"Decent Only at Home"

Who are those terrible Wahhabis? We tried to find an answer to this question in a Dagestani village of Gubden.

During our trips to Dagestan, we were always careful to avoid discussions about Wahhabi fundamentalism.
-We used to have them here. But now there are very few of them in Dagestan... – local people would usually tell us with impatience. Anyway, what does “Wahhabism” really mean? The answer seems simple. It is an extremely puritan form of Islam born in the deserts of Arabia during the religious revival of the mid 18th century. At present, it is the dominant denomination in Saudi Arabia.

But what does all that have to do with the post-Soviet Caucasus? Who indeed are those local “Wahhabis”? Are they fundamentalists? Fanatics? All these are just buzzwords... There are more question marks than sensible explanations.

Fundamentalists’ shoes

That is what we thought before visiting a Dargin village called Gubden...
-It is an interesting village, probably the richest one in entire Dagestan. People there live in large houses full of antiques. And they also have remote-controlled curtains – our friends from Kaspiysk add jokingly.

Gubden is also famous for its gold embroidered leather shoes which are said to be very beautiful, not to mention the local girls’ milky-white complexion, allegedly the result of Gubden white clay masks that they apply to their faces.

We set off. An hour drive from the capital of Dagestan – Makhachkala. It turns out that there are almost no marshrutkas (minibuses) going to Gubden... Strange... Such a famous village, so many stories and the Sunday market that must be visited by everyone from the neighbourhood. Fortunately, there were no problems to get a lift. A car stopped almost immediately and took us directly to the marketplace. The driver did not want any money, just smiled in a strange way. He probably suspected what awaited us there. We got off the car and rushed to the market. A real Caucasian bazaar! Fabulous sweets, nuts and dried fruit, some strange fruit looking like gigantic blueberries with a hard stone inside, and a big piece of khalva.

Suddenly we realized that something was wrong. There were only women at the bazaar, all of them wearing grey-brown baggy dresses. And we didn’t even have headscarves, just ordinary scarves around our necks. We put them on our heads, but that did not make things any better, because we were wearing jeans. At the same moment, we noticed a pair of eyes looking at us with hostility from behind the veil. A very meaningful look. A strange one. “They are disturbing the peace of the bazaar.” We felt uneasy. Then suddenly others started to appear. They crowded around us. All of them dressed in black with their faces covered. A row broke out. Why are we taking pictures and what brings us here, what are we looking for. It looked like we should clear off without delay.

Finally, we tried asking about their famous shoes. The women calmed down a bit. Faint smiles appeared on their faces, but they still kept reproaching us for coming to the village in trousers and without headscarves, claiming that we demoralize their community. Tough luck. We got tired of trying to convince them that we did not mean to offend anyone and decided to go for a short walk around the village and then back home. On the hill we saw a dome of quite a big mosque. All of a sudden, two unfriendly looking men appeared from behind the corner. One of them was a fat, dark-skinned man in a black jacket and pointed shoes, the other one – an ordinary policeman.

-Do you have a camera? – asked the fat cop producing some unfamiliar ID.
-Are you journalists?
-No. We are students. We came here to the market to buy your famous Gubden shoes. We also wanted to learn a bit about local people. But we don’t seem to be welcome here. We shouldn’t have come. Such an inhospitable village...
-Praydyomte. Let’s go. – said the policeman pointing at an unmarked car.
-We would rather walk. Everyone has warned us of abductions, we are scared.
-We have shown you our IDs, don’t you believe us? You shouldn’t have taken pictures, it is forbidden here... you know - explained the policeman in a quiet and now much friendlier voice. –This is the main reason why local people are afraid of strangers. They did not know who you are and were worried that you would take pictures of women in their hijabs and then write that this is a Wahhabist village. The FSB (Federal Security Service) people would come and launch their “proverkas” (inspections). It happens quite often here, so people are scared and distrustful.

The police station looked very shabby as compared to those in other villages: flaking paint on the walls with places where portraits of Lenin used to hang still visible, smoke covering the faces of our “saviours”. The uniformed men discussed something in their native language.
-Since you’ve already come here to buy our Gubden shoes, you will not leave without them. Everything is settled! Come with us!
That is typical of Dagestan – you never know when to worry and when to feel relieved. They did not even look at our passports.
-See, our women wear pre-Revolution headscarves, this is the only acceptable thing to wear here – said Salam (as they called the head of the police station) pointing from the window of his official Lada Niva at a woman in a yellow headscarf (which, to be honest, resembled a washed-out curtain).

-And here they make our Gubden shoes – the policeman almost pushed us into a house of some frightened women, who started showing us their products.
-Now they are made by special machines, hand-made ones must be ordered – explained the women a little abashed.
-Are there many Wahhabis living in the village? – we asked the policeman later in his car.
-Enough... – he answered tersely.
From further conversation one could deduce that the police do not fully control the situation in Gubden and that the law of the Russian Federation is only a formality here. Local shops stopped selling alcohol and cigarettes 15 years ago.


At the end of our visit we were invited to dinner in one of the houses. One more surprise awaited us there. The house was huge and full of antiques. Some of them were mere oriental kitsch, but there were also some real pearls, such as the Kuznetsov tableware from the mid 19th century or remarkably ornamented Persian carpets.

The house itself looked virtually like a palace. So much space! The rooms had at least 100 sq. m each. And this was just a part of the house designed for guests, otherwise used by men to watch television or to be more specific “a TV of the newest generation with 50 channels” (although, as were told, they do not watch TV in Gubden, because it spreads bad examples). The other part was much more cosy and warm – the “kingdom of women”. They took us there as well. All women were busy cooking the local dish called khinkali. It was a good opportunity to talk and learn a bit about their everyday life.

The beautiful young wife of the principal with a baby son in her arms:
-People here often marry their family members, even close cousins. It is better to marry a cousin than a stranger. There are not many of us and we can’t let our nation die out. I used to live in Makhachkala. I was born and went to school there. I never liked to come here – she added. – But my parents decided to marry me off here and I guess I’ve already got used to it. Living conditions here are similar to those in a town. I thought that life here would be more difficult, that I would have to carry water from the well, but it turned out to be all right.
-There are many ordinary people among them who simply oppose the present situation: widespread corruption and nepotism –many Dagestanis said referring to Gubden Wahhabis – they want to change things for better, unfortunately some of them have gone too far.
-My nephew was a Wahhabi, a very calm, good-hearted person, never hurt anyone. But he was killed, because the federal troops do not care if someone is good or bad, they kill everyone whenever they have a chance to do it – says our friend Magomed.

-They don’t drink vodka even at wedding parties! – our friends from Makhachkala told us later on. –Can you imagine, I came to my friend’s wedding and there was not even a drop of alcohol. Me and my friend were a little confused and asked what was going on there. They told us that it was forbidden and that we must not even try to open our own bottle, because it might not end up well for us. We finally did have some vodka, but it was a bit like at the school parties: from under the table in another room.
Others say: -They should have bombed that Gubden to teach them a lesson! They are so bigheaded because of all their wealth! So devout at home, but in fact just ordinary men, they come to Makhachkala to drink and spend time with women; they cannot do it at home, so they come here looking for entertainment. It is the same with their women, in Makhachkala they don’t mind wearing trousers, later they change their clothes in the forest or in a marshrutka. They are very decent, but only at home. Wily hypocrites!

In Makhachkala we could wear our jeans again without any problems.

Written by: Iwona Kaliszewska and Karolina Dulęba

The article was published on the Polish Radio website in the column edited by Jerzy Rohoziński entitled “Off the beaten track”, which, unfortunately, no longer exists.