Is it just me, or are you a “Wedding General”?
I heard a phrase early on during my odyssey in Azerbaijan, one of many I was curious to understand along with the lessons behind them. In this case, I had heard someone say I was a “Wedding General”. Hmmm, that sounded intriguing, but what did it mean?
I surmised that it had something to do with being present as a guest, but what was the significance and did it apply to everyone or was it something about me?
Sometimes I was asked to go somewhere, or sit in on a local meeting that, while interesting to me, I really had no reason to join, but I obliged and learned many curious new topics. Sometimes I was asked to attend a funeral of a staff member’s grandmother. I always thought it was out of respect for my local friends that I should attend, so I did.
The meaning of this phrase became clear one spring weekend as I was invited to go into the countryside for a “barbecue”. You know by now that, for me as a Texan, that phrase has its own special meaning, and I was pretty sure that we were not going for BBQ in the remote areas of Azerbaijan. So what was this trip all about?
I learned that two Scottish professors had come to Baku to talk with the Rector of the Western University about cooperative courses in hospitality management, a new degree track created as a way to support the burgeoning business travel and tourism industry in Azerbaijan.
We took off in the Rector’s Jeep-type vehicle. The Rector, Mr. Nazim- his driver/logistics support, the two male professors and myself. I learned we were headed for Besh Barmak ( in Azerbaijani: Beş Barmaq) literally translated as Five Finger Mountain, 1253 ft high above the valley highway. This is a special place for Azerbaijani people, full of sacred meaning. It was the first time I would see it, and to be there with this group of scholars was pretty special.
Though the weather had been rainy, this Saturday was clear enough for a drive. The mountain side however was anything but passable, even in a 4×4. The rutted clay road was too wet to continue so our driver went commando and headed straight up the side of the mountain, over the rocks and grass, until the tires began to slip. I was wide-eyed and white-knuckled in the back seat. Nazim must have caught my vision in the rear-view mirror for a few words passed between the Rector and him, and soon they were both chuckling to our Scottish guests about thinking better of the uphill climb. As we slid (quite literally) back down to the last of the road section, he managed to turn around carefully and drive down until he found a flat, mostly dry spot to spread out a picnic.
The Rector had planned a marvelous spread, complete with a wood fired mangal (a box like hibachi grill), two bottles of Spanish Rioja, the requisite vodka, and a bottle of very special whisky brought by the Scots (naturally). The kebabs were tender and juicy, the potatoes were wonderfully savory. Add some bread and cheeses with the wine and you have a perfect afternoon.
At least it was until the Rector asked, “Who would like to go hike up Beş Barmaq,” a few hundred feet further up the mountain- agghhh, if I had known I would have let that last glass of wine sit a while! (Keep in mind, as the only female, I was the only one who had to consider “certain questions”. A bush or tree just wasn’t working for me… and, if you look at the photo again, you’ll see there weren’t too many there in the first place.) Oh well, onwards and upwards, as my Scots companion used to say!
It was to say the least, a spectacular view. Especially since we were still in one piece to see it it.
The narrow rock path that led around the mountain outcropping to the sacred “grotto” was dotted with bushes tied with hundreds of small yellow strips of cloth, symbols of prayers being offered on someone’s behalf. It was quite an effort to make this trek, even as well equipped as we were; for Azeris without 4 wheel drive vehicles and hiking shoes, well, it must be a fervent need for prayer indeed.
I think the Scots may have had a bit much Whisky to be clambering around on these narrow trails- I don’t remember them following, but to be quite honest, I didn’t have the nerve to look anywhere but straight ahead at the Rector. My best recollection is that we had all persons accounted for on the way back, with two sleeping Scots snoring in the back seat.
When we dropped the two professors off at their hotel an hour later, they looked no worse for wear and were already anticipating dinner later that evening. It was then that the Rector said to me, “Thank you for being my ‘Wedding General’ today.”
My puzzled look told him an explanation was in order.
Apparently, when a wedding happens in the villages, the bride’s family comes together and asks who is the highest ranking military person, scholar or government official known among them. The higher or more renowned a potential guest, the better for the prestige of the family. Even if the guest doesn’t know the family, he can be invited (or sometimes even paid to come) anyway. It’s all about face- saving face, putting on a good face.
I was invited as an American, as the head of a business, and, as a friend of the Rector- from teaching at the University- he knew me as someone who enjoyed being involved in Azerbaijan, learning the history and culture. (I don’t know about high-ranking or any of the other bits, but evidently Americans at that time were still few enough in number as to be special- no offence Canada!) So it was a good trade. I got to learn much more with these close up encounters and the school became known for its international contacts and openly reaching out to foreigners for special projects.
So, whose “Wedding General” are you? Have you ever thought of yourself as Special? Have you ever brought recognition to someone or some project just by lending your “foreign-ness” to them? Interesting concept isn’t it?
I hope, wherever you are, that you have the opportunity to be treated as a Wedding General sometime, and that in turn you will lend your special-ness to others.