Some friendly teachers
by James Overton
In Muhammad's house there was no toilet. The bathroom, a screened off corner of the back veranda, was tiled on the floor and quite clean. A murky drainpipe fell from a hole in the floor. No tap or running water but as is normal in houses in rural Azerbaijan a water tank hung from the wall with a spigot dripping into a plastic bowl. Next to it, a flimsy shelf held a cup with Muhammad's shaving things and toothbrush. No toilet paper. Jim scratched his chin as he pondered. How does one proceed? he wondered. Recalling Arab lore about never using your left hand when eating, he looked doubtfully at his fingers.
Returning to the kitchen Jim picked up his phrase book . "Ahem he started with some embarrassment, "Er. Tualetnaya bumaga? At least the phrase is easy to remember, thought Jim. With a laugh, Muhammad said he never used the stuff. But he clattered down the steps to Watan's store to get some. The stuff was very dense, the consistency of maize leaves.
Jim was very sparing with it, for fear of blocking the drain.
In the afternoon an unshaven middle aged man in a brown suit called to pay his respects.
"Je m'appelle Ibrahim he told Jim, flashing some golden teeth.
A local schoolteacher, Ibrahim had long ago learned a little French, unfortunately for the sake of communication no better than Jim's Russian. Muhammad brought more tea and the three of them sat sipping and dipping sugar cubes. Jim mused about the difficulties of communication and riffled through his Russian phrase book: "Ya Usitel (I ' teacher) he smiled back at Ibrahim.
Two other men arrived, equally unshaven, one of them reeking of vodka. "Usitely Ibrahim indicated proudly. More glasses were set out and tea replenished from the constantly boiling kettle. One of the newcomers, the alcohol fuelled one with prominent ears, frowned as he searched for a long forgotten phrase "Je suis instituteur he announced, beaming.
"Let's go and sit in the garden suggested Muhammad, so everyone went downstairs. Big ears reached inside his jacket and pulled out a vodka bottle. He suggested that they share it. "Muhammad, do you drink? " asked Jim. "He doesn't but we do. It's no problem replied the others and with that they crossed the street to Watan's shop. A shelf between boxes of sewing thread, soap and "tualetnaya bumaga held a selection of half litre vodka bottles. A surprisingly wide price range separated the better quality spirits from the inexpensive ones. Jim recalled that his friend Vassily had recommended never to drink cheap vodka, "It's usually filtered gasoline he advised. Jim chose one of the costlier bottles.
Soon the five of them were sitting under the blossoming cherry sapling in the garden. Muhammad sipped tea. Jim had a book, a novel, which was spotted by big ears who picked it up and leafed through it. On a whim Jim said "It's yours! You can have it, a present. Big ears held it to his heart and closed his eyes. Now it was time to propose some vodka toasts.
"Ham Zet! started Big Ears (actually his name was Eldar and his friend, Namik) and all except for Muhammad clinked glasses and threw back the contents in one gulp; "cul sec as the French say.
"Na Zhdorovye cried another
"Pus Budit Ni pervoyich' y pas Led Neich !" proposed Ibrahim
Finally as the atmosphere warmed up, Eldar filled the glasses as called "Goi Hamesheg Gunesh Olsen, Garabach Azad Olsen! With a roar of approval, all knocked back their glasses. Jim asked Eldar to repeat it and copied this into his note book. When glasses were refilled, Jim tried out this last, and political, toast again. With cries of approval all downed their drinks one more time.
An hour later, all accompanied Jim to the bus stop. With a reeling head, he waved farewell to his friends, promising to return next year. "Ya Vierchou na voy Domoy he called before squeezing into his seat for the long overnight trip back to the capital..