Summer 2001 (9.2)

Concepts of Time
Sociolinguistically Speaking - Part 10

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

Clocks: National Archives (Photo and Cinema Division)

One of the first things that most foreigners sense when they arrive in Azerbaijan is that Azerbaijanis tend to have a very different notion of time than they do. This is especially true of visitors who come from highly organized, time-conscious, industrialized nations.

Left: The Musical Comedy Theater named after Sh. Gurbanov located on the Boulevard close to the sea in downtown Baku has since been totally replaced in 1998. Photo: 1960.

In fact, some Americans told us that the idea of punctuality in Azerbaijan seems so different from their own that when Azerbaijani friends suggest a time to meet, the Americans always joke: "Azeri time or American time?"

A: What time should we meet?
B: At 10 o'clock in the morning.

These differences in expectations about time can be a source of friction with foreigners. One Japanese woman who recently spent a year living in Baku said that one of her greatest frustrations was that Azerbaijanis were so "loose about the time". In Japan, she noted that people were very strict about time and made every effort to arrive early for appointments. But in Baku, she found that although Azerbaijanis would agree to meet at a specific time, they always conditioned their promise with the phrase, (If God wills), as if to allow for some leeway. When the appointed hour arrived, the Azerbaijanis invariably showed up late. "Somehow they never seemed to managed to make it on time," she complained.

This relaxed attitude towards time can even be a source of aggravation for fellow Azerbaijanis. For instance, in the early 1990s when Azerbaijan had just gained its independence and was facing the crisis of war in Karabakh and the subsequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees, Azerbaijan's Secretary of State complained in an interview with our magazine that the worst thing about her job was having to cope with the Azerbaijani concept of time. "Even though Azerbaijanis wear watches," she said, "they aren't conscious of time. If I ask them to meet me at 3:00, they show up at 4:00. If I ask them to come at 4:00, they arrive at 5:00. There's a lot of work to do. This is not the time to sit still."

One curious exception to these attitudes about punctuality relates to the unwritten rules of dating. Azerbaijani girls expect their dates to be on time, but for their part, there's a tendency to keep the poor guy waiting. After all, the girl wouldn't want to show that she is too eager for the rendezvous.

Changing Times
But attitudes toward time are changing, especially in Baku. Azerbaijanis are becoming more conscientious about showing up on time for their appointments. It used to be that a person could be 40-50 minutes late and not be considered rude and not apologize for it; now a person is perceived as tardy if he or she arrives 10-15 minutes after the designated time. These days in international business circles, it is considered quite negligent to be late, and it does make a bad impression unless the person calls ahead to announce his delay.

Left: The clock at Baku's City Hall which had stopped in the mid- 1970s was restarted in May 2001. Now it plays short segments of popular tunes on the hour. Lenin's portrait is no longer exhibited. Photo: 1972.

Of course, there is a tremendous variation in attitudes towards time, as is true in any society, and it is also influenced by numerous factors including gender, age, economic status, health, education, health - not to mention, ambition.

But some of the changes have been shaped by new technology that gives people more control over their time - especially the mobile phone and private cars. Both have appeared on the scene "big time" these past five years. Now when Azerbaijanis run late, especially with meetings with foreigners, there's a greater tendency that they will phone ahead and let the waiting party know of the delay or traffic jam. The pace of daily life also seems to have accelerated in Baku. People even walk around town faster than they did a mere five years ago.

In the past, the Soviet policy of "equalization" discouraged any sense of competition for monetary gain. Most people didn't feel compensated for their extra efforts, so they didn't bother to work harder or more effectively. Average workers simply went to work, punched the clock, carried out their routine jobs and then returned home on time.

Such attitudes clearly were not conducive to economic strength and development, and many would suggest that this issue led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. As far as personal time was concerned, most Azerbaijanis these days would admit that they enjoyed more leisure in the past before they gained independence.

During Soviet times, people didn't feel the crunch of deadlines like they do today. Azerbaijanis are busier now, and that makes them pay even stricter attention to time, especially if their work relates to the international business community.

Left: Baku's Opera and Ballet Theater in 1974. The clock no longer stands nor can cars enter the street which has since been made into a pedestrian walkway.

Azerbaijanis know how to have a good time, to enjoy friendships and the intensity of the moment. Even if they do arrive late for meetings, they almost always hang around awhile to enjoy these relationships. After all, life is so short. Whereas Westerners often say, "Seize the day!" Azerbaijanis say:

The world is five days.

In regions outside the capital, however, the older, slower perceptions of time are more prevalent. When people are not rushed and don't feel short on time, appointments become even more abstract.

Let's meet after 2 o'clock in the afternoon.

Time for Guests
When it comes to guests, Azerbaijanis (even those in Baku) appear to have all the time in the world. Hospitality is high on their list of virtues, possibly because success has so often depended upon being able to forge strong relationships. They always seem prepared to entertain guests, no matter what time they stop by.

Unlike Westerners, Azerbaijanis often drop in on friends unexpectedly. They don't want to trouble the host, knowing that if they had announced their visit in advance, the host would feel obliged to prepare a meal for them.

Left: The Philharmonic now under reconstruction. The clock no longer stands.

At the very least, the host will serve tea, no matter what time the visit takes place. It appears automatically without even consulting with the guest. (If they have coffee, they often assume foreigners prefer it to tea.) Usually something sweet accompanies the tea: homemade jams, cookies or a ubiquitous box of chocolates that never seems to get eaten, but always looks so dramatic as part of the presentation.

Anytime is teatime.
(Literally, Where tea, where time.)

If guests arrive late in the day, it's not unusual for the host to say:

What kind of time is this for a visit?

This expression is not meant to offend, but rather to show regret that there isn't much time left to prepare what is considered a proper meal.

Guests are encouraged to linger and stay as long as they want. Azerbaijanis dare not ask when a person
intends to leave, as it would be considered quite rude:

You can't ask a guest, "When are you leaving?"

Similarly, most local restaurants in Baku won't close until the last customer leaves - no matter how late that might be, even 3 or 4 a.m. It's very rare for an Azerbaijani restaurant to turn a customer away. It's not like in the West, where you hear, "I'm sorry, it's 10 o'clock and our kitchen is closed." Nor are restaurant workers likely to blink the lights to indicate that the customers should start to think about leaving because the restaurant is closing.

Time to Talk
It's not unusual for Azerbaijanis to carry on long telephone conversations, even during the day, and yes, of course, at work. During the Soviet period, it's said that literature lovers used to read novels to each other for hours over the phone.

Left: The Electric Train, April 1976.

Lately Azerbaijanis who are working more on the international business model become irritated when people call and abuse their time on the phone. When that happens, they try to find a way to gently and politely bring the conversation to a close, indicating their willingness to pick it up later at a more convenient time. They try to be careful not to offend the caller, especially if it's an older person or someone not familiar with modern business practices.

Appropriate times for telephoning are different in Azerbaijan than in many other countries. Azerbaijanis generally don't feel very comfortable calling someone before 10 a.m. (unless they're at work). On the other hand, they rarely hesitate to ring someone (not necessarily even a close friend) at 10:30 p.m., or perhaps up until about 11 p.m., which by Western standards would be considered too late. But 11:30 p.m. or later would generally be considered inappropriate unless they knew the person well.

To make an untimely call (time+less call)

Azerbaijanis don't usually go to bed until after midnight, and, of course, it's likely to be later on weekends. The kids usually stay up with the rest of the family. It's rare for an Azerbaijani family to tuck children into bed at 9 p.m. so that they can have "free time" for themselves. Bedtime for kids is not regulated as much as it is in the West. Parents let the children head off to bed whenever they get tired; but in general, kids usually stay up until the grownups go to bed.

He / she [the child] wouldn't go to sleep until everybody else is sleeping.

Time to Wake Up
During the workweek, those who are employed get up early, depending on their responsibilities and distance from work. But sometimes you come across young people who are neither working nor going to school, and stay in bed until noon.

On weekends, it's quite usual for most people to stay out late, sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m. or later. Sunday morning they may sleep in until 2 or 3 p.m. Since Muslims revere Friday as the Holy Day, rather than Sunday, many people sleep in late on Sundays. It's possible that if you call as late as noon that you'll be waking them up.

Of course, a great number of people choose Sunday morning to shop at the bazaar, which is always more popular during morning hours when produce is freshest, regardless of what day of the week it is.

Value of Time
Even though Azerbaijanis tend to have a relaxed attitude toward time, Azerbaijani proverbs would indicate that they are indeed concerned about using it wisely. In this respect, Azerbaijanis share similar ideas with English speakers.

Time is more precious than gold.

Time is not money, you cannot return it.

You should know the value of time when you are young.

Time flies.

Time is on horse; we are on foot.

There are also verb phrases about using time wisely, which are similar to those in English:

To lose time

To waste time

To conserve / save time

Many Azerbaijanis believe it is better to make decisions and do serious thinking in the morning rather than late at night, as is reflected in this proverb:

The harm of the morning is better than the benefit of evening.

They also warn against procrastination:

Don't put off today's work until tomorrow.

Stages of Life
Azerbaijanis are very conscious of life cycles and life transitions. For each stage, there is a certain age by which you should achieve or accomplish the societal norm.

There's a right time for everything.

For instance, Azerbaijani parents urge young people to complete their education at an early age. In many universities in the West, age is not a barrier to studying. It's no surprise to find a 40-, 50- or 60-year-old in graduate school sitting beside a 20-year-old. But in Baku, it's quite rare for someone to enter university after age 20 or so.

Left: Baku Railway Station as it appeared in the mid-1920s.

Students older than 30 usually take what is called correspondence classes, meaning that they study on their own and take an exam at the end of each session. Parents support their children as much as possible - to the point of hiring private tutors - so that they will learn while their "knowledge is fresh".

What you learn, you learn while you are young.

Many Azerbaijani parents urge their children to get married in their late teens or early twenties. The phrase (to marry in time) is rather common, and the concept is quite acceptable in society - especially for women.

Those who wake up early, and those who marry early, never lose.

In general, marriage after age 25 is considered to be already too late, especially for girls, though attitudes are changing among the youth, especially those who have had the chance to study abroad on scholarships in high school or college.

Making a Family
Having children is very important for Azerbaijani couples. In fact, if the wife cannot bear children, it can be used as grounds for divorce. Girls are encouraged to marry young so that they will be able to have children and take care of them. No doubt, the society is also concerned about the difficulties that older women sometimes face during childbirth.

If she had married on time, she would have had at least one child by now.

Often, newlyweds are expected to conceive a baby within the first year of marriage. Even highly educated young people start their families very early - though some young people are choosing not to be burdened with family affairs during the very first years of their marriage, but they dare not delay for many years. However, the older generation is still likely to pressure them with traditional norms. A mother or mother-in-law may might say:

You should have a baby born in time.

It is desirable that you have your baby born in time.

Parents also use the concept of appropriate time when they try to shield their children from bad things. For example, if they catch their children smoking, they're likely to say:

Wait for your time. (Literally, It's not your time yet!)

This usually applies to cigarettes and alcohol. For young girls, it may also relate to plucking their eyebrows or using makeup.

Old Age and Death
The elderly are generally revered and respected in Azerbaijani society. An elderly man may be called (ancient man), referring to his life experience, wisdom and knowledge of traditions.

Grandfather Karim is an ancient man. He would know these kinds of things better.

Other terms include (white-bearded one), referring to a man, and (white sideburns), the female counterpart, meaning respected elders in the community. Others seek advice from them because they are recognized for their experience and good judgment.

An Azerbaijani proverb says:

Respect the elderly, for you'll become old, too.

One way that Azerbaijanis show respect for the older generations is by holding Jubilees, such as on the 60th, 70th, 75th, 80th and 85th birthdays. These celebrations continue regularly, and if the person is dearly loved and respected by the society, Jubilees will organized even after a person's death. For instance, this year in August, Azerbaijanis will be celebrating the 100th Jubilee of Khan Shushinski (1901-1979), one of their beloved mugham singers. It doesn't matter that he passed away more than 20 years ago.

While the death of a loved one is always a difficult experience, death at an early age is especially viewed as tragic - just as it is in other societies. Here, the Azeri word , meaning "timeless" (in this case, "before the right time"), is used when someone dies at a young age.

He died young.
(Literally, He left timelessly).

However, for someone who dies at an older age, the following phrase is likely to be used:

His time came.

After the death of a family member or relative, Azerbaijanis are very supportive of the surviving family members. Tradition has established that family, friends and acquaintances gather every Thursday up until the 40th day, when there is a large commemoration, as well as on the third and seventh days following the death. Afterward, yearly anniversaries are usually marked as well.

To comfort the family, mourners may remind them that time will eventually heal their pain.

Time cures everything.
(Literally, Time is the medicine for everything).

Time heals all wounds.

To refer to something that is old, but not necessarily valuable, Azerbaijanis sometimes say it is (left from Nikolay), meaning from the time of Czar Nicholas II (1868-1918), who lost his throne to the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Of course, they don't literally mean that the item is from Nicholas's time; it's just an exaggeration, tinged with humor. For example, if a loaf of bread has gone stale, someone might say: "This bread is left over from Nikolay's times."

Eh, that dress looks like one from Nikolay's times (implying that it is very much out of fashion)!

This same pattern can be used with Noah, whose ark is believed to have landed on a mountain in Nakhchivan, the non-contiguous part of Azerbaijan that borders Turkey. In some regions, Azerbaijanis use the name of Shamil, a leader of the liberation movement in Dagestan and Chechnya who fought against Russian invasions in the 18th century.

True friendship, however, only improves with age. Azerbaijanis greatly appreciate loyalty and long-term friendships. When making a toast or giving an informal speech about friends, they often make comments like the following:

We have been friends with Samir for about 15 years.

No wonder there is the proverb:

Everything is good when it is new, the friend is good when he is old.

Jala Garibova holds a doctorate in linguistics and teaches at Western University in Baku. Betty Blair is Editor of Azerbaijan International magazine. The entire archives of the "Sociolinguistically Speaking" series (now 10 articles) may be accessed at Click on LEARNING AZERI. Yoko Hirose, Fariz Islamzade and members of the AI staff also contributed ideas to this article.

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Azerbaijan International (9.2) Summer 2001.
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