In her earliest memories, Afarda Rasulova is lounging on colorful kilims and cushy pillows in the family’s living room and reading aloud to her mother.
As a working-class girl growing up in the provincial Azerbaijani town of Shaki during the early 20th century, Afarda’s mother had not been sent to school, and did not know how to read or write. Her daughter became part of her connection – and that of her husband, also illiterate -- to the world of imagination.
“Every evening, we gathered and my two brothers and I read books like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘The Children of Captain Grant’ [to my parents]. There was no TV. That was our evening ritual. Only when I went to study in Moscow, my mother learnt the Azerbaijani alphabet and was able to write me letters. She had crooked handwriting.”
Afarda Rasulova is my grandmother. Born in 1931, less than a decade after the Soviet Union’s creation, she was the first member of her family to go to university. She did not stop there. She became a professional textile designer, who, at the peak of her career in the 1970s, was a leading textile engineer at Shaki Silk Combine, reputed as one of the Soviet Union’s largest. She was elected to the town council in Shaki (also known as Sheki) as well as taught textile engineering at the local technical college. And she was a caring mother of three.
Strong-willed and focused, my grandmother arguably achieved more than many women in Shaki’s relatively conservative community, yet she remains low key when describing her past, speaking as if telling you what is for dinner.
From a poor family, her only way up was through education and hard work. Fortunately, her coming of age coincided with a time of rapid change in the USSR – the 1950s, when post-war Soviet society began to see its opportunities broaden. Her achievements – and those of others of her generation -- are the direct result of this era.
A keen student, she was awarded a gold medal that would allow her to study in any higher-educational institution without an admission exam. She was a talented pianist, but chose instead to study textile engineering, deemed “a prestigious profession.” In 1951, she set off to Moscow, where she enrolled in the State Textile Institute (now the Moscow State Textile University).
For a woman from a regional Azerbaijani town, where patriarchal customs ran strong, it was a milestone decision. “Back then, studying abroad was a brave thing [to do]; especially in Shaki,” my grandmother says.
Brave she was, but also lucky. Her parents, a homemaker and cashier, embraced her curiosity. They were eager to see their daughter have a chance that they had not, she says.
My grandmother graduated in the spring of 1955. On November 7 that year, she married Rauf Allahverdiyev, a former classmate of hers. It was the day marking the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, with parades everywhere.
“Before that day, Rauf had come to our house only once, on January 21, my birthday, to give me the perfume Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow) as a present.”
My grandfather’s open-mindedness and respect for her education -- he himself was a geography teacher -- helped win her over.
“I had a few admirers, but didn’t like them much.”
One had red hair, not quite to her taste; another did not have a degree and the third, and least likely suitor, was a mullah.
“I knew that [Rauf’s] mother wouldn’t force me to do crazy things like wearing hose in summer and covering my head. And for him, marrying someone who had studied in Moscow was a privilege.”
Their wedding was simple -- a small gathering at home, with about 30 guests. No makeup, no white dress.
But even 62 years later, my grandmother has a textile designer’s exact recall of what she did wear.
“Rauf’s family had given me some blue crepe-satin material for our engagement. It was shiny on one side and matte on the other. Tamilla’s [my grandmother’s best friend] mother was a seamstress. She made me a dress with the matte side, using the shiny parts as decorative elements. I would later wear the same dress to work.”
My late grandfather was a distinctive character -- tall, handsome, egocentric and authoritative. Looking back, I think he was one of the driving forces for my grandmother’s achievements as well as a source of inspiration for her to keep challenging herself.
Family aside, for 20 years, color patterns and textiles were her life. At the silk factory, she was in charge of designing the fabrics’ structure. The work was demanding and it required her to travel often for conferences and exhibitions.
Juggling it all with three children was no joke and, as for professional Azerbaijani women today, her extended family played a crucial role in filling the gaps.
But she did not let that hamper her drive for success and respect for her work.
She upheld the principles and the rules of Soviet times, yet she was not afraid to voice her dissent over decisions with which she did not agree.
As a town council member in the early 1970s, she opposed, for instance, the re-appointment of the council chairman since she claimed he had done nothing to improve the quality of Shaki’s streets or its water infrastructure.But it was the Soviet Union and the man was re-appointed nonetheless. My grandmother lost her own seat on the council.
For her, communism was not a cult to follow. When Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died in 1953, she was among the thousands in Moscow queuing to see his body until she decided it was not worth the fuss and left.
The USSR was just where she had happened to have been born, and she wanted to make the best of it for herself and her family. Given all she achieved, she appears to have succeeded.