What is Culture? Is it a matter of Perspective?
When I first arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan just after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, people were looking tomake sense of things that were happening. Tanks in the streets, government coups, unsettled monetary exchange rates and questions about whether the country would even survive, given the war’s tentative treaty.
But the family friends I was staying with seemed to be encouraged, patient with the events. I asked the father of the family why? How could he be so sure? He told me, “In 6 months you will understand everything. It will all be clear.” Then he began one of his Molla Nasreddin stories, anecdotes with a moral to be puzzled over.
Molla Nasreddin, I learned, was a folk sage thought to have been born in Turkey around the 13th century. With parables and stories handed down from generation to generation, Nasreddin became the main character in a magazine called simply, Molla Nasreddin. Published in Azerbaijan in the early 1900’s, prior to the formation of the Soviet Union, and “read across the Muslim world from Morocco to Iran” this Molla Nasreddin magazine depicted inequality, cultural assimilation, and corruption and ridiculed the backward lifestyles and values of clergy and religious fanatics, implicitly calling upon the readers to modernize and accept Western social norms and practices. The magazine was frequently banned but had a lasting influence on Azerbaijani and Iranian culture. (Interesting that a culture that many expats thought was “developing” was actually further advanced in some areas than given credit for.)
But then came the dark days of the Soviet Union. People kept their spirits and heritage alive by retelling the stories of Molla Nasreddin, just as my friend did for me. “To understand Azeri ways, you must understand Molla Nasreddin. These stories will tell you what you want to know about Azeri thinking and how to understand things that happen here,” he said.
The Turban and The Letter
A man brought a letter to Molla Nasreddin:
– Molla, could you read this letter?
Molla looked at the letter which was all in Arabic. He was unable to read it and gave it back to the man.
– Take this to someone else, I cannot read it, said the Molla.
– How come? You are wearing the turban of a learned man, yet you cannot read a letter?
The Molla then took off his turban and placed it in front of the man
– Ok, if it is the skill of a turban, put it on and read your letter yourself!
This was a story told to describe people protesting for change, saying the politicians know nothing and should not be in office. (Hmmm, sound familiar?)
The Pot That Gave Birth
Molla Nasreddin borrowed a large pot from his neighbor. Days and weeks went by and he did not return the pot. One day the neighbor stopped by and asked if he could have his pot back. Molla Nasreddin apologized, “I am sorry, I forgot to return it. But I have good news for you, while in my possession your pot gave birth to a smaller pot”. Thus, he sent the happy neighbor home with two pots.
A few weeks later, Molla Nasreddin knocked at his neighbor’s door and asked if he could again borrow that large pot. The neighbor, after his recent gainful experience, was more than happy to lend his pot to Molla.
When days and weeks went by without a word from Molla Nasreddin about the pot, the neighbor decided that he’d better go and see about his pot. When Molla opened the door, the neighbor asked if he could have his pot back. Molla, with a very sad face, informed the man that while in his possession the large pot passed away.
Shocked by Molla Nasreddin’s audacity, the man got angry and said:
“What do you think I am, an idiot to believe that the pot died?”
“Why, my good man,” replied Molla with a smile, “you had no trouble believing that your pot gave birth?”
Molla Nasreddin stories often called out greed and hypocrisy among men, challenging them to be better citizens and neighbors.The moral of my tale today is this…
Culture is composed of layer upon layer of history. In trying to understand and evaluate another culture, it’s often necessary to examine the layers to find the gems that lie beneath the surface. Many places in the world, including my own, have had great culture changed by the weight of politics. So how do we separate what is truly valuable from what is unfortunate? How do we learn to appreciate the gems and move on from the stones? As an Ex-Pat, how did you learn to understand the culture of your host country?
Is culture a matter of perspective after all?
(P.S. As for the prediction “In 6 months you will understand everything. It will all be clear,” I’m still waiting…)