Cultural Identity & All Her Blemishes

Drawing by Amalia Hajieva

There is shame in admitting that I feel more tied to my country, now that it is at war, than ever before. Cultural identity means nothing more to me than a few spices and melodies. And still, you’ll catch me stopping in my tracks at the scent of saffron and closing my eyes at the sound of a tar (an Azerbaijani instrument).

I’m writing this from my little room in London, plastered with photographs of my family in Baku, feeling more isolated now than at the height of quarantine. As I’m diving back into the rush and hustle of university, the moments in between – the ones that really count – have been filling my head with nothing but war, war, war. But by no means is this a cry for pity, or a symbol of ingratitude for the life and safety my parents have given me.

There are very specific and distinct oddities that go into shaping each and everyone’s cultural identity and their perception of ‘Home’. Though both of my parents are from Azerbaijan, I was born in Germany and lived there for most of my life. This meant that each summer among Soviet furniture, challenged the only part of me I wanted to preserve – the German part. Eurovision, World Cups, Olympics – whatever the occasion, I was covered head to toe in black, red and gold. My very first heartbreak was on the one-way plane to Baku on December 27th of 2012, leaving the smell of hornbeams and the sound of “Finale! Finale!” football chants behind. Today, I will grin at the sound of German at the table next to me, but I’ll be ordering a black tea and saffron rice.

So then, what are these so-called oddities that go into cultural identity? I have to admit, I hate those two words. I really, really do – especially when put together. Perhaps there were too many intersections that went into what should have been a very defining component of myself, and yet, I’m sure as many can relate, there was no such clarity. Frankly, because there was no need for it. This constant search for a cultural identity for me to cling to was really just a Hetzjagd. If a certainty in one part of me means an elimination of the other, I’m more than content with floating somewhere in the middle.

But I’m not quite done yet, because this middle isn’t some void where all traditions, idioms, recipes and melodies hover with no weight. It is instead where I derive my perception of 'Home' – the memories of people in my life that bring certainty to the value of such conventionally cultural elements. There’s no value to these elements without the individuals surrounding them, and this means that, if those individuals are concentrated in a country that’s at war, then it is my country, my Home, and myself that’s at war.

I’ve come to terms with the uncertainties of cultural identity, and instead choose to give the idea of ‘Home’ more weight. But now that I’ve decided that ‘Home’ is dependent on the people in one’s life, where do I stand, when I’m sitting 4,643 kilometers away from ‘my people’? Looking at the photographs around me, I know that I stand with my ‘Home’, because I still tell my friends in London of the archaeological marvels in Azerbaijan, I still beg my Grandmother for Lezgi recipes, and I still close my eyes to the sound of a tar. Amidst a war in Azerbaijan, my German patriotism is no longer at odds with my conception of ‘Home’, because a crisis like this one highlights the well-known fact that it is the people in your life that add value to the constituents of ‘cultural identity’. So, yes – there is a shame in admitting that it took a state of war for me to fully comprehend that my ties to a country depend on the people in it. But at the very least, I am no longer a static jigsaw of my scattered cultural counterparts – I am instead floating through a decidedly familiar middle.

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