In the heart of the South Caucasus’ most seismic region, in central-eastern Azerbaijan lies Shamakha. From this two millennia-old town of 31,000, a winding road climbs up on the hills at the bottom of the Caucasus range. Soon the tarmac ends, the road becomes a track from which occasionally smaller routes depart leading to hidden villages. The roads are bad - snowy in winter, muddy in spring. Then 45 km from the centre of Shamakha, up at 1,700 metres, sits Zarat Kheybari, a cluster of 15 houses, a small school, and a locked mosque. Nothing else.
Here live the Tats, or at least few of them. The history of this indigenous group of Persian origin in the Caucasus lacks clear details. Their language is related, but different from, Farsi and it features various dialects, so different that Tats from different areas can hardly understand each other, and decades of slow but steady contamination by the Azerbaijani language. In Azerbaijan they live mainly in the north-east regions of the Absheron peninsula, Shamakhi, Khachmaz, Guba, and Xizi. In his 1995 book “From our wedding treasure,” Maqsud Hajiyev stated that the assimilation of the Tats with the local Azerbaijani led to inaccurate calculation of their number - in 2009 official statistics set their number in Azerbaijan at 25,200 people.
The 70-odd villagers live close to each other in either one-two storey rectangular houses made of large pebbles and clay mortar. They all have flat roofs and front porches supported by wooden pillars.
Oil-and-gas rich Azerbaijan is a world away from Zarat Kheybari - yet this remote village lacks a gas and water supply. According to echo.az, 20% of Azerbaijan's populated areas still do not have access to "blue" fuel. "The roads are in terrible condition. When it snows we can not get out of the village. When the snow melts, the roads turn into mud, and the river is overflowing. It happened that we had to take an ill person to the hospital by horse as the cars got stuck," laments Seyidazim Rahi
The rooster kicks off the day - the cattle is driven out of the cowshed onto the pastures, women clean the houses, hang up the laundry in the courtyard. Poverty is dire in the village, with most people living on subsistence agriculture. Come Novruz, the traditional holiday celebrating the arrival of spring, villagers do not feel there is much to be merry about.
"In Novruz we should put sweets on the table. Do you know the price of walnuts and hazelnuts? If we could afford to buy them, we would cook 5-10 sweets and put them on the table,'' says Shukufa Rahimova, 69.
The only sign of the festivity in the house is on the window - a little semeni, or green sprouting wheat, which is the very symbol of nature blooming after the wintery lethargy.
--- Among the scattered houses sits an empty, locked one-storey mosque - villagers say the building has no heating, no electricity, and no toilets. Nobody uses it.
Gulyaz Rahimova, 52, looks after a family of four. Nazim Rahimov, her husband of 55, is unemployed, like pretty much everyone in the village.
They complain there is no money in the village and he cannot buy the dowry for Rahiba, their 28-year-old daughter who is engaged. The family has three sheep and a few chicken, and can barely maintain itself.
Almost nobody works. Sometimes they head to the nearest market to sell their cattle, but "either nobody buys it, or bargain a low price. We don’t have any other income," she complains. Once Gulyaz will be 62 and Nazim 67 they’ll be entitled to a monthly social allowance of AZN 60 (USD 35) - not quite a pension as neither of them ever have had formal employment.
The two bedroom house is covered by wooden logs. Inside, the walls are carpeted with rugs to keep the house warm.
"There is no forest here to gather wood for making fire. We prepare cattle dung from the summer. In case it is not enough, we have to buy either wood or gas. A car loaded of wood costs about 300-400 manat ($176 - $235)," Rahimov says.
The village also lacks running water and the villagers have to go to the river to fetch water. Sixty-one year old Zakiyya Agayeva is among the few lucky ones. She says, "From this year I provided a water line to my house, but when it snows the pipes freeze and we have to fetch water from the river.”
It was 1967 when the village was supplied with electricity - since then nobody has checked the condition of the wirings. Villagers can stay without electricity for days, and have to use oil lamps.
The local school, on the outskirts of the village, is in no better condition. The facility has 11 registered pupils, but cold classrooms push down the attendance - classes are offered through the 9th compulsory grade (school is mandatory through the 11th grade), if anyone wants to continue, the family has to get organized and send the children to the closest city school in Shamakhi - 45 kilometres away. It is a rare occurrence.
None of the schools in the six Tat villages in the Shamakhi region teach the Tat language. Azerbaijan indicates Azerbaijani as the only official language taught in schools, unless ad-hoc exceptions are agreed upon in minority-populated areas. According to ethnic Tat journalist Dayanat Mammadov, classes were held in a few villages in the north-eastern region of Guba, like Zarqava and Korkmazoba, but as of 2017 the language survives at home. Plans to restore teaching as a pilot project are under discussion, albeit with no clear timeline.
Media-wise the situation is similar. In Guba, local media tried to broadcast in Tat - a short-lived radio station stopped the programmes in 1995, while Gutb TV abandoned the service in Tat in 2014.
There is no grocery shop, no pharmacy, let alone a clinic - the closest medical care is 10 kilometres away, in Demirchi, the closest hospital is 45 kilometres down the track, in Shamakha. Getting there costs 50-60 manat ($25-$30) by person, which is a fortune for them.
The sunset colors the mountains, and soon the cattle will return from the pasture. Another day in the life of a Tat’s village.