‘Black’ culture of Caucasus: individual choice or old-world tradition?

By Suel Rousseau and Sona Dilanyan

…any colour – so long as it’s black

Henry Ford.

Black! One may say that ‘black’ as a color is relatively popular and commonplace within many societies, but as a rule, every other culture has its own reasons to wear it: some prefer it because it goes with pretty much everything, some wear it for their work because it looks less striking and somewhat more official and etc. While in most Western countries this tendency might be justified for people of particular age or social background, in Azerbaijan and Armenia it is becoming more and more widespread among men and women of all ages. The symptoms of this so-called “all black culture” includes wearing, using and driving everything of a black colour: starting from simple socks and ending with tint shaded and completely black-coloured cars. The above mentioned, ‘usual’ reasons can indeed be applied to some followers of “all black culture”, but we tend to think that Armenians and Azerbaijanis might as well have a number of other reasons deriving from local traditions. As former residents of these two countries, we will try to explore the whole underground of this all black culture and possible reasons behind it in case of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

While for most of the people the concept of uniqueness becomes more and more relevant, we witness the exact opposite phenomenon within the Armenian and Azerbaijani societies: a tendency to fade in into the crowd and become unnoticeable. Any attempts of unique self-expression are seen as alien and unacceptable. Instead, what is truly appreciated is the ability to think, behave, and look as similar to everyone else as possible. Appearance-wise this phenomenon has been incorporated into a notion of eliminating bright colors and wearing exclusively black clothing.

We’d also like to point out the fact that the “all black” culture has very much in common with so-called ‘unwritten prison rules’ phenomenon. It’s a very well-known fact that in closed societies like the ones in prisons and jails, there are undisclosed rules, that everybody should be aware of. Not complying with these aforementioned rules would probably result in some type of a social lynching and stigmatizing. The same applies to the “all black” culture of Azerbaijan and Armenia: making a different choice than the mainstream one automatically leads to some kind of disapproval by the society. You’re not supposed to make different choices, unless the whole society is willing to do so. Any individual choice is being considered as an act of personal smugness and even as negligence, disrespect to the view of majority. These unwritten prison rules in Azerbaijani and Armenian societies in many cases apply primarily to men, and then respectively to women subordinated by these men.

However, the more realistic and practical reasons behind the “all black” trend might include possible atavism of soviet heritage planned economy and limited market, thereby a limited choice of products. Few decades ago, back in Soviets, a dull palette of clothes colors, including and featuring black, was almost all you could buy in the stores across Azerbaijan and Armenia. Someone from Western civilization would probably assume that this is what Azerbaijanis and Armenians like the best. However black-colored clothes was what they had, not necessarily what they liked. It’s more likely that those many years of state-imposed symbolic dominance have made Caucasus a stronghold of this limited choice culture.

It is also appropriate to mention that the symbolic meaning of the black color might also be a driving force. The significance of the black color is in its assumed masculinity, and by extending this metaphor further, in the strength, power, dominance and reputation. Choosing a different than black or white colored car, for example, would be considered as a childish, and rather ‘gay’ behavior.

Overall, all the assumptions stated above aim to bring up the grassroots reasons behind the “black culture”, while attempting to reveal whether the black color preference among a majority of the population is an individual rational choice or a subconscious submission to local traditions. It will indeed be a groundless generalization to claim, “all black” culture is not a choice. Nevertheless, considering the tradition-dominated character of these societies, it is more reasonable to assume that the black culture is a strive to obey acceptable social norms, which are subconsciously based on symbolism and symbolic perceptions: while the “all black” youth in their 20s might have not intentionally chosen the black color as a representation of masculinity, an overwhelming majority is perhaps driven by peer pressure.

Last but not least, it also might be the case that we’re simply overlooking the indigenous black culture of Caucasus, which actually represents exclusivity, or simply the local perception of beauty.

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