Chaihana: culture in action
General info Served in armud, the thin, tulip-shaped glasses, with a heaping owl of sugar cubes, tea is as much part of Azerbaijan as kebab and dovga. In Azerbaijan, tea is an expression of the social lifestyle. Tea is served for everything, from funerals to wedding parties, and to a hundred cups at the office to relaxing playing backgammon with a friend after work.
Unlike the traditional five o'clock tea in the UK, Azeris don't have a certain time for tea. People drink tea any time of the day or night. Nine in the morning, nothing to do, go down to the chaihana, shake hands with the guys from the neighbourhood, sit down, light up a cigarette, the boy brings over a scalding pot of tea, a few glasses and saucers, sliced lemons without even ordering (because that's all they have). This is the social fabric of Azeri society. The chaihana is to Azerbaijan what the pub is to the UK.
In Azerbaijan, the chaikhana is the place where everything and nothing is said, its where guys talk about sports, who is getting married, lie, argue about politics and talk about the weather. While sipping tea, men will discuss the meat of life and relax. The chaikhana is where those "c'est la vie" philosophical conversations take place, where you don't argue to prove who is right and wrong, but merely for the pleasure of speaking. A man drinking tea at the tea house will definitely need more than one cup of tea to get to the point.
Within the last decade the tea house has gone from a somewhat conservative place for elders of the community to meet to a dynamic alternative for everyone to enjoy.
Along with the aesthetic role the chaihana plays, in its time, the tea house has played a historic role in the nation's history. If in Europe revolutionary ideas were discussed in bars, Azeri leaders have long been gathering in chaihanas to talk about the future of Azerbaijan. Remember the Beer Hall Putsch? In 1918 those who discussed the illegitimacy of the Tsarist regime in chaihanas later headed the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The Azeri intelligentsia gathered in chaihanas to talk about the national problems and discussed the developments of the national movement.
If the European bourgeoisie discussed their nations' problems over beer and wine, the Azeri progressive class, due to the Muslim prohibition against alcohol used tea as a diplomatic mediating tool. Amotive force in social change, many , Azeri newspapers and magazines got their start at a chaihana. Editors of the first Azeri publications drafted their content on the tables we sit at today.
However, the chaihana lost its political and intellectual connotation after the Red Army entered Azerbaijan and put an end to the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Only during 'perestroika,' with the smell of reform in the air, did progressive thinkers and reformers again begin to gather in the chaihanas, bringing its political spirit back.
The first president of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey, in his memoirs, wrote that the Azeri national movement and the idea of regaining independence was born in a chaihana. Just as in the beginning of the century people discussed the future of the country in chaikhanas, in 1990-1991, Elchibey and his colleagues discussed the possibility of establishing an independent state.
But let's leave politics for now. Tea has deep traditional roots in Azerbaijan. Tea is served everywhere. No house would be complete without a set of armud (so called for their pear shape which keeps the tea hot), no day at the office would pass without a hundred cups of tea.
According to old tradition, the host at a house has to offer tea to everyone who comes into the house, even if the visit is to last only five minutes. In fact, the only time tea is not served is when the visitor is an enemy.
But tea goes beyond just normal courtesy. In Azerbaijan, tea and matchmaking go arm in arm. Azeris are maybe more diplomatic in their marriages than in their government policy. While visiting the chosen girl's household, the matchmakers (called elchilar - usually the boys parents and other family members) do not speak openly about their real intentions. However, word that the elchilar are coming usually spreads long before their actual visit. When they do finally show up the manner in which they discuss marriage terms is similar to how a CIA would gather information. The protocol for tea drinking during matchmaking is no less complicated. If you ever participate in the ceremony, watch how the tea is served. After the negotiations are complete the girl will bring out tea. If the tea is served without sugar, that is a sign that the chances they agree to the marriage proposal are very low. If tea is served with sugar this means that there is a wedding in the future.
There is another peculiarity about tea in Azerbaijan. Azeris usually don't put sugar in their tea, instead they dunk a piece of sugar in the tea, then bite a piece and only then sip their tea. According to a common belief, drinking tea in this complicated manner comes from the medieval period, when rulers who were afraid of being poisoned tested their tea by dunking a piece of sugar in the liquid. It was believed that the poison would react to the sugar.
Chaihanas usually brew Lenkoran tea. Experts say that Lenkoran tea, grown in the southern region of Azerbaijan is as strong as Ceylon tea. Azeris sometimes add thyme, mint or rose water, which is believed to be good for the stomach and heart and to serve as an energizer in the summer heat. According to an old proverb, good tea should be as red as a rooster's crest and should not be kept over 2 hours, otherwise it will loose its taste and flavor. Sugar and lemon are served together with tea and are included in the price. You may be charged extra for additional sweets. At most chaikhanas dominos and backgammon are also available upon request. While there is an opinion that a chaikhanas is a place for men only, but within recent years the number of women drinking tea in chaikhanas has increased.