Mixed Marriages: On Breaking Stereotypes in Azerbaijan
In the South Caucasus marriages outside the dominant ethnicity or nationality are largely disapproved and Azerbaijan is no exception. A survey carried out in 2010 by the CRRC-Caucasus showed that an average of 90 percent of Azerbaijan’s citizens disapprove marriages with a foreigner with the percentage dropping to 50 percent only in case the husband is a Turk. Inter-racial unions are even rarer and remain taboo - conservative religious and traditional values combined mean that marrying a person from a different race is rare, when not unique.
Shahla Zeynalova, Azerbaijani, and Hamid Ajibola, Nigerian, married in 2010. They have two children and live in Baku where Hamid arrived in 2004 to teach English.
“Hamid was my teacher. I discovered he had fallen in love with me only a few years later though. Since I had to drop out of the course, I lost contact with him. Then a couple of years later I randomly met him in the street and he told me he loved me.”
Although their marriage is officially registered in Azerbaijan, 28-year old Shahla and Hamid, 34, held a wedding reception only in Lagos, the Nigerian capital he hails from.
“In Nigeria our union was received very well, but here in Azerbaijan many people criticized us,” she says.
Turana Sayilova and Kashif Ali, a Pakistani met while studying at Baku’s Slavic University whose philology faculty has a large foreign student community. In 2012 Sayilova and Kashif Ali, wedded. They now have two children. “Students would introduce themselves, and talk about their country and their families. When Ali talked, he caught my attention. We got to know each other, I helped him with his homework, we became friends,” explains Turana, 27.
Hailing from Gujranwala, a large city in north-eastern Pakistan, in 2005, Kashif Ali moved to Baku for work. He later decided to continue his education, and met his future wife. Mutual love was not enough for her family who opposed the couple’s decision to get married. “When we decided, in 2010, everyone was against it, I was the first in my family even just coming up with the idea of marrying someone not Azerbaijani. My mum disapproved, but she later supported me
For Kashif, 33, it was easier, as his family was not against their marriage. In the end, the wedding was celebrated in both Azerbaijan and Pakistan. Kashif and Turana are both Sunni Muslim so religion is not an issue, but Turana complains that some older people still frown upon her decision to marry a non-Azerbaijani man
“My elder sister married a British citizen and moved to the UK, and when they came to Baku we often go to pubs. I met Kenny in one of them in 2014. We exchanged numbers but that was it. Then four months later we again met. He told me he had been in Scotland so he could not contact me. We started dating in 2015 and six months later he proposed.”
Konul Nadirova is 28, a native of Baku. Kenny Mackenzie is 25 and works as an oil engineer in an oil company in Baku. “Konul did not speak English, but it was not a problem,” he explains. Konul’s family was not surprised, it was the second daughter to wed a foreigner.
“My relatives were skeptical, there is this idea that a foreigner could lie. However, my sister has been already married for nine years and did not face any problems.” Both consider themselves not religious people, so the different faiths are not an obstacle.
“I was born Muslim but I don’t follow any of Islam’s rules and Kenny is an atheist. But if we have a son, it may probably lead to some discussions between us, as the boy must be circumcised. Luckily I am expecting a girl.”
Arzu Gitaliyeva, an Azerbaijani lawyer, met Carmelo Nucera, an Italian film director, in Turin, in north-western Italy in 2008. For two years, Skype and planes helped their relationship, then in 2010 they married. Arzu, now 40, says her family, parents and one sibling, did not oppose her relation. She will soon join Carmelo, 39, in Sicily with their twin children.
“I am Muslim, and he is Catholic. Our children will choose by themselves which faith to embrace when they grow up. In Italy, the older generation is very conservative and religious, probably, they would want our children to be baptized.”
Vaqif Babayev, 32, is a violinist. In 2011 he left his native Baku and moved to Erbil, in northern Iraq, to teach music in a school. Three years later he met Jessica Albrent, 35, an American citizen who started working in the same facility as a programme coordinator. In 2016 they celebrated their wedding in the USA, in Seattle, then in early 2017 they held a second ceremony in Azerbaijan.
Vaqif and Jessica were raised Muslim and Catholic respectively but religion does not play a role in their union. “We are international specialists who often travel abroad for work,” explains Jessica. “If we were to live in either Azerbaijan or USA, our families would probably interfere into our life. We live abroad, so they cannot.”
52 year old Ziya Muradov married Russian-Ukranian Yelena Muradova in 2002. They have a 12 year old daughter. For Yelena, 43, it is the second marriage. “I kind of broke all Azerbaijani stereotypes, we married and nobody knew about it. We just registered the union and that’s all,“ maintains Ziya.
Yelena is Christian Orthodox, Ziya is Muslim. Yet, religion is not an issue. “If Ziya wanted me to be converted to Islam I would accept it. But for us it does not play any role. We celebrate all the holidays,” she states.