepared me for the generosity of Azerbaijani society. To Azerbaijanis, a guest is a gift–a blessing. “You are a gift,” we were told, though frankly we might just as well have been dismissed as a burden, as hapless foreigners who all too often needed some guidance and advice.
In Azerbaijan hospitality proved to be not the exception, but the rule. On separate occasions, when adding money to our metro cards, both my husband and I were approached by strangers who offered to put money on our cards. In the market, many a purchase came with gifts stuffed into our bags before we could depart. Often, we had to refuse a gift offered by a salesperson, insisting that s/he had to earn money on which to live. On one occasion, when searching for an archive located at a rather obscure address, a taxi driver brought me to the archive for free, taking the time to drive me from one possible locale to the next, asking directions from other taxi drivers and pedestrians along the way. I didn’t have the money to pay him–I had a wallet, but the cash that it was supposed to contain had been left on the kitchen table at home. I realized this once on the bus, but since I had planned to walk to the archive after disembarking, I continued–pennilessly–on my way. I had approached the taxi driver only to seek information, not a ride. Despite this, he insisted on helping–and lost a good 40 minutes of his day in so doing. That a man of humble means should give so freely was humbling to me, and it marked a trend. Everywhere we went, we were met by strangers with offers of tea and sustenance, and we had the sense that we could have wandered into any village and been given a place to stay, just because we came.“What is a stranger?” I found myself thinking. “A guest is a gift,” we were told. But is the stranger always “guest”? Isn’t the stranger or outsider the person to be exploited or feared? Do we not identify ourselves in opposition to the stranger, insisting on her/his “otherness” in order to maintain a privileged sense of self? Yet, in Azerbaijan, I – as stranger – was treated as both guest and gift. I remained “the other,” but the Azerbaijanis defined themselves not against me, but through me, by bringing me into their world and space.
Such openness to the stranger was total and came along with a desire to share stories and selves, a trait that I had never encountered before, not even in Russia, which also prides itself on hospitality. Russians are kind and hospitable, but not open. They do not freely disclose the details of family and work life, and I had come to assume that a degree of “closeness” with information was the product of communism, of years of denunciation and mutual suspicion. Yet, in post-Soviet Azerbaijan, openness was the rule. When we descended into the courtyard to photograph local children celebrating Novruz, the Shia New Year, we were instantly welcomed. Children and adults alike eagerly posed for our pictures, asking for copies and sharing emails with us. Parents introduced and/or pointed out their progeny, sharing hopes and dreams for their children, often identifying the precise location of their apartments in our shared complex. We were pelted with questions about work, children, home lives, etc., being made to feel welcome and totally at home. Curiosity, kindness, and sharing of self–these were the traits that everywhere surrounded us.
There are similar traditions of hospitality throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, as many a traveler will report. In Iran, in particular, my husband and I engaged similar kindness, packaged in invitations to join them for tea, though in fact such in-the-home contact with Americans was expressly forbidden by Iranian authorities. Repeatedly, in the markets, we were offered goods for free. In general these offers were formalities of a sort, part of a culture of hospitable, deferential expression meant to convey respect and honor, but not truly meant as an invite to run away with free goods. The demands of “ta’arof,” or Iranian etiquette, meant that all salespeople offered their goods to us at no cost repeatedly. Etiquette required that the consummation of the economic transaction be temporarily suspended in order that an offer of a gift, a way of affirming respect and personhood, might take precedence. That said, had we accepted the “gift” of an item from the bazaar and walked off without payment, we would have caused offense, for we would have broken with the other part of the transaction, both economic and moral: we were expected to pay.
I have heard some attribute Turkic muslim hospitality to the barrenness of the desert: were not the Turkic people nomads, wanderers in the desert for whom food and water were essential to survival? Does not the same apply to many of the peoples of the Middle East, also known for generosity? All the three “religions of the book” (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) emerge from this region, a land of barren landscapes, long journeys, and a dependency on the stranger for travel, information, and such things as trade. In all three traditions the figure of Abraham, himself a nomad and wanderer, serves as the image of the holy, a prophet and father. He also appears as the image of hospitality, a figure who welcomes three strangers and, in so doing, inadvertently welcomes either God himself (the three persons of the Trinity) or God’s messengers. Perhaps because of the place of Abraham in Islam, our Azerbaijani friends told us that a stranger must be greeted hospitably, in that s/he may be a sign sent by God.
Being fascinated with Eastern Orthodoxy, I myself envision Abraham and “the stranger” through Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity” icon. Famous in Russian Orthodox artistic and theological tradition for its personal brilliance, articulated within an iconographic (icon-painting) tradition where individual artistic expression is discouraged, Rublev’s “Trinity” uses soft blue-green and gold coloration to breathe new life into an inherited Eastern Orthodox iconic form. In the icon, Rublev depicts the three angels–the strangers–who visited Abraham. In Eastern Orthodox theology, these strangers are often equated with the three persons of the Trinity: God in Three Persons came to bring a gift to Abraham that day. As depicted in the icon, these three Persons sit at a communion table laden with bread and wine, positioned as if to invite us, the viewers, to join the feast. In the Eastern Orthodox formulation, to join the feast is to enter into the “eternal movement of love” that circulates between the three Persons of the Trinity. To be made in the image of God, in this understanding, is to be interpersonal–giving and accepting, being distinct persons and yet a part of other persons.
That would be a lovely description of hospitality, but hospitality–or gift-giving–is complex. Through gift, one enters into and negotiates a relationship, possibly an agonistic relationship involving questions of power and sovereignty. For instance, though bride theft is illegal in contemporary Azerbaijan, it can serve as a way to transact a marriage when funds for a dowry are missing; in such cases, the “theft” is tacitly condoned by the parents, who effectively gift their daughter. In other cases, bride theft can be subversive, done against parental will but with the bride’s consensual self-gifting. This same act can be violent, being nothing other than an assault on a young woman. The very act of bride theft is part of a broader Caucasian culture of exchange, the circulation of goods and things, often to negotiate relationships, even sovereignty. As anthropologist Bruce Grant notes in his study of gift-giving in the Caucasus, the very Russian conquest of the Caucasus was presented, by the conquerors, as a gift of civilization that legitimized the taking of land, resources, and even people. For westernizers who regard the exchange of goods as a mere financial matter and who see themselves as individuals who cannot be given or taken, such concepts of gift and exchange may be terribly foreign. Yet, They mark goods and persons as central to relationships–and in this, they have the ring of truth.
It would be a lie to state that all people in all situations engage in gifting. After all, relationships and situations often preclude this. A case in point: in seeking visas to Tajikistan, my husband and I stumbled on a businessman whose brother reportedly held an ambassadorial post. Stepping in as inquisitor, the man wanted to know all about us–our purpose in Azerbaijan, our family connections at home, our hosts, etc. Nothing in his tone or style suggested innocent curiosity. Further, when asked about himself, he was elusive and cautious. A man of influence, he regarded information as power, seeking to take but not give or exchange it. Our landlord proved to be a similarly elusive type–cautious with information, at times suspicious of our intentions, and determined to extract the maximum. He “gifted” the apartment, and we paid dearly for it–nothing in the transaction appeared hospitable. In this customer-client transaction, no meeting of cultures was discussed, celebrated, or present. Then there was the question of beggars, the overt “gift” seekers. When these plied their “trade” on public transit, a gift was not automatically given. Some gave, while others clearly did not regard the beggars as guests or gifts.
As we departed, we freely told friends, “Should you come to America, our doors and windows are open to you.” We hoped to return favors, to show hospitality in return. To our delight, this summer we had guests. The best of guests. Azerbaijanis willing to share a bit of themselves.