Women Who "Play" With Fire
As the heat rises to 36 degrees, two women covered from head to toe in soot are working around two tandirs (a cylindrical clay oven used in cooking and baking). One is making a ball of dough, while the other is forcefully stabbing the chickens onto the spits.
When the cover of the oven is opened, the temperature makes you forget the air temperature. Mahira Sovqatova wipes the sweat from her neck with her hands, cracked from the work. Before putting her right hand in the tandir, she covers it with a wool cloth. Every time when she stoops into the oven, her face becomes red. Her eyes become red and she waves her hands to escape the smoke.
She says that she wishes she was sitting with her grandchildren in her house in Astara, South Azerbaijan, telling them fairy tales.
Ethnic Talysh sisters, 62-year-old Mahira and 52-year-old Shargiyya Qasimova, once a year come from the village Masgan in the region of Astara to Baku to earn money. For the last three years, starting from April till September, they come to Pirshagi, a village on the outskirts of Baku located on the coast of the Caspian Sea. People who come to have a rest on the shore, usually stop their car and buy hot bread and levengi (a stuffing made from ground walnuts and dried fruit, typical of the southern Lankaran area, that is the put inside a whole chicken or fish).
Shargiyya Qasimova says that they earn 20 manat (about $US 13) for each 20-kilogram sack of flour used to make bread, and from each levengi, they earn only a 0.50 manat profit. During a day they sell 300-350 breads and 150 chicken levengi. Shargiyya Qasimova says that the money they earn is not worth the work they do.
"All day we are standing on our feet. We start from 5 A.M. and finish at 12 midnight. I start the fire for the chicken, and in the other oven, I bake the bread. Sometimes we are working without water, we cannot eat on time, because there is a constant flow of customers. You must be careful to make sure that no pieces fall to the bottom of the tandir. All the work is hard, but baking bread is hardest. It is like you are playing with fire in these hot summer days. The heat is coming from the top and bottom. But what to do, we came here to earn money, so we have to bear it.”
Qasimova has a 4000 manat ($US 2500 ) loan in the bank. She says that they were selling cattle and had to take a loan. Due to the decrease in meat prices from 6.50 to 4.50 manat per kilo, they sustained a loss.
"I have to pay 280 manat per month to the bank now," says Qasimova.
The owner of the booth where they work is from Shusha (a disputed area between Azerbaijan and its neighboring country of Armenia). The women say the owner rents a good home for them to stay in, but they miss their own home.
"If the situation in Astara were better, we would not have to come here to work. What are we doing here? There is no work in the regions. If we had work, or had a piece of land, we would go and plant something and work. But we don’t have it. The same is for our children. They don’t have anything to do. When they apply for work, they are told that the factory will be opened this month, next month, etc. There is nothing there," says Qasimova.
The rest of the year they grow tangerines, lemons and feijoa fruits in their village.
Her cracked hands show how painful her work is. There is a plastic bag with her medicine on the wall. Qasimova says that she has high blood pressure, and can stand up all day only with the help of injections and medicines. "When the work finishes at night, I inject myself.”
A neighboring cafe brings them lunch. Qasimova covered the dish of chicken soup with two plates so it won’t be cold. "Now we don’t have time to eat," she says, running to her tandir. She is pouring the water on the chickens so they won’t be burned.
Then she talks about Talysh levengi. She argues that the levengi made in Baku does not compare with the levengi in their region. "We cook it differently. We put in onion, walnuts, salt, pepper, and sour plums. Here in Baku they add raisins and cranberries, so the taste becomes different. "
Qasimova wanted to become a doctor. She finished high school with honors, but her father did not let her continue her education." At that time, those girls who studied and had an education were treated very badly in rural society. She adds, “even today, if I had the chance, I would go and study. I wish that I could do that. I regret it. Especially when I am in trouble, I regret it more."
A customer enters the bakery.
"Do you have levengi?"
"Yes, I have it."
'How much does it cost?"
"Give me one."
She writes down every sale in her notebook. She says that after work from 1 midnight till 1 A.M they are calculating their sales and profits. Going home and taking a shower takes an additional one hour. She goes to bed at 2 A.M and at 5 A.M they wake up and go to the oven again. "We are sleeping only 3 hours, and it is impossible to sleep because we’re so tired," says Qasimova.
They are talking in their Talysh language when the customer is there. She says that she has never felt any ethnic discrimination though.
Sovqatova, unlike her small sister, is calm. She quietly bows her head down into the tandir. She says the hard work has made her back bent. Because her sister has cataracts, Sovqatova puts the balls of bread dough in the tandir.
Shargiyya Qasimova sighs and says: "I would sit at my home now, drinking tea and watching TV. For so many months of the year, I am here, and I have never watched TV. During every call with my grandchildren, we are crying. My feet have become swollen, my nails have fallen out, and my skin has wrinkled."
They both wish to be near their children and grandchildren. “Our lives are passing, now is their time to live comfortably and peacefully,” says Qasimova.
They came to Baku to work for their family. It’s 4:30 P.M. They have been already been working non-stop for two hours, and they have not touched the food yet.
Qasimova says: "We cannot eat now. I must make the balls of dough, then start the tandir fire. Then we can sit down and eat."