One of the things that an American notices right away in Azerbaijan is how little there is to do at home. Most Peace Corps Volunteers have not seen radios, children’s board games, books that are not textbooks, video games or adult games like playing cards. We have seen backgammon and dominos.
Children go to school in the morning and are home for lunch and then typically stay at home the rest of the day. They have friends at school but rarely go to each other’s homes. Most children don’t have chores or pets to play with. There are some crayons and coloring books, but no paper for art projects, paints or anything messy. Children are not ordinarily read to—and I have never seen a child reading a book and most homes have only textbooks and a copy of the Koran.
A lot of the time children do nothing. While a child in US with nothing to do might crawl under the dining table, make a tent out of a sheet, play with pots and pans on the kitchen floor or go outside and run around, Azeri children seem content to sit with nothing to do or watch adult TV shows (I haven’t seen any for children, but my families have not had satellite TV as some Azeris do). As many Azeris have one child, many don’t even have playmates at home and kids don’t normally come over to play (maybe because there is nothing to play with?) so kids spend a lot of time alone. In the summer,some kids who live in apartment buildings go outside and play on the asphalt, but in houses, they tend to stay inside their own locked gates.
Teen life would seem very bleak to an American. Playing sports is rare and electronic devices of any kind except cell phones are not common. Some teens have cell phones with music on them, but talk little on the phones since every call costs money. They do like to listen to music, which is on a TV channel, not a radio, and music videos are popular. Some boys go to internet cafes to play video games, which costs about 45 cents an hour. There is no dating in Azerbaijan and teens who are under 18 rarely go anywhere with their friends. Teens don’t usually have friends over, either, unless a group of cousins get together with the rest of the family.
Most homes are small and don’t have yards, so there is little housework. Most women cook quick meals from scratch, do laundry anywhere from once a week to once every 3 weeks (they wear the same clothes repeatedly), but not a lot else. Men do some food shopping and take out the trash, but that is all.
So what do Azerbaijani families do at home? Not much. There is a lot of TV watching. Broadcast TV has a ban against foreign languages and Azerbaijan produces very little original programming, so families who want to watch Turkish or Russian TV have to get satellite dishes. The wives invite friends and sometimes neighbors over once a week or so and are very hospitable and excited to see them. Also once a week or so, families will go separately or together to a relative’s home. They call it “going guesting”.
A couple of weeks ago, my family went to a relatives home to say goodbye for 18 months to a cousin who was going into the (compulsory) service. The men and women went to separate rooms to chat and eat, although some walked back and forth visiting. The girl cousins danced and brothers occasionally came in and danced with their sisters or girl cousins. Azerbaijanis are good dancers. Some of the young man’s friends were outside the house and he occasionally went out to chat with them. But they were not invited to the party.
For men, there is less to do than any other member of the family. There are no spectator or televised sports that are popular here. Adult men don’t seem to play sports and don’t have religious activities (Azerbaijan is listed as one of the least religious countries in the world, although they identify strongly with Muslim culture). I watched my host father as he came home several nights this week. One night, he came home, changed clothes and went to a wedding of someone from work. It is common that spouses not attend as most of the time, work friends sit together at sex-segregated tables. So my host mother did not go. The other nights, though, he came home, looked around, saw that no one talked with him, looked around some more and left again.
Rather than have their friends over to their homes, men meet friends and male relatives at tea houses, which are usually just for men. Women can entertain at home, but this is not acceptable for men, unless the guest is a relative,so they go to these small tea establishments and may play board games like backgammon and checkers or just sit and talk. It is cheap entertainment, around 35 cents for a cup of tea and helps fill the time.
People complain about how there is nothing to do in our town, which is the second largest city in Ganja. I agree there is not much, but come home with tales of visiting the two small museums, walking in the parks, visiting historical buildings. No one in my family sounds interested in doing any of these things.
I think that doing nothing is a habit. My host sister plans to go to Baku to university next year. I responded that this will be fun for her as she can get out and see all of the museums, the medieval city, parks, concerts, art fairs and all of the other events in a city of 4 million. She responded that she probably wouldn’t go anywhere.