Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

The shepherds of Sevukh

The Avars are an ancient people living in the mountains of Dagestan (North Caucasus). Many of them are shepherds. The blandishments of modern life are encroaching on their centuries-old way of life, but they have no chance of doing anything else, even military service. Marina Akhmedova spent some time with them and tells their stories

Alimirza and Khochbar

The sun is not yet up, but from somewhere behind the pyramid shaped peak, three low hills away from the mountain where the sheep pen stands, it is already spreading its warmth, and its reflection lightens the lake hidden in the hollow below. The sheep are awake and bleating. Alimirza, the shepherd, is smoking in the doorway of his hut.

Khochbar, Alimirza’s nineteen year old son, drives the sheep out of the pen – 1200 head of them. They slowly make their way up the slope, urged on by his crook and hoarse cries. By the time the sun rises twenty minutes later, the flock is far away, a scattering of white tussocks on the slopes. But the bleats and the shepherd’s cries carry, bell-clear – in the mountains ears are better than eyes.

Alimirza looks at the sky. It is cloudless. He needn’t have sent Khochbar up with the sheep. In good weather the three gentle hills are like the palms of three hands. You can sit at the door of the hut, puff contentedly on a cigarette and look at the sheep grazing safely in the three palms, hemmed in by the mountains. Alimirza has two sons, and has chosen to hand his crook to Khochbar. So he can work.

The slopes where the sheep are grazing now are ‘the easiest place’ out of all the land owned by the Avar village of Sevukh, in the mountainous region of Dagestan in the north Caucasus. But where there is an easy place there is always a hard place as well, and it is behind us, where the mountains are more rugged. There, the sheep are hidden by rocky outcrops and a shepherd can’t just leave them and sit by his hut smoking. Alimirza grazed his flock on just such a patch last year, but that gave him first choice of Sevukh’s pastures for the next year. He picked the easiest slopes and is now enjoying life, keeping an eye on the thin sunburnt figure of Khochbar in the distance.

The three palms have fallen silent – the sheep are busy grazing. The only sounds are the creaking of Alimirza’s low wooden stool and his wheezing. In the silence you feel you can even hear his cigarette burning down. Shepherds spend a lot of their lives in silence. Here, in the mountains, the fewer words spoken, the less chance of offending someone. But when offence is caused, it is remembered for a long time.

Dagestan_Village_Somov

Dagestan means the  'land of the mountains'. Over 30 of its peaks are higher than 4000 metres.  The Avars are the largest ethnic group and account for about a fifth of the population. Photo Yuri Somov, Ria Novosti Agency, all rights reserved)

The next village, for example, is called Telekli. Several centuries ago some lads offended a Sevukh girl. The details have long since been forgotten, but the fact of the offence has not – what are a few centuries in the mountains? The boys were expelled from the village, and set up their own, Telekli. They had no pasture of their own, and their descendents would have lived in poverty till the end of time, had Stalin not deported the Chechens to Kazakhstan in 1944 and moved the inhabitants of Sevukh to their lands, giving the people of Telekli the chance to occupy their pastures in their turn.

'Shepherds spend a lot of their lives in silence. Here, in the mountains, the fewer words spoken, the less chance of offending someone. But when offence is caused, it is remembered for a long time.'

In 1956, after Stalin’s death, bowed old Sevukh residents trailed back from Chechnya, determined to die on their own land. And die they all did, in the next few years, as though the vow they had kept to return had dragged death along with it. Their younger relatives pestered the authorities for the return of their land, and were eventually given half. Alimirza might have increased his herds, but there is a general shortage of pasture all over Dagestan.

No help from the government

The time passes slowly. The day lies motionless on the three hills, like a film paused on a screen. Occasionally the sheepdogs move around. Fanned out at intervals around the flock, in the distance they look like low stone posts.

‘Do you have a dream?’ I ask Alimirza.

It’s as though he expecting this question. The change in his face scares me. ‘I dream that NTV will come here and show people what’s going on!’ He spits the words out.

I turn my head to look around, trying to catch anything that might be happening. And I imagine the frozen NTV screen. ‘So what is going on?’ 

‘What do you mean? It’s outrageous!’ Alimirza explodes. ‘Why does the government not help people like me?! This year I took the sheep to the Khasaviurt veterinary station to be dipped for mites and ticks and they asked me to pay a rouble a head. But I refused to pay. “Put me in prison if you like,” I told them, “but I won’t pay!” …And now I don’t know what I’m going to do when I bring them down in the autumn. They wouldn’t let them through, they said…   

Every year in October the Sevukh flocks are driven down to winter outside Khasaviurt, the local administrative centre. It’s a six-day journey on foot, with the shepherds’ numerous brothers and cousins surrounding the flock in their cars and accompanying them part of the way. And each year it gets more difficult, as the town expands and they meet an ever-growing stream of cars travelling in the opposite direction.

‘Sometimes an ewe goes lame and you have to carry her’, he says, touching his shoulders. ‘Why do I have to pay them a rouble a head? Was it their fathers who built the dipping troughs? The Soviet Union built them! But if don’t get my sheep dipped and they get itch mites, then I’ll infect all the other flocks during the autumn drive. NTV needs to come and hear about it.’ Alimirza throws his knife on the tray in despair and goes into the hut.

'The subsidy for each ewe is between 105 and 180 roubles a year. Alimirza has 300 ewes. From the money he receives he has to make a pension fund contribution of 12,000-15,000 roubles. More money goes on tax, and all that will be left of the subsidy is his memories of running around collecting bits of paper.'

‘I don’t get any subsidy for them either.’ He’s back out again, remembering something else that ‘itches’. ‘They say you have to get yourself registered as a farmer. That costs money too, you have to get a signature here, a signature there… you’re running around from pillar to post, and it all mounts up!’

The subsidy for each ewe is between 105 and 180 roubles a year. Alimirza has 300 ewes. From the money he receives he has to make a pension fund contribution of 12,000-15,000 roubles. More money goes on tax, and all that will be left of the subsidy is his memories of running around collecting bits of paper. I promise to write really nasty things about the head of the veterinary station, and he calms down again.

Evening

It’s not yet sunset, but a foretaste of evening is settling on the mountains. Khochbar is driving the sheep back from their pasture. Taking Alimirza’s crook, I climb up slowly to meet them. In fifteen minutes I’m amongst the flock. The wolf-like sheepdogs growl and bare their teeth at the stranger. ‘Kha! Kha!’ Khochbar takes off his shirt and shakes it at the sheep. The flock fragments, like a disturbed drop of mercury:  one part runs uphill, another downhill, a third to the side. We try to drive them back together, shouting at them and prodding them with our sticks.

‘Kha! You need to make the noise really ugly, to scare them’, Khochbar instructs me. ‘Wherever the ones in front go, the rest follow.’

The sheep freeze, quaking in fear, but as soon as the leader takes a step the others fall in behind. The hard bit is to ensure that this first step is in the right direction.

‘Idiot sheep!’ Khochbar and I yell, our voices clashing. 

‘Have you done your national service?’ I ask him.

‘I’d love to, but they won’t take me!’ he shouts, shaking his shirt at the sheep again. His last words echo round the mountains - ‘take me!’ ‘My father went to the army people and asked them to take me, but they wanted money for it - 30,000 or 40,000 roubles.’

‘But why did you want to go in the army?’

‘Who’s going to defend our country? Bloody hell! I’m a Dagestani!’

‘But what if it’s just Russia that’s attacked, not Dagestan?’

‘It doesn’t make any difference to me whether it’s Russia or Dagestan. It’s just all my family are in Dagestan. But if there’s no Russia, there’s no Dagestan either.’

‘Do you ever go into town?

‘Sometimes’

‘And do you tell them you’re a shepherd?’

‘You think I’m an idiot? They’d laugh at me.’

They say that there are not enough shepherds in Dagestan, the Russian Federation’s main sheep farming region, and most of them are already old men. On the other hand, some say that the larger sheep farmers claim their flocks are much bigger than they really are, to get a higher subsidy from the government. And it’s true that nobody here counts sheep – not even to help them fall asleep.

‘And do you tell them you’re a shepherd?’

‘You think I’m an idiot? They’d laugh at me.’

‘I know every individual sheep’, says Alimirza when we eventually arrive at the hut an hour later. ‘If a father has ten children, he knows them all, doesn’t he? It’s like that for me and my sheep’. His eyes sweep across the flock. ‘If there’s a mist, I think  “Uhuh… there’s the black faced one, the ones that are always in front are here, there’s the lame one, and the dawdlers are here as well.”  If I can see those ones, I know that all the others are there as well.’   

Night time

There’s a candle burning in the hut. It’s night already. In the mountains the days drag on forever, but the nights fall without warning, as though someone has thrown a black cloak over your head. Gradually stars appear, enormous and close.

‘Lots of wolves here’, says Alimirza, slurping tea out of a mug. ‘We didn’t use to have so many, but after the bombing in Chechnya they all came this way. When they hang out together, they have no fear of us. If a sheep gets left behind on the mountain, that’s it – she’s a goner. When we find her in the morning, her tail will be torn off, or her flank gaping. . That’s wolves for you – a wolf can choke thirty sheep in a minute. And they’re crafty beggars.  He’ll choose a spot beside a stream, so you can’t hear him for the noise of the water. He’ll sneak out of the bushes, keeping his eye on the dogs.’ Alimirza half rises and peers out of an imaginary bush. ‘And the dogs get tired towards morning, they doze off’, he goes on, returning to his bench. ‘They’re a clever bunch, my dogs; they keep a steady watch in a ring round the sheep.’   

In the middle of the hut a pole has been driven into the earth floor, and from it hangs half a dried sheep carcass, which gives off a sticky-salty smell. In the corner behind the bench are piled bags of salt and coarse meal. The meal is for making a feed for the dogs, the salt is strewn on the ground for the sheep – they need salt in the mountains.  Behind the hut there is darkness and the ringing silence of the night. Khochbar washes the dishes. If he doesn’t manage to join the army, he will try to get casual work on the roads. If that doesn’t work out either, he will become a shepherd. In Dagestan you can’t sink lower than that.

‘I’m going to sell the sheep and buy him a car’, says Alimirza, looking sadly at his son drying a saucepan. ‘I don’t want him to be a shepherd.’ 

'‘Lots of wolves here’, says Alimirza, slurping tea out of a mug. ‘We didn’t use to have so many, but after the bombing in Chechnya they all came this way.'

Lying on the ground in my sleeping bag covered with Alimirza’s black cloak, I look up at the sky, regretting that in Moscow the stars are so far away. I fall asleep quickly in this mountain air.

Vashalav

In the early morning Khochbar drives the flock to a neighbour’s pen, where Alimirza will separate out the stud rams. There are two months to go before the drive to Khasaviurt. The sheep need to be washed down in their winter quarters, otherwise the lambs will not survive the drive. While Khochbar is driving the sheep, Alimirza and I cross a couple of small hills and come to a stone cabin. Two sheepdogs begin to bark and a young shepherd comes out to greet us. The cabin was built by ‘Gazprom’ employees especially for the shepherds.  Vashalav is tall and ungainly, and his Russian is poor.

‘If I have a thousand ewes’, muses Vashalav, ‘I’ll have 500 lambs to sell. Last year I got a thousand roubles a head for them; this year I’ll get more. I’ll end up with a million, and I’ll buy pasture, hay, wheat, vaccinations…’ Vashalav’s thousand ewes are only in his head – he has only eighty, but then he’s only been a shepherd for six years. A shepherd working on his own will have the first grey hairs in his beard by the time he has several hundred ewes. But if at night shepherds talk about wolves, during the day they talk about how to build up their flocks.

‘Say you want to buy ewes now’, says Alimirza in a tone that suggests that Vashalav has never been near a sheep, ’and one ewe costs 3500 roubles, then for 1000 you’ll have to pay three and a half million! And where are you going to find that? If you get a loan from the government, the interest will ruin you! Last winter was a cold one; we lost a lot of lambs and ewes. But the year before was a good one. In a good spring, you can get a lot for your ewes.  A shepherd can only earn money from his ewes. The young ones bring in the most.’ Alimirza turns to me. ‘Before I let the rams in, I have a good look at the ewes’ teeth.’ He shows his own teeth. They are sharp and white, and although he is talking about sheep, I’m reminded of a wolf. ‘If the teeth are weak, we take her out.’ ‘There’s no money in keeping sheep’, says Vashalav, making a gesture of hopelessness with his arms. They are so clumsy, it looks as though they have been torn off his body and then sewn on again.

Shepherd_Dagestan

Sheep-farming is one of the main occupations in the mountainous areas of Dagestan. All shepherding tasks are usually performed by men, including shearing, milking, and preparing dairy products (Photo: Yuri Somov, Ria Novosti Agency, all rights reserved)

‘We get nothing for the wool’ – Alimirza butts in. ‘A kilogramme of wool is worth fifteen roubles, and you get two kilogrammes off a sheep in a year. Plus you need to pay the shearer thirty roubles a head, so you end up with nothing.’

‘What about the meat?’ I ask.

‘Meat is the only thing that’s worth selling. In St Petersburg and Moscow they’ll pay 150 roubles a kilo for young meat.’

According to local figures, the cost of keeping one sheep for a year is about 1700 roubles and the net profit about 1000.

‘Why do you keep sheep then, if you can’t live off them?’  

 ‘What’s the alternative?’ Alimirza shrugs his shoulders. ‘Be unemployed?’

‘We get nothing for the wool’ – Alimirza butts in. ‘A kilogramme of wool is worth fifteen roubles, and you get two kilogrammes off a sheep in a year. Plus you need to pay the shearer thirty roubles a head, so you end up with nothing.’

‘I wasn’t always a shepherd’, says Vashalav. ‘I used to be a market trader. I sold cucumbers to wholesalers and they retailed them at the same price, but using doctored scales. That’s so dishonest – I couldn’t stand it and became a shepherd instead. There isn’t any other work here.’   

Slaughter

Khochbar has arrived with the sheep. Alimirza catches one of them, clamps it between his knees, takes hold of a front hoof and trims off a slice with his knife. The animal twitches. A mixture of blood and pus flows from the hoof. ‘Foot rot’, he says with a sigh, and trims the other hoof. The sheep staggers off into a corner of the pen.

Alimirza stands up and starts looking under the sheep’s tails. He grabs one by the back leg and hoicks it out of the pen; he has begun to separate out the stud rams. Khochbar, bare to the waist, catches two rams at a time and drags them by the back legs to the gate of the pen, which I open and close for him. By the fiftieth ram Khochbar is out of breath. As he pushes the animals through the gate he gives them a kick under the tail, and each time the kick is harder, as though he’s taking out on the rams all his resentment against his father, who has forced him to be a shepherd, the government, which won’t let him serve in the army, and the sun, which beats down mercilessly on his back.     

Alimirza rolls one sheep on to its back and drags it out by its two back legs. Something tells me it won’t be returning to the pen. I follow Alimirza. ‘Have you found your vocation in life?’ I ask him. ‘Of course I haven’t’ he says, turning to face me. But the times have made me a shepherd. Sometimes I sing a bit.’

‘Sing me something…’

‘Naaa… I only know a few words of each song..’

Alimirza puts the animal on its side and kneels in front of it. The sheep squints at him. He has a knife with a coloured plastic handle hidden in his hand. I sit beside him and bury my hands in the animal’ curly coat. It’s shaking, I can feel its heart beating. Alimirza brings the knife closer to its throat.

‘In Moscow, they call Dagestanis idiot sheep’, I say, putting my two arms round the animal.

‘I don’t agree with that ’ – Alimirza draws the knife across the sheep’s throat; it shudders under my hands but doesn’t resist. ‘I think everybody’s the same, only we speak different languages.’

The animal’s throat spurts thick bright blood that soaks the yellowing grass. The sheep makes a wheezing sound. The edges of the cut look like a mouth trying to gulp some air.

‘Are there people like us in America?’ asks Alimirza.

‘I shouldn’t think so…’

Alimirza kneels on the dying animal and lights a cigarette.

‘We have cosmonauts in Dagestan too, and other educated people’, he says. The sheep’s heart stops beating. Alimirza walks away.

Vashalav also has a knife with a coloured handle. He sits in front of the sheep and starts to skin it expertly – from the knee to the chest, the chest to the throat, then along the belly to the tail.

A dog wanders over and settles down to wait. ‘We don’t eat meat every day. We only kill one or two sheep a month for ourselves.’

He takes a small board out of his pocket, pushes it under the skin and works it backwards and forwards to separate it from the flesh. He removes the spleen, spits on it three times, each time saying ‘Bismillah’ (‘In the name of God’) each time, and throws it in the direction of the lake.

‘But some people can’t say ‘Allah Akbar ‘(‘God is Great’) on their deathbeds’, he continues, breaking the animal’s backbone. ‘People go to hell if they have disobeyed their parents, stolen or killed someone.’ Vashalav doesn’t steal and doesn’t kill people. But he doesn’t believe he will go to Paradise. He throws away the spleen and says his ‘Bismillah’ three times because that’s what he was taught by his father. He has no idea why he does it. He knows a bit of Russian poetry. Sometimes he sings, up in the mountains. Sometimes he sets traps for the wolves. Sometimes, when he is lying asleep, wrapped up in his cloak, the sheep come up and lick his face. He dreams incessantly, but never about sheep. He dreams about being in the army or walking in a park in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, with his friends, watching people. When he is in the mountains he misses other people.

Vashalav’s military service

After an hour Vashalav goes off to graze his flock. I run after him, using the crook to keep my balance among the tussocks and scrambling up the steep slope. Seeing me from a farther peak, he stops and waits.

‘Do you like your work?’ I shout from another hilltop.

‘You have to like your work!’ he replies. ‘Otherwise, what’s there to live for?’

‘What did you want to be?’

‘A bookkeeper.’

‘But it didn’t work out’, says Vashalav when I catch up with him, out of breath. ‘They didn’t want me in the army, I signed up myself. But it was falling apart in front of our eyes. Lads were deserting - they wanted out. It pissed me off.’

‘Why?’

‘It was an insult to our country. They were totally shameless about it. They wanted to invalid me out, but I refused it. In our village the most shameful thing you could do was not finish your national service. But I saw life; I saw the world, thanks to the army.’  

‘What world did you see?’

‘Leningrad, Petrozavodsk – lots of places…’

 We arrive at the pyramid shaped peak. It is white on one side – the earth has been washed away, leaving the bare rock.

‘Vashalav, do you believe that mountains also eventually turn grey and die?’ I ask as we climb higher and higher, keeping an eye on the sheep.

‘This one will be destroyed. It’ll die soon. But we won’t live to see it.’ The wind catches his words and carries them off. It flies silently here. The sun still beats down.

‘You see those mountains?’ He points into the distance. I can’t see – there are mountains all around – but I nod my head. ‘There’s a stone village there. Everything has turned to stone – people, animals, the lot. Once upon a time a woman looked up at the stars and made a wish, and a magic star made the wish come true. The woman’s wish was for flour to fall in the winter instead of snow. Anyway, one winter evening a traveller arrived in the village and saw how wasteful the people were with their flour, and left without even staying the night. As he left, he said, “I wish it would all turn to stone”, and the star gave him his wish. The village has been stone ever since.’

‘But how is it bad when people have plenty to eat?’   

‘It’s bad. People stop working. That’s bad for the land. And this land… it’s… it’s ours. And Imam Shamil pastured his horses on this mountain. And if a horse hadn’t grazed here in the summer, he wouldn’t saddle it in the winter.’ 

Vashalav goes off to pray and I sit down on a hummock.  Around me are lush green hills and soft rolling mountains, their slopes so gentle that they may have been formed by the earth breathing out. Soon she will draw breath once more, but we won’t be around to see it. The birds are singing, the clouds hang motionless, as though they too are gazing at the Sevukh pastures. I’m thirsty, but the spring is a long way off.

'While Vashalav is praying, I keep an eye on his sheep. They are huddled together, heads down, moving like a rustling stream as they crop the grass. As though their one aim in life is to eat as much as they can before being sacrificed.'

While Vashalav is praying, I keep an eye on his sheep. They are huddled together, heads down, moving like a rustling stream as they crop the grass. As though their one aim in life is to eat as much as they can before being sacrificed. Here in the mountains time seems to be holding its breath, your mind comes to a halt, you are no longer troubled by strong emotions or dreams, you are free from thought, from the city, from civilisation. You are simply free. But suddenly, through the still silence, I hear the thin bleat of a lamb that has strayed from its mother, and the piercing answering bleat of the ewe, and I find myself thinking about sheep. Perhaps the Almighty created them so that people might at some point reach the peak of humanity by voluntarily giving up eating meat. Sheep should be the objects of humans’ proof of their humanity – a sheep, after all, is practically the only creature that leaves life without a protest. And they are most like humans in their dying moments.

Stone giants

Behind me is the great wall of rock that divides Dagestan from Chechnya. Its face is heavily fractured, and in each segment I see the face of a stone giant. I gradually begin to make out their features: Shamil Basayev in the Panama hat in which he captured nearby Budyonnovsk during the First Chechen War; Imam Shamil  in his sheepskin hat; Nader Shah with his long beard. Do they watch over this region, or have they been turned into stone for all eternity by the magic star, for preferring war to honest work…?

The lake sparkles in the distance. Vashalav comes back and sits on the grass, his clumsy hands motionless, his crook by his side. He sits for hours without a thought in his head. Nothing seems to be happening, but his soul is constantly at work – its chief need is, after all, freedom. And that is what makes him different from me. I have education, undemanding work, and the opportunity to travel and not have to pass the time by kicking sheep’s backsides. All these advantages cover me like a shell, preventing my soul from working. Take away my shell and I would be like Vashalav, a person whose only vivid memory is, and will remain, his time in the Soviet Army.

Sunset_DAgestan

The magic of the mountains of Dagestan is overwhelming, especially when the sun goes down and the sky is full of stars. (Photo: Yuri Somov, Ria Novosti Agency, all rights reserved)

Towards evening, unable to escape from my shell, I go down the mountain to fetch my mobile phone. I make my way down cautiously, leaning on the crook, anchoring my feet between the tussocks so as not to slip, afraid I might dislodge a rock and that it will tumble down the slope, taking me with it, and I can think of nothing but getting down the hill. In the mountains we all become the same.

Happiness

‘Hey, Vashalav!’ I call from below. The shepherd in his cap appears on an outcrop above me. ‘What makes you happy?’

‘Tomorrow!’ he calls back. 

‘What do you mean – tomorrow?’

‘That tomorrow is another day!’

When I reach the cabin, the faces of the stone giants are veiled in thick dark fog. Then the sky blackens and they disappear from view. Heavy drops start to fall, and the downpour begins. A cold wind blows. Khochbar drives the sheep out of the pen. The rams have been separated out, and it’s time to take them home, but the sheep aren’t ready to move.

‘Idiot sheep!’ shouts Alimirza.

Khochbar takes off his shoes and throws them at the sheep. They stand rooted to the spot. The rain falls in large, cold drops. Alimirza counts his sheep, lightly touching each one with his crook. We run to our hut through the teeming rain.

Alimirza draws on his cigarette and looks out of the window at the dark sky. In the distance Khochbar is still driving the sheep.

‘I like sitting here in the hut, smoking and looking out at the rain’, says Alimirza. ‘Those are my happiest moments…I’m going to sell these sheep tomorrow, I’m fed up with all this’ - his mood changes faster than the weather in the mountains. ‘I can’t spend my whole life as a shepherd’, he says gloomily.   

‘And then what will you do?’ I ask through chattering teeth.

‘What will I do?’ He turns round, holding out his cloak to me. ‘Why, I’ll buy new sheep!’

The rains stops and the sun beats down once more, drying the grass in no time. That’s what it’s like up here all the time – one minute it’s cold, the next it’s baking. Then it rains, and then the mist comes down. Khochbar makes us some khinkal, the local stew of stewed meat and dumplings, and tells us a story about a wolf that got caught in a trap and gnawed off its own leg to escape. I look at them, father and son, and wonder what keeps them in this hard life when you can’t make any money as a farmer in Russia. What makes them go on working, them and Vashalav and the other people I’ve met in Russian villages? After all, none of them believe that after death they will go to heaven and there find a reward for their honest hard labour.

That night, lying under the sky and wrapped up in a cloak, I look at the stars, hoping to find the magic one that will give me an answer. We city dwellers, dusted with flour and consuming more meat than the shepherds, rarely ask ourselves what compels the tillers of the soil to work, and they themselves, speaking our language badly or not at all, can’t explain why. So the question goes unanswered.

'I look at them, father and son, and wonder what keeps them in this hard life when you can’t make any money as a farmer in Russia. What makes them go on working, them and Vashalav and the other people I’ve met in Russian villages?'

The stars hang above me like lamps. But I don’t feel like a minute grain of sand before the mighty universe, although I should. On the contrary, I look along the cloak, and it seems enormous. The sheep are bleating, the dogs barking. A voice from inside the hut says, ‘those wolves are getting much too cocky!’. Then Alimirza says something to Khochbar in Avar. The only thing that divides people is language, and apart from our last covering we take nothing with us out of this world.

The mountain air is making me drowsy, and the last thought I have before falling asleep comes to me perhaps from the magic star. Divided by language, people are united by the habit of work. Free workers go on toiling to repay their debt to the land for those long centuries that she fed them, when if you didn’t grow your food you didn’t eat. Alimirza’s voice wavers; he sounds resigned. I don’t know what he is talking about. But he doesn’t know how free he is. Neither he nor Vashalav know that the stars come out each night just for them. 

About the author
Marina Akhmedova is a Moscow-based journalist and writer. She is staff reporter at the popular Russky Reporter magazine. Her stories focus on social and cultural issues. She writes regularly on North Caucasus. Marina is an author of three popular novels. Her last novel ‘Khadijah, Notes of a Death Girl’ was nominated for the Russian Booker, Russia’s most prestigious literary award.
Read On

Cultures of the world: Dagestan, by Edward Beliaev,Oksana Buranbaeva, Marshall Cavendish, 2006

Lonely shepherds of Dagestan, Slide Show, Russia Beyond The Headlines 

More On

Also by Marina Akhmedova on oD Russia:

Hijab Wars

Snap goes the Crocodile


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.