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September/2006 * 09/29/2006
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From the second floor veranda of the restaurant where we were having lunch the view of the Caspian Sea was panoramic: a beach of golden sand and a sea that seems endless. The slight summer breeze hardly ruffled the calm countenance of the sea. The crowds basked quietly in the midday sun. What a peaceful place!
The peace, it would seem, was superficial. I was praising the heavenly taste of the best lamb shashlik (barbecue) I have ever eaten when a burst of gunfire rang out clearly from a distance. I looked nervously around but nobody seemed to take notice.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing unusual; most probably a police encounter with some criminals.”
Those were meant to be reassuring words from Amin and Arslan, my friends whose invitation brought me and my American companion to their land.
We were in Dagestan, the southernmost part of the
The Caspian may not be the best sea in the world, as Amin claims, however it is certainly unique. It is the biggest lake in the world. It is the only source of the three types of caviar – beluga, asetra, sevruga - being traded in the world. But, alas, the sturgeon has become a rarity. The only one I saw was a foot-long live specimen in an aquarium display at a restaurant. Well, that and the smoked ones which hang in market stalls.
I learned that although most of the Russian caviar comes from Dagestan the industry is a monopoly of the Russian state and its operations are centered in Astrakhan near the northern end of the Caspian Sea. But poaching is so common and lucrative that it has given birth to the so-called “The Caviar Mafia” in Dagestan. One magazine reported that “if you know the right people, you can have a poacher’s breakfast: a caviar sandwich… All you have to do is bash a female sturgeon on the head, slit her open, wash the roe in salted water and strain the eggs. The caviar is ready before the fish stops flapping.” I could have badgered my friends to bring me to the right people but I decided the canned caviar that is sold illegally but openly in the market would have to do for now.
And the Caucasus mountains? The sight of mountains always gives me a natural high. I therefore looked forward to seeing the Caucasus with great anticipation. It is the highest and grandest mountain chain of Europe and it is where Asia meets Europe. Pity, the only “mountain” I saw is a barren hill that overlooks Amin’s beloved city, Makhachkala, the capital of this Islamic republic. A community of fantasy mansions in the style of Walt Disney lies at the foot of the hill. This, according to Amin, belongs to the nouveau riche class that has arisen under the new capitalist system.
I learned that while the country is 80% mountains, Makhachkala happens to sit on the small portion which is plain. To see the mountains we had to venture afar and I would have to be more adventurous. The mountain terrain is one of steep slopes and narrow valleys and is said to be treacherous. Besides, the Caucasus has been dubbed the “Old West” of
The “Old West” label may not be totally underserved.
Arriving in Makhachkala at dusk, after about a 2-hour flight from Moscow, Amin and a companion met us at the airport runway right where the plane was parked and whisked us directly to a waiting car without passing through the terminal. Amin whispered to me that he brought along his companion because he is an influential man with many connections.
We passed a stretch of uninhabited area before the edge of the city came to view. Well-armed policemen stood alert at various points but, thankfully, none of them stopped us. Upon entering the city I saw at once that Dagestan is poor. There are no modern buildings here, only old and gray low rises. Malls that are ubiquitous in many cities do not exist here.
At night more policemen patrol the streets giving the impression of a country under siege. This is so, my friends explained, because gangs like “The Caviar Mafia” do their thing under the cover of darkness, as do freedom fighters from Muslim nations trying to slip into
They said that in Makhachkala every newcomer is a suspected freedom fighter (or a terrorist depending on which view you take) and in this community where everybody knows most everybody spotting a newcomer requires no effort. Although my companion and I are no freedom fighters Amin tried to hide us from prying eyes as best he could in order, he said, to avoid police interrogation. He had reasons to be anxious: my American friend is an Arab who could be mistaken for an Al Qaeda and I am a Filipino who could be mistaken for an Abu Sayyaf or a Jamaah Islamiyah. He refused to take us to the mosque for the Friday noon prayer because he knows that government spies are always on the lookout there. He shooed away his friends who came to his house to peek at us. Still he was invited by the police to explain why we came to visit.
But none of my disappointments at not finding what I had expected to see can diminish the warm hospitality our host and his family extended to us. They made us feel safe, secure, and well taken care of.
They made us feel that we belong. In their home we discovered love and family. And, for me, that is what matters most.
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