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.”