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 to

Map of Azerbaijan (shown in red, on the eastern edge of the Caspian Sea, north of Iran)

Azerbaijan, north of Iran, and east of Turkey

make 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.

Molla Nasreddin, often appears in stories with his donkey

Molla Nasreddin, often appears in stories with his donkey

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.

Egyptian hieroglyphics, Layers of History

Layers of History

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…)

9 thoughts on “What is Culture? Is it a matter of Perspective?

  1. Oh, I love folk tales, parables, etc. The illustration is beautiful as well. It’s true that culture is so linked to history. I learned to understand (at least a bit) how the French think by studying their literature. I also took some great history courses.


    • You’re absolutely right, Margo! These stories taught me how to make a culturally relevant toast, how to negotiate a contract, how to bridge the “American Ex-Pat” stereotype- and as a result I had a much richer experience during my ten years abroad. These lessons shaped my attitude, and as a result, I always felt, changed the views of others toward me, as well.
      Thanks for sharing!


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  5. Fascinating!

    The first time I began to better understand the U.S. (bizarrely perhaps) was by interviewing 104 men, women and teens about gun use for my first book about American women and guns. I was intrigued by American gun culture and I truly wanted to better comprehend and explain it to others. It was, as one might imagine, a heady stew of history, politics, culture (writ large) and intensely regional — with HUGE differences even a 1 or 2 hour drive within the same state. I went to Ohio, Mass., New Orleans and twice to Texas. I learned a lot and the book has been praised for its unusual insights and approach. Americans have very strong ideas about gun use, but few had ever examined it dispassionately.

    I know that being an expat in the U.S. makes me a better and different writer because I see things here through a different lens.


  6. Interesting thought… I rarely think “expat” first when I read your NY insights. You always sound like a wise New Yorker- as if you were meant to be, or, have always been there. When I read your words I even read them with a New York tempo in my head! I can imagine you as a dispassionate journalist though never un-passionate about life.

    What an eye-opening experience those interviews must have been. As close as Canada and the US are in many ways, there is (IMHO) something fundamentally different about our ethos. I found in the former Soviet countries, they are all about sticking together- the collective, if you will- but in America it’s always been about the individual’s right to choose. Even if that means approving of someone’s right to make bad choices.

    Ah, I imagine you as the perfect cocktail party guest, holding forth on myriad topics. I do enjoy being able to hear your stories and perspectives.

    Thanks for the comments!


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