Autumn 2000 (8.3)

"Just a Cup of Tea"
Sociolinguistically Speaking - Part 7

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

Come for a cup of tea.

It's a situation that most foreigners in Azerbaijan can attest to. They get invited to someone's home "just for a cup of tea" only to arrive and find an elaborate meal spread out for them. Though Azerbaijanis tend towards exaggeration and hyperbole in ordinary speech, when it comes to talking about their own hospitality, they're inclined toward modesty and understatement. That casual "cup of tea" may actually have taken hours to prepare.

Left: A "simple" cup of tea for a guest might also involve a spread of jams, cake, nuts and chocolate. Photo: Blair

In Azerbaijan it's definitely "who you know" not "what you know" that makes a person successful. Drinking tea and entertaining others is an essential ingredient for cementing and maintaining friendships. When an Azerbaijani complains of having almost no relations with someone, he may say:

I haven't even had a cup of tea with him.

Azerbaijanis have another expression which means, "to have a meal together."

Literally, "to cut bread"

But the pleasure comes with obligations. For example, Azerbaijanis complain, "How could he treat me so badly? We've 'cut bread' together." There's an expectation of loyalty and commitment once people have dined together, especially if they have been entertained at home.

Tea may precede, as well as follow, meals. Tea is served in a pear-shaped glass. Its unique shape allows the tea at the top of the glass to cool while the tea in the bottom of the glass remains hot for quite some time.

Tea is usually offered with thin lemon slices and hard candy. You'll rarely find it served with milk. And you'll rarely be served pre-sweetened tea. That's only for kids at breakfast. In Iran, where an estimated 25-30 million Azerbaijanis live, cubed sugar is served alongside tea as the preferred sweetener.

Tea is such an integral part of everyday life that Azerbaijanis take it for granted. Whether the weather is frigid or sweltering, hot tea is the drink of hospitality. It is offered at anytime of day or night. In fact, many offices hire a full-time person to make the rounds serving tea all day long. And even refugees, who barely manage to put a scrap of bread on the table, feel bad if they can't offer guests a cup of tea, even if it's very weak and barely has any color to it.

Always Prepared
But at home, most hosts will offer guests food along with that cup of tea - unless the visit is short. Even then, baked goods and cookies, preserves, chocolates and fruit are likely to be spread on the table. Azerbaijanis have learned to expect guests at their door any time of day or night, so they always keep some refreshments stashed away. A good housewife is always prepared.

As for drinks during the meal, they may offer "ayran", a yogurt-based beverage served cold, or fruit juices, soft drinks or mineral water. In the Azerbaijan Republic at dinner, alcohol is likely to be served. Most men drink; most women don't, though out of courtesy women may clink glasses and join in the rounds of toasts. The exception for drinking is during the religious month of Maharram, which commemorates the Shiite Imam Hussein's death. In Iran, since alcohol is prohibited, drinking is rarer.
Foreigners are usually surprised at the abundance of food that is spread out on the table.

In the Republic, tables are generally long and narrow, and the living room usually doubles for the dining room (and, sometimes, even as a bedroom). The table is absolutely covered with small dishes so that food is within easy reach of everyone. Never mind the enormous mess to clean up afterwards!

Seating Order
The most respected person (often the oldest one) is invited to sit at the head of the table. This is a very conscious act and everyone understands the social hierarchy, though it may be unspoken.

Come and sit at the head.

If that person feels that someone else deserves the honor, he will, in turn, offer the seat to the person he considers more deserving, especially if someone older is present.

Azerbaijanis are used to lots of guests joining them at meals. It's not uncommon for 10, 12 or 15 people to be gathered around the table. Despite the crowded conditions, no one is expected to sit at a corner edge of the table or they're likely to be told:

Don't sit at the corner.

To make the argument more convincing, they might add that any unmarried person who sits at the corner will never get married.

You will never get married.

Another version could be:

It will be seven years before you marry.
Literally, "You'll get married in seven years."

Or, even more disconcerting:

People who come to ask for your hand will be refused.

This implies that someone will want to marry you but your parents will not grant permission.

Sometimes a married person will even offer to change places with an unmarried person stuck on the

corner. Of course, many people consider this a joke, but others take it quite seriously.

Serving Guests
In most families, when food is brought to the table, the oldest woman (a grandmother, mother or mother-in-law) serves up the plates. Guests generally wait for an older person to start eating first. The host is likely to urge his guests to begin eating by saying:

Don't let it get cold.

Left: Traditional way of selling cherries at roadside stands. Photo: Blair.

He may also say:

Good appetite, equivalent to the French phrase "Bon appétit."

The same expression may be used when an Azerbaijani runs into a friend or acquaintance eating at a restaurant or in someone's home.

Second Helpings
It's not unusual for a host to urge guests to eat more and more food. An Azerbaijani proverb says:

The guest will never say, "I'm full."

It is assumed that the guest will be too shy to help himself, so the hosts continuously watch when plates get empty and automatically dish up more food unless you stop them. If the guest doesn't want to eat any more food, he can say:

Thanks, enough. I won't be able to eat more.

I've had food at home as well, so I'm not hungry.

If the guest should want more food, he may say:

It's very tasty.

I want to try this one, too.

It's also expected that guests won't just "eat and run". Even though meals may last three or four hours - even at lunch, if you're a special guest. Of course, now that Azerbaijan has gained its independence, people are much more time-conscious than in the past. They don't have as much leisure time. When Azerbaijanis need to leave early, they sometimes excuse themselves by saying:

We're like Lazgi guests-leaving as soon as we've eaten.

Lazgins are natives of Daghestan, a part of the Russian Federation on the northern border of Azerbaijan. Lazgins have the reputation of being very time-conscious.

Thanking the Host
At the end of the meal, guests say:

Thanks. May God make it [the food] more.

May your table (literally, tablecloth) always be spread open.
Meaning, may you always have food in abundance.

Satisfaction for the meal may be expressed by saying:

It was very tasty.

It was very delicious.

Guests compliment the cook by saying:

May your hands and arms be healthy.

After finishing the food, besides using the expression

, (Many thanks), some people - especially the elderly - say:

(Thank God), we ate and are no longer hungry. May God feed those who are hungry.
(Meaning, those in real hunger and need).

Leftovers from a meal may be sent home with guests, especially if a member of the family was unable to attend, such as a child, an older relative, a pregnant woman or someone who is sick.

When food is served at a funeral, the phrase (May God accept it) is more likely to be used instead of "Thank you." This is because food at a funeral is considered to be offered as "ehsan", the funeral meal, or for those who are poor. This phrase implies God's acceptance of this gesture.

Sacredness of Food
Azerbaijanis view food as sacred, especially the natural produce grown from the earth. It's not unusual for older people to encourage young people to start their meal:

In the name of God.
They usually acknowledge that the meal is finished by saying (many thanks, implying thanks to God).

Food prepared from dough is especially viewed as sacred. It's not unusual for an Azerbaijani to stop on the sidewalk or street to stoop and pick up a piece of bread and place it on a windowsill or some place aside so that it won't be stepped on.

Azerbaijanis have a special expression to identify an ungrateful person:

The one who steps on bread.

Or they may convey the same ungratefulness by saying:

He has bread on his knees.

Generally, stale bread is not thrown away. Instead, it is placed in plastic bags and set in a conspicuous place outside the entrance of the home or apartment so that other people know to take it for their cattle or poultry.

Table Manners
Parents work hard to teach their children appropriate table etiquette. They consider it very rude if children are greedy or are unable to hide their hunger or need in front of others. Note the popular Azerbaijani proverb:

Even let God know you eat pilaf.

Pilaf is considered the most luxurious of meals. In the Republic it is reserved on special occasions - weddings, banquets, special dinners, though in Iran, Azerbaijanis are likely to eat rice dishes everyday. So the proverb suggests that you should even hide your needs from God and keep them to yourself. Children usually are warned not to reach for anything at the table or to taste anything before it is offered.

Parents urge children not to leave food on their plates. Sometimes they'll say:

You're not going to be pretty / handsome if you leave food on the plate.

Your fiancé won't be good-looking

If a child leaves a piece of bread uneaten, he may be reprimanded:

Eat it up. Otherwise it [the bread] will be chasing you your whole life.

If you leave this piece of bread, it will cry.

Clearly, food and hospitality are central to Azerbaijani culture. It is synonymous with social gatherings. It's hard to imagine having good times without good food there. That's just the way things are in Azerbaijan. As a foreigner living or visiting the country, no doubt you'll have countless invitations to experience it when you stop by for "just a cup of tea!"
Nush olsun! Enjoy!

Jala Garibova has a doctorate in linguistics and teaches at Western University in Baku. Betty Blair is the Founding Editor of Azerbaijan International and also of the new WEB site,, where the entire archives of this "Sociolinguistically Speaking" series may be accessed.

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Azerbaijan International (8.3) Autumn 2000.
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