Autumn 1996 (4.3)

The Toastmaster's Unwritten Rule Book
Guide for Foreign Guests Who Frequent Azerbaijani Parties

by Jala Garibova

Toasting at a Jubilee for one of Azerbaijan's scientists.

It's a rare party in Azerbaijan that has no toastmaster-whether it be a dinner party, wedding, birthday party or Jubilee.1 In the West, people clink glasses of champagne, wine and vodka, wishing each other good health, "Cheers" or "Ciao."2 It's as simple as that.

Not so in Azerbaijan, where a specific person is designated or, sometimes, just assumes, the role of toastmaster. Think of him more like an "emcee," orchestrating and improvising what, in essence, is a dramatic social performance. In the Azerbaijani language, he's called "tamada," (ta-ma-DA) which is derived from two words-"tam" (all, everybody) and "ata" (father), as in "father of all."
3 In essence, that's his assigned responsibility-to connect people with each other, guide them, and provide for their well-being.

It's his job to know who all the guests are, at least, all of the important ones, and to introduce them formally by lavishing praise upon them. These speeches are entertaining, informative and spontaneous in nature, and may last up to 10-15 minutes (though it sometimes seems like an eternity).

Guests hold high expectations for the tamada's performance. If he doesn't do a good job, they'll talk about it among themselves. "Oh, that tamada last night wasn't nearly as good as the one at so-and-so's wedding party last week. I nearly fell asleep! He was such a bore. I wish we hadn't gone. I told you we shouldn't have wasted our time!"

If you're a foreigner and invited to Azerbaijani parties, despite not knowing the language, you can still glean a considerable wealth of knowledge about "who's who" and "what's what" in terms of Azerbaijani values, social status, hierarchical ranking and inter-relationships. Of course, these occasions are even more meaningful if you can arrange for translation and have the patience to listen through it all.

Though there are exceptions to every rule and to every social gathering, a preconceived notion does exist as to what comprises an "ideal" tamada performance. Here are some of the unwritten rules:

1. Sense of Humor
You'll need a keen sense of humor and a great knack for amusing people. Entertainment is what it's all about. Constantly look for material to enhance and expand your repertoire of dramatic material such as proverbs, jokes, legends, poetry, episodes from epics, drama or literature and Molla Nasreddin stories.

2. Hierarchy
At the occasion itself, be very observant of how people perceive each other in society. Determine who are the most important guests. Toast them first. At Birthdays and Jubilees, obviously, you'll toast the honoree first. At weddings, toast the fathers of the bride and groom first, then the mothers, and then, the newlyweds. Speak about both fathers together. That goes for the mothers, too.

But if the event is a dinner party or family gathering, identify the "aqsaqqals." Toast them first.

After showing respect to the elderly, work down the list of outstanding guests, according to the status that is relatively accepted by the group. If several people seem equally important or famous, determine the hierarchy according to age-the elder being toasted first. If the group is not larger than 20 or so, make sure every single person present has been toasted by the time the evening is over.

3. Foreign Guests
Foreign guests are usually given precedence over others. Toast them first even before the "aqsaqqals," especially if the group is not too large. Azerbaijanis are generally very open, warm and hospitable towards foreigners. In the toast, speak about the activities and businesses which bring the guests to that part of the world. It's all right to exaggerate when you toast. Better to err on the side of being too generous with your praise than to belittle a guest's importance. Most importantly, make all the foreigners feel welcome and included in the group.

4. Personalized Toasts
Toast business people for their economic success; scholars for their major discoveries; educators for their nurturing role in society; poets and writers for their deep insight into the psyche of mankind (ask someone to recite some lines from the author's work for the group). Toast politicians and social figures for their role in helping build the new Republic.

5. Timing
Toasting is really a dramatic art form. Don't rush. You have all afternoon or evening-possibly three or four hours. Take at least five, ten or more minutes for each toast. With a bit of ingenuity, even ordinary people can be verbally painted into portraits of heroes and heroines, princes and princesses, and even social redeemers of the world.

6. Distant Friends and Relatives
Don't forget absent friends and relatives if almost everyone in the group knows them. It doesn't matter if they live on another continent. You can be sure that in some time and some place that distant person will find out about the toast and appreciate the gesture.

7. Women in the Kitchen
Never forget the women in the kitchen who have dedicated themselves to making this party a success-especially when it comes to preparing food. Make sure the granny, aunties, moms and sisters and everybody else who has been involved are invited into the presence of the guests and toasted. Honor their efforts. Praise the meal and at the conclusion of the toast, tag on the traditional saying, "May we never lack your guidance and care"5 or "May your hands and arms always be healthy."6

8. Mothers
Though the mother of the host or hostess may be one of the last people among the guests to be toasted, it's totally appropriate to generalize from her to all the "Mothers in the World" and to the vast contribution they have made to mankind. Invite your guests to stand up and join you in honoring them.

9. General Toasts
If many guests are of the same occupation or career-artists, writers, theater, educators, scientists-toast this group as a unit. Elaborate on how great their spiritual contribution has been to society.

10. Toast for the Freedom of Karabakh
Lately, it has become a practice to make a toast about Karabakh, the mountainous enclave inside Azerbaijan which is under military occupation by Armenians who want to make it into an independent republic separated from Azerbaijan. Since 1988, Azerbaijanis and Armenians have been at war over this territory. Azerbaijanis long for the day when this area will be officially returned to Azerbaijan and the integrity of borders that existed during the Soviet period honored. A toast to Karabakh implies the return of the remaining additional 20 percent of land even outside of Karabakh which is also being held and the return of nearly a million refugees to their homes and villages who have been displaced.

Etiquette for Guests
There are a few rules of etiquette that guests generally observe when the tamada is making a toast. No matter if his speech lasts 15 minutes, don't eat or drink or carry on side conversations with the person sitting or standing next to you. Never sip your drink in between toasts as the act of drinking is somewhat formalized and carried out as a group all together.

If you don't drink for personal, health or religious reasons, Azerbaijanis will respect you more if you don't make a big scene about refusing. Better to clink glasses just like everyone else and then symbolically lift your glass to your lips. You don't have to drink if you would rather not. The main thing is to enjoy the group, develop relationships and have fun!

"Bottoms up!" to the long-established verbal tradition of the tamada in Azerbaijan!

Anne Kressler contributed to this article.


1 Jubilees are related to birthdays except that they are public or semi-public observances reserved for individuals whom the community respects, particularly in fields such as art, music, science, education, literature, etc. Usually, a person is so honored on his 60th or 70th birthday, although the very famous and beloved, such as poets or writers, might be as young as 50 or even 40 at their first Jubilee. The Jubilee tradition facilitates cultural heroes. Some people are so valued in society that their Jubilees are celebrated publicly even after their deaths. For example, the famous composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov's 110th Jubilee was celebrated on December 10th, 1995, although he had died in 1948.

2 Similar expressions exist in Azerbaijani such as "Sagh ol!" meaning "Be healthy!" "Sænin saghlighina!" (sæ-NIN sa-ghli-ghi-NA) "To your health!" or "Khoshbakht ol" (khosh-BAKHT OL) meaning "Be happy!" or "Be lucky!"

3 Tamadas are usually men. But women do take on this role at events attended by all-females and they do initiate occasion toasts which are "added on" to the tamada's in a mixed group.

4 Aqsaqqals ("white bearded"-men); aghbircheks ("white sideburns"-women) are usually elderly members of the society who are highly respected because of their knowledge, wisdom and valuable advice.

5 Üstümüzdæn æskik olmayasan."

6 Ælin qolun var olsun.

Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 2002. All rights reserved.

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© Azerbaijan International. Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.