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Saturday, June 18, 2005



In the last six months, three people I know have died violent deaths in Baku, -- two of which were in traffic accidents. The other was a murder, but you can read more about that on other sites. This means that I have been to a lot of funerals.

In Islam, mourning is a drawn-out process. If you're interested in reading about funeral ceremonies in the 24 hours after a death, I wrote about it back in January. The 7-day, 40-day and one-year anniversaries of the death are marked with prayers with friends and family. The recently-deceased are also remembered on Thursdays.

I used to look skeptically at my staff when they asked for time off to go to a funeral. No longer. Going to funerals in Baku could take up all your time, especially if you know a lot of people who ride in cars.

Funerals are often held in big tents that are set up in the middle of the street. Inside, mourners sit at long tables, while the Mullah and the victim's family sit at a head table, like at a wedding. The only evidence of the dead person is his or her picture hanging on the wall. Almost always, these tents are open only to men, but one funeral I attended was for someone who led a more progressive lifestyle, so there was tent time for men and for women.

Tea is served, as is special funeral plov with chicken, dried apricots and raisins (plov a greasy rice and meat dish that is served throughout Central Asia with hundreds of variations). The Mullah recites prayers from the Koran and people cry. No one talks.

Sick minds here often speculate about the number of "collateral funeral deaths" which are caused when a typically maniacal Baku driver on his way to a critical backgammon game at the chaikhana (tea house)flies around a corner at a high speed, maybe going backwards, and plows into one of these 40 foot long tents filled with mourners.

After the first funeral, I was hoping that I would get invited to a wedding before I had to go to another.

No such luck.

My office manager's husband was killed in a car accident while I was in the States. He was Turkish and left behind a 24-year-old widow and a 2 year old son. She had never met his family, but flew to Turkey with his body for the first funeral and burial.

I went over to her house on Thursday with the other women in my office for a funeral meal. It was just the three of us, her mother and sister, and a mullah. Instead of a tent, it took place in their tiny living room in a Soviet-era high rise apartment block in Baku's sprawling, anonymous suburbs.

Since this was a funeral for women, the Mullah was a woman. I had never met such a person before.

She wore a headscarf and a high-necked dress and had gold teeth, but that didn't really distinguish her from many other Azeri women. After some chitchat that my beginner's Azeri couldn't keep up with, she moved into 30 minutes of reading from the Koran in a wailing chant.

I assumed that I was the only one who didn't understand the prayer, but since it was in Arabic, it was just as foreign to the gals on my staff. One lamented that she wished she knew the words but given that she grew up under the Soviets, she never learned them as a child. It's like never learning the Our Father or Nicene Creed.

After the Mullah finished, the mourning meal was served. Once bread is placed on the table you can't leave, so I settled in for a lengthy meal, afternoon meetings be damned. Anyway, it was much more interesting to chat with the Mullah.

The Mullah grew up in Masalli, which is a town in Azerbaijan's conservative south, closer to the Iranian border. Although she never attended a Madrassah (Islamic school) her father forced her and her siblings to learn the Koran. She resented it, until her own husband died and she began reading the Koran at funerals to support her children. I couldn't tell how old she was. Azeri women age very quickly but I guessed she was probably in her late 30's.

When she mentioned that all Azeris should know the words to the prayer, my friends looked the floor.

Another one of my young staffers plans to get married in September. Azeri weddings are the holy grail for expats because they are so extravagant. I hope that I get to go to that before another funeral. My track record suggests otherwise.

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