Monday, 18 January 2010

A dying out breed

I have been thinking about this since my interview for Women’s Forum.

Somebody said something to me that I have not heard in years. He (or she?) said that I was a weak example of the Azeri people since I did not speak any Azeri.

When people ask me what my first language is, I say Russian. They then assume I must be Russian. And even my dark hair and clearly non-Slavic features do not help. If they are genuinely curious, I attempt to explain. But they don’t really get it. And if I were them, I would not get it either. Because, it is so complicated, it would take me forever to even begin.

And yet.... I could try.

I was a city girl. And the city spoke Russian. Russian was the main language during my Soviet childhood. Everybody I knew spoke it. At school, and later, university, we had two language sectors. And the kids from the Russian sector would never associate with kids from the Azeri one.

It was like living in two parallel worlds.

Speaking Russian to me was never a matter of choice. I was born into a Russian-speaking family, and It defined who I was. Those days, Bakuvians were openly snobbish towards people from villages. The peasants. Chushkas. And chushkas spoke Azeri. Russian-speakers did not respect anyone who could not speak Russian. What I am saying here is neither fair nor pretty. But it is the truth I know.

Russian was the language of the best available careers, theatres, schools, universities and books. Speaking Russian was the sign of belonging to a certain social group. Just like your accent can tell a lot about your background and social status in the UK.

And then Azerbaijan became independent. And speaking Russian was suddenly not so great.

The degree of hatred towards Russia and the Russian language varied from one ex-Soviet republic to another. When, in 1990, my mother took me to Vilnius on a summer break, everyone was telling us that Lithuanians hated the Russians and their language so badly, they would refuse to speak to us. I could not really understand that. If two different neighbouring countries have one language in common; and it is the only way to communicate, why would they chose not to? Does national pride have to get expressed in such pathetic ways?

And in Baku, things were changing. And it had to happen fast. But the problem is, you see..Nobody would love something if it is forced upon you, often aggressively. Speaking what you were raised to believe was your own language became socially unacceptable on the streets of what you once thought was your home town . It could get you into trouble. Dirty looks, nasty remarks and verbal abuse were becoming the norm.

And everything inside me rebelled against that aggressive change. I did not like being forced to speak the language, even if speaking it was a must. What about providing good education in Azeri? What about making it so great that you would want to send your children to Azeri sector schools?

These days, things are changing. Almost everyone in Baku now speaks Azeri. Proudly, without being assumed to be chushkas. There is a whole generation of young Azeries, who don’t speak a word of Russian. And , to be honest, why should they? The country belongs to them, not the Russians.

But as for me, I will remain what I have always been. Someone who belonged to the society that no longer exists. And it is too late for me to change.

There are things I hate about back home, and there are things I love. I listen to some Azeri songs and I think the language can sound so beautiful. But do I ever miss not being able to speak it properly? Not really.

Just like my great-grandparents chose to study in French before the revolution; I wanted to learn and speak the language that had more to offer. From educational, cultural, career, future point of view. And I hope that one day, Azeri language will also become the one that people would want to speak. Not because they must. But because it has a lot to offer.


  1. This is surprising to me. I don't know why, I thought your first language was Azeri and Russian the second one. Being part of such a huge country (USSR), I thought Russian was a must in order to communicate among nations.
    Boy, I was so mistaken!
    As I like to say, you learn something new each day.

  2. I think the point here is the fact of discrimination. In this case because of the language people spoke. It was wrong of Russian-speaking Bakuvians to treat Azeri-speaking ones disrespectfully and it’s wrong to do the opposite now. Speaking more languages gives people more freedom and more opportunities to communicate with others and most certainly shouldn’t serve as a basis for discrimination (duh!). The bitter irony is that most ethnic Azeri Bakuvians I knew were so proud of being Azeri and not Russian for example, and would go on and on describing exactly why they were “better”. Yet the irony of speaking Russian better than their ethnic language was completely lost on them. I see similar thing now happening with English. Russian is not cool anymore, English is in. Oh boy, here we go again.

  3. A lot of people from Post-Soviet space have that issue of identity. But there are at least
    two sides to any story. There have always been bilingual people who spoke both Azeri and Russian, like me. The more languages you speak the more broad-minded you become. Azerbaijani is a Turkic language, it is spoken by over 25 mln people in Iran, Azerbaijani speaking people easily communicate with Turks in Turkey, read Turkish newspapers and can understand other Turkic languages, the language spoken in Iraq by turkomans is exactly the same as spoken in Azerbaijan. The domination of Russian in Azerbaijan have deep historical roots. It comes from tsarist Russia and later Stalin's purge of the 1930s, when the main accusation was nationalism. That division into the Russian speaking elite and the inferior citizens was the manifestation of the principle "divide and rule". Behind the iron curtain Azerbaijanis were cut off from any influence from Turkey, which was a member of NATO. What I want to say is that the society wasn't that clearly divided:)) There were many of us balancing between the languages and cultures.

  4. In Moldova we went through similar language difficulties. I grew up speaking Russian and never became entirely fluent in Romanian. This was not a major issue as there were hundreds of people like this. However I must say it has become more awkward over the years. Fewer people speak Russian. I meet Moldovans abroad who seem more Moldovan than me because they speak the language. It helps to be prepared. But there is definitely a lot of confusion about who we are.

  5. I understand, but just wanted to say that lithuanians do not hate russians. And i hope people spoke to you in russian in Vilnius. You see, russian was never that forced onto us - we kept our language, our culture and even the religion throughout the soviet times. Everyone went to the church but did not speak about it. It was hard times and i am very proud that we have kept our identity. I don't feel embarrased or angry that we had to learn russian. Unfortunately some lithuanians do, but let me assure, they are a minority. Coming from a country that has been occupied by just about every other country, i understand why your parents kept russian as their first language. That's what you had to do. We had lithuanians who only spoke german, polish, french or russian, depending on the time in history. In the end they remembered who they were. I thought. However, at the moment they are trying too hard to speak english at any given moment and instead of translating english words, they just add the ending. That upsets me. xx

  6. @ Jurate: Yes,people did speak to us in Vilnius. I should have made that clear. And everyone was in fact, very friendly. They did, however say things that implied our two nations were united in our (similar) suffering under the Mother Russia. :) I never had a suffering childhood from what I can remember, but what did I know, I was just a child :)Lithuanians kept telling us they were much more laid back than Estonians! :) Again, that could be just a silly gossip.

  7. @Nata: I often feel what you say is what things SHOULD be like, in the ideal world, if humans were perfect. :)

    And what I am saying here is often what things ARE (or were- in this case) like, whether it is fair or not. It is what I remember. As for people wanting to speak is just a natural thing. People always tried to better themselves, give themselves more optons in life by learning a language that has a lot to offer. Haven't you done the same? :)

    @ Sofisticos: Yes, there were and still are people who spoke both languages beautifully. They are lucky. I have no idea how come I had never been exposed to Azeri properly. But when I was already old enough to want to learn it....I did not. That is just what happened. I am not proud of it, and neither I am particularly ashamed. Also, hey I can speak a little bit, you know. Basic stuff:) I can swear pretty damn well. And I can get around in taxis...what else do I need? News? As my friend, whose Azeri is perfect, said to me the other day..."Ay giz...even I never read any news in AZeri"???!!! :))))

  8. Thanks for this post, I loved it!
    It's so true, and it explains the whole issue perfectly - which I have never been able to do properly.
    Coming to myself, I come from a bilingual family and speak both languages. When communicating with people from other countries, I always say, that I actually have two native languages. It's not quite true, though. I have studied in Russian, and I think in Russian, therefore, it is the first language for me. As for Azerbaijani, I am pretty fluent in it, but not as good as in Russian. It's just that I'm too embarassed and don't have the courage to explain that to foreigners.
    But your post has done it excellently, so I will probably refer to it in future in such cases :)

  9. :) I don’t live in the ideal world & I’m certainly not perfect. I live in the US of A, where not only I get away with my egalitarian attitudes, I fit right in. Can you just imagine how fun life was for me in Baku where I often ended up calling people on the uhm, irony of their assertions?
    Being a mutt, I had no other option but learn fast and today I will speak any language to anyone any time if I can help it. The important thing for me is to be able to communicate, doesn’t matter in what language. My child is taking Japanese, German and Spanish in our regular American public school and I can’t be happier about it.

  10. As a boring Brit, I have nothing to add to any of this but I did want to say how fascinating I found the posting and all the comments on it. It just made me aware once more of how many huge gaps there are in my knowledge. I happen to believe that we're very dependent on language to reveal who we are to the world, so all these comments go way beyond mere linguistics. Thanks Scary - and thanks commenters, too.

  11. This post resonated very well with me, because I am in the same boat as Scary. I remember how back in Azerbaijan I failed a job interview at the British embassy: I spoke English fluently but I couldn't speak Azeri.

    The sad truth is, people like us do not have a national identity, or, rather, we identify with a country that doesn't exist anymore. (When people ask me standard "where are you from" question, I always say "former USSR".) Does that make us better or worse? Frankly, I'm not sure. But after all those years I became comfortable with who I am.

    We grew up in a Russian-speaking superpower. We have an affinity with a Muslim culture. We became a part of the Western civilization. If anything, this gives us unique perspective on what's happening in the world.

  12. Haha, Riyad, I had the same experience with the British Embassy. Still hurts me to think about it (the fact that I did not get the job does not hurt me, but how it was handled does). The local interpreter (a real chushka by appearance and manners) told me it was a shame I could not speak Azeri when I spoke English so well. The British diplomats nodded and smiled. Of course, now I would have responded more defiantly, but I was 20 then ... and shy. The irony is that I read and understand Azeri well but never got around to speaking it fluently.

  13. @ Riyad and Marianna...

    I never had that problem... All the official paperwork was still in Russian and English. And we did not actually have chushkas in our company- what a joy!

    The only time it was a bit awkward is when i had to interpret for some major VIP's from SOCAR. But, they were pretty tolerant of me.

    I just wanted to add though...That chushka at the embassy probably enjoyed his little power over you, the Russian-speaking girl, Marianna. A chance to humiliate someone like you was probably the best perk of his job.

  14. Yeah, I bet that made her day, that pathethic creature :).

  15. Nata, I liked your comment! I don't understand how NOT KNOWING something can make a person feel high-class! Does it mean that we, lucky bilingual ones, should have felt overly superior to those speaking just one of those languages? Riyad was very good at explaining the situation, very philosophical, very wise and quiet. The transition was painful for only-russian-speaking people. Nevertheless, is it possible to get a job with the British Embassy without speaking the state language in any country of the world? British Embassies function in independent countries (it wasn't USSR any more), so it was only normal, I suppose.

    Scary, however different our views are, I like your posts very much!!!!

  16. The problem is not just in speaking azeri or not.Citizens of Baku divided at 2 groups,real bakuvians and "erazes"/name of newcomers from Armenia/Huge gap in everything between them and us:language,low or absent of culture,bad civil behaviour.Chushkas from your past,Scary, completly different,they are very proud to be Bakuvians,their speeches fool of russian words,compare with Erazes,which cann't speak and understand Russian.It is a very sad situation,Baku is sick now,it needs time for the recovery,lot of time..

  17. I also liked your post (and blog). Although, I must say, while you acknowledge that what you are saying is "neither fair nor pretty", the attitude remains throughout the comments. Reading about the pathetic person who used her little power over the mighty nobel Russian-speaker is a bit disturbing, although I will definitely admit that I have made my fair share of negative remarks about the so-called "chushkas".

    You kind of overlook the fact that the discrimination you (rightly) complain about is just the reversal of what it was before the Soviet state crumbled. The whole attitude of superiority Russian-speakers had towards the Azeri-sector people didn't just emerge on its own, as someone above already said it was a direct result of Tsarist, and later, Soviet, state policies. It was the state and virtually all of its institutions that discriminated against the native language and those who speak it. I think it is the supreme irony where the speakers of the native language are seen secondary and inferior in their own country, not to mention a classic story of colonial systems (Algeria, India, being commonly known examples).

    Again, as per these other examples, I think it is completely unfair to say that Azeri should have been as developed of a language and as integrated into the language of science, art, culture, etc., ignoring the whole system within which languages and lexicons are developed and revived.

    So here's to a day when the state of Azerbaijan snaps out of its post-colonial corruption and finally has enough wisdom to grasp the power of language to start pouring investment into providing good education in Azeri.

  18. @ Nigar,

    Hi, and thank you for joining in the discussion!

    Your comment was great, and made me think of so many different things at the same time, I am not even sure I will manage to quickly pull all those thoughts together.

    It is fair (if not obvious) to say that it was due to all the above mentioned powers and forces that the Azeri language was not the advanced one in those days. I agree that it was being smothered for too long.

    However, I can’t help but feel that Azeries have this tendency to not admit to our own problems or faults.

    I don’t think the issue is as simple as just the “superiority” of Russian vs Azeri speakers. Come on! You must know. As someone here pointed out, there is so much more behind the whole language division in Baku. There is this “real Bakuvians” vs flooded into town “Erazi” issue, there is the whole fight between “chushkas” and “intelligentsia”...

    And what you felt in my comments was not my "superior" attitude to ALL Azeri speakers. Do not mistake my strong dislike of chushkas (Who,in my Baku days, happened to speak Azeri-for whatever reasons) with my dislike of ANYONE who speaks Azeri. The language might be the victim of the past. But the Azeri-speaking chushkas are not.

    Anyway, I give up! It is too complicated. :)
    There is too much I would want to explain, but I might just leave it at that.

  19. This is the best discussion ever, Scary! Long time ago, when I worked for the US Embassy in Baku I sometimes struggled since my Azeri wasn’t as good as my Russian. But I didn’t blamed the US Staff for insisting on using Azeri as the main language, I understood the need and was frustrated, but only with myself. Working at the Embassy I met these fabulously talented Azeri-speaking kids who blew my mind wide open. I was the “chushka” next to them and they were patient and gracious with me.
    That said, I did get into the heated discussions with my American boss about using Azeri with the obviously Russian-speaking government officials we were meeting with. I was trying to explain to her that although Azeri is our state language, it’s not worth irritating a person during the negotiations by “schooling” them into using their state language. One has to be reasonable and show respect by speaking the language that the opposite party is comfortable with. I’m still surprised I got away with it though:)
    Here is US I learned to appreciate the extend of the freedom that Soviets allowed us to learn about our ethnic cultures. I ran into Iranian Azeri guy here in Milwaukee and when I introduced myself with my full name, he didn’t believe me. He asked to spell “Natavan”, he wrote it down, he asked why would anyone name their child this way. For him “Natavan” is a sad Persian word. He didn’t know about Xurşidbanu Natəvan and what she means for Azeri culture. Because he was born and raised in Iran and unlike us he wasn’t given the freedom to learn about Azeri literature and culture in school. I think it’s important to be fair and acknowledge the good, the bad and everything in between about being from ex-USSR and the transformation that we went through. As long as we come from the place of respect and tolerance it can only be a good thing.

  20. Dear Bill, the times are changing. As the world becomes more global and technologically advanced, linguistics become secondary. We express ourselves with our actions and our shared experiences. Some nuances maybe lost in translation but who we are shines through. Isn’t it exciting to think of the world where the language you were raised with is not a prison to hold you in, but just the beginning of the great adventure with people from other cultures? Think about it.
    I have to give Scary credit; this is the most civilized forum for these types of discussions I’ve seen. Usually conversations get ugly fast. She has the unmatched diplomatic skills to keep this show going in a positive direction. Scary, thank you for hosting. I owe you a BIG drink.

  21. It is really disgusting to see how people use "chushka" word to label someone. Some people are just so pathetic that having "chushka"s around them makes their ego bigger. They need "chushka"s around them to feel superior.
    First of all, language is not a factor of being "chushka". And in general I dont like this word, also people who use this word.
    I saw lots of "chushka"s who spoke Russian. Our problem is that our society treats someone speaking Russian as from high society, and someone speaking only Azeri is treated like a "chushka". I speak both languages, but I prefer to speak Azeri, and if I talk to Azeri person who understands/speaks Azeri but prefers to talk in Russian, I still talk to him/her in Azeri. If that person thinks that I'm "chushka" because I don't reply in Russian, the "real chushka" is him/her. Believe me, there are lots of people like that, who just label somebody with their stupid prejudice.
    Before, it could be like Russian was "high society language", but now it is different, I have lots of friends who don't speak Russian, but speak fluently English/German, and proved themselves in international companies by their professionalism and qualifications.
    Anyway, my last word is that not speaking language is not a criteria to call someone a "chushka". There are people speaking only one language, Azeri for instance, but they are more humane than those snobs who think they are better because they are "real Bakuvians speaking Russian".
    Baku is full of unintelligent, uneducated, bigot people, speaking Azeri or Russian, language is not a factor.
    Our biggest problem is separating people into "real Bakuvians", "Russian speaking intelegentsia", "chushkas" and etc. Stop this discrimination, and try to see real problem of education and ignorance.

  22. @ Anonymous:

    I never said that "language is a factor of being chushka". In fact, in this very blog, much earlier on, I was writing about my experience of discovering that there are too many chushkas anywhere in this world, back home AND here, in the UK.

    You chose to misinterpret every word. But, as I said before, people read and see what they want to see, from their personal perspective. Unfortunately, that happens often.

    I guess it also depends on what one means by a "chushka". I mean those guys back in Baku who grabbed my backside on the bus. Who spat and blew their noses right on the pavement.

    What I do NOT mean is poor people. Village people. People who are not necessarily as educated as some others. People who speak Azeri. THAT does not make one a chushka.

    I do not agree that having chushkas around us or calling them chushkas is important for non-chushkas to make us feel better about ourselves. :) It is like saying that the lack of manners, spitting on streets and other lovely characteristics of chushkas are totally cool, and acceptable. Pleaaaaaase!!! Give me a break.

    And the fact that you see someone who clearly is self-conscious to speak in Azeri, because they might not speak it as well as they are expected to, and you deliberately humiliate them by answering in Azeri makes you into a bigot and a bully.

  23. It's a little sad to see that many people still see more differences than things we have in common. I have friends from a lot of different cultures and it's always a joy to find out that we share a lot of things including proverbs, sayings, funny superstisions etc. And I met a few Iranian Azeris, some back in Baku, some in the west who to my shame spoke better Turku (that's what they call our language which is almost identical) than I. I also grew up in Russian speaking family however 3 of my 4 grandparents were azeri speaking and we heard the language all the time. My parents though went to school in Russian sector and so our main household language became Russian.
    In Iran they don't have TV, radio or schools in their native language yet they try to preserve it and pass to the new generations. I used to feel bad about not being fluent in Azeri but later I realized that it wasn't my fault or my parents' fault but for the most part it was a lack of dictionaries. Not even a lack but a total absence of the latter. And how do you suppose to learn a language without a dictionary or a good book to read? I liked azeri literature (we have very talented writers) but I read it translated into Russian, even Nizami, still loved it.
    As for the words "chushka" and "eraz" it is labeling and therefore is wrong. And it doesn't matter what is your criteria for dividing people into chushka and non-chushka, it's still labeling and being arrogant. You (I don't mean you, scary, but really, any of us) don't know what it is like to be a refugee, one can only imagine how terrible it is.
    I agree with Riad about our unique perspective, and I think we are truly lucky to have been raised in such an interesting time and place from the historic point of view, and we know things first hand which other people have prejudices and crazy notions about, like westerners about socializm and communizm.
    So no, I don't think there is a dying out breed, but there are people who choose to not accept changes which have always happened in many places and especially small countries like Azerbaijan, and there are people who are more flexible, who welcome changes or adjust to them.

  24. I definitely could relate to your article. I was brought up in an Arab country but in a French-speaking household. Attended a French school. I felt early on a conflict within me between the two cultures. Now of course, French is fading away, everybody speaks Arabic and the dominant foreign language is English. I can see why Azeris don't want to be reminded of their "under-the-thumb of the Soviets" past and enforce this Azeri first mentality.

  25. hi again. Im the Anonymous :)
    Scary Azeri, I follow your blog (and enjoy it ;) ) and I roughly know your views, my last comment was not directed to you. It is meant "in general", also it is slightly directed to some comments here. Anyway, my whole comment is about the situation in Baku. That is what I see in Baku, in international companies in Baku.

    About me being bigot, I think you got me wrong. I have colleagues who talk in Russian with me, and I answer in Azeri (not deliberately! Azeri is easier for me in particular topics, in some cases I answer in Russian also), and we perfectly understand each other! And nobody sees the other as a "chushka" or "non-patriot", "bully" or something else. Of course it seems a little odd that two people communicate in two languages at the same time :), but this is the case. And it is not only me, I saw lots of people like that. This is what I support, that people don't discriminate related to tongue, origin, race or religion.

    Let's wrap it up, right now "chushka"s are called mostly who cannot speak Russian, and I acknowledge that statistically most probably Russian speakings are better educated (this is what I see around :) ), but still we cannot separate people like that, we can accidently be prejudiced against non-Russian speaking people.

    Last word, right now in Baku business environment, they are not pushing for "Azeri mentality", on the contrary I can say that they don't even look for fluent Azeri language knowledge. Except State institutions (even they don't require "fluent" Azeri), which is perfectly normal because all documentation is in Azeri.

  26. Wow, don't I love this topic. don;t know where to begin. First of all, let me confess that I love exposing those who know Azeri perfectly well but somehow try to fake an accent, in a rather lame attempt to seem posh al la Azeri.

    Secondly, my mothers house cleaner and my sisters nanny do not understand that their children do not get direct access to being called intellegentsia by attending a russsian speaking school. (back home people tend to call anyone with BH diploma intellegentsia? but that is a different issue)

    I might understand the soviet times, bla, bla, bla... But now?

    My parents (who are far from chuska:-)) made a consious choice to send their daughters to Azerbaijani schools. I am not saying you are less an azeri because you do not speak your own language (in a way I am saying exactry that, don't I?), all I am saying is that it is not the same, if you did not read Fizuli, did not sing laylay to your child (that sound a bit cheesy but so true), when you do not understand the meaning of the words in qezels when you listen (or do you even listen)to Mugam.

    let me clarify one thing though, when I go to Baku, see those who go to Azerbaijani schools nowadays, I get horrified. Who are these people. What are they doing to my beautiful language. That coarse, illiterate blabber is hurting my ears. Anyway, don;t want to go into politics here. But that's what it is.

    I get in taxi and address the driver in my perfect Azeri in a matter of fact manner. You should see the look in poor guy's face. That way I show him respect, I try to give this poor man back some of that dignity that he has been stripped off.

    Once I got very scared when my daughter declared that she was English, because she spoke English. That was a wake up call for me. Now, thank God, she is fluent in Azerbaijani, German (also the local dialect), English and very keen on Russian.

    I would die if she did not know my language. Her language is her core, that will define who she will become. Without that there would always be a void inside her.

    The other day, one of the mothers told me, my son is singing this song at home all the time, at the end it goes like this, Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan. Guess what, this 5 year old blond italian-russian was singing our national anthem. Halal olsun, qizim!