High up in the rocky, velvety green mountains of northern Azerbaijan lies a tiny village with its own language that sees itself as the homeland for an entire ethnicity – even if many others do not.
It is the village of Jek (Cek in Azerbaijani). And its 300-some inhabitants, predominantly Sunni Muslims, consider themselves ethnic Jeks, descendants of the Caucasian Albanians, an ancient, semi-legendary people. Their language, part of the northeast Caucasus’ Lezgin group, is their calling card, they say.
Many Azerbaijani researchers, though, call them Kryz, members of another Lezgin-language-speaking group from around northern Azerbaijan’s Mt. Shahdagh, near the border with Russia’s Dagestan.
But when asked who he is, the former principal of Jek’s school, 70-year-old Aydemir Qaflanov, does not hesitate: he is Jek. Remaining so, though, is a struggle.
As with other mountain villages in the Caucasus, Jek’s residents are heading elsewhere for work – if they have the money, to the large regional towns of Quba or Sumgayit or to the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, itself.
Cattle herding provides the main income for those who have stayed.
Their life is rough. Electricity and weak WIFI exist in the village, but standardized water and gas supplies do not. Instead, as elsewhere in these mountains, locals pipe springwater into their houses and, for heat, buy canisters of propane gas or burn bricks of cattle manure in stoves.
For years, some villagers complain, the village had no asphalt road to the nearest city, Quba, about 38 kilometers to the north. The government finally built one in 2006.
But, nonetheless, with no doctor, no public transportation, minimal utilities and only a primary school, they feel forgotten. [ the last repair to this road occurred 12 years ago. ]
Asked about government support for Jek,a government official in the nearby village of Alik emphasized that “they have everything” -- a school and an asphalt road. “I don’t know, what else do they need?” asked Mubariz Aghasiyev.
“It’s quite a small village.”
Baku-based sociologist Aliagha Mammadli, who has studied other so-called Shahdagh ethnic groups, believes these practical concerns override all others.
“We see where they live as an exotic place, but they have lots of difficulties in their daily life, especially during the winter,” says Mammadli, head of the department of ethno-sociological research at the Academy of National Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography. “People [in Jek] do not think about their identity. They want to live a more comfortable life.”
But worries about Jek’s identity persist, nonetheless.
Youngsters are “wrapped up with their smartphones and new things and do not want to speak Jek,” observes 58-year-old Agali Muradov, a mountain-tour guide who grew up in Jek. “I'm not against the Azerbaijani language, but Jek is our mother tongue and, all together, we need to save it."
Except for Khinalug, Jek villagers can understand other languages from the Shahdagh group. Since the language has no written alphabet, though, speaking in Jek is the one way the language stays alive.
Some villagers reproach Qaflanov’s brother, 78-year-old Agayar Qaflanov, also a former russian teacher, for speaking to his children and grandchildrenmostly in Azerbaijani rather than Jek.
He says he has no choice. Jek “is not useful outside of the village,” he maintains.
“Children need to know Azerbaijani. If they do not completethe school program, do not understand what the teacher is talking about, they will not have an interest in improving themselves in the future and getting educated,” the elder Qaflanov argues.
His ignorance of Azerbaijani as a boy meant that he couldn’t grasp what the teacher was trying to teach, he adds.
Nonetheless, he agrees that adult villagers need to speak in Jek.
Residents of Khinaliq, a mountain village 14 kilometers to the west that ranks as a popular tourist attraction, always speak to each other in their language, Khinalug, he underlines.
“People save their identity by themselves,” he comments.
Schooling could further play a role, but Jek itself has only an elementary school. In winter, attendance can fall off as families take their cattle to winter pastures.
To attend high school, students walk or get a ride from a villager or teacher to the neighboring village of Alik, three kilometers away.
Teenage girls, who wear headscarves and ankle-length skirts in public, instead sometimes prefer to stay in Jek, busy themselves with housework and wait “until the time comes” to get married.
Agayar Qaflanov’s granddaughters, Tarana, 18, and Sarana, 15, claim they are two of the few Jek girls who decided otherwise. But their father, Namiq, could have something to do with that. He teaches in Alik and, so, can escort his two daughters to school.
The elder Qaflanova, Tarana, already a high-school graduate, says she had dreamed of becoming a doctor since there are none in Jek. That goal likely would have required studying in Baku, three hours away.
Instead, she plans to marry soon and stay put.
That should prove reassuring for her grandfather, Agayar Qaflanov.
“So long as we are here in Jek village, [our] identity will be preserved. . . “ he says. “If the village will be destroyed, we will lose our chance to save our language and traditions in the proper way.”