When in Azerbaijan, I was fortunate to meet many Peace Corps Volunteers – an organization for which I now have renewed respect. Many volunteers make little money, put themselves in foreign and challenging environments, and yet radiate some of the most positive energy I’ve ever encountered. One such volunteer is Amanda Zeidan. She is stationed in Sheki and I met her when I spoke at a girls’ conference in the region. She shared with me her story about running in Sheki and I just had to share it here.
No Small Things: Social Change Theory in Azerbaijan
by Amanda Zeidan
When I began running as a way to solidify routine and burn off some unexpected stress abroad, I did so on a track that sits at the foothills of the Great Caucasus Range overlooking Sheki. An outdoor running track is somewhat of an anomaly in most areas of Azerbaijan, so I had wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. My landlord and her family had warned me of running on the track, claiming it would invite unwanted attention and harassment. Zulfyedeh, my landlord, claimed it would be seen as attention seeking by Azerbaijanis at the stadium. Since the Sheki Stadium has such a spectacular view, tea houses had been established in the bleachers and underneath the stadium walkway. Tea houses in Sheki have a reputation for attracting the unemployed men of Azerbaijan, luring them in with promises of vodka and hours of bag gammon. As a result of this reputation associated with tea houses surrounding the stadium, those who sought to pursue activities (i.e. running) near tea houses were associated with its dealings.
When it became clear that I was intent on running at some hour of the day, whether on the road or at the stadium, Zulfyedeh decided to take matters into her own hands. Known, like many older Azeri women, for her “get-to-the-point” attitude and strong nurturing nature she insisted on going with me to the stadium the first time and informing onlookers that I was not just some tourist, but a member of the community and her family. In other words, don’t give the foreigner trouble. Just to be on the safe side, Zulfyedeh suggested bringing a group of older women together to walk. Six months later, the result of her suggestion has turned into a walking and running club held at the Sheki Stadium three times a week. We are expecting to host and walk/run together as a team in Sheki’s first ever half marathon from Sheki to Oguz in August 2012 as a way to bring expats and Azeris together for a weekend of racing and festivities. The overall aim is to generate income for the city of Sheki through community based tourism by offering adventure packages and cultural home stays.
Thanks to Zulfyedeh and people like her, we are able to, as a collective body, slowly change community traditions in Sheki. Social change theory has a fancy label for individuals like Zulfyedeh, “positive deviants”- the single actors within a community who through some personal combination of circumstance and moxie are able to defy tradition and instead try something new, perhaps radically so.
The cover photo is also by Amanda Zeidan.