Autumn 1996 (4.3)

"Father's Words" - Wisdom of the Ages

compiled by Jala Garibova, sketches by Iraj Esfandiary

The Azerbaijani version of these proverbs in the new modified Latin script are available in the magazine Azerbaijan International 4:3, Autumn 1996.

You are welcome to reproduce these language learning articles for individual or educational study.

In the Azerbaijani language, the translation of "proverb" is "father's words." For many generations, "father's words" have been valued as an extremely rich inheritance of the collective thought and experience of the community. These short sayings encapsulate the wisdom of the past, making it available to both present and future generations. There are thousands of Azerbaijani proverbs. Who knows how old some of them might be-centuries, possibly even millennia. Azerbaijanis are extremely fond of spicing up their conversation with these pithy sayings to convince others of the "rightness" of their opinions and actions.

Sketch: "It's impossible to hold two watermelons in one hand.

Proverbs are traditional answers to recurring ethical problems-stinginess, deceit, treason, cunningness, unreliability, jealousy, etc. They provide an argument for a course of action which conforms to the expectations of the society.

Like proverbs and expressions found all over the world, Azerbaijani proverbs cover a broad range of topics. In fact, if you look hard enough, you can probably find a saying to prove any point of view, even ideas that contradict one another.

Although some proverbs are peculiar to a certain class, status, or life experience, usually the ones that gain widest popularity and acceptance are those which express the value system of the people as a whole.

If you want to master the Azerbaijani language, don't neglect these expressions as it's not always possible to figure out what they mean simply by translating them word by word.

Here's a sampling of proverbs that Azerbaijanis have chosen to reveal some of their Azerbaijani character.

"Beauty is ten, nine, of which, is knowing how to dress."

The most important aspect about attractiveness is how one dresses and presents himself. You don't have to be a natural beauty to be attractive. But you need to know how to dress well.

Sketch: "The dog barks, the caravan passes."

Don't get involved trying to do so many things at the same time.

"Take 100 measurements before you make one cut."

Using the imagery of tailoring or construction, calculate carefully before making a move.

"The child is sweeter than honey."

"He gets along with fire and water."

Sketch: "Even the ground has ears."

An individual who has the ability to get along with people who are opposites. Recognized as a desirable trait.

"One hand washes the other hand, which, in turn washes the face."

"Don't buy a house, buy a neighbor."

Sketch: "Never check the teeth of a horse that has been given by a wealthy landowner."

Interrelationships and mutual support are highly valued. Very close physical ties between neighbors make it essential to nurture relationships.

"If the neighbor were good, (even) the blind girl would have a chance to get married."

"If the neighbor were good, why should a garden need a fence?"

"Better a good neighbor than a bad relative."

"Courage is ten, nine is the ability to escape."

Courage means having the judgment to know when you should run away.

Sketch: "Even let God think that you eat pilaf everyday."

"Even the ground has ears."

There is no such thing as a secret. Be cautious and responsible about everything you say; otherwise, it can come back to haunt you.

Don't pay so much attention to criticism-just keep moving ahead.

"The forest can't be without its jackals."

"Flies are nothing, but they make you sick."

"He can't see the beam in his own eye, but he's looking for an eyelash in someone else's."

He is so obsessed with finding fault with another that he can't see that he has even greater faults.

Sketch: "Wrap yourself in a carpet and roll together with your kinsmen."

"Even if your relative eats your meat, he will never discard your bones."

Close relatives usually will remain loyal to you in the end and won't abandon you.

"A faithful friend never becomes a stranger, never mind if he hasn't seen you for a hundred years."

"Never mind storms and snows for the sake of a friend."

Sketch: "Make sure your blanket covers your feet."

"Wish your neighbor two cows so that you may have one for yourself."

Have a spirit of generosity towards others. In the end, God will bless you, too.

"Do a good deed, and throw it into the sea. If the fish don't know (appreciate it), the Creator will."

This proverb, like many others, is based upon a popular folk story. Once a poor man made it a practice of throwing two loaves of bread into the sea every day for the fish to eat. Unaccustomed to bread, the fish ignored his gesture. But the effort was not wasted, as a prince who had become lost at sea found it. The bread sustained him until he was rescued. Afterwards, he sought out the poor man who had provided the bread and made him a very rich man.

"Give a token (gift), never mind if it's a rotten nut."

Azerbaijanis consider it impolite to go empty-handed to someone's home or to an event where someone is honored. They always take a small gift, even if it isn't an ideal choice. Any gift, though imperfect, is far better than none. Azerbaijanis are continuously giving each other token gifts to cement relationships.

If someone offers you a gift, accept it graciously and don't complain that it's not the quality you wanted. "Never look a gift horse in the mouth."

"Doing good in return for good is a deed of every man. Doing good for bad is the hallmark of an honorable man."

"A good horse never needs a whip."

Good News
"Have you come with a boy or a girl?"

This is a common expression in the form of a question when people are waiting to hear the outcome of some news. "A boy" signifies "good news."

"He (she) doesn't even urinate on an injury (wound)."

In Azerbaijani folk medicine, cuts and burns are often soothed and treated effectively with urine. This expression is used about a person who is very stingy and who refuses to get involved in other people's lives.

"Cheap meat never makes a good soup."

You can't expect something for nothing. A proper investment is needed to achieve something serious.

"Eating much deprives a person of even eating little."

Moderation is the secret to success. Greediness destroys.

"Laughter is the remedy for 1001 illnesses."

"Hair drinks (water) from the heart."

The health of one's hair reflects one's mood and state of mind.

"I tried to draw the eyebrow, but I ended up poking the eye."

I tried to be helpful, but I ended up making a mess of the situation.

"Hope is better than eating."

"A guest is a light in the house."

"A house without a guest is like a mill without water."

"The guest's meal arrives before he does."

"Don't worry if you have nothing to feed a guest; God will provide." Such proverbs strongly influence behavior even when people are experiencing economic hardship. Many Azerbaijani families will not allow a guest to leave without eating a meal. They feel it is their duty to entertain their guests, no matter how much the sacrifice.

"Daughter, I'm telling you; daughter-in-law, listen."

Azerbaijanis don't usually confront people directly and tell them if something is wrong or how they should behave. Instead they "drop hints." Several proverbs convey this idea. This proverb suggests that a person should be conscious of advice that is being given to someone else.

"One hint is enough for a clever man."

"The child who doesn't cry will not get milk."

"Saying 'halva-halva' won't make your mouth sweet."

Halva is a traditional sweet of the Middle East and Mediterranean region. It's made of flour, butter and sugar.

"One who relies on his neighbor will remain without a dinner."

"The one who is shy will never have a son."

"It's not shameful not to know, but it's shameful not to ask."

"The person who learns (music) late in life will play in his grave."

Do things early in life at the appropriate time.

"The more you know, the less you should talk."

"When the tree gives fruit, it bends down."

The more you achieve in life, the more humble you should be.

"The dog is sleeping in the cart's shade but thinks it's his own."

Don't be selfish and proud of something if you're not the one who made it happen.

"Money is dirt on the hands. It washes off very quickly."

"Nobody takes his wealth to the other world."

"White money should be collected for a black day."

Saving for a "rainy day" when there is an emergency or economic need is an Azerbaijani practice.

Pilaf (rice) is considered a special dish in the Republic of Azerbaijan and is eaten on special occasions, not everyday. The proverb means "Don't let others know of your needs."

"I am in need, but not of the entrails; I am in need of a tail."

The lamb's tail, meaning the rump, is considered the tastiest part of the animal. Entrails-the intestines, heart, liver-are valued less. The proverb means "Don't insult my pride by offering me something that really isn't valuable."

"Don't tie garlic on your head if you don't have a headache."

If a problem doesn't exist, don't create one for yourself. Rubbing garlic on the forehead and temples in Azeri folk medicine tradition is believed to relieve a headache by massaging and heating certain points. Often Azerbaijanis wrap a cloth tightly around their heads when they have a headache.

"One's own simple bread is much better than someone else's pilaf."

"(Suppose) it didn't rain and the cattails didn't grow."

Don't rely on anybody or anything. Make it happen by yourself.

"I wish God had not made the left hand to need the right hand."

Sometimes family and society strangle an individual's initiatives making him long for the chance to be independent of them.

Society's Misperceptions
"Galandar went up to the mountain to get rid of his problems (grief, sufferings) and people said, 'What a happy man! He has gone to his summer place to rest.'"

"Until spring comes, nightingales do not sing."

There is an appropriate time and season for everything.

Many Azerbaijani proverbs deal with relationships between individuals and society. Follow whatever is accepted by the society you live in. Don't separate yourself and act independently from the norms of society.

"Go where your kinsmen go."

"Pass the bridge that your kinsmen have passed."

"Make sure your blanket covers your feet."

Don't expose yourself. Don't "go out on a limb" and do something so that others will not be able to defend you.

Written Word
"The tip of the pen, power of the sword."

The pen is sharper than the sword.


Imamali Gyozalov also contributed to this article.

From Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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