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15 February 2023

Diaspora Kid – One Azerbaijani Kazakh's Story

Growing up in Almaty, Leila Mekhdiyeva started to discover prejudice against her for being half-Azerbaijani. However, rather than giving up her mixed identity, she went on to explore and celebrate her Azerbaijani roots.

Leila Mekhdiyeva

Leila Mekhdiyeva, who now lives in Prague, grew up with two cultural identities, Azerbaijani and Kazakh, in Almaty, Kazakhstan. All images provided by Leila Mekhdiyeva. 

The first time I tried dolma, I was nine years old. For those who don’t know, dolma is a prominent Azerbaijani national dish – the best-known version made by wrapping meat into grape leaf parcels. The same dish is typical across much of the Middle East if sometimes named differently. Still, for Azerbaijani households, dolma is especially important – perhaps as archetypal as pasta is for Italians, paella for Spanish, or borsch for Ukrainians. And there I was, a nine-year-old kid on my first trip to my father’s motherland, eating the food of my people for the very first time.   

As a mixed half-Azerbaijani and half-Kazakh child born and raised in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in a Russian-speaking family, I’ve had identity issues my whole life.   

A person and person holding a baby

Description automatically generatedLeila with her father, Taleh, and mother, Rashida. 

My Azerbaijani father moved to Almaty at 20, right after serving in the Soviet Army. Like many other Azerbaijanis at that time, he had left his small village in Mingachevir, Azerbaijan, hoping to find a better life. Living under Soviet rule[1] was far from ideal for most Azerbaijanis.     

Back then, Azerbaijani immigrants to Kazakhstan and other Soviet Republics were mostly poorly educated people escaping poverty and a lack of opportunities to make a living – and enough extra money to be able to help their families back home.   

Without proper education, connections, and knowledge of Russian, the prospects weren’t that promising. Typically most found themselves taking low-income jobs — from selling fruits and vegetables at the bazaars to making shashlik (shish kebab – barbequed skewers of meat) in simple cafes. This created the Soviet-era stereotype of Azerbaijanis as uncultured folk unable to succeed in any intellectual job. They were subconsciously grouped with other diasporas from the Caucasus as “wild barbarians.” The notion was shared across the USSR, not just in Kazakhstan.   

Of course, this stereotype was far from true for many Azerbaijanis, and my father’s path was rather different. He worked for four years as a fitter in an Almaty cotton mill before going to the police academy. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he was working as a policeman. He was granted Kazakhstani citizenship, and with that, his connection to Azerbaijan ended. At least on paper.   

A person sitting at a desk with a computer and a microphone

Description automatically generated with low confidence

In reality, I grew up seeing my father longing for his native home, keeping up with a small circle of Azerbaijanis in Almaty. I remember he often drove us to a small Azeri-owned bakery when I was a child, where they made tandir chorek. I remember seeing how excited my father was to share fragments of his national cuisine with me. Now I realize that he was, in some deeper sense, sharing a bit of himself. 

From a very young age, I was aware of my ethnicity. I don’t know if it’s common for other diaspora kids, but I believe it was my father’s way of making me aware of my roots and not losing my identity. Or rather, making sure I didn’t lose his.