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Eat, love, pray… or how you can get the best of cultural cocktails in just one day

2 November 2010 One Comment

“I used to take the similarities between our nations for granted, but this war made me appreciate how similar, if not the same, we all are.”

“I miss Baku more than anything else, and I still remember the delicious smell of freshly baked bread in our yard in Ganja, Azerbaijan.”

—— said Albert.

“It’s like when you fight with your brother or sister over a toy. They are your own flesh and bone, but still you hit them just for nothing. This is how it is with our nations too.”

“My Armenian friend is worth a thousand other friends.”

—— added Ramiz.


Tbilisi, Morning. Teahouse

The old part of town. Nicely tired after walking around. The weather is chilly. A cup of tea would be so good now. We spot a teahouse on one street and decide to walk in. As I sit down I can hear a couple of men nearby speaking in my mother language – Azerbaijani.

It turns out this teahouse belongs to an ethnic Azeri. Now and then, though, the language of conversation over the table smoothly flows into another language. It is not Russian, or Georgian…

Seeing my puzzled face, one of the men greets me in Azerbaijani, and as it always feels somehow warm to run into your fellow compatriots in a foreign country I move my chair closer to his table without hesitation.

He has been living in Tbilisi for over 10 years and just two minutes later takes me on a journey I rarely get to travel. The South Caucasus, a region more defined on the map with its funny abrupt borders, appears to be sitting at the little square table.

In fact, he is not my fellow compatriot, even though his Azerbaijani is better than my own. His name is Albert and he is an ethnic Armenian.

He also sings folk songs in Azerbaijani by the legendary Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova, and quotes poems from the great Azerbaijani poet Samad Vurgun. Albert also has a large family with his wife, an Azerbaijani, and a dream – to cross the Azerbaijani border.

He introduces me to his best friend sitting next to him at the table.

His name is Ramiz, a 74-year old ethnic Azeri singer who sings Armenian songs. I ask him to sing a little for me, but he politely refuses, saying that there has been a loss in the family. His beloved wife recently passed away. She was Armenian.

The musical friends wax lyrically about each other’s beautiful cultures, fascinating us with the similarities connecting them, and ponder the futility of the game that is the conflict between the two countries.

A few minutes later the owner of tea house, an ethnic Azeri, also joins in. He asks his waitress to bring some more tea. He speaks in Armenian to her, but she responds in Azerbaijani. She is an ethnic Armenian.

This is the melting pot that is Tbilisi, and this is my little Caucasus without borders and passports. This is an Azeri tea house visited as much by ethnic Armenians as it is by ethnic Azeris.



Afternoon. Armenian church

I’ve never been to an Armenian church, for obvious reasons, but in Tbilisi I can visit whenever I like. There is one in the center of Baku, of course, but even if it is intact, its doors are now always closed.

This one, a stone’s throw from a mosque, was built in the 7th century and Sayat Nova is buried here. A pleasant woman is standing by a table in the back selling candles. When she learns that I’m from Azerbaijan a kind smile lights up her face.

She says that ethnic Azeris also visit this church and some even pray. She has many Azerbaijani friends, many of them with Armenian spouses. Karine is ethnic Armenian and dreams of visiting her friends in Baku.



Midday. Baku restaurant

Upon entering, we can already guess the cultural mix to follow. The restaurant manager, an ethnic Azeri, says that Armenians love Azerbaijani cuisine as well. It’s no surprise given how similar the two cuisines are.

Sometimes, she says, more Armenians wine and dine here than Azerbaijanis.



Evening. Tbilisi Airport

With wonderful memories, it is with some sadness that I get ready to depart from Tbilisi, a city connecting people and bridging divides. It is the only place in the region where Armenians and Azerbaijanis can love, trust and become friends with each other.

At the airport, I look at the departures schedule to check my flight back home. If only I could catch a flight to Yerevan one day. Perhaps unintentionally symbolic, the check-ins for the Baku and Yerevan flights are called at the same time.

Armenians mistakenly come to our counter before being politely told that theirs is the next one along. Meanwhile, flights from Baku and Yerevan are scheduled to arrive at the very same time.

If only the entire Caucasus could be like this, harmonic and synchronic. And why not? With overlaps in cuisine, culture, mentality and human emotions connecting us, is it so wrong to seek to coexist peacefully together?

Upon landing in Baku I receive a SMS from a friend in Armenia, but with telecommunications blocked the other way, I can’t text her back. One day I hope I can…

Reader in Baku

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