Azerbaijan’s Tsakhur Language on the Line
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Fifty-seven-year-old small-business owner Djuma Isakov is a man whose language is under threat. And with it, he fears, an entire culture.

Born in Russia’s republic of Dagestan, Isakov, an ethnic Tsakhur, was about eight years old when his family moved from their ancestral highland village to neighboring Azerbaijan in search of better land for raising livestock and growing crops.

They took their language, Tsakhur, with them.

Today, however, UNESCO estimates that only 25,000 people in the world still speak Tsakhur, part of the Lezgic group of North Caucasian languages. It ranks as a “definitely endangered” language; one no longer learned by children as their mother tongue.

Though Isakov speaks Tsakhur fluently, and sometimes uses a few words when speaking with his wife, Gulzar, 58, the couple’s three daughters and one son cannot join in.

The Isakov children came to understand Tsakhur from listening to their grandmother, but the eldest daughter, Nabat, a 28-year-old music teacher, says she finds the language, which boasts 18 different nominal cases, almost impossible to speak. At home, the Isakovs mostly use Azeri.  

Hearing different languages while traveling through Zaqatala, the northwestern Azerbaijani region where the family lives, is not uncommon, however.  It contains 16 different ethnic minorities.

 

Juma Isakov and his 28-year-old daughter, Nabat, discuss the Tsakhurs’ religious practices. Isakov recollects that his grandmother was “strongly religious” and performed the namaz, the daily Islamic ritual of prayer, five times a day. The majority faith in Azerbaijan is Shi’a Islam, but Tsakhurs are Sunni Muslims.
Nabat Isakova prepares food for a family gathering
The Isakov family’s youngest daughter, Nazli, 15, enjoys playing soccer for a local soccer team.

Natives of the Dagestani village of Tsakhur, Azerbaijan’s Tsakhurs, estimated to number about 12,300, first came to Zaqatala in the 19th century. Allies of the warlord Shamil, who resisted tsarist Russia’s campaign to control the North Caucasus, they were forced south into Russian-controlled Azerbaijan. They mainly resettled in Zaqatala and two other northern regions, Gakh and Sheki.  

Despite those roots, Isakov complains that, year by year, the Tsakhur language is dying out. Young people in the Zaqatala region’s main town, also called Zaqatala, don’t study the language at school and speak more Azeri than Tsakhur at home.

After Azeri, Russian ranks as the second most common language spoken by Zaqatala’s Tsakhurs. In Isakov’s own house, Russian TV stations play constantly.   

Men from Zaqatala regularly travel to Russia to work in construction jobs in Dagestan. One village taxi driver, an ethnic Avar in his late 20s, wryly commented that this outflow means that “Women cannot find a man to chop the head off a chicken,” as dictated by custom.

“ Everyone is in Russia,” he said. “That’s why [the young] prefer to study in Russian rather than in Azeri.”

With knowledge of Russian seen as a way to a decent salary, parents preferto send their children to the town of Zaqatala’s only Russian-language public school, locals say.  

Two of Isakov’s own children attended the school. He sent the remaining two to Azeri-language schools amidst the rise of Azerbaijani nationalism in the mid-1990s.

In her kitchen, Gulzar Isakova, 58, prepares maghara (“sun”), a pancake commonly eaten in Zaqatala.
Gulzar Isakova teaches drawing in local school of Zaqatala
Gulzar Isakova teaches drawing in local school of Zaqatala

Just 21 kilometers south of the town of Zaqatala, however, Tsakhur’s future prospects look different. The public school in the village of Suvagil has taught Tsakhur since 1993, a year after a presidential decree pledged to “safeguard and develop” minority languages.  

Taught as a foreign language, Tsakhur is a mandatory subject in this Azeri-language, mixed-age school. Classes are held once a week. (Chai Khana could not attend the Tsakhur class without permission from the education ministry.)

“Everyone who knows Tsakhur perfectly can be a teacher here in the school,” says Principal Abdurahman Sultanov.

There appears to be no shortage of options. In Suvagil, home to about 5,000 Tsakhurs, residents speak Tsakhur both at home and between each other, claims Sultanov.

Both public schools in the predominantly Tsakhur village of Suvagil, 21 kilometers south of the regional seat of Zaqatala, provide weekly lessons in the Tsakhur language
Children in a physical-education class in Suvagil speak with their teacher in both Tsakhur and Azeri.
Asked to speak in Tsakhur by a visiting reporter, girls at one Suvagil school shyly started to laugh, then announced in Azeri that they want to become doctors. In the region’s more remote villages, people often speak primarily in their ethnic groups’ languages, and their Azeri gradually grows rusty.
Locals maintain that, despite Zaqatala’s ethnic diversity, no discrimination or conflict exists between them.
Unlike in southern Azerbaijan, early marriages are less of an issue in Zaqatala, where parents tend to encourage daughters to continue their educations.
A bus coming from Zaqatala to Suvagil

Many Azerbaijanis, though, Isakov complains, identify Tsakhurs and other small ethnic groups as Lezgin, a better known ethnic minority from southern Dagestan.

When corrected, they ask what’s the difference, he claims.  His response: “‘Tsakhur is Tsakhur, Lezgi is Lezgi.’”

“Our languages are different. How can we be the same?” he asks.

During Soviet times, domestic passports identified each person by his or her ethnic group. That information has been removed from Azerbaijani identity cards.

“In my Soviet passport, I was Tsakhur. In today’s passport, I am Azerbaijani,” Isakov says.

He hesitates when asked if he would like his ID card to specify that he is Tsakhur. Not mentioning ethnicity is government policy, and the government knows better, he believes.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 not only removed Azerbaijani Tsakhurs’ ethnic identity from their passports, but made it more difficult for them to travel to Dagestan to visit relatives still living there.

In Soviet times, when no border existed between Russia and Azerbaijan, Zaqatala’s Tsakhurs needed only a few hours to cross through the mountains directly into Dagestan. Now, they must  travel first to the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, then from Baku to Dagestan’s main town, Makhachkala, and on to their native village -- a bus trip of about 14 hours that, at 50 manats ($30) one way, cannot be made frequently.  

“When I travel to our village in Dagestan, my body is shaking,” Isakov says.

Yet, he emphasizes, for all the ties of language and culture with Dagestan, he is first and foremost Azerbaijani.

“The village where I was born is very close to my heart, but Azerbaijan is my homeland.”

 

An eatery in the Zaqatala village of Yukhari Tala offers traditional Zaqatala dishes.
A woman in the Yukhari Tala café prepares surhulu noodles for a soup with dried lamb and beef that is arguably the Zaqatala region’s most popular local dish.
Yukhari Tala is a mixed Tsukhar and Avar village. Zaqatala’s ethnic minorities and languages vary widely from village to village.
Dried meat is an important part of Zaqatala cuisine. Residents dry lamb and beef in summer to eat in winter
Predominantly an agricultural region, Zaqatala became well known during the Soviet era for its hazelnuts.
Unlike in other conservative parts of Azerbaijan, Yukhari Tala’s café, which doubles as a tea house, serves women and men in the same room.
Surhulu dish
Raising livestock remains a key economic activity for many of Zaqatala’s roughly 31,000 residents.
Despite the town’s range of ethnic minorities, books and newspapers in Zaqatala’s local library are only in Azeri and Russian.
Located just south of Russia’s North Caucasian republic of Dagestan, Zaqatala is a region mostly populated by Sunni Muslims. In recent years, many mosques in remote villages were closed to discourage the spread of the “Forest Brothers,” a radical Islamic group.
Chai Khana
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