At the table next to us, old regulars are playing in their Sunday suits, ironed trousers, white shirts. They lay each play down forcefully on the table with a loud slap, like my grandfather did in my childhood. I smile at this memory, the old man sends an apologetic look at me, like a child caught in the act. Do, they shout, two, chahor, four, pendj, five. I’m listening in surprise. Bo otobus-e si soʿati yad, he comes on the three o’clock bus, they say about someone. And although in the first centuries after Christ, Persian soldiers settled here in the Caucasus, on the northern border of their empire, they could not yet have brought an autobus with them, so they had to borrow it from a modern language, but the rest of the words form a carefully preserved Persian heritage, still more or less intelligible for a Persian ear. I’m at home.
Today the village, eight hundred strong, uses only the lower mosque, for in the upper one they have installed a museum. Nevertheless, before entering you still have to take off your shoes. The young attendant is glad to practice his English with a foreigner, but I ask him to guide us in the local Tat language. He looks at me in disbelief, he starts to say slowly, almost syllable by syllable: Lahij is composed of seven village parts… Turkic words are mixed with some archaic, lapidary Persian, as if he wanted to shout across the divide of two thousand years, as if the lost garrison wanted to report to the inspection committee arriving after two thousand years from the capital. Time unfolds before me like a dazzling mountain panorama. Bâle, motevadjam, yes, I understand, I say. The cashier lady puts down the knitting needles, her eyes open wide. “How do you know Lahiji?” she asks. “I speak Persian”, I say. By the time the visit ends, and we exit the museum, a small group is waiting for us in front of the former mosque, I have to say a few words to everyone, Tat and Persian words cling together into a bridge over the abyss of time.
Lahij, just like Xinaliq, was until recently not easy to get to. The settlement looked toward the mountain pass, from where the enemy was expected. Behind its back, in the direction of the former Persia, a mountain wall towers, broken only by the deep gorge of the Ghidirman river. The road, carved a few years ago into the rocks along the river, is a dirt road, still difficult to cover by car, and you can safely travel on it only between the spring thaw and the winter rains. This is the period when the craftsmen of Lahij, the descendants of the former armourers, must collect their income for the whole year from the thin trickle of tourists.
Once there were two hundred blacksmith’s shops in Lahic, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union there were only eight left. For the time being there is no demand for more, although the locals cherish high hopes about the new road crossing thirty kilometers of mountainous land. It is Sunday, two tourist buses arrive from the city of Ganja, lying two hundred kilometers away. Second and third year college students of English, they are here for the first time. They roam the streets of the village in groups of five or six, sooner or later each of them stalks us, gently, like kittens, and they let themselves be photographed with the foreigners. They all speak for the first time in English with a foreigner. They are just as excited, like the Tat boys were before. They experience in the same way, that through the language they speak, they enter into a community with a great, albeit remote, culture, whose existence is from now on a certain thing, fot it has sent to them its living messengers.
Dariush Talaʿi: Hejâz. From the Radif of Mirza Abdollah, Âvâz-e Dashti (1999)