“That place you’re going to – how to do you say it?”

I break it down, “A-zer-bai-jan. It has a nice flow once you get used to it.”

“A-zer-*tongue stumbles*-blah-bai-jan.”

I try to suppress laughter, “Or you can say Baku, the capital city that I’ll be living in.”

Oh the joys of preparing to venture to an obscure country in the Caucasus! I’d be curious to know if anyone experienced similar challenges before they ventured to a lesser-known place (Azerbaijan or otherwise)…

Predicaments of Place:

  • The endless ways people pronounce and recall the country’s name is a continuous source of humor….Azer-blah-bai-jan, Astheworldturns, Who’sbekistan, Azeria. One of the more recent creations is, “So you’re going to ‘Awful-bai-jan’?” To which I countered, “No, I’m going to ‘Awesome-bai-jan!!” Quite amusing, actually. I’ve also been told that, “The ONLY reason why I’m learning how to say and spell that one country you’re going to is because you’re going there.” Friends, that is fine by me – that means I’m doing my job!  (:
  • The assumption that the country is in Africa; furthermore, I’m amazed that several people have made the off-handed remark that it’s by Zambia….which it’s not, because Azerbaijan is in a whole different continent and hemisphere. But Zambia….what an interesting commonality!
  • Assumption by affiliation: This can be explained through one conversation I had with a family friend, when I just started to apply for Fulbright last summer. Friend: “Where is Azerbaijan?” Me (totally failing to think before speaking): “Right under Chechnya in Russia, you know, where the Boston bombers are said to be from.” Friend: “Oh, so you’re going to teach English to terrorists.” (Needless to say, I learned a lot in that one conversation!)
  • World events: I discussed this at length in a previous post (Challenges of Place). I know that chaos seems to reign supreme in the Middle East right now, and I’m aware how close Azerbaijan is to all the action. But one thing is for certain: right now, Azerbaijan is stable and I willingly go to it.

Linguistic Tribulations:

  • I would love to spell Azerbaijan’s name as it’s written in Azerbaijani: “Azərbaycan.” Maybe I’ll do that in later posts, but it’s confusing for people – it looks familiar but very different at the same time. The ‘y’ makes some sense, but the ‘c’ has a hard English ‘j’ sound. And that ‘upside down e,’ or ə, throws people for a loop. So I’ll wait for now and maybe sneak it in later posts.
  • Speaking of the letter ‘ə,’ I will mention that I cannot believe how that one letter is not supported by any keyboard feature on my iPhone, nor by Prezi (the online presentation site I was tentatively planning on using for any lessons I might teach). They support the other obscure letters of the Azeri alphabet, which are shared with the Turkish alphabet (Ç ç, Ş ş, I ı, İ i, Ö ö, Ü ü), but poor Ə ə is left out…
  • Azerbaijan adopted the Latin script for its alphabet soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. Prior to that move, Azeri/Azerbaijani was consistently written in Arabic script from the 7th century up to the early 20th century. In the 1920s, attempts were made to apply Latin script, but the Soviet Union interrupted that process and required that the Cyrillic alphabet be used. (This website is pretty reliable and provides some good visuals.) So what does that mean for me?
  1. Transliteration. People’s names demonstrate this: I’ve been in contact with a couple people in Azerbaijan to figure out housing and all that fun stuff. One contact person is Orxan. That is how his name was introduced to me, but he signs his emails Orkhan, then my email ID spells it Orhan (which is the Turkish version). Another person is Mamed, which is how his name was introduced to me and how he signed his emails. But lately he’s been spelling his name Mammad. So which do I use? Which one is “right”?
  2. Text. Older Azerbaijani movies, newspapers, etc. use the Cyrillic script, which is awesome from an historian’s point-of-view, but just a tad frustrating since I can’t read it! Can I fluently read or understand Azerbaijani? No. But at least I can work through it! (For the record, I taught myself the Russian alphabet as an adolescent but currently, my recollection of the Russian alphabet is nil. Time to review, I suppose!) Similarly, primary source texts in the Azeri language (prior to the 1920s) are written in Arabic script; so if I wanted to conduct studies on say, early Turkish/Azeri poets, I would need to rely on transliterations and hope they’re correct, or learn how to read medieval Turkish – challenges abound!

 Questions/Comments That I’ve Heard at Least a Dozen Times:

I don’t mind answering these questions, and I think the comments come from a good place, but it does feel like a bombardment at times!

  • Is it safe over there? I honestly don’t know how to answer that because I know that anything I say will not be good or affirming enough until I return.
  • Did you really choose that country – like really? Indeed, those Turkic countries have really caught my interest!
  • Will you have to wear a burqa or cover yourself? Nope.
  • You should dye your blonde hair, unless if you want to find a husband. If I have to learn how to cope with being an American abroad, then they have to learn to cope with me – blonde hair and all!
  • Don’t come back with a man! Don’t plan on it, but what if I do?
  • Are you going there for mission work? I have as much to learn from Azerbaijanis as they do from me; if religion comes up, I pray that it is reciprocal.
  • Azerbaijan you say; so Russia? I mean, it WAS a Soviet Republic….twenty years ago.

Ugh, long post. But, as I mentioned at the beginning, feel free to share if you’ve come across similar tribulations in your travels!

Also, I leave for Azerbaijan in one week – holy sh*t.

Until next time….  (:




  1. Hi Haley,

    I am on my way, almost, to Traverse City, Bayshore Resort. It does not really look like vacation weather, but will have to deal with it. I will be mediating between two seven year old’s which can be a daunting experience. So far today, I have put out two minor spats.

    It was good to see you last week in Huntsville. and to know, you are so enthusiastic about your endeavor. Enjoy everything you are able to see and do.

    An American in Michigan

  2. I look as forward to this blog as I did the Turkish one. Have a great year. How exciting !! I promise not to ask any of those too-often-asked and not-really-answerable questions. But I will enjoy stories of your trials, travels, travails, adventures — which may just be included in your regular daily life. Who knows. I wish you all the best. Take care. Sorry to have not seen you all summer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s