Azerbaijani Culture II: Do Azerbaijanis Eat Pork?

In Turkey, it is common to hear about how similar Azerbaijanis are to Turkish people. Azerbaijanis also talk a lot about these similarities, and many Turks and Azerbaijanis alike consider Turks and Azerbaijanis one ethnic group. “We are like brothers,” I’ve heard many say, “we are both Turkic peoples. We understand each other.”

It isn’t a preposterous claim. Azerbaijani is generally mutually intelligible with Turkish, although noticeably different. And like Turkey, Azerbaijan is, ostensibly, a predominately Muslim country. Unlike Turkey, however, Azerbaijan spent over 70 years as part of the Soviet Union and, before that, much of the 19th century as part of the Russian Empire. So when I ask, “really? Are they really the same,” people say things like “Yes, but a little more Soviet. Cool people in Azerbaijan, really. But really very much like Turks.”

The view from my window, a red star hearkening back to Azerbaijan's Soviet past.

The view from my window, a red star hearkening back to Azerbaijan’s Soviet past. The number underneath the star is 1929.

Arriving in Azerbaijan having been fed a great deal about all the similarities, I was expecting Azerbaijan to feel very similar to Turkey. This was not the case. Azerbaijan feels more like Turkey’s cousin than its brother. Observing in which ways it reflects Turkish culture and to what extent time spent as part of two different Russian Empires has influenced the way of life gives rise to some curious situations.

Which brings me to this question: do Azerbaijanis eat pork? In Turkey, I have never seen even the most ardently secular of my friends touch a piece of pig-flesh. Some have told me things like this, “I’m a staunch athiest and I think Islam is a terrible influence on Turkey and the world in general, but I don’t eat pork . . . for cultural reasons.”

In Turkey, I wouldn’t have a clue where to go to get a piece of pork, and although this food anthropologist says that there is one place to go in Istanbul, it’s pretty clear that it’s an out-of-sight out-of-mind kind of dealio. Basically, even though you can buy pork in a very few places in Turkey, it is pretty hush hush and eating or selling it openly might even qualify as a political statement or demonstration of some kind.

(And what kind of sick person would even consider eating pork when it could undermine the most munificent sultan of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan’s, status as the moral conscience of Turkey?)

ANYWAY, I was surprised during my first walk in Azerbaijan to see this shop. In case the pigs on the sign and the porcine carcasses in the window are not enough of a clue for you, the sign says “Pig Meat” in Azerbaijani.

Pork Azerbaijan
I’ll take things you wouldn’t see in Turkey for $100 monsieur Trebek.

Later that day I arrived at my first Azerbaijani grocery store. Looking around the cold cut section for some sucuk, I was astonished by the variety available. As I stood there, I spied an imam shopping the same section a few metres away from me. He picked up different types of sausage, and put them down. I continued perusing the selection and all of a sudden it dawned on me. Some of these sausages had labels in Cyrillic. They were the same sausages that they sell at the Russian store next to my place in Canada. And I was sure that about half of them were made of . . . duh duh duh . . . swine flesh.

I looked around to see if I could see what the imam had chosen in the end, fully prepared for the irony of seeing him drop a nice juicy moskovskaya kielbasa in his basket. Unfortunately, he was gone, probably with some halal option after all.

I started looking at the ingredient labels to confirm my hunch. Turns out that I was right. They sure sell a helluva lot of pork products here in Azerbaijan. After reading a lot of ingredient labels, I can tell you that a bit less than half of the sausage in this picture contains pork, and lots of it was manufactured in Azerbaijan itself.

IMG_3018

That evening, I went out with an Azerbaijani fellow. I wanted to know more about the culture of pork products in Azerbaijan. And so I led with a sure-thing kind of question: “Do Azerbaijanis eat pork?”

He said, “No.”

Then, “Azerbaijan is a Muslim country.”

“Oh,” I said, surprised. “I saw a lot of it around so I thought that they might eat it.” I showed him the picture of the pork butcher I’d seen earlier. He seemed as surprised as I had been at his response. “Where did you find this?!”

“Just…on the road. And I also saw a lot in the grocery store.”

“Well,” he said, “mostly Azerbaijanis don’t eat pork. Only when they’re not paying attention to ingredient labels maybe.”

I didn’t push the issue; I only thought “they must not pay attention a lot judging from the amount of pork on the grocery store shelves.”

I decided to ask somebody else. She said “Well, in our meals we don’t typically eat it, but in sausage we do. Everybody knows that pork makes the best sausage.”

So there. Do Azerbaijanis eat pork? Yes, yes they do. Unless they don’t want to, I suppose, as there are many halal options available. Unlike in Turkey, it is not particularly stigmatized.

 

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