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THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF AN AZERI WEDDING

LALE YALCHIN- HECKMANN (1)
Max Planck Instute For  Social Anthropology Working Papers. No.28

http://www.eth.mpg.de,
E-mail: workingpaper@eth.mpg.de

 

ABSTRACT

This paper looks at the significance and political economy of Azerbaijani weddings using a  case  study  of  different  stages  of  marriage  negotiations,  wedding  preparations  and  dowry exchange. Postsocialist Azerbaijan is characterized by unemployment and money shortage,  thus the enormous expense of wedding parties and marriage payments are striking. Unlike  in  former  times  of  secure  jobs  and  steady  incomes,  the  expectations  of  taking  part  in conspicuous  consumption  may  mean  taking  out  large  loans  and  activating  and  spreading one's social networks across kin, neighbours and friends. The case study shows how social inequalities and hierarchies among  family members and kin may take new forms and be challenged throughout the various stages of the preparations for wedding parties. Moreover wife-takers  and  wife-givers  try  to  use  the  payments  and  the  wedding  arrangements  for redefining their mutual status positions. The transfer of property and its symbolic meaning therefore not only contributes to the establishment and shaping of wife-giver and wife-taker families, it also has ramifications for inner familiar hierarchies and gender roles. 

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(1) Max Planck Institute  for Social  Anthropology, P.O. Box 110351, 06017 Halle/Saale, Germany, Tel: +49 (0)345-2927 226, Fax: +49 (0)345-2927 502, email: yalcin@eth.mpg.de 

This paper is based on eight months fieldwork in Azerbaijan Republic from 2000 to 2001. The research deals with property systems in rural postsocialist Azerbaijan. I would like to thank John Eidson, Chris Hann and Alexander King who read and commented various versions of the paper. I am naturally responsible for its shortcomings. 
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INTRODUCTION: WEDDINGS AND  THE AZERIS

At the beginning of my stay in Baku, I was meeting experts on agricultural economics and  Azeri politics, and I needed an Azeri-English dictionary written in the Cyrillic alphabet to  help me read the daily papers and documents I  was  collecting.  A  bookshop  was recommended  to  me  as  a  likely  place  to  find  this  dictionary,  which  has  a  rather  limited distribution. This bookshop specialises in governmental and official publications. When I  first went to the bookshop, it was closed during lunchtime, so I decided to come back in the afternoon.  Arriving  after  three  pm,  however,  I  found  it  still  closed,  without  any  further notice on the door. As I was trying to find someone to ask, a beggar outside the bookshop addressed  me  in  Russian,  the  usual  language  used  by  and  for  Baku  urbanites,  assuming from my looks that I must be a Russian speaker. Replying in Azerbaijani, I asked when the bookshop  was  going  to  be  open.  He  replied  that  the  shop  was  closed  all  day  as  all  the personnel had gone to a toy, a wedding. 

People  used  weddings  as  legitimate  excuses  for  missing  work  and  being  absent  from university or governmental jobs. During an interview with the secretary of the governor in Ismayilli rayon (district) about the applications of the Land Reform, the man showed me a fancy invitation he had received for a wedding of a former colleague's son. The wedding was to be held in Baku, and the proud father had invited all the governor's apparatus from Ismayilli as well as prominent politicians and ministers in the capital. The secretary was sure  that  for  at  least  two  days  all  the  senior  local  bureaucrats  would  be  absent  from  the rayon.  He  resented  the  fact  that  the  wedding  was  not  going  to  be  held  in  the  town  of Ismayilli; his local patriotism more than his concern for days lost travelling to Baku was the  cause  for  his  resentment.  So  he  hoped,  that  his  former  colleague  would  hold  the wedding of his second son in his native town of Ismayilli.

Weddings  in  Azerbaijan  are  not  only  sociable  occasions  for  young  and  old,  providing entertainment  and  enjoyment;  they  equally  involve  detailed  economic  calculations  and exchange  relations.  These  days  weddings  are  accompanied  and  'immortalised'  in  a  very comprehensive  videotape  film  of  almost  all  stages  of  the  wedding  proceedings.  These videotapes are primarily for private use. They could, however, also become a commercial commodity. The weddings of politically or socially prominent people and so-called 'high society' are usually public events, where popular singers  are  engaged to sing. The video recordings of these weddings are sometimes sold on the market  and in  shops, where the singers display their talents performing the most popular Azeri songs. My research assistant Ragib  in  Baku  supplements  his  meagre  income  in  this  business.  He  has  a  badly  paid position as an ethnographer and historian in the Academy of Sciences, and has an extra job   at the private company of his friend. This is a business that organises weddings in wedding halls and popular restaurants in Baku. The company is named 'Savab' (religious good deed, merit) and is run as a humanitarian agency (humanitar cemiyyeti) (2) for tax purposes. Ragib and his friend provide advice to their customers on the offers of various wedding halls and restaurants, comparing their prices, program, food and music. In Baku the average cost of  such a wedding party in the wedding halls or restaurants was $10 per person in the  year  2000. If famous singers are to be invited to the wedding, the costs will normally go up, but  the  singers  may  agree  to  get  their  royalties  from  the  sale  of  the  wedding  videos. Remembering that in Azerbaijan the average income per capita at the time was ca. $40 a month, the magnitude of wedding expenses becomes clear. (3)

The  aim  of  this  paper  is  to  focus  particularly  on  the  economic  transactions  that characterize  weddings  in  Azerbaijan  and  to  explore  to  what  degree  social  and  economic activities around such a life-cycle ceremony may be seen to indicate changes in the notions of  economic  transactions,  involving  the  exchange  of  money,  gifts,  labour  and  property. Furthermore how different orientations of various social groups towards kinship, the state, money and the market become articulated during marriage negotiations, preparations and weddings  will  be  explored.  One  of  the  hypotheses  of  this  paper  is  that  monetary transactions (through borrowing and lending currency), which may have been usual in the past  during  the  wedding  preparations,  have  gained  more  significance  due  to  currency shortages and increased dependence on labour exchange. The analysis is based on a case    study of transactions and politico-economic relations involving the marriage of two sons of    my  Azerbaijani  host  family  in  Cavankend.(4 )

Evidently,  it  is  stronger  in  showing  the multivocality  in  the  meaning  of  money  and  market  transactions,  through  its  focus  on different  perspectives,  interests  and  actions,  than  stating  some  overall  generalization concerning the contemporary Azerbaijani society. 


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2. In Azerbaijani 'u' is pronounced like the German 'u'; 'c' is like 'j' of 'jam' in English; 'c' is like German
'tsch' as in 'deutsch'.

3. The World Bank World Development Report 1999/2000 cites average household income in Baku in 1993 to be $977. This was less than 1/30th of an average household income (AHI) in Melbourne, Australia, less than   1/5th of AHI in Budapest, Hungary and less than 1/4th of AHI in Moscow, Russia in 1993, (see World Bank  2000:  220-221).  The  World  Bank  defines  average  household  income  for  urban  centres  as  "the  average  of household  incomes  by  quintile.  Household  income  is  income  of  all  household  members  from  all  sources, including wages, pensions or benefits, business earnings, rents, and the value of any business or subsistence products consumed (for example, foodstuffs)" (Ibid., p.215) The same source gives GNP per capita as $490  for Azerbaijan in 1998 (Ibid., p.230). 

4 All names of places and people have been changed.
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Azerbaijan: the political and economic background  The Republic of Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The transition to this new statehood has been marked by ethnic and national conflicts of varying scales which began before the establishment of the new republic, continuing and escalating  into  a  war  in  the  mid-1990s.  The  conflict  over  the  status  of  the  Nagorno-Karabagh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), which began during the last years of the Soviet Union, burst  into a full-fledged war between the Armenians and Azeris from Armenia, Azerbaijan and

the  NKAO.  This  primarily  internal  and  later  international  military  conflict  is  still  not resolved but only 'frozen'; a peace settlement has not been reached even if the ceasefire has been kept fairly consistently since 1994. Hence the economic changes which other former Soviet  countries  have  been  going  through  have  been  aggravated  by  war,  and  by  the occupation  of  nearly one fifth of  Azerbaijan's  territory  by  Armenia,  and  by the displacement  of  about  800,000  people.5  Political  and  economic  policies  concerning  the countryside have been shaped within this tense climate of external threats and unresolved conflicts,  accompanied  by  internal  political  instability.  The  Azeri  government  was  taken over by a bloodless coup in 1993, and the present political leadership has been struggling for political legitimacy, even though its political rivals seem to be weak and ill-organised.(6) 

To this background of tension over the last decade in Azerbaijan, one needs to add the economic  and  political  dependency  and  uncertainty  resulting  from  the  geopolitical positioning  of  Azerbaijan  vis-a-vis  Russia  and  other  neighbouring  states  and  West European powers, due to its oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea. Moreover, Azerbaijan  is dependent on Russia because of the labour migration of over one million Azeri citizens currently  living  there.  Although  the  presence  of  this  large  population  in  Russia  is  not limited  to  the  postsocialist  era,  its  implications  for  Azerbaijan  have  changed (7).  The Azerbaijani government is dependent on the continuation of the economic activities of this  large  population  abroad,  even  though  it  officially  displays  a  rather  laissez-faire  attitude, seemingly not to control the economic life of the Azeri citizens there directly.

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5. See Statistical Yearbook of Azerbaijan 2001, Baku, Table 2.20, p.66
6. For accounts of the internal political tensions and developments, see Goltz, (1998), Swietochowski (1995)  and van der Leeuw (2000).
7. Caroline Humphrey (1999:39-40) indicates, for instance, that Azerbaijani traders and entrepreneurs have  been among the well-established trading minorities in Southeast Siberia for a long time. 
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THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF AN AZERI WEDDING


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