Azerbaijan International

Spring 2003 (11.1)
Page 22-23

Turkmen Proverbs
Words of Wisdom for Life
by Gazanfar Pashayev

Other articles by Gazanfar Pashayev
Links to Turkmen in Iraq - Azerbaijanis in Iraq - Little Known People (Spring 11.1, 2003).

The following proverbs were gathered from Azerbaijani people living in Iraq who are known as Turkmen, and sometimes called Turkman or Turkoman. They are believed to have first immigrated to Baghdad around the 7th century. An estimated 2.5 million Turkmen live in Iraq today, and speak Azeri as it is spoken in Southern Azerbaijan (Iran), where an estimated 25 to 30 million Azerbaijanis live.

Though proverbs may appear to be about the nature of objects and animals, these pithy traditional sayings are really meant to show others how society expects them to deal with fundamental dilemmas and struggles in life. Rather than reprimanding someone directly about their inappropriate behavior, Azerbaijanis prefer to draw from their large repertoire of conventional folk wisdom. This is perceived as being a gentler, more effective way to get one's point across. Many of these time-tested proverbs or "Fathers' words" ("atalar sozu", as the Azerbaijanis call "proverbs") published here would suggest that the Turkmen living in Iraq have had a long history of suffering and, consequently, have grown very cautious and circumspect.

Photos: (Below four books)Folklorist Gazanfar Pashayev collected Karkuk Turkoman (Karkuk) while living in Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s. He has since published 10 books in Azerbaijan.

Folklorist Gazanfar Pashayev collected Karkuk Turkoman (Karkuk) while living in Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s

 Folklorist Gazanfar Pashayev collected Karkuk Turkoman (Karkuk) while living in Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s

Here are a few of the proverbs compiled by Azerbaijani folklorist Gazanfar Pashayev and published in his book, "Anthology of Azerbaijani Folklore of Iraq-Turkmen," Vol. 2. Aghridagh Press: Baku, 1999. All of these proverbs of the Turkmen / Karkuk people living in Iraq are identical to or have only been slightly modified over the centuries from the sayings used by Azerbaijanis in the Azerbaijan Republic today. AI staff member Aynura Huseinova provided the interpretations and the translation from Azeri into English.

 Folklorist Gazanfar Pashayev collected Karkuk Turkoman (Karkuk) while living in Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s

 Folklorist Gazanfar Pashayev collected Karkuk Turkoman (Karkuk) while living in Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s

Don't sleep in a place so low that a flood can carry you away.
Don't sleep in a place so high that the wind can blow you away.

(Be moderate and cautious.)

Stretch your legs [only to] the length of your blanket.
(Don't expose yourself to harm and insecurity. Stay within your own limits.)

Walk barefoot and the thorns will hurt you.
(If you don't live according to societal norms, you may regret it.)

After the cart is broken, many people will offer advice on how to fix it.
(Similar to the English expression, "Hindsight is 20/20." It's easier to see the appropriate solutions for problems after a catastrophe, not while you are in the process of experiencing them).

If you get burned while drinking hot milk,
You'll even try to cool your "ayran" drink more.

(This is similar to the English expression, "Once burned, twice shy."
Azerbaijanis prefer drinking milk that has been slightly warmed; however, they drink "ayran", a traditional drink on summer days, chilled. When you get hurt in a way that you don't anticipate then you become very cautious about ordinary situations.)

The snake hates mint
But the mint grows at the entrance of its home.

(Sometimes you have to compromise and deal with circumstances that you aren't very happy about.)

Whatever you put in your pot comes to your spoon.

(Similar to the English expression, "You've made your bed, now lie in it." You must live with the consequences of your actions.)

First God looks at the mountain,
Then He sends the snow.

(You get what you deserve.)

If you don't step on a snake, it won't bite you.
(Similar to the English expression, "Better safe than sorry." Avoid trouble and it will avoid you.)

The person who spends time with people who are lame,
Learns how to limp.

(Your environment influences your behavior.)

If you go to the bathhouse, you will sweat.
(Know and accept the consequences of your choices.)

Conserving Resources
Save your wealth for days of poverty.
Save your youth for old age.

Hold on to the straws [hay], one day you will need them.
(Similar to the American aphorism, "Waste not, want not." Conserve resources: don't be wasteful.)

The fish rots from the head.

(Corruption starts from the top -the key decision maker.)

Blood is dripping from his pen.

(His actions hurt others.)

Family Pride
Don't swear in the name of my grandfather who was a slave,
And I won't swear in the name of your grandfather who was a wealthy landowner.

(A person's ancestry is sacred, no matter what reputation they had.)

When you're sitting in a ship,
Don't quarrel with the ship's owner.

(Similar to the English expression "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." If you are benefiting from someone, don't abuse them, or there may be dire consequences.)

Human Nature
A donkey with a load is still a donkey.

(The true character of human beings who are evil is still evident even if presented as respectable. The proverb is used in a negative way about people of bad character.)

A wolf cub will become a wolf.
(A person's roots will determine who he becomes.)

Grass grows from its own roots.
(Things resemble that which they originate from.)

He eats with wolves and bleats with the sheep.

(He is hypocritical and two-faced.)

Studying is as difficult as digging a grave with a needle.

(Knowledge comes with hard work.)

[If] You are a master, [and] I am a master.
Who will milk the cows?

(Similar to the English expression, "Too many chiefs, not enough Indians." If everyone is a supervisor, none of the work will get done.)

Drop by drop fills the lake.

(Similar to the meaning of the English expression, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Progress takes place in small increments.)

Self destruction
If a tree is not consumed by insects from within,
It can live for a thousand years.

(Internal struggles, not external ones, are what destroys a nation or society.)

Self Interests
The goat is struggling against death.
But the butcher thinks only about the fat.

(Each person has his own agenda and personal interests. Here fat is viewed positively because it makes the meat tasty.)

Unless the fish is in the water,
There is no bargain.

(Similar to the English expression "Don't count your chickens before they are hatched." You must have something tangible to offer if you expect to have any advantage in bargaining.)

Self Reliance
Everybody laughs at the person who falls down.

(Don't expect people to be sympathetic when you fail.)

The enemy of trees is insects.
The enemy of human beings is pain.
A wall is destroyed by humidity,
A person is destroyed by sorrow.

When you are hungry, you don't think of honor.

Azeri version: A hungry person is not afraid of the sword.
(Desperate times call for desperate measures. When it's a question of survival, there are no rules, regardless of dire consequences. What is there to lose?)

The person drowning in the sea will even grasp at a snake.
Azeri version: A person drowning in water will grasp even at a straw (hay).

(In desperation, you will do anything to survive.)

Just by saying, "Honey! Honey!" doesn't make your mouth sweet.

Azeri version: Just by saying, "Halva, Halva!" doesn't make your mouth sweet. (Halva is a traditional sweet prepared from butter, flour and sugar.)
(Similar to the English expression, "Actions speak louder than words." Words are empty: you have to work to make things happen.)

To learn more about Azeri proverbs and expressions, visit, Click "Learn Azeri" to find more than 120 proverbs published in Azeri and English translation. The Web site is a creation of Azerbaijan International magazine and features articles in Azeri Latin and Azerbaijani literature in English translation as well as Azeri Latin.

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