For the passed two days, I was in a tiny village of Azerbaijan called Murguzalli, photographing the story of a French woman, Yvonne Botto, who was born in Monaco in 1928 and raised in the town of La Fayet, France. As a young woman in her teenage years she met, and fell in love with an Azeri man who had escaped from a German prisoner of war camp and attended her father’s clandestine communist meetings. They wed in France and soon his homeland beckoned and he took his new wife Yvonne to his home village, a journey that lasted three months by rail in 1947 and then three days from Baku by “araba,” a homemade form of transportation much like a horse-drawn wagon that really lacks translation. Two years later, she had a son and three years later at the age of 29 her husband was dead of an unknown illness. Since her son was a Soviet citizen, she was unable to take him home with her to France, so she decided to stay and settled into a life in the Azerbaijani village of Murguzalli. By village custom, she remarried to a cousin of her former husband, had six more children and now has 30 grandchildren and 22 more great-grandchildren.
For 64 years, she lived in obscurity until flooding in her region last summer brought the story of her plight and isolation from her homeland into the media, first in Azerbaijan and then in France. She has since traveled home to France for eight days with the assistance of the French consulate in Baku and the European Azerbaijan Society, an organization with close links to the very powerful Ministry of Emergency Situations of Azerbaijan, that is also planning a film about her story. The Ministry of Emergency Situations is now building her a new home and providing for an additional home on her land. For now, though, as construction is underway, the family lives in a shell of their former home, one room, a long narrow corridor, as the rest was knocked down to make way for the new home, with five beds, a table, a television set, and a small wood burning heater in the middle.
In a village lacking much more than a post office, the family has all the food it needs to provide for itself in its yard; dairy cows, chickens, turkeys. In Murguzalli, a village lacking much else, is where we found the bird for today’s Thanksgiving festivities far away from what was once my home in Chicago or New York, for now in Baku where I am a Fulbright photography grantee. As the tendency in Azerbaijani villages is towards extreme hospitality once you have been accepted, it is truly like you are family. I did not want a free turkey, which would have no doubt been the reaction if I told them the meaning of the occasion and what the turkey would be for. It is also hard for me to accept such a large gift from people whose wealth is largely measured in terms of love in the family and livestock and ethically it would be uncomfortable.
Instead, I had to keep it a bit of a secret, so I asked my translator, Alina, to give money to our driver, Anar, who then took to solving the problem by telling the family he needed to buy a turkey for his family and asking if they could kill and gut it for him. While I was photographing the women of the family herding sheep and feeding a baby lamb, Anar was off thankfully and generously procuring our Thanksgiving turkey. Half an hour later, he returned with one of the grandchildren clutching a turkey by its legs. The family of Yvonne Botto then did a wonderful job of preparing it and I think I even learned through photographic observation how to should I ever be stuck and my previously existing city skills fail me as they did on this occasion. I am thankful for everyone in Yvonne’s family for making this Thanksgiving memorable from the start. It is also the first time I will be making a turkey on my own for Thanksgiving.
Thank you to everyone who helped, shared, cooked and feasted this Thanksgiving! I am inspired in strange and interesting ways today and wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving! With love from Baku, Amanda