- Last night, we attended the “wedding”, which is how our host spoke about it all week, though in fact neither he nor his wife actually attended the actual wedding service, but simply showed up at the wedding hall for the reception dinner. I was surprised to learn, the day before, that they never intended to go to the service itself. The service would be in Russian, and the Canadian, whose Azeri seemed excellent after 8 years or so here, thought it would be pretty boring. At the reception, I asked our host, “What percent of the folks at the reception would have attended the actual wedding service?” He responded, as if impressed by the high percentage, “Perhaps 40 to 50 percent.” In the majority Muslim Azeri culture, the “Wedding” most commonly refers to what we would call the reception, and while there would be a few activities invested in spiritual or cultural meaning before the banquet, they might not even occur on the same day as the banquet, and would have much less cultural significance to the families and friends of the couple as the reception itself.
- Another key difference I noted about the wedding custom here is the way gifts are handled and the wedding is paid for: they are one and the same system. People who are invited are told the cost per person of the meal, and they guests who confirm they will attend are expected to pay that cost, per person, in cash in envelopes provided at the banquet hall. The guests didn’t need to go to any online registries, or go to the trouble of picking out and wrapping presents, and there was no pile of gifts anywhere to be seen. Instead, guests could give a gift amount above and beyond the cost of the meal. As a father of two children, especially one daughter, who may very well someday in the next few years be married, I like this tradition, and will do everything I can to bring it to the US as an improvement on our inefficient and outmoded system of paying for weddings!
- The meal itself was certainly a great meal, worth what we were asked to give as our envelope gift. When we sat down to our table it was already laden with substantial hors d’oeuvres, including tasty bread, salmon and other tasty meats, and a variety of salads and vegetables. I came to enjoy watching someone at the table try to pick up a plate of something from the middle of the table, only to have the man serving our table rush from whatever he was doing back to our table to take the plate from the guest and serve them and others nearby with whatever dish was of interest at the moment. Literally, there were 10 dishes or so at any one time on each side of the 10-person banquet table. We could not run out of any particular favorite, as when that happened, another full plate of the same offering replaced the empty. It reminded me of JK Rowling’s descriptions of the tables groaning with plates piled with food magically appearing during the feasts at Hogwarts.
- As the evening wore on, I felt like the steward in John 2, and it gave me an insight into the passage. In John 2:1-11, Jesus performs what John calls the first of his miracles at a wedding in Cana, turning water into wine. Not just a little water, and not just mediocre wine! The steward remarks, “The usual custom is to serve the best wine first, and after guests have drunk freely (and hence become less discriminating), serve the cheap stuff. But you have saved the best until last!” I always read that as kind of amused, dispassionate commentary on the quality of the Jesus-provided wine. But last night, the hors d’oeuvres and bread were so tasty, that I filled up on the early courses and had no room at all for the best meats and dishes as they came out at the end. I’ve come to see that, since it is likely the steward was one who was able to appreciate a glass of wine at the wedding, while not wanting to consume too much to be of little use to his hosts, and so was not merely observing that the best wine was saved until last, but in fact was at least a little put out that it was so. He couldn’t drink too much of the really good stuff because he’d already had more than he should have of the inferior wine. That, at least, is how I felt. (Though no alcohol was served.) I thought, at least, “You saved the best for last” as both an appreciation of the quality of the food, and at least personal sorrow that I had made poor choices to fill up on inferior fare.
- We had had “lessons” regarding traditional Azeri dancing in advance of the wedding. One of our tutors was a 7-year old boy whose footwork made me think, “I could never do this.” Then one of the staff people showed us much simpler moves and it seemed possible. But in fact, during the night, we only heard a few songs where people were dancing in the Azeri style, which is very sweet and chaste, with no touching between men and women. Most of the songs were pop music going back to the 80s, including many songs I recognized (which is saying that they were familiar to someone who has about as little familiarity with pop music as one can have in this day and age). Most of the songs were in English, seemingly the language of love and celebration even here in Azerbaijan. A few live performed songs (by friends of the couple) were sung in Azeri, sweetly sung telling stories of innocent love.
- And finally, I saw a wedding reception game that could translate to American celebrations very well. At a midpoint in the celebration, the couple came to the center of the room, and seated back to back, were given two symbols on sticks, one a yellow crown, one a black bowler hat. They were asked questions like, “Who was the first to say ‘I love you’?” and “Who will keep your budget under control?” and they had to raise either the yellow crown (signifying, of course, the princess bride) or the black bowler hat (signifying, of course, the diligent groom). The questions ranged from tender to stereotypical (“When the lift is broken, who will carry the baggage up the stairs?”) to spiritual (“Who asks forgiveness more often?”) and the answers were humble and honoring to each other, in ways that especially helped us, as the people who knew the couple least well in the room, come to appreciate and have affection for them. The game provided enjoyment for the entire room.
The game, allowing us to grow in affection for the couple we hardly knew, served as a parable of our ten days in Azerbaijan, for it had the same effect. Our times with staff and students, whether studying scripture together, drinking tea and hearing stories of conversion and courtship, riding rented bikes along the waterfront, or attending a beautiful and joyous wedding, allowed us to grow in appreciation and affection for a country we have just met for the first time. As we leave we don’t know about our return, but we know that if we do return, we’ll find dear friends here.