Azerbaijan, Fulbright, Portraits

Thanksgiving Turkey From Murguzali Village, Imishli Region, Azerbaijan

Yvonne Botto, 83, born in Monaco in 1928 and raised in La Fayet, France who later changed her name to Ivonna Shirmammadova after marrying an Azeri partisan during the Second World War and returning to his home village of Murguzalli in the Imishli region of Azerbaijan after they wed in 1947; she converted to Islam and two years later they gave birth to a son and three years later her first husband died of an unknown illness at the age of 29, she later married his cousin. Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 22, 2011.

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.

Turkeys in the yard of Yvonne Botto, 83, in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 22, 2011.

The grandson of Yvonne Botto Hagani Shirmammadov, 30, takes a knife from Botto’s granddaughter Hamida Shirmammadova, 26, as Botto’s great-grandson Vugar Shirmammadov, 2, looks on in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

 

(Center) Yvonne Botto’s grandson Hagani Shirmammadov, 30, looks around for a place to slaughter the turkey beside the family’s semi-constructed new home as other members of the family stand around in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

The grandson of Yvonne Botto Hagani Shirmammadov, 30, prepares to slaughter the turkey as Botto’s great grandson Vugar Shirmammadov, 2, looks on in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

The grandson of Yvonne Botto, Hagani Shirmammadov, 30, slaughters the turkey by cutting off its head and spilling its blood as Botto’s great grandson Vugar Shirmammadov, 2, looks on in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

The grandson of Yvonne Botto, Hagani Shirmammadov, 30, slaughters the turkey by cutting off its head and spilling its blood as Botto’s great grandson Vugar Shirmammadov, 2, looks on in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

The dead turkey after its head was cut off experiences its final tremors on the ledge of Yvonne Botto’s new, partially constructed home in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

The granddaughter of Yvonne Botto, Hamida Shirmammadova, 26, prepares the turkey for cooking by boiling it in hot water to remove its feathers as the rest of the family prepares renovations on their new home in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

The granddaughter of Yvonne Botto, Hamida Shirmammadova, 26, prepares the turkey for cooking by boiling it in hot water to remove its feathers in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

The feathers of the turkey sit in a boiling water beside a covered picnic table in the large front lawn of Yvonne Botto in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

(L-r) Jamila Shirmammadova, 58, the daughter-in-law of Yvonne Botto, and Hamida Shirmammadova, 26, the granddaughter of Yvonne Botto prepare the turkey by cleaning it and removing its innards in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

Jamila Shirmammadova, 58, the granddaughter of Yvonne Botto with the cleaned turkey takes it inside for refridgeration in Murguzalli, Azerbaijan on November 23, 2011.

 

Thank you to everyone who helped, shared, cooked and feasted this Thanksgiving!Β  I am inspired in strange and interesting ways today and wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving!Β  With love from Baku, Amanda