Azeri Village Poised on the Edge of the Abyss

Azeri Village Poised on the Edge of the Abyss
By Chloe Arnold

The Moscow Times
Tuesday, June 1, 2004. Page 11.

LAHIC, Azerbaijan — Hussein Ali is not a happy man. The little wooden
house where he has lived all his life has started to give way and if
he doesn’t watch out it will slip off the hillside and tumble hundreds
of meters into the ravine below.

The residents of Lahic, a ramshackle village high in the Caucasus
Mountains, are starting to wonder how long they can continue to live
here. Every year, when the snows start to melt and the streams that
trickle down the mountains become gushing rivers, they lose a little
bit more of their land.

“That used to be our potato field,” Intigam Ismailov, another resident
of the village, told me. He pointed to a thin strip of earth clinging
to the scree. Far below us, there was no sign of the rest of the
potato patch; only a dust-coloured river, snaking its way south to
the Caspian Sea.

During the long summer months, most Azeris escape the scorching heat
of the capital and head north to cooler climes. In the old days, they
went west to Karabakh, where the land is so fertile they say you can
push a twig into the ground and it will grow into a pomegranate tree.

But since the war with neighboring Armenia, Karabakh has been off
limits to Azeris, and now they go elsewhere during the hottest part
of the year.

Lahic is a four-hour drive from the capital — the last hour a
20-kilometer stretch that is not for the fainthearted. The narrow track
wends its way up a dramatic gorge with soaring red cliffs and glimpses
of snow-covered peaks even higher in the sky. The path regularly gets
washed away, and halfway up there are three rusty machines that are
called into service every time a section of the road gives way.

At the end of the pass, you come to Lahic, a close-knit community
where families have lived in the same house and farmed the same land
for hundreds of years. They even speak their own language, a dialect
of Farsi, first spoken by their ancestors, who came from Iran over
1,000 years ago.

The local skill is copper-work, and as you wander the village’s single
cobbled street, you hear the constant tapping of hammers on metal as
craftsmen forge another delicate candlestick or samovar. They rely
on tourists and rich weekenders to buy their trinkets to help make
ends meet.

But with half the village poised to slide off the mountainside,
no one knows how much longer Lahic will exist.

“None of us wants to leave,” Intigam told me sadly. “But when your
house is edging its way toward the brink of a precipice, it may be
time to move on.”

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.