I grew up in Keshla, a historic part of the Azerbaijani capital Baku. As a child, the neighborhood women were a constant presence in my life.
Today, like many traditions that have eroded over time, neighborhoods and neighbors are slowly losing their significance in people’s lives. In a modern city like Baku, people do not spend time with their neighbors; they no longer share interests and hobbies. But even as the idea of the neighborhood fades from people’s lives, the community in Keshla keeps growing stronger.
My family has lived in Keshla since my father's grandfather built a house in this neighborhood. Here, no fences separated the mud houses until about 70 years ago. Later, the neighbors divided their yard with copper wires and then with stone walls. However, the walls did not prevent warm relations between them.
People need social relationships to be able to live a healthy life. When a neighbor cares about you, you feel confidence and comfort. Good neighborly relations mean being together to overcome adversity and sorrow, as well as sharing happiness and joy.
One of my earliest memories was of Tamara Babayeva (Aunt Tamara) bringing goat fat and grape vinegar to bring down my brother Mehman’s fevers. I was just four but for some reason, those episodes pass before my eyes like a colorless film that I watch from afar.
As a young girl, I used to think that since my mother was at work, I could skip school and go to play in the neighborhood before she came home.
Our door to the street was always closed and our keys were at Aunt Tamara’s house.
I would throw my school bag in the yard over the fence, climb the fence into our yard and spend my time at home. At the end of the school day, I would go back over the fence and take the key from Aunt Tamara, as if I had just come from school.
My neighbor Sevil Aliyeva even donated blood to help me overcome anemia. Even today she tells me “My blood is flowing in that girl’s veins.”
Over the years, the women in the neighborhood helped support my family during times of joy and loss. In December, on the year anniversary of my father’s death, our neighbors gathered with the rest of my family to remember his life. Aunt Sevil led the mourning ceremony, helping my mother Elmira Javadova manage the difficult day.
"When Sevil recites the Qur'an, her voice spreads to all the rooms of the house, and those who work in the kitchen stop their work and listen quietly. We, in the neighborhood, often entrust her with organizing the ceremony because she can handle gatherings well,” my mom said.
These women have spent most of their lives in the same neighborhood. Over the past half a century, their lives have become intertwined as they have raised their children together and shared major milestones, from births to deaths.
“There is a saying, ‘If your neighbor is bad, then change your neighborhood.’ Thankfully, in 55 years I have never had a reason to think so. That's what tied me to them. They are good neighbors,” Sevil says.
“Sometimes a person's life is so painful that you don't know how to pull that load, how to get out from under that load. Then you are relieved when you knock on the neighbor's door and be comforted,” says Solmaz.
There is one tradition the women have preserved since they were young: they gather to cook and visit over a cup of tea. The warmest and most sincere conversations take place during these gatherings.
Solmaz Guliyeva is 66 years old. She moved to the neighborhood almost 50 years ago as a young bride. Solmaz has four daughters, several grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She immediately clicked with her neighbors.
“I always tell my children and grandchildren to avoid a relative who harms you and cling to a neighbor who opens your door on a difficult day,” Solmaz says.
“We used to take turns helping each other to wash our carpets. One day we were washing my carpets, the other day Tamara’s carpets, then Sevil’s and so on. But it has become much easier now. They just give a call to a carpet wash, it comes, picks the carpets up, washes it and brings it back.”
“We would not even clean the floors with a mop. Instead, we would get down to our hands and knees and go under those beds and wipe the floor under them every day. Now there is a vacuum cleaner, washing machine. We did not enjoy such comfort. Tamara's yard was large, and everyone took turns drying their clothes on the clothesline in her yard. Tamara used to shout from one yard to another that ‘Solmaz, the clothesline is free,’” Solmaz Guliyeva recalls.
Solmaz remembers how women of all generations worked together and passed on the customs, like making qutab (stuffed flatbread) that held their community together.
“We have inherited these customs from our elders. You could see everyone telling each other in the neighborhood that there was a qutab ceremony planned for today. Some would bring minced beef tripe, others would bring a lot of greens for stuffing ... My mother-in-law would put the rolling board out at the far end of the room and flatten dough. One of us would stuff it with greens, another one with meat and others would seal the edges of qutabs... We used to do this when the men returned from work.”
“We would not even clean the floors with a mop. Instead, we would get down to our hands and knees and go under those beds and wipe the floor under them every day. Now there is a vacuum cleaner, washing machine. We did not enjoy such comfort. Tamara's yard was large, and everyone took turns drying their clothes on the clothesline in her yard. Tamara used to shout from one yard to another that ‘Solmaz, the clothesline is free,’” she recalls.
"Ten years ago, when I was out of the house, my neighbors called and said that there was a fire in the house. The fire started in the living room stove, went to the curtain, and from there to the wooden frame of the windows. By the time we got home, my neighbors had put out the fire. Elshan, the son of Solmaz's sister (Solmaz Javadova), burned his arms [in the process]. The firefighters arrived exactly one hour later. If I didn't have neighbors, I would be homeless. There is a neighbor who throws himself into the fire of your burning house," recalls Nazakat Guliyeva.
“When I moved to the neighborhood, I was very young, a student. The older generation used to say to me, ‘Finally, a doctor came to our neighborhood.’ Relationships are very important to me, I have lived here for about 50 years. For a short while, I moved to an apartment we bought in the city, but I could not adapt to it…There are no warm neighborhoods in apartment buildings. If you have a headache…no one will open the door for you…That's why we couldn't live there for even a year... What could be better than neighbors who open the door for you when you have a headache and bring you medicine and cry when you lose a loved one?”
“A lot has changed in the neighborhood, everyone is addicted to the phone and the internet. You see a kid walking on the street and playing with his phone. He passes by as if he does not see you. You start thinking, ‘I bathed the father of this child when he was an infant, so why did these children grow up like this?’ If you say something to the child, then he teaches you a lesson. Politeness and respect for elders seem to be disappearing day by day," says Khanim Javadova.
Tamara is 84. When she was younger, her husband would not allow her to work outside the home so she cared for her friends’ children when they were at work. In the afternoons, she would visit the houses one by one, checking whose children had come home and who had stayed on the street, making sure they ate a meal and they did their homework.
The dough is flattened, the greens are stuffed, the edges of the qutabs are neatly sealed and sent to the kitchen where Sevil cooks them in a pan. The hot qutabs return to the table with pomegranate, sumac and yogurt, and sweet conversations continue.
Elmira Karbalayeva worries the current generation does not respect the traditions she and her friends have maintained for years. She is especially concerned about traditions of socializing, like the afternoons she and her friends got together to make qutab.
Elmira recalls how nervous she was to move to the neighborhood after her second marriage. But instead, she found a community of women who treated her children as their own. “When I found out that my second husband's house was in the neighborhood, I was worried. I thought that when people saw my child in the neighborhood, they would gossip that ‘someone's son brought a woman with a child to the neighborhood.’ However, the opposite happened, everyone in the neighborhood knew he was from another marriage, but no one told him. At the age of 30, he learned by chance from a completely different place. Who doesn't love such neighbors?!”
Religious rituals are very important for the women. Each of them has visited Hajj, Karbala and Mashhad. When they get together, the trips are the main topic of conversation. When someone dies in the neighborhood, the family counts on Solmaz and Khanim, who roll up their sleeves, make halva, and open the Ehsan table. Elmira and Sevil take turns reciting the Koran.
“At my age, a person spends their days doing mostly nothing. After the noon prayer, I have a habit of visiting Solmaz, Khanim and Elmira [Javadova]. İ have my past in them, I shared my youth with them,” Elmira Karbalayeva recalls.