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My Big Fat Azeri Wedding

At an Azeri wedding, who is more afraid: the 14-year-old bride — or the sheep?

January 4, 2003

At an Azeri wedding, who is more afraid: the 14-year-old bride — or the sheep?

During a recent visit to Georgia, I was invited to a traditional wedding ceremony in a small rural village in the Gardabani district. The district, just a few miles away from the border of Azerbaijan, has a predominantly Azeri population.

Three Azeri students of the Tbilisi-based Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management (CSJMM) asked me to come along.

The three of us took a taxi — one of those small Soviet-built vehicles that have no seatbelts and are made completely of metal. A bullet on wheels, in other words.

While the village was just 30 miles outside of Tbilisi, it took us over an hour to get to the Gardabani district. We were detained by the repeated police roadblocks that required our taxi driver to pay uniformed men the usual bribes.

Huge, foot-deep potholes that turned the streets into a slalom course — also made the distance appear longer than it actually is.

Gardabani, which starts east of Rustavi, a suburb of Tbilisi, was once the Soviet model for industrialization. Built in a desert by Georgia’s native son, Joseph Stalin, Rustavi’s three main factories today are crumbling — and on the brink of collapse.

One-third of the town's 160,000 inhabitants have left already. They are trying their luck back on farms — or in Tbilisi, the capital.

Those that have not left hold jobs in the steel, chemical — and concrete plants — that shape and pollute Rustavi’s skyline.

It is now dotted with hundreds of high-rise apartment buildings.

They, too, were built during the Soviet reign, modeled after the typical socialist all-look-alike manner.

When we arrived at the wedding, it was hard to tell who was more afraid: the 14-year-old bride — or the sheep. At least, the bride knew what was about to happen next… I hope.

She had to, because the large knife was lying on the sheep’s back. The old and young members in the wedding party, alike, picked it up repeatedly to weigh it in their hands.

They eagerly attested that it was a good knife — and easily capable of doing the job of cutting the sheep’s head off.

Because Azeri custom requires the bride to be presented with a freshly-killed animal by the groom’s family, Gunel, the bride, also received the same gift.

When it was time, the animal was turned over on its back by two grown men. Yet, they could not prevent the sheep from kicking — and splashing blood on the bride’s Western-style white wedding dress.

Gunel — who looked older than her age because of make-up but stunning — looked overwhelmed by the gift. Shirvani, Gunel’s 27-year-old cousin and soon-to-be husband, was handsome as well.

He, too, was dressed in a Western-style black tuxedo, complete with tie and vest. Sitting on an elevated pedestal, neither Shirvani nor Gunel exchanged a word nor smiled.

Asked about this, I was told later that the requirement of going into her wedding night a virgin had something to do with the stern look on the bride’s face.

The sternness could also have been due to the reality of an arranged marriage with your cousin. Such a step, I imagine, could kill the smile of any 14-year-old girl, be it tradition or not.

My hostess and one of the students, Gulnaz Guliyeva, explained that cutting sheep’s heads off — and having parents arrange a marriage within the larger family circle are not so common in Baku, or other big cities in Azerbaijan.

They are usually commonplace in rural communities. Nevertheless, she admitted that weddings among blood-related family members are common in Azerbaijan.

They are, even though more and more Azeri people acknowledge the problems — and illnesses — which result from such inter-family marital relationships.

According to Guliyeva: “The reason for this custom was that wealth would stay within the family — so that no outsiders could marry in.”

“Nowadays, the economic situation is very different compared to those days, but many still hang on to this tradition.”

Shah-Ismail, a correspondent for Azeri State Television in Georgia — and an uncle of the young bride — was the master of ceremonies and guest of honor.

He gave approximately 30 toasts within a 3-hour time frame. Everybody was honored and praised.

The long list started with the couple’s respective fathers and mothers and went onto “all the women on the earth” — which were required to sit on the opposite side of the room from the men during the ceremony.

And of course, there was the “Amerikanski” guest, whom they called “Mail” (as in Maa-eel) — to make it easier for the non-English speaking locals.

Shah-Ismail continued to hog the microphone — even though all of his toasts frustrated the two wedding bands hired for the event.

Both were itching to show off their talent.

One group had even brought keyboards, an electric guitar, amplifiers — and the afore-mentioned microphone, for the singer.

The other was a three-man band consisting of two playing the “zurna” or flute — and one drumming on a “naghara.”

When I first heard the zurna in action, I seriously expected a cobra to appear somewhere from a basket, or from underneath the pile of plates on the tables.

The cobra never came. It was the only disappointment of a fascinating afternoon — and evening. The people’s hospitality was extreme to the point of embarrassment and almost discomfort.

While tradition forbids any guest to give presents to the wedding couple or hosts, the only way to show my gratitude was to dance in the middle of a big circle to the chanting rhythm of the zurnas — and the clapping of the people. So I danced. Finally, I managed to see the first big smile appear on the face of the bride.