Azerbaijani Weddings: A Sight To Behold!

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FROM AN EXPAT POINT OF VIEW

BY GEMMA BIANCHI SLATER

AZERI OBSERVER EDITOR

The Azerbaijani wedding is a sight to be seen! Or rather heard! It is a glamorous, luxurious and wonderful affair – not to mention rather loud! Should you ever get the chance to be invited to such a thing, then grab the invitation with both hands and prepare yourself… because you’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been lucky enough to attend three Azerbaijani weddings so far and have been entertained and delighted every time. Foreigners are usually treated like guests of honour to this spectacular event, and as the Azerbaijanis are famous for their hospitality, know that you’re in for a treat.  

The courtship of an Azerbaijani couple is usually chaste and traditional. They either come together as a rare chance of fate as they fall in love organically (usually the parks are full of sweet and shy couples taking up every bench along the Bulvar, as they hold hands and stare longingly into each other’s eyes) or a partner may be suggested by one of the parents, if they felt a little push is required.

Once the union has been decided between the couple, the next step is for the nervous groom-to-be to take his parents to meet her parents, called Tanishliq. If this goes well, then he will go back again for another visit, but this time take even more relatives to officially ask for his love’s hand in marriage! This is called Hari. This moment is usually when the nervous young man has every reason to hold his breath, as he waits for their consent. The tension in the room is high, as his family are brought çay (tea), because if the çay is accompanied with sweets, then he can breathe again as this indicates the girls’ family’s seal of approval called Shirinchay. If, for any reason, consent is not given, the tea will be served alone.  The disappointed boyfriend is then expected to leave quietly and respectfully, without any fuss.

It should be noted however that if the girl’s family indicate a firm ‘no’ before the young man has barely stepped his foot through the door, it is not unusual for him to try, try and try again, as sometimes his persistence can indicate how much he is willing to express his love and sincerity for her. A little test I’m sure every Father would love to try out.

To add a bit of mischief along with this story, should the couple in question be aghast at the thought of not spending their lives together, there is still the notion of the ‘desperately in love’ wannabe husband to ‘kidnap’ the love of his life and after a month or so, call the girl’s father to beg for forgiveness and acceptance!  I use the term ‘kidnap’ as loosely as possible because of the way it was done in the old days, and of course, the girl has obviously given her consent!

Once the çay and sweets have been served, and hands are shaken and backs are patted and cheeks are kissed, the next step is planning the engagement, called Nishan, where an engagement ring is presented with accompanying gifts like matching earrings and a necklace, which is called Xoncha. Finally, the formal wedding celebration can be prepared a few months later, which is called the Toy.

Unlike the western tradition, where the groom only sees his bride moments before their wedding service, the Azerbaijani couple meet together in the morning, and after the groom has managed to calm his heart-rate down – because his bride has turned into a Hollywood movie star, and oh my goodness, do these ladies look absolutely stunning!! – then they have the option to have their photographs taken at the parents’ houses before the wedding. An Azerbaijani bride’s wedding gown is always beautiful and dazzling, with a red ribbon tied around her waist (usually by her brother) to demonstrate her ‘purity’.

A heart-felt tradition is where the mother of the groom will dip a piece of bread in honey and feed it to the bride and groom as a symbol to signify the sweetness of their marriage to come.

After many, many, many photographs later, the couple sit together in a car that will take them to the wedding palace. But this is no ordinary car ride, no, no. A car will drive in front of them, with the boot flung wide open with a filmographer hanging out the back, filming the entire journey. Many a time have I seen a man hanging out the back of the car, as his assistant clings on to him for support to ensure a bump in the road doesn’t fling him onto the wedding car’s bonnet, as he strains to capture every precious moment.

Once the simple marriage vows are shared and registers have been signed, that is when the party begins. The newly married couple usually sit together on their own front table as waiters feed and water them, guests take turns to stand next to them for photographs, and short, entertaining speeches are made. The food is an amazing display of meats and salads, and traditional Azerbaijani dishes like rice pilaf and dolma (vegetables or meat wrapped in vine leaves) as the waiters fill up your plate again and again, at least until you’re begging them to stop. As an added note, there is an expectation to tip your waiter when you leave, and rightly so, as they spend their entire evening ensuring all guests are happy and full to the brim. Although you will see mostly non-alcoholic drinks like compote or other juices, vodka is also available as you see family members make up their own speeches for the guests on each table taking a shot of vodka with every ‘sherefe’ which means ‘cheers’.

Needless to say, many speeches are made! Photographers armed with cameras and video-cameras capture your every movement, and you can’t help but feel like a film-star when you spot yourself on the TV monitors all around the wedding palace. They will then be back a mere 30 minutes later with a handful of your photographs as you’re expected to pay the photographer for the honour of his art.  Bear in mind, you will not be disappointed. 

Then the dancing begins; and let me warn you, the Music. Is. Loud.  It is a wonder that every guest does not suffer with tinnitus (a persistent ringing in the ears) by the age of 40. You think you’ve heard loud before? Attended many a disco in your youth? Wait until you’ve gone to an Azerbaijani wedding. And it’s not just the sheer volume that will cause you to gaze in wonder, but the dancing! Oh, the dancing!

If you get a chance to train your arms with water buckets in each hand before you go, then I would suggest this technique because you should really prepare yourself. Because, interestingly, everyone dances in the exact same way…with their arms extended and their heads up. For every single dance. Azerbaijanii folk-dances are full of history and tradition; soft and slow, flowy and graceful movements as you sway from side to side. If you’re really lucky, a team of Lezghi dancers will turn up and amaze you with their male solo dance with swords, as the strong and sharp movements of the eagle are performed as they whoop and drop to their knees, and spin so fast it makes you feel dizzy. 

After several hours of drinking and dancing and celebrating, ensure you don’t leave without a present for the new bride and groom.  Gift-giving is generally each guest filling an envelope with money and putting it in a special box, which is taken out at the end of the evening by family members to pay for the wedding palace.

After the wedding, and naturally the honeymoon, it is totally normal practice for the wife to move in with her husband and his parents, as she assists her new mother-in-law with the upkeep of their home (which also includes the added bonus of a live-in Nanny for their upcoming children!) or if they can afford it, they will move into their own home which is usually paid for by the parents.

All in all, it is a wondrous affair and a great start to the celebration of married life. I’ve said it before and I will say it again – there is no wedding like an Azerbaijani wedding!