In the heart of the South Caucasus’ most seismic region, in central-eastern Azerbaijan lies Shamakha. From this two millennia-old town of 31,000, a winding road climbs up on the hills at the bottom of the Caucasus range. Soon the tarmac ends, the road becomes a track from which occasionally smaller routes depart leading to hidden villages. The roads are bad - snowy in winter, muddy in spring. Then 45 km from the centre of Shamakha, up at 1,700 metres, sits Zarat Kheybari, a cluster of 15 houses, a small school, and a locked mosque. Nothing else.
Here live the Tats, or at least few of them. The history of this indigenous group of Persian origin in the Caucasus lacks clear details. Their language is related, but different from, Farsi and it features various dialects, so different that Tats from different areas can hardly understand each other, and decades of slow but steady contamination by the Azerbaijani language. In Azerbaijan they live mainly in the north-east regions of the Absheron peninsula, Shamakhi, Khachmaz, Guba, and Xizi. In his 1995 book “From our wedding treasure,” Maqsud Hajiyev stated that the assimilation of the Tats with the local Azerbaijani led to inaccurate calculation of their number - in 2009 official statistics set their number in Azerbaijan at 25,200 people.
The local school, on the outskirts of the village, is in no better condition. The facility has 11 registered pupils, but cold classrooms push down the attendance - classes are offered through the 9th compulsory grade (school is mandatory through the 11th grade), if anyone wants to continue, the family has to get organized and send the children to the closest city school in Shamakhi - 45 kilometres away. It is a rare occurrence.
None of the schools in the six Tat villages in the Shamakhi region teach the Tat language. Azerbaijan indicates Azerbaijani as the only official language taught in schools, unless ad-hoc exceptions are agreed upon in minority-populated areas. According to ethnic Tat journalist Dayanat Mammadov, classes were held in a few villages in the north-eastern region of Guba, like Zarqava and Korkmazoba, but as of 2017 the language survives at home. Plans to restore teaching as a pilot project are under discussion, albeit with no clear timeline.
Media-wise the situation is similar. In Guba, local media tried to broadcast in Tat - a short-lived radio station stopped the programmes in 1995, while Gutb TV abandoned the service in Tat in 2014.
There is no grocery shop, no pharmacy, let alone a clinic - the closest medical care is 10 kilometres away, in Demirchi, the closest hospital is 45 kilometres down the track, in Shamakha. Getting there costs 50-60 manat ($25-$30) by person, which is a fortune for them.
The sunset colors the mountains, and soon the cattle will return from the pasture. Another day in the life of a Tat’s village.