“Broken stones, inlaid stones, stones in riverbeds, stone in hand, tombstones, stones with drying dung, holy stones , stones to grind, to heat, to cool, to roll down the mountain and wait a hundred years for a shepherd to put salt on top of it, stone on stone, for sheep to eat”…
…I wrote while waiting for thousands of sheep to come down from the mountain to drink. I wait for them in the valley on the other side of the stream because of the sheep dogs that accompany them. I have asked everyone I could for advice about how to get past the sheep dogs to meet the shepherd, but no one filled me with confidence – these are pretty vicious dogs bred to fight wolfs in the mountains, so it’s a valid concern.
I content myself with taking their photo across the rushing water from last night’s rain, which fell as snow around the peak and has since melted in the sunlight. As I walk back to the terraced village of Xinaliq, I see a truck returning home. I am later told it is the moving truck of a shepherd family. The shepherd himself is likely still in the mountains making his way from the plains hundreds of miles away on horseback, surrounded by some section of the village’s roughly 6,000 sheep. Once they arrive from their “Kishlak” (mobile winter lodgings), they will build “Yailak”s (summer shelter in the mountains) and live with their flocks in the hills.
These sheep are central to life in Xinaliq. Their wool is sheered, dried, or colored all over the village. Their dung is mixed with earth pressed into pie shaped mounds and left on stones to dry. This will be burned in the winter for heat, since there is little timber at this altitude.
Near the river, by the new part of the village, is a school and the homes of the literature, history, Russian, English, math and physical education teachers. I spoke with several of them as I wandered around this pedagogical cluster until I wound up in the house of Sherif Ovzetin, the history teacher.
He was well equipped to tell me about Xinaliq, which is pronounced “Hinalig” and is called Ketish by its inhabitants. It is a tiny hamlet of some two thousand people that live high up in the mountains in the north of Azerbaijan.
The Ketish speak their own language and trace their origins to one of the 26 tribes of the Albanian kingdom. They have three different “P” sounds for example and a modified alphabet has just been developed for them by several linguists consisting of 50 Latin characters.
Half an hour through the winding canyons is the village of Gris, which also speaks its own unique language. While other Albanian descendents such at the Lezgians, the Udin, the Avars, the Haput and others also have their own language, there are only a handful of languages that are isolated to a single village.
Mountain dwellers along the Greater Caucasus Range are fond of explaining their tapestry of languages with a bit of accidental divine intervention. First, Sherif tells me, God created all the peoples of the world and then set off to distribute their various languages, all of which were kept in a bag. But when the creator flew over the soaring snow covered peaks of the Caucasus and the bag got caught on a particularly high crag. Through this small tear came a stream of languages sprinkled throughout the region.
Today hammers are pounding and roofs are being reinforced. While large parts of the village was abandoned due to rapid emigration during the last few turbulent decades, the government has decided to pour considerable resources into the village to preserve it for both anthropological and tourist purposes. By rebuilding the 1.5 hour road and going on a hiring spree (and adding a 30% “altitude” bonus) the government has reduced the emigration out of Xinaliq.
I spoke with the workers throughout the village about their work and I heard on several occasions that they are building a museum. What is the museum? I’d ask. The entire village they’d say. I have no doubt if I lived here, this would be good news, pure and simple. But one can make the argument that a museum is the cemetery of culture – remembered, honored, but certainly not alive.
It’s an impossible issue to sort out definitively, but hints of this tension do come out. Even the history teacher – who is proud of the progress in the village and has tacked his own boat to the winds of tourism – often told me of how different things were in his childhood when “people actually needed each other.”
Life was very hard in Xinaliq for much of its history. Sherif the history teacher told me how hundreds of residents used to line up shoulder to shoulder from the plateau where the village sits all the way down to river bed below to pass stones from arm to arm up the steep elevation.
Now, the Xinaliq school has had high speed internet for years and includes dormitories for the children of shepherds to live in while their fathers lead the giant flocks of sheep over 300 kilometers to the plains of Shirvan.
There are maybe eight cemeteries around the village, ranging from ancient stones overgrow with mineral deposits to recent additions. Some of the stones bear Arabic and Albanian markings, which the history teacher says can be traced to the 7th century. And why not!
For the first time in my half year reporting throughout the regions of Azerbaijan, I see a community actually receiving the money allocated by the government and putting it to its intended purpose - to keep the youth from leaving. “My son raised a family here,” said Mezahir Milikov, 47, “It’s good now, there is work for a while – the pay is good. It’s a good village.” And after the temporary work ends in a few years? “He can take care of the sheep, we have ten or fifteen of them. In the city you need money everyday, but here even a little is enough.”
Before I end this entry, I want to mention a poet from Xinaliq, Ragim Alhaz, who has gathered significant renown in Azerbaijan and whose fables and stories are part of the local canon. While he died a few years ago, the history teacher translated some of his anecdotes – a few of my favorites:
Many winters ago, an official meeting was announced Quba, the nearest town and the provincial capital. A message was relayed to Xinaliq that their village had to send a representative to this committee and so the elders picked a young man widely respected throughout the village to be their voice in Quba. He was not a wealthy man but he knew how treacherous the mountain roads were, so he put on his warmest jacket, which was by no means fashionable (he had a rope for a belt) but sturdy enough to survive the elements.
He was delayed in a blizzard during the walk and arrived a day late to the Quba committee. As he entered the town hall, the other representatives stared with disdain and there were some snickers in the crowd. The head of the committee asked the man, “Surely the people of Xinaliq had someone more decent and worthwhile to send to provincial counsel!”
Without missing a beat this man replied, “Oh yes, they certainly do, but they sent him to the decent and worthwhile committee.”
Another great story involves two brothers, Hoopolum (the dumb one) and Shoopolum (the smart one). The history teacher begins the story in the traditional “once upon a time” they use here at the beginning of fairy tales: “One came and one went away”… Anyway, there were two brothers and Shoopolum had to leave his mother and home with Hoopolum for a long time, so he tells his brother, “Take care of mom and the house and goes.”
Well Hoopolum decides the old woman needs a bath, so he makes fire, puts a tub on top of it, put the mom inside, and covers it with a lid. He puts a stone on the lid for some reason too. In the meantime he decides to repair the house, which, obviously, becomes a disaster. Then he sees his brother coming down the road and panics, drops all the broken windows and hammers and runs to check up on mom, who has long since expired in the tub.
Shoopolum is understandably furious, but he is also in a rush. He has been invited to the neighboring village for a wedding and has no idea how to deal with this situation. So he tells his brother to dress their mother in youthful clothes and wrap her up in a carpet, and they set off together to the neighboring village.
When they arrived, Shoopolum quickly unloaded the carpet from the donkey that brought it and stashed it in a corner of the house, telling everyone, “Hey, my dame is in there!” The women sitting around the carpet keep inviting this mysterious woman to join them, but obviously she does not respond. Finally a girl pulls the carpet, offer the woman some food and the corpse falls out to great screams.
Shoopolum feigns shock and demands to know who has cursed and killed his girl. The villagers are terrified of this supernatural spectical and offer Shoopolum the girl who pulled the carpet in exchange for him departing on good terms. So he agrees.
When he returns to his village, everyone demands to know what happened to his mother. He explains that he went to another village where they magically exchange old people for young girls. Everyone is very intrigued, and lead their grandmothers to the village hoping for young marriageable girls. The other villagers realize they’d been had and beat up the naïve villagers, who also return home looking to get their revenge on Shoopolum.
Upon seeing him, they give chase and he took off to save his neck. The crowd was gaining on him though, so he ran up to a shepherd and told him – those people there, they’re coming to kill you. The shepherd panicked and asked for help. Shoopolum suggested they switch clothes and that the shepherd should jump in the river. Then he went to a high place just as the angry mob arrived.
“Where is Shoopolum?” They demanded. “He jumped in the river bless his soul,” answered the disguised Shoopolum. “Why bless his soul, he’s a scoundrel,” they yelled. “I know, but it must be a magic stream. He pushed me into the stream and when I came out, I had all the sheep I could see – look – and he pointed to the shepherds flock.” And so the villagers having lost the trail of Shoopolum jumped into the river to try their luck and were carried away downstream.
There’s many more stories like this – I’m happy to append them if there’s some interest.