Taking out a bank loan to sustain the cost of a wedding is not uncommon. Low oil prices and the resulting economic downturn which caused the drop in value of the manat, have profoundly affected the finances of Azeri families who now cannot repay their debt.
Ismiyev Jumshud took out a $12,000 loan in December, 2015 and still cannot pay it back in full. " I have a daughter and a son,” he said. “It’s a father’s desire is to see his children's weddings. After the devaluation, I lost my job, I had to borrow the money form the bank in order to pay for the wedding and pay the dowry. I used to be a taxi driver but I had to sell my car. And now I don’t know what I will do and what we will eat.”
He did not have another option. “The wedding feast is a tradition,” he states. “What will people say if my daughter would not have a proper ceremony? Yes, it is a beautiful tradition, but for those who can afford it.”
The drop of the manat has in fact affected the whole wedding business, and plagued Azerbaijan’s economy at large. The declining oil revenues and pressure from falling currencies in Russia and Central Asia prompted the country’s central bank to drop the local currency’s peg to the dollar in order to enable it to save its fast declining foreign exchange revenues. In January of 2015, 1 manat (AZN) was worth $ 0.78. On December 21, 1 manat was worth $ 1.55. The currency suffered another major depreciation in December and has been gradually declining since May. As of September 13th, 1 manat is worth $ 0.64.
Cavid Salmanov, manager at Sevinj, a wedding restaurant in Baku, maintains that since the devaluation, the number of wedding receptions dropped.
“Prices of everything have increased, and as a consequence we have to raise our prices. It affects people, reducing the possibility to host large parties.”
Wedding venues are divided into three groups: low, middle and high level.
According to Salmanov the average menu in the lower group costs AZN 18-28 ($10-16) per person, while in the middle group is about AZN 32-50 ($20-30), rising to AZN 50-200 ($30-120$) for the most expensive lot.
Another restaurant in Baku, Restaurant Mona Liza falls into the last category. One of the employees, who did not want to be named, maintains that the devaluation affected only the “low and middle classes” who usually have their weddings in cheaper places.
“Our menu is very broad, hence our prices are higher. Apart from the meal, we offer other support services like glitter and balloons, fireworks, and a car for the couple".
Both from Baku, Kamala Haqverdiyeva, 29 and Rufat Mahmudov, 32 have been engaged from January, 2016 and are going to marry soon, but the path has not been smooth. To make the ceremony happen, her parents had to borrow money from their relatives.
“They borrowed to cover the dowry as well,” she explains “I work, but what can I do with my teaching salary (AZN 300, $180 month) In fact, we have decided with my groom that we will have a very small wedding surrounded by very close friends. But everybody interfered, wondering what other people will say?”
Rufat has advice for young people: think carefully and spend your money more reasonably. He says that these expenditures create tension within families.
“We did not want such a big wedding. We could have used that money for traveling and buying things we really need,” he insists. “But there was no way, our families did not agree, they don’t want to fall behind their neighbors. And now they are in trouble. They are still fighting with us.”
An Azerbaijani wedding can feature between 250 and 1,000 guests, with a range between 350 and 500 people making it the average. Considering a wedding with 200 guests, the overall cost in a restaurant in the cheapest range would cost AZN 2,000 ($1,200), shooting up to AZN 20,000 ($12,000) in an expensive facility.
Money spends on the bride:
Wedding dress: AZN 100-10,000 ($ 60-6000)
Make-up and hairstyle: AZN 50-300 ($ 30-180)
Flowers: AZN 30-100 ($ 18-60)
Car rental: AZN 50-150 ($ 30-90)
Photo album: AZN 70-500 ($ 42-300)
For a total of AZN 5,000-30,000 to be paid by the bride’s family. The dowry is not included.
If the celebration of love and life come at a hefty cost for Azeri families, dying is proving to be just as challenging - families have to endure the loss of a loved one and often end up in debt in order to pay for expensive mourning ceremonies. In Azerbaijan a funeral is a key social gathering and mourning the dead has become a large and growing industry. In the current economic situation, families end up borrowing money - to organize the mourning ceremony, to buy land for the burial, to purchase the marble stone.
“The person has died, but other problems are on the shoulder of the relatives,” an Azeri saying goes.
When Flora Aleskerova’s mother-in-law passed away in August 2015, the Baku resident took a loan of AZN 8,205 ($5,000 ) in order to host the funeral. She is still repaying back the loan.
“We took this loan in US dollars, before the second devaluation, then the value of the dollar increased, and we cannot pay it off now because our salaries remain in manat,” she complains, adding that her husband did it in order to escape criticism from family and friends.
Usually, mourning ceremonies are held in the specific facilities built in almost every district. As tradition mandates, to invite to the ceremony friends and neighbors along side the relatives, companies who are specialized in organizing funerals also rent out tents which can be set up near the local mosque or near the house of the deceased and can host larger groups of people. Funeral tents have become a profitable business and prices depend not only on the size but also on the service provided. n addition, they provide table, chairs, air conditioning, as well as a catering service with waiters and chefs.
Rafiq Bayramov, who rents funeral tents in Ganja, a city 300 km west of the capital Baku, notes that his business was affected by the devaluation. As for the wedding restaurants, tents come at different prices which have increased following the currency volatility.
In mid-2016 an “economy class” facility cost between AZN700 and AZN1,400 ($400-800), up from AZN200 and AZN1,000 ($120-600) in early 2015. The most expensive range - so called “VIP tents” - have climbed well over AZN5,000 ($3,044) from which cost 4000-5000 AZN ($2500-3000) before the devaluation, now cost over 5000 AZN ( $ 3000)
“We provide at least 8-9 air conditioners in our tents,” explains Eltun Allahverdiyev who only deals with the luxury segment targeting wealthy Azerbaijanis. Both the external and internal design, from the floor to the ceiling cover, curtains, table and chairs, is state of the art. “The personnel is uniformed, there are also special bio-toilets for women and men, and there are menus of different prices. We can also offer luxury cars for carrying the coffin."
Costs for VIP tents
Rent: up to AZN3,000 ($1,826)
Meal: AZN15 - 20 ($9-12)
Daily rent for a dishwasher: AZN70-150 ($42-91)
Tea maker: AZN50-100 ($30-60)
Car to transport the coffin: AZN120-180 ($73-109)
Tombstone AZN1,300-2,500 AZN ($791-1,522)
Washing of body of deceased AZN50 ($30)
The mollah’s religious service: AZN50-150 AZN ($30-91)
Total about AZN5,000-6,000 ($3,044 - 3,653)
Very few people can afford to pay more than AZN10,000 ($6,089)
As the economic situation is increasingly putting pressure on households’ budgets, people are more and more upset about the price tag of both wedding and mourning ceremonies. The Caucasian Muslims Office had the fatwa (Islamic rulings) to prohibit the sumptuous funerals, and not to allow food at the funerals, explaining it as a squandering practice, and the difficulty of paying the debt that people take from the bank for. Criticism has come from the press and also the authorities who have tried to control the phenomenon. Traditions, however, are hard to fight regardless of the burden they pose.
When Kamala Bayramova’s husband died, because of the many relatives in Baku and Ganja, she held a mourning ceremony in both cities.
"We have many relatives in both cities, so we needed two ceremonies,” she explains. “In Baku nobody said anything, but in Ganja the officials did not allow me to set up a tent so we had to hold the ceremony at home."
"For a long time we will be witnesses of these traditions"
Wasting food and money is, in any case not right, notes sociologist Javid İmamoğlu, but we will still see it for a long time as the custom is entrenched in society.
“Taken alone, everyone complains about the squandering and the customs, however when the moment comes, people simply cannot be against of it. Customs and traditions are like unwritten laws, and they are stronger than "state laws."”