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The Lost Traditions Of Daghestan

  • Uma Isakova

Japanese stoicism and selflessness during the recent crisis puts the decay of similar traditions in the North Caucasus on stark display.

Japanese stoicism and selflessness during the recent crisis puts the decay of similar traditions in the North Caucasus on stark display.

Many of the news reports out of Japan in the wake of last month's earthquake and tsunami noted the almost total absence of looting in the affected areas.

This fact stunned the world, since scenes of looting and selfish behavior have always been an integral part of news from disaster zones -- whether we are talking about post-Katrina New Orleans in the United States, Haiti after the January earthquake there, or Russia during the devastating fires of last summer.

But there was almost no looting in Japan. It seems that in Japanese culture there is no imperative to "save oneself and let others fend for themselves." I particularly remember news reports of how workers at several food-distribution points weren't ready to begin work. Instead of rioting and storming the food depots over the heads of the crowds in front of them, the stoic Japanese stood in orderly queues and waited their turn. And when their turn came, they took only what they needed or even less, realizing that others were in equally desperate straits. No one was shoving; no one was shouting.

I was reminded of an entirely different scene I once witnessed. It was not in a disaster zone and the people there would have viewed themselves as the defenders of ancient cultural traditions just like the Japanese. It was in Daghestan, a land of storied hospitality. Recently Czech journalist Tomas Polacek spent a week in the mountainous Russian republic and wrote that he didn't spend a single ruble the entire time he was there. Everywhere, people took him in and welcomed him.

In Daghestan, it is customary to defend even your worst enemy if he is your guest. In Daghestan, as in the other North Caucasus republics, there are traditions against treating others with scorn, against disrespecting your neighbors, and -- as in Japan -- indulging in excessive displays of emotion.

Daghestan is the most ethnically diverse republic in Russia, home to at least 50 distinct nationalities. Yet history provides not a single example of ethnic conflict in Daghestan. This tradition of tolerance is being maintained even today.

But times change and sometimes social problems can destroy even the most sacred qualities of a person's character.

Less Space For Civilized Traditions

It was several years ago and I took a charter flight from Turkey to the Daghestani capital of Makhachkala. Right up until time for takeoff, everything went normally -- considering that sitting in the airport for six or seven hours is pretty much routine in these circumstances. But as soon as they announced that the much-delayed plane was ready for boarding, everything started.

The women -- who for the most part were about 40-45 years old -- ran straight to the gate, wielding their elbows shamelessly against one another, even against the pregnant women and young mothers with babies among them. All this was accompanied by shouts and insults.

There was also a group of men there, dressed in traditional Muslim garb. It was obvious that they weren't poor -- probably one of them held some important position. They had a sense of their own importance and knowing that in Daghestan women always yield to men (giving them the best cut of meat or the best chair, letting them through a door first, and so on), they weren't going to let anyone go ahead of them, so they pushed everyone aside and went aboard first.

I remember the face of one little boy who was in the front with his mother. He was just about to step onto the ramp when he was rudely shoved aside by a grown man in a traditional skullcap and a white shirt that hung down to his knees. The boy was frightened as if he'd been caught doing something naughty and he looked at his mother for reassurance.

Would Magomedsalam Magomedov still be president in any law-based state?
But his mother was silent, since it is not proper for a woman to criticize a man. And the man pushed on ahead, confident in his right to do so. Some traditions are maintained.

And what about the uncouth Daghestani woman who rushed the plane, dragging her suitcase behind her to the bemused delight of the Turkish customs officials? She was running because she was afraid she wouldn't get a seat because they sold the tickets without seat assignments. And she was worried that, after her three-day shopping spree in Turkey, her tired legs wouldn't last if she had to stand for the two-hour flight and then negotiate the customs hall in Daghestan.

But what is the point of all this?

It is easier to be a calm and cultured person when you are surrounded by the appropriate circumstances. That is, when your government doesn't forget that you are a human being. When women don't have to abandon their children and travel to a foreign country to buy some cheap goods that they can then hawk at markets back home. When you know that you don't have to pay a huge bribe in order to get your child enrolled in a proper college. When you know that after graduation your child has a reasonable chance of getting a job. Pleasant traditions thrive in such circumstances.

Subsidies To Nowhere

In 2003, a new Russian federal law came into effect on the organizational principles of local self-government, known colloquially as Law 131. After that, local cultural centers disappeared from almost all Daghestani cities and villages.

That is, they remain on the books of local administrations and the Committee for Culture and Tourism, but the cultural centers themselves do not exist. In some places, they have been closed down. In others, they open their doors once in a while, but provide no services. In some places, they simply disappeared. But the salaries for those who supposedly work at these centers are still paid.

And how much? Actually, several thousand rubles a month. On that much money, an ordinary woman with an unemployed husband can feed and clothe an entire family.

In one city that I know (I won't name it because I don't want to get people into trouble), there is a public library. It has 15 workers on staff with an average salary of 5,000 rubles ($177) a month. But it has been ages since anyone went to that library and all the workers there do is make themselves lunch every day and write up status reports every now and again.

But at least they are still getting their 5,000 rubles a month, which is important considering the tragic levels of unemployment in Daghestan.

At a recent televised meeting, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Daghestan President Magomedsalam Magomedov that it was time to stop selling government jobs and get to work on the unemployment problem. And this got ordinary people thinking.

In any law-based state, if the head of a region was selling state jobs, at the very least, he would be fired immediately. There'd probably be a criminal investigation as well. But not in Russia.

Here's another example. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said publicly that part of the government subsidies to Chechnya never makes it beyond Moscow's ring road. This fact is acknowledged, but nothing is done.

People can't help but wonder who benefits from the fact that Daghestan is a heavily subsidized region. Who wins when people are getting miserly salaries if they get any salaries at all? Who cares if they lose everything in their daily struggle to survive, including their dignity and their humanity? Who mourns the lost traditions of Daghestan?

Uma Isakova is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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