Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Art in Bahrain is like a snapshot representation of the Middle East. The architecture is characterized by geometric designs which are seen in many Islam-inspired buildings. Many buildings contain arches that come to a point at the top, whether it be doorways or windows or just decorative designs. Depending on where these beautiful building designs are located within the building, their architectural designs may also be created for a more practical reason: naturally cooling the home in the intense heats of the summer. One building that utilizes this technology is the Bahrain World Trade Center building, a twin tower that I think is shaped like a sailboat with three huge wind turbines in between the two towers. The building and these turbines are strategically placed to best tap into the massive amounts of wind energy to provide power to the entire building. To me, it's a great sign of renewable energy.

Bahrainis have also carved their niche in painting, sculpture, pottery, handicrafts, photography, as well as other mediums. Like many East Asian countries like Japan and China, calligraphy is also an old art form. Some of the styles and techniques used reminds me of pinstriping (something I'm desperately trying to learn, if it wasn't so humid). Some artists incorporate different colors to add dimension to their work.

At one time, before oil became king in Bahrain, the natural pearl industry here produced some of the world's most coveted pearls. Some think it may be because of the fresh water that mixes with the salt water in the waters around the islands of Bahrain. The industry today has decreased a lot in size since its glory days, but pearl jewelry and other decorative textiles using pearls are still popular in Bahrain.

Traditional literature in Bahrain tends to follow a classical Arabic style. Poetry is immensely popular. A few contemporary poets include Qassim Haddad, Ibrahim al'Urayyid, and Ahmad Muhammed al Khalifah. Some of the younger writers tend to be more influenced by Western free verse and other styles.

One poet that I liked is Qassim Haddad. He is an influential poet on Bahraini literature and is the founder of the Bahraini Writers' Union. (His son Muhammad Haddad is a notable film composer.) His metaphoric style forces the reader to see other meanings in the words, or to look at it from a different angle, usually looking backwards. I found some excerpts of some poems, but I really like this line from Haddam: "Wine in half the cup, the other half was not empty; it was lost in ecstasy." Ok, here are a couple others: "Be prepared... the past is coming," "I write about love the way a child draws his impressions of adulthood," and finally I'll leave off with "To write is to breathe unused air." 

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, July 29, 2012


Prior to 2006, the weekend was normally on Thursdays and Fridays, but they switched to having their weekends on Fridays and Saturdays so that they could have one weekend day in common with most of the rest of the world. Probably for business and commerce purposes most likely, I'm thinking.

New Years Day. January 1. Like much of the rest of the world, the atmosphere is that of a huge party. People will gather for parties at hotels or night clubs until the early hours of the morning. Many people gather to watch fireworks, especially on the piers overlooking the waters of the Persian Gulf.

Labour Day. May 1. Labour Day usually has a parade and honors good workers. Many labor and business leaders will give speeches, and there are workshops aimed towards labor issues, such as unemployment and minimum wage.

National Day. December 16. A day to commemorate Bahrain's independence from Great Britain in 1971. Actually, the day of independence was on August 15, but they use this day to coincide with the coronation of Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa. Most people celebrate the day with family and friends and with fireworks in the evening.

Accession Day. December 17. Accession Day is something new for me. It refers to the day the new monarch takes over from the old one. People will decorate buildings and some put up pictures of the royal family.

Islamic New Year. 1st Muharram. There's usually a ban on alcohol in many places during this time. Many people will follow in a muharram procession with drums throughout the city streets.

Day of Ashura. 9th, 10th Muharram. Ashura is a holiday on the day long considered to be the day when Noah's Ark landed. They also include this as the day the Ka'ba in Mecca was built as well as Abraham's birthday.

Prophet Muhammad's Birthday. 12th Rabiul Awwal. Also coincides with Milad al-Nabi. Even though Sunni and Shia will celebrate the holiday on slightly different days, it's still filled with parades, storytelling, and decorations.

Little Feast. 1st, 2nd, 3rd Shawwal. Celebrates the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. Little Feast is celebrated with a lot of food shared with family and friends. Also known as Eid al-Fitr.

Arafat Day. 9th Zulhijjah. Approximately 70 days after the end of Ramadan, this celebration coincides with the 2nd day of the hajj (or pilgrimmage). There are special vendors serving free hot and cold drinks as well as food prepared in large pots.

Feast of the Sacrifice. 10th, 11th, 12th Zulhijjah. Also known as Eid al-Adha, it's a festival surrounding the willingness Abraham made to kill his only son because God/Allah had commanded him to. (He stopped him just before he went through with it.) Also known as The Big Feast, Muslims now will slaughter an animal and keep 1/3 for themselves, give 1/3 to friends or family and donate 1/3 to the poor.

Up next: art and literature

Friday, July 27, 2012


Off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, lie a group of islands tethered to the mainland by a single bridge. These 33 islands together are known as the Kingdom of Bahrain.

This island nation is in the middle of an area that is rich with oil which is a major contributing factor to how Bahrain has a really high income economy. But in recent years, they have expanded their interests into the banking industry as well as tourism. The Bahrainis are also famous for their coveted pearl industry.

The islands of Bahrain have been controlled by many different invading groups of peoples through the centuries, from various Persian empires to the Portuguese and eventually the British, though it has been considered to be the original lands of the ancient Dilmun civilization.

The name "Bahrain" itself means "the two seas," but it's not exactly clear as to which two seas the name referred to. Originally, the Arabs called these islands as Awal (not to be confused with AWOL or the band AWOLnation). The seas may refer to both sides of the islands or the fact there's fresh water that comes up in the middle of the salt water.

Bahrain may be familiar to some, especially for race fans or anyone who lives with race fans like I do, as the location of the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix which is held at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir. The inaugural Grand Prix race in 2004 was the first of its kind in the Middle East.

The capital of Bahrain is Manama. (And I can never read or say its name without thinking of the Sesame Street song "Mahna-mahna.") It's the largest city in the country, with a metro population of around 330,000 people. The country is divided into five governorates (which are similar to states or prefectures), and Manama is in the Capital Governorate. (Makes sense.) It has long been a center for trading, shipping, and commerce.

Arabic is the official language spoken in Bahrain, but English, Farsi, and Urdu are also spoken and used.

The vast majority of Bahrainis practice Islam (both Shia and Sunni), while there is a small percentage of Christians and other religions practiced as well. It's widely accepted that Bahrainis are more tolerant of other religious practices than other countries in the region. They are also known for supporting women's rights, yet still practically ignore LGBT rights.

Much of Bahrain's culture is similar to other cultures in this region, but with subtle differences that make it their own. I think this country will pleasantly surprise me in its isolated uniqueness.

[Note: I'm distraught to find that my Macbook Pro has a bad logic board. I don't know what that is, but "bad" and "logic" together in the same sentence is never good. So, the posts on Bahrain this week will come via my iPhone. My apologies in advance for missing links on resources, fewer pictures that aren't embedded in the text, and no videos. Hopefully, it'll get fixed soon. If only I could find someone to do it without giving up my firstborn child as an indentured servant.]

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

Sunday, July 22, 2012


I actually started these recipes on Friday night with a popular Bahamian drink called Sky Juice. Sky Juice starts out with gin (I used Bombay Sapphire at the recommendation of my husband), add some sweetened condensed milk and some coconut water. I actually used Sobe Pacific Coconut with coconut water. It's a little stronger than regular coconut water. I loved this drink so much, I drank 2 glasses on Friday and 3 glasses on Saturday night. I was a little curious as to why they used gin instead of rum which is so prevalent in the Caribbean. But if you look at where most gin is manufactured, it's in England, Ireland, Scotland, other northern European countries, the US, etc. So, it makes sense seeing how the British controlled the Bahamas for so long that they would have grown a taste for and had access to gin.

I started today off with the bread, a Bahamian coconut bread. I actually made my own coconut milk by pouring boiling water onto sweetened coconut flakes. It called for yeast, but it never really rose very much at all. I did stray from the recipe in the fact that I threw the coconut flakes into the dough (I certainly didn't want them to go to waste), and I added a teaspoon of vanilla extract to it. I put it in the loaf pan and let it sit a little more before putting it into the oven for 45 minutes. It looks beautiful, and the taste is spectacular. The outside is hard and crusty, while the inside is soft and warm with hints of vanilla and coconut. It would pair well with a dark roast cup of coffee, a Coast Rican or Sumatra perhaps, or even a smoother kona blend.

Next came the peas and rice. The peas used aren't the green sweet peas most people think of. These were pigeon peas, sometimes substituted with the more common black-eyed pea. It's then mixed with bacon, onions, celery, tomatoes, and rice, and then it's boiled down until all the liquid is absorbed. It was so good. The little bit of allspice really brought out the subtleties of all the flavors: like the sweet-savory dichotomy we had when we did Algerian food.

Now we come to the main dish: chicken souse. The chicken is first washed in vinegar and boiled. Then it's rinsed in cool water (not the cologne) and lemon juice. It's put back in a pot of water along with onions, celery, limes, lemon juice, a little salt and pepper and it's all boiled together. Carrots and potatoes are added later.

I served the chicken souse on top of a bed of peas and rice. The chicken was so tender, it fell right off the bone; the acidity of the limes mixed in with the hearty comfort food feel of the peas and rice. While there weren't many actual spices used (I had to fight myself not to add cumin, turmeric, or cayenne pepper), the boiling of everything together in one pot creates its own flavor. They use ingredients that have strong flavors in order to extract those upon boiling. This meal used simple ingredients (I went on a scavenger hunt in Meijer to find the pigeon peas, though. It was in the Hispanic section), but it was certainly a meal that would be a welcome sight after a hard day's work.

Up next: Bahrain

Friday, July 20, 2012


Music in the Bahamas has a strong African and Caribbean influence on it. But it’s also influenced by various folk music traditions and the hip/hop scene from the US as well.

The most commonly associated musical genre associated with the Bahamas is Junkanoo. It’s a street parade, in similar fashion to that of Carnival or Mardi Gras. The people dress in wildly elaborate and colorful costumes. Much of the music is similar to a marching band style, consisting mostly of brass instruments (as a French horn/mellophone player, this makes it the ideal marching band) and percussion. It’s thought that this type of festival started during the 1700s and 1800s by slaves that were granted time around Christmas to spend with their families. Junkanoo continued even after they were granted their freedom, except now it has been expanded to contain themes and prizes, etc.

With every junkanoo, the foundation of the music is based on goombay drums (a drum with a goatskin head that’s held between the legs and played with either hands or sticks; goombay, incidentally, also means rhythm in Bantu), cow bells, and mouth whistles. Some tend to think that the brass section actually accompanies the rhythm section, not the other way around as many people listen to music would perceive. (Some percussionist probably thought that up.)

Rake-and-scrape is a type of music that is popular in the Bahamas, especially on Cat Island where they hold a rake-and-scrape festival every Labor Day. Related to the ripsaw music of nearby Turks and Caicos islands, rake-and-scrape consists of using a saw is scraped by some object, a knife blade being most common. The sounds produced mimic other percussion instruments that are found more commonly in Latin or Indian music. It takes a little bit for them to get started, but just bear with it. 

Folk music from freed African Americans that emigrated to the Bahamas is also popular. One of the steadfast “fathers” of folk music is Joseph Spence. He’s been called the Thelonious Monk of the folk guitar. His polyphonic playing style and blend of gospel music, folk music, and even blues reaches across all demographics. I love his music from the first that I heard it. Definitely on my must-buy list. There are several albums and compilations on iTunes, mostly for around $10.

And of course, probably the most famous group in recent years is The Baha Men, giving us the song I love to hate: “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (only because it’s catchy, and in my daughter’s opinion of the music video: “That. Was. Awesome!”).  I even, in my effort to be fair and listen to it from a musicologist’s point of view, did in fact listen to most of the album, and, yes, there are other catchy songs that feed my earworm as well. (There are things you do as a parent that you never thought you'd do before having kids. Singing about poop is one. Posting this song is another. This is for my kids.)

Two dances that are popular with rake-and-scrape music are the Bahamian Quadrille and the Heel and Toe Polka. The quadrille and polka are actually both European dances, and the Bahamians created their African version of it. It's comprised of two lines, both males and females, where they come together, then separate. The key focal point of the quadrille is that the male dancer will stomp his foot on the ground at the same time as a syncopated slap from the goombay. During the junkanoo parades, you’ll often find more upbeat dancing, such as the jump-in-dance.

There aren’t many videos on YouTube about these dances specifically in the Bahamas, except junkanoo (the next time anyone in the Bahamas sees the other dances performed, please videotape it and put it on YouTube, for the sake of all humanity), although these dances are popular in variations throughout the Caribbean.

Up next: the food!

Wikipedia: “Ripsaw Music” “Junkanoo” “Joseph Spence”
Bahamian Quadrille: The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The United States and Canada. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


If there’s one word that can describe the cultural arts of The Bahamas, it would be vibrant. They put 110% into everything they do, adding life and color to the world around them.

When it comes to visual arts, there are several types of art you’ll find most common. Straw weaving goes back centuries to when they depended on the baskets and hats they made for day-to-day life. Baskets were necessary to carry fruits and fish and to store other dry goods. There is a particular method of weaving that makes them fairly sturdy. Across the islands, they all use the same methods of plaiting the straw, mostly from the silver palm. These methods have been passed down from generation to generation. Today, these straw goods are made mainly for tourists. I don't care -- this bag is cold!

The gorgeous landscape attracts many artists from all over the world, making it a haven for canvas painting. Some of the more famous painters to come from The Bahamas are Amos Ferguson, Eddie Minnis, Brent Malone, Jackson Burnside, John Beadle, and John Cox. Several of these artists also do sculpting and other mediums/styles.

I love this painting by Brent Malone. If you look close, you see both the conch shell and the person. 
Hand-carved stones and coral are also quite popular in The Bahamas. All of the pieces used are pieces of stone and coral that have broken apart from natural causes (erosion, etc.). These stones and coral are carved into sculptures, figurines, candle holders, jewelry, etc. Shell jewelry is also common, mostly from conch and some others.

Storytelling has been popular in The Bahamas and has its roots in African culture. It was especially popular before television became available in most households. Storytelling, like straw weaving, is passed down to the younger listeners. Many of the stories come from folklore. One common folklore figure is that of around Pretty Molly Bay. There are several stories that surround her, which range from a white woman who turns into a mermaid to a woman who haunts the beaches of Little Exuma Island. Other folklore stories involve “chickcharnies,” a tree-dwelling sprite, described as having three toes and red eyes. It’s said that they will hang upside down and reach down to turn your head backwards. I'm pretty sure I run into one every Monday. It's obviously the only explanation some days. 

There are a few notable Bahamian writers that have marked their way. One notable writer is Paul Albury. He is instrumental in writing about the history of the Bahamas. Dr. Gail Saunders is another historian from the Bahamas.  Susan J. Wallace writes about Bahamian folklore among other topics. Ian Strachan is a professor of English and has shown success as a novelist and playwright. Sidney Poitier not only is an exceptional actor but has also written several books.

Up next: music and dance

Wikipedia: “Culture of The Bahamas” "Sidney Poitier"

Monday, July 16, 2012


Public holidays are few, but there are many other local celebrations that fill the year.

New Year’s Day.  January 1. On New Year’s Eve, many people will relax on the beach with friends and family.  Towards evening is when everyone gathers together and massive parties start. Nightclubs, pubs, bars, and hotels become packed with people drinking and music and dancing fills the streets. During this time is the famous Junkanoo festival. The festival, most widely thought to be named after John Canoe, an African tribal leader who demanded that they be allowed to celebrate with his people, even as slaves. There are several other theories as to the etymology of the name. The festival itself and the costumes are a celebration of being set free. (We’ll come back to junkanoo in more detail when we get to music and dance.) There’s also a famous regatta that takes place on Montago Bay.

Good Friday.  Varies. The vast majority of Bahamians belong to some denomination of Christianity, so many churches will hold services in the evening for Good Friday. Many people will eat fish for their main meal during the day.

Easter.  Varies. Many churches will gather for sunrise services on the beach or other outside venue. People wear their best clothes, and like the British or many older African Americans, elaborate hats are the must-have for the older women of the congregation. Various kinds of seafood and a plethora of other dishes and desserts are commonly eaten during this time.

Easter Monday.  Varies. Traditionally, Easter Monday marks the beginning of the Beach Picnic season. The fact that there’s a Beach Picnic season already scores points in my book.

Whit Monday. Varies. This day marks the beginning of Pentecost, follows 50 days after Easter.

Labor Day.  May 4. While most people enjoy the beaches and have picnics, there are a series of parades featuring local businesses and labor organizations, some junkanoo bands will come out, and the parade ends with a gathering to listen to speeches from some of the key government and labor organization members.

Independence Day. July 10.  We just passed their Independence Day less than a week ago. This day marks The Bahamas’ independence from Great Britain in 1973. There are a lot of parades and a general party feel on all of the islands. There will also be junkanoo parades during this time as well.

Emancipation Day. August 2.  This is a day that celebrates the emancipation of the slaves. For The Bahamas, emancipation came about three decades earlier than the United States: Great Britain emancipated its slaves in The Bahamas in 1834. Most of the former slaves stayed and many eventually became successful landowners. 

Discovery Day/Columbus Day. October 11. This commemorates when Christopher Columbus landed on The Bahamas. The natives called it Guanahani, but it’s still contested as to which island it is exactly.

Christmas Day. December 25. Bahamians celebrate Christmas in much of the same way that many of Christian nations celebrate it, with Christmas dinners, spending time with family and Christmas parties and such. One tradition that is unique to the Bahamas is that there are junkanoo parades that people will flock to.

Boxing Day. December 27. Boxing Day is celebrated in different ways in different countries. The Bahamas will generally have junkanoo parades for Boxing Day as well. This music and dance festival/parade generally will last from Christmas to New Years, with Boxing Day in the middle.

Up next: Art and Literature

Wikipedia: “Public Holidays” “Junkanoo” “Discovery Day”
Good Friday, Easter Monday, Labor Day: http://www.bahamasb2b.com/community/calendar.html

Saturday, July 14, 2012


Sun, blue-green sea, island breezes. Almost perfect (minus the occasional hurricane or tropical storm). The Bahamas are a Caribbean island nation that is southeast of the state of Florida in the United States and northeast of the island of Cuba.

It’s only one of two countries [in English] that start with the word “The.” (The Gambia, being the other one.) It’s somewhat vague as to the origin of the word “Bahama.” Some think it may be from the Spanish baja mar, meaning “low tide or short sea.” Others think it may be from a Lucayan word (the original peoples) ba-ha-ma, meaning “large upper middle land.”

The Bahamas are where it’s widely thought that Christopher Columbus first landed in the Western Hemisphere. Even though he named the island where he landed San Salvador (that the natives already called it Guanahani), it’s not clear which island it is exactly.

The Bahamas were once colonized by the British, which is why their official language is English, even though a Haitian Creole is spoken among the Haitians who live there. The British used the area as stop in the slave trade (which many stayed after being freed), and many freed African Americans also settled in The Bahamas after their emancipation. 

Today, The Bahamas make most of their wealth through two things: tourism and international banking. Between the two, The Bahamas is one of the richest countries in the Northern Hemisphere (behind the United States and Canada). There isn’t much land space available for farming and only small amount of manufacturing, so the majority of jobs available are in the tourism field or banking industry. That being said, they still have an unemployment rate of around 14%.
The capital, Nassau, was once burned to the ground by the Spanish but later rebuilt and named after William III from the House of Orange-Nassau (in the Netherlands). Not only was it a center for its rudimentary government, but it was also used as a refuge for pirates, including the infamous Blackbeard.  With a population of around 249,000, Nassau is a little larger than St. Petersburg, Florida.  It’s famous for its year-end festival called Junkanoo, a wild costume-ridden, music-and-dance-filled celebration that rivals Carnival or Mardi Gras.

My suggestion is to sit back with some rum or coconut water (or both), let the breezes flow through your hair (which in my case is a box fan blowing the humidity around), and relax as we go through Bahamian culture together.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

Wikipedia: “The Bahamas” “Christopher Columbus” “Nassau, Bahamas” “List of United States Cities by Populations”
CIA World Factbook: The Bahamas

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Ah… this was the perfect summer meal. And we’ve been having quite a summer so far! We’ve had 4-5 days in the past week where temperatures hit over 100 degrees in Indianapolis. You know it’s hot when the temperatures drop over 10 degrees, and you still top out at 92.

This past week we celebrated the 4th of July, and because it was so hot, we decided to bring dishes that wouldn’t require using the oven. So, I came across the Fountains Square chicken salad, named after a popular section of Baku. It immediately caught my attention because I live just south of the Fountain Square cultural neighborhood in Indianapolis.  This chicken salad adds diced cucumbers, tomatoes and parsley to the diced chicken and mayonnaise. I, however, minced one clove of garlic and added some smoked paprika to it, so I hope the people from Fountains Square don’t mind! (Because it was awesome!)

Chicken salad filled with awesome. The smoked paprika did it: they need to just go ahead and write it into the recipe. 
 Today’s bread is tandir choreyi, or sometimes called tandoori bread. It’s a very yeasty bread which makes it smell wonderful, and I got the crumb just right. Even the kids thought it was one of the best parts of the meal. There was a lot of rest time with periodic kneading in between. The one key difference in this bread than the other breads I’ve made so far is that this one used a yogurt glaze (1 tablespoon of plain yogurt – I used a Greek yogurt – to 3 tablespoons of water) on top, and I sprinkled the top with sesame seeds. Even though my husband hates “debris” on his bread, I used them anyway, and he ate it, and he liked it. So there. (But you know if I bring it up, he'll say "Oh, I noticed, I just chose not to say anything.") Luckily, it only had to bake in the oven for about 15 minutes or so. It will go nicely with the chai spice tea I just bought. Tea is really popular in Azerbaijan, as well as throughout this region, but I think they use more of a black tea.

The bread I've dreamed of only in dreams. Yes, I do dream about bread. 
One of the most common recipes I kept coming across as a national dish was plov. It calls for basmati rice (for which I realized I only had jasmine rice on hand) and lots of butter. It’s topped with saffron-infused water. At the bottom of the pot is a piece of flat bread. It called for lavash, but all I had on hand was a pita. It still turned out absolutely delicious! At different times of the year, other ingredients are added, like locals fruits (apricots, raisins, etc.) during the summer or other bolder spices during the winter.
This picture does no justice to how it melts in your mouth and comforts your soul.
 I decided to go with kebabs. I went with both lamb (to my friend’s chagrin) and chicken. Both were interlaced with pieces of onion (I substituted Vidalia onions instead of red onions). I got my husband to start to grill, something we’ve been avoiding in the past weeks because we weren’t sure if using grills were part of the burn ban. (We still weren’t sure, but we did it anyway.) Both recipes called for sumac, but I couldn’t find it, so I made a lemon-sea salt mixture. After they came off the grill, I applied the lemon-salt mixture to the chicken, and I used a pomegranate sauce I found onto the lamb. Move over Thai peanut sauce and red-wine gravy, I think we have a new contender for the Favorite Sauce Contest.

You know that looks good. I could probably eat this whole picture by myself. 
Lastly, we needed some vegetables. The cucumber-tomato salad was the perfect answer to this summer meal. Obviously there are diced cucumbers and tomatoes, but there is also a little diced green pepper and some onion. I added parsley flakes, some cilantro (not called for in the recipe), a touch of cardamom (also not called for) and a liberal amount of ground coriander. I drizzled olive oil on top of it as well as a small amount of balsamic vinegar (not called for, but I feel it goes with olive oil better than Popeye does.) The key part is to let it sit for a while and let the flavors mesh. A couple hours should do it.

You know what would make this better? Garbanzo beans. 
 I’ve noticed that after each meal, I will usually say something to the effect that it was incredible and really good, and can it get better than that, and so on. But this time… Well, ok, you’re right: that’s exactly what I was gonna say. There’s no other way around it. It WAS incredible and really good. If there’s one thing that I’ve taken away from this meal is that if THAT’S the kind of bread they have, it’s no wonder that bread is a staple to their culture. I’d eat it with every meal too. 

The final product. I really just want some more now. And I'm not even hungry. But that shouldn't matter, should it?
Up next: Bahamas

Toyug chicken kebab: http://www.news.az/recipes/27648
Azerbaijani Fountains Square salad (favvaralar meydani salati): http://www.news.az/recipes/27252
Tomato and cucumber salad (Çoban salati): http://www.news.az/recipes/29236

Friday, July 6, 2012


One of the most important musical styles of Azerbaijan is that of the mugham. It’s basically a long segment of sung poetry with musical interludes between the segments.  They will also utilize a form of yodeling as well. The poems these are based off of are most about a divine love that is often sourced from Sufism and originated in Iran.

Some of the common instruments you’ll find in Azerbaijani music are the tar (a type of lute with a double bowl), kamancha (a bowed string instrument similar to the rebab), the oud (a short-necked lute), and the saz (a long-necked lute). There are also a number of drums that are used: naghara (cylindrical double-faced drum), goshe nagara (pair of small kettle drums), ghaval (frame drum), daf (another type of frame drum), and the nagara (a barrel drum).

I found this video of the ashik style music. I believe what the performer is using is a saz (please correct me if I’m wrong here). You can definitely hear the “yodeling” style when he sings, although there are times when it's almost sung-spoke. Although I have no idea what he’s singing about, at times I get the feeling he’s the Bob Dylan of Azerbaijan.

It was somewhat harder to find current popular musicians. This year the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Baku, and I did find a singer named Emin Agalarov. (Spotify, I'm wagging my finger at you for not having any of his stuff.) This video is of the finals from the 2012 Eurovision and showcases some of the mugham concepts mentioned above as well as showcasing current pop music. You’ll be able to pick out some of the instruments mentioned as well as the drums.

Azerbaijan has a number of folk dances that have developed over the past centuries as part of its national culture. Asma Kasma is one of the oldest dances, one that’s used when the people escort a bride to the groom’s home. It’s generally somewhat slow and includes a lot of exaggerated jumps.

The Halay (also called Yalli in Azerbaijan) is a dance that’s centered around fire. Fire is and has been an important symbol in Azerbaijani history. It starts out slow, but speeds up to where the steps are almost running.

The Uzundara is a slow, attractive dance danced solely by women. It’s origins lie in the Karabakh region and traditionally is danced and sung while the bride and groom are away. It reminds me a little of ballet at times. 

The Zorkhana is a men-only dance that is used to signify courage and valor. However, this video made me smile. Perhaps the courage and valor comes in the form of actually getting the guts to go out there and dance. To all the nerdy guys at frat parties in college we laughed at because we thought they couldn't dance, well, apparently they one-upped us: they were beyond us all the whole time dancing the zorkhana. 

Up next: the food!

Wikipedia: “Music of Azerbaijan” “Dances of Azerbaijan” “Mugham” 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


One of the most important art forms in Azerbaijan, and in that entire region, is in carpet weaving. I had mentioned carpet weaving when I wrote on neighboring Armenia. Azerbaijani carpets do have certain style changes that are indicative of the different eras and different regions. Different ornamentations have different meanings in them as well. Some of the wealthier people have had pearls and gems sewn into the carpet. Many of these carpets were woven with silk. These carpets were not only used for practical purposes, such as coverings for furniture or the floor, but there were also used to decorate the walls on the home as well.

In Azerbaijan, there are different schools of carpet weaving. There are seven, actually, that are spread throughout the country. Each location has a slightly different style of weaving and the designs and ornamentations used for it.

Architecture in Azerbaijan is a mixture of East and West, of modern and ancient. There are several buildings that have been maintained since antiquity, such as the Maiden Towers (which reminds me of Rapunzel's tower with an offshoot) and Palace of the Shirvanshahs, and many of these are of Persian origin.  When the Russians took control of the area, you will start to see many buildings and homes, as well as city planning, with Russian architectural style.

Azerbaijanis also have a lot of jewelry art and handicrafts, metal work, wood work, and stone cutting work.

Some of the oldest art is found at the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, a collection of more than 6000 rock art drawings and cave art found.  This area has been counted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The earliest forms of Azerbaijani literature are in the form of poetry, more specifically a ghazal (a type of poetry consisting of rhyming couplets and refrains). The early forms are closer in style to Persian and Turkish styles.  One of the most notable lyrical poets is a woman by the name of Khurshidbanu Natavan.  She was from the city of Shusha in the Karabakh region where her father was the last ruler of that area. Not only was she popular in literary circles, her family also had a big name in raising Karabakh horses.

Another early find is the book of Dede Qorqud is a collection of twelve stories that were copied by Oghuz nomads. It’s a set of two manuscripts that were copied during the 16th century, but scholars have reason to believe it may have been a little earlier.

During the 16th century, the art form called Ashik became popular. Ashik is like a traveling, singing bard, not terribly different from the troubadours in France and other areas of Europe around this time. One of the popular stories that are told/sang in the Ashik style is that of the Epic of Köroğlu, a Robin Hood-like character.

Under Soviet rule, writers (as well as other artists) who didn’t adhere to their standards of what is acceptable often found missing, persecuted, or even killed. However, there were some writers who did keep writing: Mahammid Hadi, Abbas Sahhat, Huseyn Javid, Adbullah Shaig, Jafar Jabbarly, Mikayil Mushfig. After Stalin’s death, this strictness over censorship was slowly lifted, and writers could write freely again.

Up next: Music and Dance

Wikipedia: “Architecture of Azerbaijan” “Folk Art of Azerbaijan” “Khurshidbanu Natavan” “Literature of Azerbaijan”

Monday, July 2, 2012


Because Azerbaijan is a secular nation, there are very few holidays that are religious based. The majority of holidays and celebrations are based on historical events and cultural events.

New Years Day. January 1-2.  Even though the majority of people consider themselves Muslim, New Years traditions in Azerbaijan are similar in many ways to Christmas celebrations elsewhere.  They have their own version of Santa Claus who comes on New Year’s Eve to bring children presents. People will cook and clean all day in preparation for the celebration. Family and friends will gather in the evenings for music and dancing and fireworks celebrations.

Martyr’s Day. January 20. In memory of those who were killed in the Black January events.  It was a violent response from the Soviets against those Azerbaijanis who were standing up against them for independence. There are some discrepancies in the numbers, but some reports claim that 93 Azerbaijanis and 29 Soviets died, as well as 90 wounded in the fighting.

International Women’s Day. March 8. Women in Azerbaijan are technically included to be equal in the country, but in reality, it’s more than likely not the case entirely. Women’s Day was adopted in Azerbaijan as a means of building up women’s rights and presenting other women’s issues at hand.

Spring Festival/Novruz. March 19-27. The holiday lasts five full working days, plus the two weekends surrounding it. It originally came from Iran, where it was considered the beginning of the year. It’s now part of a Spring festival. People celebrate each of the four elements: earth, wind, fire, water. They plant trees and plants, make new clothes, sing, dance, and eat several different types of national dishes.

Victory Day. May 9. It’s to celebrate victory over the Nazi forces. Azerbaijanis fought alongside the Russian forces. There are a lot of memorial services around this time.

Republic Day. May 28. It’s the day that Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic.

National Salvation Day. June 15. It’s the holiday to celebrate the return of President Haydar Aliyev from the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic back to Baku in 1993. He’s considered by many as the “Great Rescuer” of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan Armed Forces Day. June 26. This is in honor of their military forces.

Flag Day. November 9. A day to honor the flag. The Azerbaijani flag consists of three stripes, blue on top, red in the middle, and green on the bottom. There’s a white crescent and an eight-pointed star in the middle of the red stripe.

International Solidarity Day. December 31. It’s a holiday that celebrates the solidarity and coming together of Azerbaijanis all across the world.

Ramazan Bayram. Varies. Ramazan Bayram is the Azerbaijani term for the Muslim holiday of Eid al Fitr. This is the holiday that is celebrated with vast feasts after the fasting month of Ramadan.

Gurban bayram. Varies. It’s the Festival of Sacrifice. It’s also known as Eid al-Adha in Arabic. During this time, many people will make pilgrimages. People who don’t travel will often sacrifice an animal and give part of its meat to the needy.

There are a number of other holidays that are celebrated but are still considered normal working days:  Day of Azerbaijani Customs (January 30), Day of Youth in Azerbaijan (February 2), Day of Revenue Service (February 11), Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Khojaly Massacre (February 26), Day of Physical Culture and Sport (March 5), Day of Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (March 23), Day of National Security (March 28), Day of Genocide of Azerbaijanis (March 31), Day of the Builder (April 10), Flower Festival (May 10), Day of Civil Aviation (June 2), Day Reclamation (June 5), Human Rights Day (June 18), Day of the Gas Sector (June 20), Day of Azerbaijani Police (July 2), Day of the Employees of Diplomatic Service (July 9), National Press Day (July 22), Day of Azerbaijani language and alphabet (August 1), National Day of Azerbaijani cinema (August 2), Day of Knowledge (September 15), Day of National Music (September 18), Day of Azerbaijani Oil (September 20), Day of Prosecutors in Azerbaijan (October 1), Day of Azerbaijani Railroads (October 13), Independence Day from Soviet Union (October 18), Day of Baku Metro (November 8), Constitution Day (November 12), Day of Justice of Azerbaijan (November 22), Day of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (December 6), Day of Ministry of Emergency Situations (December 16)

Up next: Art and Literature

Wikipedia: “Public holidays in Azerbaijan” “Black January” “Novruz in Azerbaijan” “Republic Day”