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.
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.
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.
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.”