The Place Where God Opened the Bag with Languages

Kumukh is the administrative centre of the Lak region and one of the oldest villages in Dagestan.

Local inhabitants claim that it was once inhabited by free people who constituted the elite of the Lak ethnic group. We had always wanted to go there, but, as always in Dagestan, people tried to discourage us from going to the mountains on our own.

On the way to the village

-Rizvan is going to drive you to Kumukh tomorrow – promised our friend Abdurahman, a journalist, Esperantist and a human rights activist well-known in Makhachkala. Finally, we are going to get out of this terrible capital where every other day a police car is bombed on the Shamil Avenue, on which we live.
-His friend Gasan Gusein will go with you, he is an interesting person. When he learnt that we have two Polish guests, he said he would very much like to meet you. We’re leaving tomorrow in the morning, is that OK?
And indeed, in the morning a white Zhiguli, just a perfect car for mountain rides, stopped next to Abudrahman’s crumbling block of flats.

We entered the Lak region. The landscape changed: mountains became higher, the views – more beautiful, below we noticed the Karakumukh-Koisy river flowing in a wonderful gorge. We were approaching Kumukh. Suddenly, we noticed a mountain which looked like a saddle.
-Rizvan! What’s the name of that mountain?
-The one looking like a saddle? It’s called Sedlo, meaning simply a saddle, because that’s what it looks like. It’s just as beautiful as all other Dagestani mountains.
-Can you see that minaret? There is a legend surrounding it. A story of a son who killed his father after he forbade him to drink buza – a beverage similar to beer. He later regretted it and left for the mountains inhabited by the Avar people, but after some time returned driven by remorse. He brought along several builders and ordered them to build a mosque as a compensation for what he had done. It stands here to this day.

As we drove on, we saw a snow-covered summit in front of us which strongly contrasted with the spring-like bright green mountainsides. This mountain is called Lukhuvalo, which means a “black place”. At Rizvan’s request Gasan Gusein, who had remained silent all the way until now, opened a copy book and started reading his poems. He was a peculiar person, but a very interesting one, very calm, seemed a little absent-minded and thoroughly spiritual. One immediately noticed that he was very religious, but in a specific way, one could say he was kind of possessed, an introvert with inclinations towards mysticism. He told us a bit about himself. A Lak born in Turkmenistan, he got married after returning to Dagestan. However, after some time, he left his wife and a job, where people constantly attempted to bribe him. –It is against my faith – he said. He stopped eating meat since then, prayed a lot, but rarely in the mosque, and kept writing his strange poems about God. He claimed he would like to engage in human rights protection. A fundamentalist? Not at all. Rather a loony.

Finally, a beautiful village appeared in front of our eyes. Stone houses climbing up around a small lake which filled the bottom of the valley – that was the central part of the village. Right before entering Kumukh, we passed by a huge white statue of Partu-Patimat, the heroine of Kumukh, who during Tamerlane’s military incursions bravely fought with the invaders. The monument was erected two years ago.

We saw two characteristic spots on the nearby mountain. One of them is a holy place where offerings are made during Muslim feasts. Next to it, on one of the mountainsides we noticed a miniature space rocket which did not quite fit in with the surroundings. We were told that this is here in honour of the only Dagestani astronaut in the USSR who was born in this village.

Head of the village administration and his successes

Kumukh is an ancient settlement, it used to be the historical seat of the Kazikumukh shamkhalate, which dates back to the early Middle Ages. The shamkhalate was established in the Lak territory and between the 15th and 17th centuries became one of the strongest state formations in Dagestan. The Lak social system was based on free village communities, so-called jamaats, ruled by the council of elders. The new order introduced by Soviet authorities destroyed those communities, but not entirely, as many old structures survived under the cover of the collective farms called the kolkhoz.

The duties people had in relation to the jamaat overlapped with what they were required to do in the kolkhoz. However, the religious dimension of the community gradually faded away. Today, Laks are one of the biggest ethnic groups in Dagestan (140 thousand), living mainly in the Lak and Kuli regions and in Makhachkala. They speak the Lak language which has several dialects. They are Sunni Muslims, but as compared to other ethnic groups of Dagestan, not very religious ones.

Upon our arrival, we visited the region’s administration. The head of the Kumukh administration mentally still lives in Soviet times, which is not a rare occurrence among local authorities. “The Soviet Dagestan” newspaper lay on his desk. He noticed our interest in it and immediately put it away. –Oh, all that rubbish they bring me... A portrait of Putin hung on the wall of his office, just above the TV set. We had to drink litres of cognac and eat a lot of candies. Such are the rules of hospitality. –So, kinsabinau! It means „cheers” in the Lak language, drink, girls. We are happy you have come to our beautiful Kumukh. Drink, drink our delicious Dagestani cognac to the bottom and we will give you this beautiful horn. If you don’t drink with us now, then you will have to drink the entire hornful of cognac – laughed the officials. We got the horn in the end.

The head of the village administration and his deputy became talkative. The region is developing, young people don’t leave any more, they have good perspectives here, they can get land almost for free, if they decide to cultivate it. Democracy is thriving, all authorities are elected... Well, it would be interesting to ask him why they have remained the same ever since the Soviet times. The present deputy used to be the head of the raykom (a district committee) at that time, as his wife boastfully told us. The deputy proudly showed us the traces of bullets on the door leading to his house. Does that mean he had to fight for power?

Then they started recounting local legends. Why are there so many languages in Dagestan? –That’s because when God had created the world, he went for a walk in the mountains and got tired, so he opened the bag with languages and said: “take as many as you want”. This is why there are so many languages here.

At the end of our visit we were asked a question:
-Do you know how many Lak khinkali [damplings stuffed with spicy mutton] fit into a spoon?
They couldn’t hide their astonishment.
-How come you’ve never eaten Lak khinkali? You’ve tried the Avar, the Lezgi and the Dargin ones, but you’ve never tasted Lak khinkali? We cannot leave it this way! After you have seen the village, you must join us for dinner.

The rules of Caucasian hospitality do not allow them to let the guest go away too quickly. And indeed, a car started following us in the evening. No mercy! You have to visit the head of administration! Although we were already a bit tired of the company of the local elite, we couldn’t say no. What a way of drinking alcohol! Even Russians don’t drink that much! There were only men around us. They kept making toasts. And it was impossible to refuse. We will never forget now: 40 khinkali fit into a spoon.

Treasures of the past

Fortunately, we managed to see a bit of Kumukh as well. The local Juma (Friday) mosque was built in the 18th century. It must have been impressive in the past. Now only part of it is used for prayers. Local inhabitants say it was built by people who had seen Prophet Muhammad himself. They were called the Askhabs. We ask about the present condition of religion in the village.
-The Imam of the mosque is a young man full of energy and initiative. But few people come to the mosque. On Fridays there are 15-20 people. Anyway, it is good that the Imam is trying to attract children and young people. In 5 years things are going to change here, people will start returning to the mountains, because there is no real life in cities where everybody is always in a hurry. The only thing that keeps people in cities is the money... As for me, I feel attached to this village, the mosque and our religion. Young people are going to return to religion, you shall see... It was a strange response. It turned out later that the man had come here just to visit his mother.

Walls of the mosque were painted with remarkably beautiful flower patterns that we had never seen anywhere else. This is the way local people have contributed to the diversity of architecture of the Islamic world. It also proves that Dagestani people adopted Islam much earlier than the other peoples of the Caucasus.

There were several Dagestani carpets in the mosque. They differed considerably from the Turkish machine-made ones (unfortunately, recently becoming very popular also in Dagestan). They were probably woven by some Tabasaran women. Carpet weaving is a traditional craft practiced by Tabasarans and passed down from generation to generation. Maybe while weaving this carpet, a woman taught her daughter-in-law a new pattern. We were delighted. There was a kind of inexpressible beauty in those rugs.
-These carpets are full of love, because they were made with human hands – explained Gasan Gusein.
That’s the typical Tabasarn pattern: three medallions with the domination of dark blue and red, not claret as in Turkish carpets, but an intense red.
-Young people no longer want to learn the craft, it seems dull and boring to them – complain the elders who still stick to their tradition.

Tabasarans are considered the most traditional and conservative ethnic group in Dagestan. They have the most children, Tabasaran girls get married earlier than others (and usually to “their own” men). Sometimes they get to know the prospective husband only a month before the marriage and are not always given a chance to choose him. Marriages arranged by relatives are still quite common.

As we were leaving the mosque, Gasan Gusein started arguing with the man who had shown it to us. We listened to their argument sitting on a bench in front of the mosque, leaning against the old stone wall. Gasan Gusein said that he was searching for God in his own self, the other one argued that he should rather read more, because literature was the most important thing for a Muslim. Gasan: literature is not important; first of all, you have to love God; the other one: that’s not true, you have to fear Him. How different can the approach towards Islam be in Dagestan! Things have changed so much here in this respect.

Wandering the narrow streets, we got to the minaret. It had no dome because it was being repaired. Situated nearby is the cemetery of local khans with a tomb of khan Murtuz-Ali from the turn of the 17th century. The minaret dates back to 1865, the time when Lak khans ruled this land. An inscription on one of the walls of the minaret reads: “This house was built in 1329 by those who fear Allah and covered by a roof in the same year”. It is, obviously, written in Arabic. An elderly man whom we met next to the minaret read and translated the inscription for us. He introduced himself as Ramid Alibutaliev, an Arabic language teacher in the local madrasa.

The Arabic language was spoken by educated people from high classed families. They created the alzham – the Lak alphabet. In the house of our friend Abdurahman we noticed wallpapers backed with alzham.

What a house! Full of treasures! Looking out of the window we noticed an elderly couple mowing grass and nettle, which is added to local food, such as the chudu or kurze. In front of the house there was a hearth, a chimney and a niche in the wall which used to serve for cooking in summertime. They call it an “ochag” which also means “hearth and home”. The house itself was delightful. It looked like a stone fortress made up of two wings with a courtyard in the middle from which one could enter the cellars and barns where they used to keep animals. Abdurahman said that Imam Shamil, the leader of the great anti-Russian uprising in the 19th century, used to visit the house himself looking for support during the war. He used to tie his horse to the knocker which still hangs at the door. It was one of the biggest houses in Kumukh. It belonged to a famous family which descended from the Kazikumukh dukes.

Together with Abdurahman we watched his beautiful old photos. On the pile of papers we also found an Arabic manuscript. Today the house is empty, it serves as a dacha (a summer house). Longing for homeland, Abdurahman’s sister comes here for vacation.

Many years ago, her husband, Efendi, whom everybody calls Efik, abducted her from this house. He is a Lak like herself, but from a less prominent family than Tanya. Their parents did not want to give consent to their marriage, so they planned an abduction with the assistance of Abdurahman, who was just a teenager at that time. Efik entered through the window and “stole” Tanya. They flew to Leningrad immediately (oh, those cheap flights; in Soviet times every student could afford to buy an airfare from the scholarship...), where they got married in the civil registrar’s office. Tanya’s family felt offended, but forgave them after a month, and only then did they organize a wedding party. They are happily married till today. We returned from Kumukh happy to have seen such a remarkable place and met so many interesting people.

Written by: Karolina Dulęba and Iwona Kaliszewska

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.