THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF AN AZERI WEDDING
LALE YALCHIN- HECKMANN (1)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF AN AZERI WEDDING
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