May 21, 2010 / 11:42 AM / 10 years ago

Russian Dagestan village defies odds with ancient art

KUBACHI, Russia (Reuters Life!) - The cacophony of hammered silver reverberates through the sole school of this tiny village nestled in the lush and craggy Caucasus mountains of Russia’s deeply turbulent Muslim region of Dagestan.

Villagers in Kubachi, whose population is a mere 2,300, boast that every man, woman and child has mastered the ancient tradition of delicate silverwork, first brought to the region by Persian traders almost two millennia ago.

Teacher Kultum Kutsulova, clad in a flowing white hijab decorated with gold paisley teardrops she has embroidered, carefully watches over students etching elaborate, swirled flowers into silver and copper goblets and earrings.

“We are a blacksmiths’ village and we have it in our blood. Every child must know the work of their parents,” she told Reuters in Russian, before switching back to her native Kubachi, a Caucasian dialect only spoken by the villagers.

Perched 2,000 metres (6,560 ft) in the Caucasus overlooking steep mist-covered valleys and ramshackle farms, Kubachi is 90 km (56 miles) south of Makhachkala, the Caspian Sea capital of Dagestan, a Russian region home to over 40 ethnicities.

An Islamist insurgency is raging in Russia’s North Caucasus region, particularly in Dagestan, Ingushetia and neighbouring Chechnya, site of two separatist wars with Moscow since the mid-1990s. Twin suicide bomb attacks on the Moscow metro in March, which killed 40, turned the global spotlight on the North Caucasus. Authorities blamed the attacks on women from Dagestan.

In this turbulent trio, militants fueled by poverty and the ideology of global jihad stage near-daily attacks, and many want to carve out a separate sharia state.

“Even though this republic is suffering from so many problems, we have kept our culture,” Kutsulova said.

Kubachi has retained its language and traditions: while men almost exclusively make and engrave silverware, women embroider hijabs and veils for their weddings, which often take place when they are just out of school.

Sixteen-year-old Indira Ammalaimiyeva, whose round gold earrings poke out from under her long black hair, said she wanted to follow her ancestors by learning the craft properly.

“I get married this summer and I want to look the same as my grandmother did at her wedding,” she said as fellow classmates chipped away in their weekly two-hour Kubachi art class.

A rarity in Soviet times, the village was granted permission by the Kremlin to teach the traditional art form 40 years ago in the state-run school.

While under Communism the Kubachi etched Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin on their silver and copper jugs, they have now returned to their pre-revolutionary heritage styles of peacocks, flowers, and embedded gems in layered petals.

Sporting a shaggy white ram’s wool hat, Kubachi elder Gadzhiomar Izabakrov, 79, shows off his life-long collection of engraved silverware in his mini-museum he keeps beside his living room.

“We’re not just people who make special artistic treasures, we are hard-working people who believe in observing tradition.”

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