For better, for worse

Wedding: a word with which to conjure wildly worldwide.  The formal joining of two people in the presence of witnesses and the celebration thereof can come in many forms.  In Baku it could be argued that ‘the wedding’ as a concept is the ultimate social function, based on the numerous reports I have heard.  Last Saturday I got the chance to find out for myself, firsthand.

Some of the traditional elements of a Baku wedding can be traced to Islam, others to paganism and others seemingly to straightforward pragmatism.  Meanwhile many of the new elements have been cheerfully imported from western Europe but they in turn have become so rapidly established that inventive flourishes take place here that I have neither seen nor heard of ‘back home.’

We were treated to such an innovation shortly after the bride and groom arrived.  The tradition of the first dance – where the bride and groom are expected to take the floor before anybody else – is apparently not followed here but it looked like one was performed that evening.  I think it was the circle of half a dozen three-year-old girls dressed in white with angel/fairy wings pirouetting round the newly-weds as they danced that gave it away.

Two perhaps obvious points that are worth mentioning: first – while arranged marriages used to be customary they are pretty much over and the replacement is a fast-track version of free choice (i.e. marry quickly once you have met).  Second – while the bride can still occasionally be expected to wear at least a portion of red (to signify virginity I am told), the western white gown in all its forms has become the norm in this city (see photograph).

I should also explain why I am describing these things in the context of Baku as a city rather than Azerbaijan as a nation.  Should you have the occasion to be invited to a wedding in a rural town or village, you are likely to encounter a far more traditional ceremony and the foundations of the traditions may in turn vary from one region to the next.  It is not unfair to suggest that some Azerbaijanis outside Baku could view the city’s approach to wedlock as too ‘free and easy’ and decadent, perhaps downright sinful in some cases.

Decadence could even have crossed my mind briefly as we entered the “palace of happiness” where the celebrations were due to take place: one of countless such venues in Baku that cater solely for weddings, to the exclusion of all other premises.  The high-ceilinged, white-painted, halogen-lit square hall with gold drapes was set to accommodate five hundred or so guests at round tables of fourteen while leaving space for two stages and a generous dance floor.  Each tightly packed place at each table bore three plates stacked on top of each other in telescoped sizes, one knife, one fork, one spoon and two wine glasses.  All the remaining table space was filled with so much food-bearing crockery that I actually had to move plates to free the base of my glass before lifting it to my lips.

The vast central expanse of each table was filled by a lazy-Susan of cart-wheel dimensions to aid the passing of food around all seated.  Its centrepiece was a metre-high flower arrangement surrounded by a cordon of bottles advertising the array of drinks on offer while the outside edge carried food that soon literally became plate stacked upon plate; and this was just the starters.  Were we trying to re-live the closing days of the Roman empire?

As the evening wore on the waiters would occasionally whisk a dish away to wherever before replacing it with an other dish forming part of an other course but at no time was there ever a space larger than a wine glass left on the table.  Having been warned about the quality of the vodka served at such occasions and having discovered on arrival how truly frightful the ‘Champagne’ could be, I ordered cold beer for the rest of the evening.  This being November it appears that Cold Beer is no longer readily available as it constitutes a health hazard and the waiter made great theatre of finally producing an ice bucket containing two bottles of beer and miraculously carving a niche for it on the lazy-Susan.  I made sure the subsequent bottles went into the bucket at least twenty minutes prior to opening.

Alongside the repeated warnings about the catering, the other oft-repeated advice concerned the non-stop loud music.  Having cut my teeth and bruised my eardrums on numerous rock/metal gigs and club nights over the years I felt capable of handling the worst that could be offered and thankfully I survived with ease.  Forget the art of conversation though: discourse conducted while sitting directly next to each other required shouted levels of diction while leaning together.  Everybody else on the table could be contacted solely by sign-language unless your words coincided with a rare pause between songs.

The music itself was a ripe old mixture.  Azerbaijan has a strong oeuvre of traditional songs and dances that has so far survived the USSR and current western erosion.  Played by a live band of drummer, percussionist, bassist, two keyboardists, a sax/clarinettist, two singers and an occasional accordionist, these pieces provided the initial impetus and became a recurrent theme.  As the night wore on they were interspersed with a growing number of assorted Russian and Turkish pop songs performed by ‘live’ singers working to track.

‘Traditional’ moments in the evening’s entertainment also included the formal, flame-lit procession of “burning grass” from the door to the newly-weds’ table (apparently a pagan ritual to ward off “bad eye” that has been newly introduced to weddings here) and some sword dances performed by men in black tunics wearing hats made of long-wool sheep fleeces.

A less entertaining tradition was the pair of men with their black cases.  They sat together by the door, one with a sign in front of him saying “son’s house”, the other with a sign saying “daughter’s house.”  Their job was to collect money from the guests, noting name and amount given in one of two books depending on whether you claimed to come from the bride’s side or the groom’s side of the proceedings.  Donations are expected to meet or exceed a certain level so that the cost of the function can be covered and there can ideally be a little left over for the marrying couple.  The custom does not meet with unanimous approval these days.

Team Pic. Looking like a proper English… (photograph used with permission)

Some readers may be wondering why I have yet to describe the wedding ceremony itself.  In England and surrounding parts it is traditional even now to spend a significant amount of time exchanging vows in a church, registry office or suitably licensed/consecrated place before adjourning to a second venue for celebrations.  English custom also permits the issuing of two different invitations to the nuptials: one to the full ceremony plus party and one to just the reception.

Being a colleague of the bride and being invited for six in the evening, I assumed myself to have a reception-only invitation; how wrong I was proven to be…  The couple’s entrance was filmed and relayed to large screens around the hall as they walked in through the main door at a corner of the square room.  They were then stopped right there and the camera switched to a woman in a suit with a hand-held microphone.  She spoke for about a minute and a half, after which the bride and the groom both said “yes”, after which they and their witnesses signed a register, all relayed by camera of course.  That was the full ceremony apparently; and here was I thinking they would have been to a mosque, church or government office beforehand; silly me.

Admittedly I have innate bias on the subject: my earliest wedding memories are of an uncle and aunt marrying in a Greek Orthodox church in London when I was about four years old.  We seemed to be in that church for ever and both my brother and I eventually tired of walking in a circle in front of the altar carrying two huge candles joined by what to my young eyes looked like a net curtain (my apologies to Orthodox Greek readers).  The reception was so much later in the proceedings it no longer registers in my memory.

The point being that even when you strip away the church or theatre from the actual core, a bare-bones wedding takes longer than a minute and a half in my experience.  Exchanging vows, reading the law of the land, appealing to witnesses; I can not think of a place where so much can be compressed into (or expunged from) so little time.  The Azerbaijani language can be far more economical than the English but not to such an extent.

As noted above, wedding parties appear to be very big in Baku, both in terms of business and in terms of social calendar.  The former can be survived as a corollary of the latter perhaps but let us not diminish the actions of the two people who form the core of the occasion.  I fear that the marrying couple is becoming pawn in the greater game enacted between commerce and social posturing in this city.  Please don’t let a good union be led astray or cast asunder by the machinations of it all.

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