“When the Communists came, the books were evacuated from the village, and moved into the cave of the Şahdağ. They stood there, in a big pile this high”, the small man raised his hand to the height of his eyes. “But the Communists found them, and they set the whole thing on fire. Before that, the cave was white inside, but since then it has been completely blackened with soot.”
“My grandfather walled our books into a window when the Communists came. He put them in one of the windows, walled it up inside and outside, nobody could see anything. When he came back from the Gulag, because he was a rich sheep owner, a kulak, as they said, and they took him away for ten years, so when he came back, he immediately asked whether the house was still standing. It was, but by then it belonged to the kolkhoz, the kolkhoz office was set up there. In the night, when nobody was looking, he opened the window, and removed the books.”
Our host, Gadjibala Badalov shows us his small private museum on display in a glass cabinet in his “nice room”, the work of a lifetime. Old jugs, coins, swords and guns, whatever he was able to collect from the neighbors over the years, in exchange for favors or for a sheep. The complete material culture of a village, two thousand strong, and at the same time of an entire people, one of the oldest peoples of the Caucasus, who live only in this village. And, of course, the books, the miraculously rescued books. He can no longer read them, he is asking me whether or not one of them is written in Arabic, in Persian or in Ottoman Turkish. Eighty years ago, together with the Muslim teachers and the books, they swept out the Arabic letters, too, from Xinaliq.
The village, which lies beneath the ridge of the Great Caucasus range, almost completely isolated from the outside world, was never reached by conquerors, but a few solitary wandering teachers, scribes and missionaries sometimes found their way here. Then the village took over from him what was brought, but also maintained a respect for their predecessors. At the highest point of the village stands the mosque, built around 1200, and slightly below it, the 7th-century house of a pir, a Zoroastrian holy man. In the woods there can be found a few âteshgâhs, Zoroastrian fire temples, and around the village are the tombs of many Zoroastrian, Christian and Muslim pirs, which are still worshiped by the villagers, who let them be buried around them. The newer graves even have names, but the older ones are marked only by a standing stone, thousands of stones all over the fields around the village, thousands of years old, with sheep and calves grazing among them.
Arabic literacy, which was formerly so widespread that every family had its home library, came to an end, but the need for culture lived on among the local people. This can be seen by the many local poets who have published their Khinalug-language poems in thin booklets, printed in Cyrillic or Latin letters, or by the painters, with their typically grotesque landscapes of Xinaliq. And also by our host, the sheep owner and amateur historian, who has just published his fourth book, on the names and traditional uses of the medicinal plants known in Xinaliq, in the Khinalug and Azerbaijani languages.
In the hilltop village you can still find Arabic and Persian inscriptions here and there. Even if they cannot read them any more, they are held in high esteem. The everyday life of the village goes on around them, women are washing in the mountain spring water that is led to common wells, children carry home the calves which still cannot find the way, men are kneading blocks of fuel for fire from manure and straw, old men are talking with one another on the flat rooftops. From below in the river valley you can hear the subsiding bleating of the flock that rolled along just a few hours ago. And although we see the signs of change – including the fact that we ourselves can now come to this place –, nevertheless, while sitting in front of the house in the twilight, and looking down on the village, we feel as if time, just like the pirs, the books and the letters, once it arrived in Xinaliq, did not pass along, but was forever accumulated and thickened.
Rovshan Gurbanov, Elshan Mansurov, Nadir Talibov, Kamran Karimov: Getme, getme (Don’t go away). From the album Azərbaycan Məhəbbət Təranələri (Azerbaijani Love Songs, 2014)