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Sunday, January 16, 2005


Funeral For a Friend

An accident is sometimes defined as anything that happens by chance without an apparent cause.

A friend and work colleague was killed yesterday morning in a car wreck, but not even under the most generous definition of the term could it be called an accident.

Yusif, a 36 year old Azeri with a wife and two small children, was one of the smartest, most congenial and politically astute people I've met here. The US Government was fortunate to have him as an employee. Even though he had a difficult job, he performed it with such goodwill and magnanimity it was impossible to say a bad word about him.

Friday was his last day at work. On Wednesday, he was to have left Azerbaijan, with his young family, to begin a U.S. PhD program in Public Policy Formation in the Former Soviet Union. He was not one of these smart young guys who had every intention of staying on in the States, where life is easier and opportunities greater. He wanted to return to Azerbaijan and work to help push it toward democracy.

Despite their bitterness and anger, many of his colleagues found comfort in the fact that most of them had said their goodbyes to him at a lunch on Friday, not expecting to see him again before he departed.

His poor wife, however, had no such opportunity.

Yusif's death was tragic, but it was no accident. The utter recklessness of the driver that took his life was not exceptional. In fact, for me, its ordinariness represents everything I truly hate about this country right now: a sense of selfish disregard for the needs or value of any other human besides oneself. Driving habits are but one manifestation of this characteristic.

People who've lived here a while didn't need to be told how the accident happened out near the notorious Airport Road. Deadly head-ons happen out there almost daily. The only question was if it was caused by a young, rich hotshot in Mercedes or a young, rich hotshot in a BMW speeding in the wrong lane in an effort to avoid the slow Mashrutkas and sputtering Lada taxis, like the one Yusif was riding in.

That's not exactly what happened. The reality is actually worse. It wasn't a speeding BMW or Mercedes, but rather, a couple speeding in the wrong lane in an ordinary car, on their way to their engagement party.

Those of us who expressed dismay when we heard that, in the three car pile-up, only Yusif had been killed, didn't feel that much better when we were told the couple died in the hospital this morning. Now, three families are devastated just because a driver didn't care enough to think about the long term effect on others of his stupid, selfish, impulsive decision.

For all of us who knew Yusif and called him friend, this was our first -- and hopefully, only -- Azeri funeral. For Muslims, the body has to be buried within 24 hours. For us westerners, that's hardly enough time to get one's wind back after having it knocked out from the blow. This morning, as I walked to his neighborhood, Baku looked as if all the color, light and shadow had been drained, leaving shapes but no perspective.

Funerals take place at the family's home. Men and women are strictly segregated. When we arrived, the men headed in the direction of the tents set up in the building's courtyard to drink tea and listen to the Imam. The women filed up the stairs to the fourth-floor apartment. So many women had come that people lined up in the stairwell, until there was room in the small apartment to enter.

Muslims do not use coffins, so the body was laid out -- shrouded -- in the living room. Yusif's wife -- who was little more than a limp rag -- and his female relatives surrounded it, crying and wailing, while friends and colleagues packed the room to offer prayers and support. An adjoining room was filled with more wailing, chanting women.

I was standing in the back, against the wall, when Yusif's devastated father entered to announce, ostensibly, that it was time to take the body to the cemetery. The pitched wailing reached a crescendo, while his female relatives threw themselves onto the body in grief. Women began to file back down the stairs to the courtyard which, by now, was filled with men of all ages.

This is the women's opportunity to grieve and say goodbye. Women, including his wife, are not allowed to accompany the body to the cemetery. That's the men's time. Indeed, women cannot visit the grave until 40 days after the death.

The body was carried downstairs and placed in a shrouded metal frame. Ten or 12 men hoisted it onto their shoulders and began the procession to the cemetery. About 200 men followed them out into the neighborhood streets and disappeared. The women stayed behind, wailing.

I don't really know what happened next, since I couldn't go. Maybe someone will report back. We stood around in the street, hands in our pockets, wondering what to do and where to go. Lacking much imagination, we went for drinks.

Our mystified western male friends who didn't go to the cemetery questioned us women about what went on in the apartment. The men reported that they sat in the tents, mostly in silence, while the Iman prayed aloud. "Did they serve you tea like they did for us?" they asked. We had no tea. So much of what was done and said today was a complete mystery to all of us. We were forced to stitch together random details in order to get a glimpse of the big picture.

Muslims may get their grieving underway quickly, but they also drag it out. There is another ceremony on the third day after death (tomorrow, which we will also attend), 7th day, 40th day and one year anniversary. All this organized grieving helps explain why so many of Baku's streets are blocked by funeral tents at any given time.

It is impossible to understate the anger and bitterness among the Americans who worked closely with Yusif and had such high hopes for his and his family's future. No country can afford to lose smart, educated, forward-thinking people in senseless, tragic car wrecks, but it's especially true here. It's doubly tragic because so many people are killed by reckless, irresponsible drivers but nothing ever changes. Nothing will until someone other than western guests feel outrage at all the loss and demands something more from society.

This is a rough, rough place.

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