What to do when the neighbors come to call?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Keeping in mind that these Life Lessons are recalled in no particular order, I want to tell you about the day my neighbor gave me an invitation I “couldn’t refuse”.

It was Baku, 1996. Not long after the cease fire and the election of Heydar Aliyev, and the beginning of stability in Azerbaijan.

MF Akhundov Library

MF Akhundov Library Baku Azerbaijan


My first office was in the M.F. Akhundov State Library- a grand old place that was slowly being refurbished by ex-pat companies making donations of services and equipment, if not books. (I know they had books, but they were all kept underground and students made requests, then waited, sometimes hours, just to look at them. One of my students showed me a book her brother had requested- all the pages from 62-87 had been ripped out!)

After realizing that the rent on the 100 sq. meter room, some $1950 USD, was being split between various individuals and not going to the library (imagine that! Only $90.42 actually made it to the Library, I later found out from Leyla-Khanum, the head Librarian), I decided to make a change. My office manager, Sabina, and a lovely real estate friend, Natella, found an apartment in a pink building near the center of town, 3rd floor walk up with a view of a central park. It was perfect! Tiny but independent, and the landlady, Svetlana, was very accommodating, especially after the embezzlement problem was discovered.

From this office, we taught classes in two rooms and had a computer lab in the larger front room- what would have been Sveta’s living room once upon a time. One classroom was a small bedroom in the middle, and the second may have been a kitchen/dining room area just off the entryway. After walking up three dark flights of concrete stairs, a bolted metal door greeted all visitors. A bell rang inside to alert us to go let students in. We had a short walk over an exposed walkway to another door that also had deadbolt locks. All in all, it was a pretty safe environment. Until…

For whatever reason, our bell quit working. Things being what they were at that time in the former Soviet Union, parts weren’t readily available and it couldn’t be fixed right away. So the outer door at the end of the balcony walk was not locked- students could cross the balcony and knock on the office door directly.

We taught classes from 10:00am until 9:00pm Monday – Saturday, myself and 3-4 teachers. On Tuesdays, I didn’t take any evening classes so that I could attend the Rotary Club which had just started up in Baku. I thought it was a good opportunity to meet others and to expose my students to professionals where they might find employment after graduating. It worked to everyone’s advantage for the most part.

On one particular evening, I was teaching alone, in the dining room area, teaching a class on Office Skills to a group of maybe 4 young ladies when there was a knock on the office (inner) door. I went to answer it and found two men asking for Sveta. “She is not here, she is in Moscow,” I said in Russian, closing (and bolting) the door.

A few moments later, another knock on the door. This time I could see 5 men through the peep hole.

At the Door... When the Neighbors come to call

When the Neighbors come to call…

I opened the door and this time they identified themselves and 2 men from Zhek (the housing authority) and 3 police. They said my “neighbor” below had sustained water damage in her apartment and they needed to inspect our apartment for the cause. I explained that this was not an apartment where we used water- we used it as an office, no showers. Still, the leader of the group insisted that I had caused water damage and they wanted to come in and “inspect” the cause. I ask when this supposedly happened. He said he was told it happened “last Tuesday”. Aha, I tell him that there is no one here on Tuesday’s as that is our Rotary Club night! Yet he persists…

Here is a tricky thing. I am a guest in this country of Azerbaijan, I have no reason to suspect the police would harm me, but I have students- all female- inside. What to do? If I refuse they could take me to jail- or worse. If I let them in, who knows what happens next. So we compromise- “One of you can inspect, others must wait outside.” The leader comes into the entry way, sees there is no longer a kitchen, just a bunch of computers and books. So I figure he is satisfied.

Life Lesson: Never assume the pretext is the whole reason for asking.

Now, this was not my first experience with, shall we say, “intercultural business norms” – local ways of doing business in unknown places. But it wasn’t dawning on me just yet that the inspection was a pretext for anything more.

I went back to the class, a little irritated, but not overly concerned. Until…

After about 10 minutes another knock on the door. This time, there are now 8 men! At this point, one of my students, a feisty young lady named Nigar, decided that a local girl could talk sense into these men- she knew what was happening and proceeded to tell them in no uncertain terms what they could do with their plan! Before things got too far, I retrieved Nigar and calmed her down. She was embarrassed that her countrymen were treating her teacher so rudely.

This time when I opened the door I was beyond irritated. These men were carrying guns, growing in number each time they came back and becoming more ridiculous in the stories they were fabricating. I repeated in Russian that I was not Sveta, I had not caused anyone water damage. I asked them, “Why do you come to my office with guns? Do you see any guns here?” Opening the jacket to my business suit, I said, “I may be from Texas, but I don’t carry a gun. Is this how you treat your guests here?”

This time the leader told me they understood that I was in Baku illegally- they had been told I had no visa. They wanted to see my passport. (Now, this is considerably more serious. They could haul me off while they “investigate”). I paused for a brief second, incredulous at what I was hearing. “Nyet, eta ni logeechni (no, that’s not logical!) “I came here from the greatest country on earth. Why would I leave the US to break into this country? Why would I come here to teach your people if I had not been invited?” For this impassioned response they had no answer. They huddled amongst themselves and I hastily bolted the door.

I called the US Embassy on my cell phone and told them what was happening. An embassy guard named Parviz told me to keep the door closed under all circumstances until he got there. The quickest 6 minutes of my life passed while I waited for Parviz and the Embassy support.

(Quick pause for a commercial message: the US Embassy is your friend if you are abroad. Register, let them know who you are, and what you are doing, before you need help- it’s much easier that way!)

In no time, Parviz arrived with the cavalry and discussed the situation with our friends outside. He knocked on the door and I let him in. He told me that a neighbor had tipped them off that an American was here illegally and they needed to check my visa. He looked over my passport and visa, established that all was in order and went back outside.

When it was all settled he came back in and said that everything was ok now, but that I needed to register with the police, to be accounted for as a foreigner. I asked Parviz why it took 8 of men with guns to tell me that. He was puzzled for a moment… “What 8 men? Didn’t you see the other 10 in the courtyard?” I looked out, and there was the neighbor, peering around the corner. 18 men indeed… No payoff tonight, too bad.

The next day I sent my office assistant to the police department to see what registration involved. I now own a $450 piece of paper, stapled in my passport, saying I am allowed to be there, bribe free.

Who says these are under-developed business systems?

3 thoughts on “What to do when the neighbors come to call?

  1. This made me laugh! I remember being told never to answer the door to strangers when we arrived, also in 1996. So when a shabby old man knocked on my door I eyed him warily through the peephole and kept the door firmly closed. Funny thing was he kept coming back, quite regularly, but I never opened the door. Months later, a young Azeri woman who I befriended in the building explained to me that he was the mailman! 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Expat Living: What Does Extortion Look Like Where You Live? | Life Lessons

  3. Pingback: Expat Living: Tempted To Run With The Bulls at Pamplona? Try This Instead! | Life Lessons

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