Speaking Avar, Living Avar in Azerbaijan

Author: Sultana Ahmadbayli

Edition: Identity
A woman prepares a samovar for tea to serve at a qerqeniy betin or “round wedding,” an Avar wedding celebration held the day after the marriage ceremony. The name is derived from traditional Avar dances performed in a circle.
Elman Zalkhayev’s 27-year-old niece, Farida, fills glasses with water from an artesian well to take to her uncle’s guests.
At an Avar “round wedding,” or second-day celebration of a wedding, the closest relatives of the bride and groom gather at the groom’s house to eat and dance. Here, male guests gather together at the house of Elman Zalkhayev’s newlywed nephew, Ruslan Zalkhayev.
A neighbor's child wears a traditional red dress for the Zalkhayev family’s wedding celebration in Khalatala.
Traditional red ribbons adorn the house of groom Ruslan Zalkhayev the day after his wedding. Red symbolizes a bride’s virginity and features in weddings throughout Azerbaijan.
Bride Aksana Zalkhayeva, 25, wears a red dress the morning after the “round wedding,” or post-wedding celebration. The red, a customary wedding color in Azerbaijan, symbolizes her loss of virginity.
Musicians play Avar music during 34-year-old Ruslan Zalkhayev’s (front left) “round wedding.” In the background hangs a painting of nearby Georgia’s Ananuri fortress. Georgia also contains a small Avar population.

If there are ever any doubts about 54-year-old Elman Zalkhayev’s cultural lineage, he’s got the Soviet-era identity card to prove it. Proudly, he points to the line that identifies him as Avar. 

“I am Avar since I opened my eyes,” declares Zalkhayev, an unemployed resident of the village of Khalatala in northern Azerbaijan, located roughly 10 kilometers from the Georgian border. “I knew that I am Avar since I started to understand the world." 

In Russia’s neighboring Dagestan, the Avars rank as the largest ethnic minority, but in Azerbaijan their numbers amount to roughly the size of a large town -- some 49,800 people, according to the last census in 2009.  Calling themselves “Ma’rulal,” which means “mountain people,” they live mostly in Azerbaijan’s mountainous northwestern regions of Balakan and Zaqatala, about 400 kilometers from the capital, Baku.

Unlike in Soviet times, Azerbaijani ID cards do not identify these citizens’ ethnicity. That detail today appears only on their birth certificates.

But its presence still matters for Avars.

In the past, they have sometimes been incorrectly categorized as Lezgis, another Dagestan-based people who speak a separate, northeast Caucasian language.

For centuries, Avars have had to contend with the impact of Russia as well.  Under Soviet rule, “the Russian language and culture were predominant . . .” notes Zalkhayev, who formerly worked for Russia’s Federal Migration Service in Dagestan.


Elman Zalkhayev’s house in the village of Khalatala, a predominantly ethnic Avar settlement.
Elman Zalkhayev, 54, is part of a large Avar family with members throughout Azerbaijan.
With springtime temperatures in northwestern Azerbaijan comfortably balmy, Elman Zalkhayev, shown here with family and visiting relatives, spends leisure time outdoors.
The Soviet-era, 1957 birth certificate of Elman Zalkhayev’s brother, Omar, identifies his parents as ethnic Avars.
Elman Zalkhayev’s wife, 49-year-old Pidimat Zalkhayeva, wears a headscarf typical of Avar women from the northern Azerbaijani regions of Zaqatala and Balakan.
In the past, this dagger, belt and chain owned by Elman Zalkhayev would have been worn by an Avar groom at his wedding.
Unlike most Muslim Azerbaijanis, who tend to be Shi’ites, Avars follow Sunni Islam. Here, Elman Zalkhayev shows an antique Islamic medallion with an Arabic inscription.
Reprints of early 20-century illustrations showing traditional clothes for Avar women (From “Settlements of the Dzharo Community,” 2011, DINEM)
Elman Zalkhayev (front left), shown with his mother and other relatives in the early 1970s

His own last name has been Russianized. In Avar, it would be “Zalkhatsul.” 

But Russia has not been the only larger community with which Azerbaijan’s Avars have had to come to terms. Until he went to school, Zalkhayev was unaware that he lived among ethnic Azerbaijanis.

“Both of my parents are Avars, so I perceived the world around me in the Avar language.  I learnt about other ethnicities in the region only when I went to school,” he explains.

While mixed ethnic Avar-Azerbaijani families exist, “very often the children from such families choose the identity of that parent who is associated with the majority ethnic group; in this case, with Azerbaijanis,” comments sociologist Sergei Rumyansev, who has previously researched Azerbaijan’s Avars.

Concerns about discrimination, and how it could affect career prospects or the ability to visit relatives in Dagestan, do persist, but are minimal, adds Rumyansev, who works at the non-governmental Center for Independent Social Research in Berlin.  


Nonetheless, Azerbaijan’s Avars still very much retain their own identity. Language is at the center of that.

“In the ’70 to ‘80s, Avars did not know the Azerbaijani language at all,” Zalkhayev stresses. All communication in the village was in Avar, he remembers.  “This is why we could save our language.”

Written in Cyrillic, the language has used Georgian, Arabic and Latin-based alphabets in the past and features four distinct dialects.  

Azerbaijan offers no regular public education for children in Avar, but juveniles in Khalatala, a settlement of a few thousand people, can attend private language classes.

Along with other forms of interaction, it appears to be having an effect.

Khalatala remains a predominantly Avar-speaking village, Zalkhayev underlines, where “[e]ven in the official agencies . . . everyone speaks Avar.”

A woman carries dishes of soyutma – chunks of lamb or chicken boiled with potatoes, onions, salt and spices – to guests at the Zalkhayevs’ post-wedding celebration. The bride’s family brings traditional dishes such as khinkal, meat-stuffed dumplings, and maxara (in Avar, “sun”), a sun-shaped, crèpe-like pastry.
As a goodwill gesture to the newlyweds, relatives pay for the first glasses of tea served by the groom’s family. Each guest decides how much he or she will pay.
The grandparents of groom Ruslan Zalkhayev dance to Avar music during his “round wedding” or post-wedding celebration.
Male relatives of groom Ruslan Zalkhayev keep on dancing even once the post-wedding celebration, or “round wedding,” is over.
The mother of groom Ruslan Zalkhayev dances a traditional Avar dance with her brother at Zalkhayev’s post-wedding celebration.
The musician at left plays a tanbur, a stringed instrument common throughout Azerbaijan and popular among the Avars.
Unlike other Caucasian ethnic groups, many Avars often have light green or blue eyes.

 Lala Aliyeva provided additional reporting for this story.

                                     June 2018, Identity Edition 

We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.