A fairytale reminding one of the Dark Ages, where young ladies are only allowed to pick up the phone after betrothal
met Maryam at a journalists’ training session in Batumi (Ajara, Georgia). Being an active, lively, full of smiles type of person she spoke English fluently, though didn’t know a single word in Russian. I found it strange given that Russian is a traditional second language in Azerbaijan, especially in cities.
Maryam didn’t just com from the countryside, she turned out to be from a tiny remote village located near Göygöl Lake. Afterwards she lived in Baku and rented an apartment together with her sister.
She agreed to become the character of the article, but she asked not to publish photos.
“No photos, please! I’m not ready for such openness yet.”
We met after work on a weekday. Maryam rents an apartment in the Ahmedly residential district, 15 minutes’ walk from the metro.
Everything in the apartment represents shabby soviet pompousness: a gold-plated stucco, peeling off here and there, and the once ‘stylish’ wallpapers have faded. The owners of such apartments prefer not to spend much on repairs, though they provide the basic necessities – a new flat-panel TV-set mounted to an old wall testifies to that. Wall shelves have loosed and are about to fall off. There are no men at home nor anybody to ask for help. It’s a pre-fab panel building, but the heating has not been turned on yet so we talk and warm our hands on the glasses filled with tea.
aryam told the story about her childhood, and for someone like me who was born and raised in the city, her story sounds like a medieval tale about daily life. It’s unbelievable that two such different worlds exist a mere five hours’ drive apart.
Village life begins early in the fullest sense of the term. The women go out with the first cockcrow to milk cows, bring water, and see the children off to school. At school the children will be seen by the teacher, their attendance noted in a register, and they may then go to the forest to fetch some firewood.
In the small, poor village, the notion of ‘poor-rich’ doesn’t really exist. Everyone has approximately the same level of welfare, except for villagers who have a cow or a sheep – they are slightly better off. Many villagers earn their living by selling firewood as there is no gas supply in the village.
“My mother, a poor woman, just tried to earn [enough] for food. I don’t remember a single time when she took my hand and led me to a clothing store. Even now I prefer wearing sports clothes – it’s a habit.”
The children here have to mature early as a rural child is entrusted with a lot of responsibilities at an early age. They also have to put up with strict parents – to listen to lengthy reproaches and even endure beatings from a strict father. They are lucky if they aren’t overloaded with even more work, and had better not fail to complete it. Forget about ‘sloppy endearments’.
Tender sentiments are an impermissible splendor in the poor countryside area, populated by 450-500 families and located far from the city. According to Maryam, in such an environment, children have no chance to develop as individuals, to learn self-esteem and self-respect – to say nothing of developing one’s talents.
“When I was a second-year student at university I went to the village on vacation. I asked them to give me the chance to conduct a demonstrative lesson at school. I was gladly allowed to do it, especially as I was the only person who went to the university in Baku over the past years. I asked the children to write what they wanted to become. The boys were more active. Having watched many Turkish TV series with men who bravely defended people who were oppressed, many of them wanted to become police officers.
“As for the girls, the majority of them didn’t write anything. ‘Why haven’t you written anything?’ I asked them. ‘It makes no difference because our parents will not allow us to study anyway,’ they answered.”
From an early age girls are taught to be obedient and fulfill all their duties. A girl should not talk to a boy at school. Going for a walk with a boy whom she likes is just out of the question. At home she is trained to do household chores. “Aityan, our neighbor, could already cook very delicious dinners when she was in the 7th/8th grade!” says Maryam. It’s also necessary to milk the cows and maintain the garden.
A girl is hastily betrothed at the age of 16. When asked whether a girl’s opinion and wishes are taken into consideration, Maryam and her sister just started laughing: “What are you talking about? Nobody is interested in your opinion! My friend used to love a boy and she wrote him messages on her phone. The sister told on her to her mother so she took her phone away, beat her and hastily married her off to a 35 year-old man. She was 17 then.
“I recently talked to her on the phone: she is 20 now and she already has two children. I asked her: “What are you doing?” and she said: “I’m watching TV series and cooking, my husband will come soon. After he comes home all phone talks are prohibited.”
That’s why girls have no mobile phones. Only married girls are permitted to have them.
It happened so that Maryam was brought up without a father. “Sometimes I think it was good. I don’t know how he would have raised me. My mother is rather open-minded and educated; she has never forced me and I have never been beaten. Fathers in other families regularly beat their children and wives.
“I remember we were playing volleyball in the schoolyard. Suddenly we saw a woman running, followed by her husband. I dropped the ball to see. He caught up with his wife and began beating her cruelly in front of us. I was scared and started crying.
“My parents had not lived together for a long time and I had never seen such scenes at home. Everybody was standing and looking – they were used to it. As I grew up, I noticed that it was a rather common thing: a husband beating up his wife in front of the children. Our neighbor constantly ran to us to hide.”
Maryam’s mother works in a school library. The girl read many books due to it, though there wasn’t a big selection.
Maryam never thought she would live in Baku. “There was only AzTV out of the overall republican channels, and that’s only if one had an antenna. Baku was always shown so colorful there.
“It is cool in the village in summer and the villagers earn money by renting their houses out to city residents.
“We have a two-storey house; we lived on the ground floor with moderate repairs. The conditions on the first floor was better, so we leased it out. Sometimes it was rented for the whole season.”
When Maryam was in the 6th grade, a family rented a house in the neighborhood. They used to come there for many years. Their son was several years older than Maryam. He is a well-known journalist now.
Although they didn’t live close to each other, they happened upon each other often. Maryam often saw him strolling with his sister.
“Once they rented a small house near us. We met by chance at my birthday party. Since I was growing up without a father, my mother always tried to celebrate my birthday with particular splendor, so that I wouldn’t feel left out. My mother insisted: ‘Invite all the neighbors.’ And I dropped in to my neighbor’s place, where the city guests were renting rooms.
“I was embarrassed to talk to them, and if they came to us for water or for something else, I would run away and hide. But this time they came around midnight, they greeted me, and even brought a present – as far as I remember, it was a souvenir figurine of an angel.
“We became friends. The boy used to be busy with his books, preparing to enroll in the institute. There were no phones, so we communicated only in summer – I called them ‘summer friends’. Throughout the winter I was looking forward to the summer, to their arrival.
“They were very interesting people with a broad outlook. The guy, a new friend of mine, brought me books and told me about Baku. He did his best to develop my mind and was willing to introduce me to his city friends.
“For the village, a girl talking to a strange guy was something unusual, but no one said anything bad; my friend kindled the people’s interest by talking of his education, pedigree, manners and readiness to help. For example, there were no computers in the village at that time. Only the school had two computers. If someone struggled he would help them. He always called me a little ‘Hala gizi’ (literally ‘a matrilineal cousin’).
“He told me that I should study, but I objected: ‘I don’t know anything. I’m here, and Baku is so far over there, how can I study?’ But he insisted: ‘Do your best, read, learn things gradually and everything will work out well.’
“My grandmother was an educated woman and she used to tell me: ‘You just study and I’ll cover your tuition fee from my pension.’ But my grandmother died when I was in the 8th grade.”
A relative, whom Maryam had never seen in her life, arrived from Moscow to attend the funeral. “My uncle, a man from Moscow, came here and brought presents for everyone. He asked me: “What would you like?” and I replied: “I don’t want any presents, I just want to study.”
My uncle found it rather curious. He took me aside and said: “Here you won’t gain sufficient knowledge for entering the institute, so try to enroll in some courses and I will send you money.”
Maryam travelled to her aunt in Ganja to enroll in the college and prepare for the institute. However, the college, who wanted to ‘arrange’ her admission without exams for a bribe of about 700 dollars, turned out to be just as fake as a rural school. Maryam decided to find real courses by herself.
“I promised my aunt that If I don’t make the enrollment, I will never talk about education again. I will live in the village and get married.
“I was supposed to live in my aunt’s place. She is a very good woman, but lived with her mother-in-law. They were at odds with each other. My aunt was worried about me all the time: ‘How are you going to live here?’ and I told her: ‘Don’t worry, I will just sleep here. I will go to classes in the morning and will come back at night; no one will see or hear me, I won’t even leave my room.’
“My mother was concerned how a rural girl would cope in such a big city. For Bakuvians Ganja is like a province. However, the second largest city of Azerbaijan isn’t that much different from Baku, except for being on a smaller scale. I promised my mother that I would wear a long jacket over my trousers, would walk with my head down and wouldn’t think of anything but my studies.”
So her classes started. Maryam had never found it so difficult to study before. English lessons were particularly hard.
“The teacher would tell me a phrase and ask to translate it into English, but I couldn’t and made terrible mistakes. Everybody laughed at me. Some of the children had attended those courses almost since childhood, others from the 6th grade. Those were very efficient courses and everyone knew all the subjects far better than I did.
“I was very depressed for over a week. On the one hand, I lived in a house with permanent scandals and, on the other hand, I had a sense of utter helplessness and realization that I couldn’t handle it.”
Maryam was lucky, as many of her teachers were aware of her situation – that she came from the village and she had a hard life. So they made allowances. “The math teacher said he wouldn’t take any money from me at all. The most important subjects for me were English and Azerbaijani literature. I received concessions in each of the subjects.”
And she doubled down on English during her summer holidays, and it soon became her most successful subject.
“The teachers loved me. I never communicated with the boys, I was polite and always turned off my mobile’s sound in fear of being reprimanded by the teacher. There were girls who were dating guys, but I considered it absurd and preposterous: how can you think about boys when you should be learning?
“I did not seriously think about becoming a journalist back then. I traveled with my mom to Baku to take my entrance exam. I was just trembling with fear. I was the only one who left the village in order to get an education over the past decade.”
Before the exam, Maryam and her mother settled in a rented apartment in Baku’s Yasamal district:
“Flag Square could be seen from the window. It was there that I saw a new bus for the first time. It was so exciting: people were sitting there, someone was talking, another was reading, exactly like in foreign movies. There were no such big and nice buses in Ganja. I thought: ‘I wonder if I have the chance to travel in such a bus’? And I asked myself: ‘Maryam, where are you and where’s Baku?’
“My mother came to my bed at night. She thought I was asleep. She kissed me on the forehead and said: ‘Oh, Allah, let my daughter reach her dream!”
Maryam enrolled in the faculty of journalism at University.
At first she rented an apartment with three other girls, but her flatmates turned out to be rather frivolous: they watched Turkish TV series till late at night and prevented her from studying.
But she had a stroke of luck: one of her group mates lived in a dormitory and she introduced Maryam to the dormitory supervisor:
“I liked the place. For AZN 15 per month the conditions there were quite normal, and the dormitory supervisor liked me too. It was later that I learned the reason why she liked me. Once she called me up and said: ‘I like you, because, unlike the rest of the girls here, you don’t pluck your eyebrows’ [in Azerbaijani rural areas it is believed that eyebrows can be plucked only after the wedding]. I was given a good room: it was clean and whitewashed; I was supposed to share it with another girl.”
There were 60 girls in the dormitory but only one kitchen which had to be shared. Not all the burners worked, and there was also conflict from time to time.
“One girl would put a bucket of water on the gas stove to wash hear hair, and another one, who had to cook something, would put the bucket aside. They even pulled each other by their hair. There was no hot water; there was a bathhouse for AZN 0.50, but we tried to economize and even heated water in the electric kettle. But I still liked it. I had a good relationship with everyone. In the village people live close to each other, they all know and greet each other. And here I also greeted everyone. All residents in the dormitory were poor and rural.”
Things were going fine in the Institute.
“The dean treated me well. He saw that I was shy, studying all the time. In our institute, they paid a lot of attention to the students’ material status in general.
“It happened that I was awarded with the Hasan bey Zardabi student scholarship which amounted to AZN 106 for good academic performance and my financial situation. I was then offered an editor’s job at the university magazine, with a salary amounting to AZN 80. I lived well, but I couldn’t afford to buy good clothes.”
Maryam didn’t become close friends with the other students in her group. The ‘urban’ students emphasized their superiority.
” ‘I mostly listened. I was embarrassed to talk about myself. This made my group mates think that I was stupid,’ says Maryam. ‘There were three regional students in my group. One of them returned home after graduation. Another one was from Lenkoran. She graduated from GIPA (Georgian Institute of Public Affairs) and now lives in Tbilisi. She is a prominent journalist.’
“Many people told me that I wouldn’t manage it. But now I work at a huge media project, we publish news, work on interesting analytical articles, we organize workshops and regional meetings.
“However, I’m still asked: ‘When are you going to get married?’ But I don’t want to – getting married today will be a step backwards for me. Many of those who studied with me returned to the village and started families. I would like to ask them: ‘What was the point of coming here? Why did you study?’ “