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Hospitality to visitors a pivotal part of their way of life

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Plenty of tasty treats and sumptuous meals - and tea! - are always offered to visitors in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo: Supplied)

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“I love the fact that Baku IS the first place I’ve ever lived where there’s a real sense of community. People care about their neighbors,” Azerbaijani-Scottish human rights activist Fuad Alakbarov once stated. Indeed, the culture in Baku and all of Azerbaijan is one where people care about hospitality and treating guests respectfully. It is a pivotal part of the Azerbaijani culture.  

I was in the middle of nowhere on the way to Karabakh standing in line at a grocery store, trying to stock up on snacks before heading into no-man’s land, and a Muslim Azerbaijani woman wearing a hair cover insisted that I move to the front of the line, as I was an American Jewish guest in their country and should not be forced to wait in line like everyone else. She did not even speak my language. All she heard was that I spoke English and not Azeri, and she motioned that I should move to the front of the line. Nowhere else are the strangers in one’s midst treated so respectfully.

Azerbaijanis love to serve their guests tea with special homemade jams and sweets. The sweets are incredibly special, whether one is eating Pahlavi (Azeri baklava), sweet olives, special jams, or Azerbaijani chocolates. Wherever one goes, one must always take a sip of tea and snack on some sweets, whether one is hungry and thirsty or not, or else the host could have their feelings hurt. 

When I visited an IDP camp in the outskirts of Baku, I was served tea by an Azerbaijani refugee family, who was expelled from the Karabakh region. I did not want to take the tea, as this poor refugee family lived in essentially a desert without air conditioning, and one simply does not want to drink anything hot under those conditions. However, our guide motioned us to drink the tea anyways, or else their feelings could get hurt. 

Thus, whether one is a refugee or at the top of society, Azerbaijanis love to serve guests tea with sweets and to enjoy watching them devour it.

Azerbaijan sits at a crossroads between East and West. While the Caucuses country was a part of the Soviet Union, the local culture combines elements that are not only European but also like Turkish and Persian culture. For example, tea is drunk by every Azerbaijani family, but no one locally drinks Turkish coffee. The coffee that is served is more European than Turkish. However, their tea is more Eastern and not like British tea at all. This tea is served in special Azerbaijani tea houses. The tea is served with sugar cubes on the side. No one places spoons of sugar in tea over there.      

The Azerbaijani rice is also remarkably different from the Sephardic red rice, which we are used to eating in the State of Israel. Instead of being red, Azerbaijani rice is usually served plain with saffron. Sometimes, they will add dried fruits to the rice. They also have a yoghurt soda, which is quite tasty. Turkish Pide, Cigars, and other Turkish foods are not eaten in Azerbaijan, where the cuisine is more like Persian food. However, the Azeri language is a Turkic language, and not at all like Persian. In fact, a Turkish and Azerbaijani person can understand one another in many instances, even though the languages are not identical.

However, even though Azerbaijan is in the East, Baku is structured like a major European city, complete with lovely parks, boulevards, hotels, shops, cafes, restaurants, museums, and historic landmarks.  

One of the highlights to see in Baku is the Maiden’s Tower, which has an uncanny resemblance to Rapunzel’s Tower, only with a sad ending. In the 12th century, a father did not want his daughter to marry her lover, so he locked her up in a tower. The lover, feeling sad for his beloved, tried to free her from the tower. However, the girl upon seeing her lover jumped to her death and did not wait to get liberated. Today, the tower where she got locked up is a major tourist attraction in Baku and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Another major tourist attraction is Baku’s Carpet Museum, which displays different carpets that were produced throughout Azerbaijani history. For Azerbaijanis, their carpets are a major source of national pride, as their women produce them by hand and then they are exported throughout the world.  Inside Baku’s Old City, there is a Flying Carpet Shop, which is owned by a man named Ramin, who is willing to sell antique Azerbaijani carpets to customers around the globe. He even sells historic Karabakh carpets, which date to the Soviet period prior to the First Karabakh War. 

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Karabakh carpets have a special place in the heart of every Azerbaijani. For the Azerbaijani people, it is a dream to rebuild the Karabakh region, so that Karabakh carpets can get produced once again. Thus, Ramin serves all foreign guests traditional Azerbaijani tea, so that they will be comfortable enough to buy more and more Azerbaijani carpets. He even told me: “I will also buy you kebabs, if you will buy more carpets.”

Baku is also located along the Caspian Sea, awfully close to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Like the Mediterranean Sea, the Caspian Sea offers visitors pleasant beaches to swim on and nice promenades to walk along. At night, there is also a great tower in Baku, which lights up with Azerbaijani dancers waving the national flag. From our hotel terrace, we could see this tower and all the other skyscrapers light up, as the Caspian Sea stood in the background. 

In this sense, Baku is a modern city, yet it also has an historic flare at the same time, since the city is at a crossroads between East and West. The fact that Baku is at a crossroads between East and West is best demonstrated by all the historic synagogues, churches, and mosques in the city, which the government has rebuilt, as the Soviets destroyed many of them. However, the Azerbaijani government rebuilt these holy sites so that they preserve their historic flare, so visitors hardly feel how new these places are. The Azerbaijani government also has given funding to each major minority faith to create cultural centers, so that Christian and Jewish culture in Azerbaijan can be promoted in the best possible manner.

For the Azerbaijanis, multiculturalism, religious pluralism, and respect for the other is not only government policy but is practiced by the everyday citizens of the country. Religious bigotry and hatred are alien to their culture. Traditionally, Azerbaijanis like to celebrate all the holidays of all the faiths, not caring whether it is their faith or not, and they like to help each other, regardless of their religious faith.

In this manner, Azerbaijan is more advanced as a civilization than practically the entire world.   

Rachel Avraham is a political analyst working at the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research, Public Relations and Human Rights.  She is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings at the American, Israeli and Arab Media.”  

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