Jacob Wrestled an Angel (Passport). Oil on canvas. Diptych 120X190cm. 2018.
The Russian Security Forces gave passports to known Salafi militiants in Dagestan so that they could travel to fight with Islamic State in Syria and thus remove the terrorism problem from the region.
Jacob Wrestled an Angel
The rather blunt lawyer who had told me about Gimry, then went on to tell me that ‘There are no more terrorists in Dagestan, they sent them all to Syria’. I had read this in various news articles from 2015. The FSB had given passports to known Salafi militants in the region so that they could go and fight for Islamic State in Syria, thus relieving Russia of the problem. They even organised the flights for them. Over 2000 men from the North Caucasus went to fight in Syria. Battle hardened, they formed the elite of the IS forces. Now, as I write in 2019, Russian lawyers are helping the wives and children of those, now mostly dead, IS fighters return to Dagestan and other North Caucasus regions.
I had initially asked the rather blunt lawyer about whether he thought it would be safe for me to travel across Dagestan alone. I had been planning a longer, summer walk across the region and this is when he mentioned that there was no more terrorists in Dagestan. He then went on to say that it was, however, in no way safe, I would be eaten by wolves, that there are wolves everywhere and that I must have something wrong with me to want to walk in the mountains, that I must have a problem with my adrenaline.
That night we stayed at a mountain village called Khlulisma in a farmhouse that was built as a madrasa in the 16th century. There were two splayed sheep carcasses hanging in the courtyard and a chained up, snarling Alsatian barked and leaped at us as we passed. We were welcomed in by a middle aged farmer called Sergay. Inside, the flowery curtains in the kitchen, the wellies by the door, the farmyard and farm clothes smell all seemed oddly familiar. Walking through the wonky off set doors that tunneled thick, stone walls, and over the creaky floor boards, I realised it all reminded me of farmhouses in Dorset where I grew up. I could not quite understand why but there was some quality more similar to the English west country here, in this farmhouse on the mountainous crossroads of Europe and Asia, than to anywhere I had been to in Western Europe. Perhaps it was to do with the damp December climate, and the green, muddy, somewhat snowy hills outside. The bedrooms were covered, floor and wall, by red and emerald Dagestani carpets.
Back in the kitchen, Sergay was eager to find topics to talk about but we were both struggling to communicate. He drummed his fingers on the table in front of his Apple laptop then he hurried off to find some drawings which his children had done when I told him I was an artist. He was keen we become Facebook friends and kept pushing glass after glass of his home made wine on us while his large, aproned wife served us a lamb stew. Sergay’s elderly mother spoke to me in light Russian words I couldn’t follow and her smile was the embodiment of grandmotherly sweetness. She sat next to a quieter, sterner, mustachioed grandfather who spoke only to Gabor. Shamil was absorbed in his Instagram.
I woke up at six the next morning and went out to draw the view from the veranda. I was thrilled by the clear, mountain air. Beyond the handfull of stone houses that made up the village I could see a tin roofed mosque, some broken down trucks and a rubbish pile and beyond those there were horses grazing khaki pasture. Huge, grassy hills, lined with snow, rose up steeply to 3000 meters behind the house. From under the house, Sergay appeared through a low stone door that led down to the cow barn beneath. He grinned maniacally when he saw me and mimicked me drawing, scribbling on his palm then looking up at the mountains in awe. Leading out three bony cows, one with a bandaged horn, he herded them up the steep hill behind, disappearing into the mountain pastures above.
When he had gone I peered down into the underground barn below the house. A rustic, vaulted ceiling descended to form six stone pens and, lit from an unseen bulb at the back, it appeared to me a seasonal mix of church and stable. I wandered down the narrow street, the width of a cow, between the courtyard walls of houses which were overhanging with delicately carved eaves showing signs of a past artisan wealth that I thought incredible for such a remote village at 2000m. Dagestan was once on the silk route and wealth flooded up through the mountains from the bottle neck where Derbent lay on the Caspian Sea, one of only two crossing points of Caucasus mountains. Dagestan is now the poorest region in Russia.
The sweet old grandmother called me in for breakfast; some sort of milky soup with an orangy spice and bread, butter and cheese. The butter she explained, she makes herself and, after telling me the process, moving her fist in a circular way, I confused my Russian words and instead of saying 'delicious' I said 'boring'. These words are not
especially similar but it was a consistent mistake a ballet dancer turned financial advisor called Dwight made in the russian classes I had been taking in London. I had caught Dwight’s affliction at the worst possible time. The memory of the grandmother momentarily losing her sweet smile still churns me whenever I come across the Russian word for boring or delicious.
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