Note: Some names have been changed.
I lived in a girls’ house one summer in Azerbaijan: widowed mom, two college-age sisters, sometimes a cousin who shrunk four inches after slipping off her heels. They would leave the door to the balcony open on our twelfth floor apartment. Faint calls to prayer and breezes drifted in, our only source of air conditioning. Hanging my laundry on the clothesline on the balcony gave me vertigo. I imagined one day I would accidentally drop my panties off the edge and they would flutter like a lacy butterfly onto the head of a man far below. I asked my host mom if she feared her girls would fall off the balcony when they were little. She scoffed. Of course they wouldn’t fall.
I went to Turkish class every day, but the girls and mom, a geography professor, spent the summer at home. They were happy to sit around and drink tea with me for hours. My host mom, Leyla, would ask about the heat, my grades, American geography, whether I was making friends. I mentioned Austen, a cute guy on the program that I kinda liked. I wanted to make conversation, not a confession. It is hard to come up with interesting things to say when you only speak intermediate Turkish, and I thought cute guys were a safe bet with moms around the globe. I had learned a new way to say “like” that I wanted to try out. It worked for beaches and baklava, so I assumed it would work for cute guys. However, Leyla changed my careful wording and announced to my host sisters with a slight smile that “Katrina is in love!”
Then, I thought she was poking fun at me. Now, I think she was completely serious. When a girl talks about a boy in Azerbaijan, it can only mean love. None of that fuzzy “kinda like” stuff. There is no fuzziness in Azerbaijan, not when it comes to femininity, romance and sex. Input gender, nationality, age, marital status (“prefer not to answer” is never an option), out pops your clear cultural custom. If anything seems contradictory, blame me. Don’t blame the women of Azerbaijan.
I was the only woman without makeup on the bus in the morning. The buses were so packed that you had to start planning your escape route two stops before getting off, so hot that if you wore a skirt you could feel beads of sweat collecting in your crotch and rolling down your legs. And yet women were constantly dabbing foundation off glistening foreheads. Even the woman in a headscarf wore thick eyeliner, the eighty-year-old grandmother—pink lipstick, the punk girl in—eye shadow. At first I wore makeup too. I wanted to fit in. But I gave it up as a lost cause, because my hair was light and I was taller than the average Azerbaijani man (I’m 5’ 8’’). Besides, I hated the feeling of mascara sweating into my eyes.
So does everyone. Removing makeup was the first thing my host family did when they got home. The second thing they did was take off their bras. Our house had a rule: no boys allowed. Once I asked if I could invite a friend over for tea. Leyla said girls were welcome, boys were not. I understood. Putting on a bra is one thing, but no one wants to clog their pores and gook up their eyes, and makeup was clearly a requirement for women in male company.
Except for one boy: a friend of Sevinj, my 19-year-old host sister. Afiq came over frequently. Leyla explained that he used to help Sevinj with school work last year—they both studied computer science—and now Leyla had gotten used to him. I learned to peek into the living room when I got home to see if it was safe to take off my bra. When he was there, I would see them sitting very close, but never touching, on the couch, mostly watching Russian movies. It never looked like they were studying.
Sevinj and I never sat that close together. We weren’t very close, even though we were almost the same age. I think she preferred speaking Russian to Turkish. Even though I spoke Russian, I was under a language pledge to speak only Turkish. I broke it the first night, when Sevinj showed me her favorite Russian poems. Sevinj liked Russian literature, rock music, and dying her hair. But she did not like Afiq, not that way.
I asked Sevinj the first time he came over if they were dating. She insisted that they were just friends. Still, I was convinced that the poor boy was in love with Sevinj. I would see him watch her watch the Russian movies. I tried to tell her this, thinking I could wrest a confession out of her, or at least provide some good-natured girl-to-girl insight. Nope. They just had a lot in common. Good friends. I was trying to superimpose a romance where there was none.
My perception may have been skewed by my own budding romance with the guy that I was, according to Leyla, in love with. Austen and I sat on the concrete shore of the Caspian Sea as close together as Sevinj and Afiq, watching each other watch the water. A few days later, we confessed our feelings in a new park on the edge of town that seemed to have been created in a dream: waterfalls, a path suspended in the branches of trees, lit at night by bubbles hanging on invisible wires. A park floating and falling—just as Austen and I were falling for each other.
Until the police came. “Sit up please. We understand that you are foreigners, but you can’t do that here. Not Heder Aliyev Park,” he said, gesturing toward the statue of Azerbaijan’s beloved first president. “We got complaints. No, we don’t need paperwork, just don’t do it again. Yes, sit up, just not so close to each other please, thank you.”
He spoke to us in Russian because of my blonde hair. (In Turkish, “blond” means “not black.”) I understood the words, but not what he was talking about. Austen and I had not even been touching. I was too flushed to respond to the officer staring down at us. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t talking to me anyway. He was talking to Austen, who muttered apologies until the cop went away.
All of a sudden the grass seemed crawling with children looking at us and mothers pointedly looking away. We tried to find a secluded bench, but realized what had seemed to be private little twists in the trail were open viewing to everyone behind, below, above. We pressed against the railing, nearly falling off into the trees, inching closer until we finally grasped hands. A man came up behind us and said he didn’t care himself, but be careful, the police don’t like that kind of thing. Austen and I backed away from each other. I proposed that we could find privacy in the stairwell of my apartment building.
We stumbled on an open balcony on the fourteenth floor. I stepped out into the night, breathless at the view of the city stretched far below, twinkling in patriotic red, white, blue and green. We could even see the oil-slicked surface of the Caspian sea shining like black light. We kissed.
We suddenly heard voices in the hallway, and beelined to the stairwell.
Austen and I did not want to spend the summer hiding in stairwells. I decided to discuss our plight with my language partner Jale, a lovely Azerbaijani girl paid by the program to befriend me. She had been engaged for five years, so I thought she must know how dating worked in Azerbaijan. I asked her for recommendations of places to go together, and she immediately suggested cafes, movies, the shopping center.
“No, like where we can hold hands, for example.”
“Oh,” she said, and smiled slightly. “In a park maybe?” We were sitting in a park. I pointedly looked around, searching for a single bench where a couple sat hand in hand.
“Well, I mean, later at night, when kids and families are not around,” Jale said.
I told her about the incident in a park with the police a few days earlier. She said that was not unusual, that couples were often approached by the police, who would ask about their age, force them to show identification, and call their parents. Jale said that she and her fiance laughed it off, but that it could be a major problem for younger girls. She insisted that it should not be a problem for us, though, since we are foreigners. People are getting more used to foreigners, bringing their own customs, she said. Things are changing. Years ago you would never see a girl wearing shorts; now they are everywhere.
I did not bother to pointedly look around the park again for a single girl wearing shorts. I knew there would not be any. Our program handbook told us to avoid shorts or skirts above the knees, no matter how hot it was. The number of girls I had seen wearing shorts was approximately the same as the number not wearing makeup. Women in Azerbaijan were expected to show female faces, but not female bodies.
On Bulvar, Jale said, meaning the concrete shore of the Caspian, you see couples all the time, no one bothers them.
“And people there kiss?”
She looked like that was a novel idea. “Yes, even kiss maybe! But you can definitely hold hands.”
I told her we would try that.
By the end of our two months in Azerbaijan, Austen and I found four places to touch hands in public: the metro, in a soccer stadium, at a beach and at a concert. We were very sly about it on the metro. We held the handrail, looking away from each other, and “accidentally” let our fingers brush.
We also spent a lot of time in the stairwell.
At the soccer stadium we played a game: spot-the-woman. My final tally was two. The stadium was packed. Women at a soccer game were such an aberration that social custom for how a man and woman should behave together there had not developed. We took advantage of the lack of explicit condemnation and held hands. You can’t say Azerbaijan discriminates against female soccer fans, though. The organizers had made special preparations for the possibility of a woman in the stadium.
I tried to go through security with Austen, but was directed to the lone female security guard at the very end of the dozen-man lineup. Austen got through in about 30 seconds. Not me. The guard investigated my backpack for five minutes. Before she let me go, she looked me in the eye and said, “Kırmızı Saçlı Kadın?” which was the title of a Turkish book in my backpack. I said yes and she smiled slightly, reader to reader, girl to girl. I saw then she could not have been much older than me. Kırmızı Saçlı Kadın is about a boy who has sex with a married woman.
Looking back, I imagine an alternate book about a boy who has sex with an unmarried girl the same age as me and the guard. In one scene of that book the police would stop the unmarried girl with her lover in a park and ask her age, a cliche plot of love against all odds, individual vs. the state. My American summer romance in Azerbaijan was a cliché plot, but Azerbaijan is not a cliché plot. I don’t think Azerbaijani women would have wanted to read that book. I don’t think that book would have been written.
I asked a woman on the bus for directions to the beach. She evidently liked me enough to get off at the correct stop with me and Austen, grab my hand, and run with us across a six lane highway. She asked about entrance fees, relayed the information to us, and strolled off with a slight smile. I went to change into my bathing suit in a one-room wood stall, faced a corner and tried not to notice all the breasts swinging around me as mothers toweled off daughters.
I shouldn’t have worried. Noticing women’s bodies is not something people hide in Azerbaijan. When I complained to Jale that men stared at me all the time on the bus, she told me that it was perfectly normal, that she herself might stare at a pretty girl. No man hid staring at me as I walked out of the stall. Staring does not violate propriety, but holding hands does. Austen and I decided to violate propriety on the beach. I figured police would not pay the entrance fee.
I went to two concerts that summer. The first was back when Austen was just a cute guy I kinda liked. I went with friends to see Tarkan, a Turkish pop star. It was my first time out at night and I got lost, so I called Leyla. She told me to take a taxi, but the program staff had warned girls against taking taxis alone. I took a bus instead. When I got home Leyla was still awake. She did not speak to me. After more silent treatment in the kitchen the next morning, I apologized. Leyla said she had been very worried. She told me that I had put myself in danger, that when a girl is out that late by herself it can only mean one thing to wandering drunk men. I promised I would not do it again. Luckily, soon I had Austen to escort me home at night, which appeased Leyla. She didn’t know that first he escorted me to the stairwell.
One such late night with Austen was the music festival Zhara, meaning heat in Russian. The program was packed with Russian pop stars, and the arena was packed with Russian-speaking bodies sweating in the zhara. I was overjoyed. Russian speaking meant Russian thinking. Or more precisely, Russian not thinking anything of a young couple grinding in a crowd. There was no grinding at the Tarkan concert.
Aylin, my 23-year-old host sister, told me she used to wear short skirts at her Russian high school, but the first day she went to an Azerbaijani college she got harassed so much she threw them all away. Leyla, who stopped in the kitchen for tea, said that she had warned her daughter all along not to wear them, but had let Aylin rebel until she grew up and learned better. Aylin did not disagree with this narrative, but I heard a different one with the emphasis on Russian school and Azerbaijani college. Whether grinding or short skirts, what’s okay for a Russian is off-limits for an Azerbaijani.
As it turned out, Aylin did not actually throw away all of her risque clothing. When I told her I needed a dress for Jale’s wedding, she found a short black dress with a skirt that was sheer from the butt to the floor, open shoulders, and a busty neckline. She smiled slightly when she saw me in it. I went to the wedding confused. Why was it acceptable to showcase your bare legs in an air-conditioned wedding salon, but not wear shorts on the street, hiding your legs among dozens of others on a hot bus, in a soccer stadium, under a desk at school? Maybe it was the act of hiding itself. If you are going to wear less, show it off. Accept the stares, take it to the extreme. Maybe this is what Jale meant when she said that girls wear shorts all the time. The few that do are visible.
The wedding was fun. Women laughed at me trying to mimic their traditional dance moves, and made it their personal mission to teach me how to do it right. The bride and groom shared a dance as well. But they did not share a kiss. They were waiting until their wedding night, I suppose.
I did not want to wait until my wedding night.
Austen and I could get an Airbnb at quite reasonable prices. The only problem was how to approach my host family about it. One evening my host mom was out, I decided to feel out the situation with Aylin. I rehearsed the words in my head as I sat down for tea with her.
“Austen and I were thinking about staying in an apartment for a night. Is it a good idea to tell your mom? Or will she think we are bad?”
Something in the air changed, perhaps the Evil Wind (we had left the door to the balcony open, after all) pushing us together as true co-conspirators, as sisters. “It’s not our first time, anyway,” I added.
Aylin smiled slightly. “No, it will not be a problem for her, she understands you are Americans, of course you can tell her.”
Because we are Americans? What did that have to do with it? The whole point was asking about her culture, not ours. I was not asking permission to sleep with Austen in America. I was asking permission to sleep with Austen in Azerbaijan, and I did not want special treatment, a double standard. For Azerbaijanis, however, double standards are not contradictions, they are clear. Russians can wear short skirts. Azerbaijanis cannot. Americans can hold hands on tourist-filled Bulvar, but not in a park named for an Azerbaijani president. Russians can grind. Americans can have sex.
I asked Aylin if she was likewise free to have sex. She clicked her tongue and shook her head, mixing traditional Turkish and Russian/Western nonverbal no’s emphatically. But she said something different:
“Our mom always said that we can marry anyone we want. She is not conservative or religious. Whomever we love, we can marry. We are free.”
“Oh, so would you kiss someone in front of her, for example?”
More tongue clicking, plus blushing.
I decided to tell Leyla the truth. She looked at me for a moment. Then I saw her mouth pinch with a hint of a smile. She instantly regained an expression of neutrality and started to ask about how we were finding the apartment, and its price.
I found out why she was interested in the prices in the last week of the program. She rents out an extra apartment herself and wanted to glean information on the going rates. The apartment was bought for her by an ex-boyfriend.
It took me a while to understand what my host mom was actually saying. The word “ex” is the same as the word for “old,” and there is no distinction between the Turkish word for “boy” and English uses of “boy” and “guy.” At first I thought she was talking about a former guy friend.
The twinkle in Leyla’s eye suggested otherwise. It was the same twinkle that had flashed for a moment when I had asked about spending the night with Austen. With repeated requests not to mention anything to the girls’ paternal aunts, she told me about this ex-boyfriend. He took Leyla and the girls on trips to Turkey. The other relatives did not know. The relationship lasted eight years.
When you speak a foreign language, sometimes the thrill of correct expression and exchange of information overrides normal tendencies to observe boundaries. This is how I retroactively excuse myself for asking next: “Why didn’t you marry him?”
“He was married.”
“Did the wife know?!”
“Why did you split up?”
She shrugged. “We got bored of each other.”
Her tone said olur, the word “to be” in Turkish in a grammatical tense that means regular, repeated action. If something happens regularly, that means it’s acceptable, and olur is often used to mean “it’s fine.” Of course a young widowed geography professor who wears dress sizes at age 40 that most American girls cannot wear at 18 would find a rich married man. Of course he would buy her an apartment and take her on trips to Turkey, even if his wife knows. It happens. Olur.
But no kissing for Aylin. Like mother, unlike daughter.
Until a daughter gets engaged.
Leyla told me that the whole family would be out one night in the last week of the program. I asked why. Leyla smiled slightly. They were going to have dinner with Afiq’s family, to make Sevinj and Afiq’s engagement official.
Sevinj and Afiq were “just friends.” Right up until they got engaged. I was shocked. I was desperate to find the missing link. How do people go from sitting close (not touching, of course) to spending the rest of their lives together? Sevinj had never liked Afiq that way. And now she loved him. Wanted to marry him. Have kids with him. Die with him.
Leyla told me she would not have given them permission to date, that she felt tricked by this whole “studying together” thing, but now was not going to stop them from getting married. What Aylin told me was true: she gave the girls their freedom to choose the boy. But not the freedom to date him. Unbeknownst to me until this conversation, the girls had a strict curfew of 20:00, every day, for their entire lives. They could count on one hand the number of times they had ever been outside in the dark without their mother. I needed two hands and some toes to count how many times I had been outside in the dark in the past two months.
Even though I had witnessed people getting engaged in this culture, I was utterly at a loss to explain how one was supposed to do it. What was the culturally acceptable set of steps for falling in love? I asked my host mom how she would have wanted it to happen, and she had no answer.
Looking back, I have this answer: maybe my host mom was not poking fun when she translated “Austen is cute, I like him” to “Katrina is in love with Austen.” I do not mean linguistically translated; we were both speaking Turkish. I mean culturally translated. After all, the middle space between unmarried virgins and married affairs, between makeup and mini-skirts, between Russian concerts and Turkish concerts, between olur for “us” and olur for foreigners, between “like” and “love” does not exist.
In English, we call that space “falling,” that is, “falling in love.” There is no falling in Azerbaijan.
I left Sevinj a parting gift. In the last week of my stay, I whispered that if she and Afiq wanted to kiss, I knew a place: the stairwell.
Sevinj smiled slightly and didn’t respond. I knew that smile. I had seen it on Leyla, the security guard, Jale, the highway-dasher, Aylin.
I think the smile means they already know about the stairwell. And also, that they choose not to know.