by Larisa G.
Larisa (Russia) has lived in the North Caucasus region for several years where she gained lifelong friends in hard-to-access villages of Dagestan, Russia.
As I looked over the beautifully made carpets in the market, they reminded me of paintings. However, on the reverse side, the threads of various colours told a different story. The North Caucasus are like that complex collection of threads: seven republics in the most southern part of Russia connected by the Caucasus Mountains. Over 45 people groups have been dwelling in this region for centuries, preserving their traditions and ways of life.
I loved to go to the bazaar in the small town of Manas, about 20 minutes from the Caspian Sea by marshrutka (minibus). The ladies in headscarves would stand in rows proudly displaying their handmade goods of dried medicinal herbs, goat cheeses, colourful knitted slippers, clay pots and tea mixes. In my favourite section by the white mosque, the carpet weavers proudly spread out their work. They turn grey wool into bright, vibrant colours with recipes passed down from generation to generation. Here are stories from three individuals from the Kumyk, Avar and Tabasaran people groups, whom God has woven into my life.
Mahmud is Kumyk, one of the smaller local tribes known to be as reliable as their skilfully made shoes and weapons. He would sit in his little booth by the town square in Dagestan, repairing people’s shoes and chatting with whoever had time. He and his entire people group had suffered. In March of 1944, Stalin deported their Chechen neighbours to Central Asia. Then the Soviet government forced the Kumyks to uproot, leave their homes, farms and ancestors’ graves, and move to the Chechen villages. They had never heard that God wanted to be there with them in their suffering.
Dagestan is in a constant state of battle between Russian troops and Islamist terrorists. One windy day, I came out to my Russian-made Niva jeep, which we used to travel to villages in the mountains, and noticed a small box underneath it. Car bombings are common and immediately I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Mahmud happened to walk by and saw my predicament. Without even thinking, he motioned for me to walk away and, using a stick, was going to push the box away. At that moment, a gust of wind moved the box revealing it was just rubbish. Yes, these people are fearless and protect their guests, even a Russian outsider like me.
Hadizha is a tall woman with brown eyes and jet-black hair who worked for the business I ran in her town. She is an Avar, the largest tribe in Dagestan, a people as sweet and unique as the wildflowers on their mountain slopes. She was a devoted Muslim. Whenever the azan sounded, calling Muslims to start their five-times-a-day prayer, Hadizha would stop work immediately and begin the ceremonial washing so that she could perform namaz (prayer). Since her parents had not yet arranged her marriage, Hadizha lived in her brother, Amir’s, house and would always consult with him on any significant decision. She made the best avar hinkal, a traditional dish of boiled dough, meat and sauce. She tried hard to please Allah and dreamed of going to the hajj in Mecca. She was not aware that God wants our hearts more than our sacrifices.
Hadizha invited us to visit her relatives in her home region. They keep to themselves, protecting and preserving their century-long traditions. I had to wear traditional dress with long sleeves and a hijab so as not to stand out. We visited her grandmother, a devoted Muslim woman. She recalled that during her childhood, in the 1930s, the Soviet government were severe in trying to eliminate their religion. One year Ramadan fell during the hottest month of August. During that time, the villagers tried to fast from sunrise to sundown. The Soviet authorities would go through every house in the village and make everyone drink at gunpoint during the day to break their fast.
Later in the day, her grandmother led us out of her modest stone home to the mountain slope where we picked a few wildflowers and herbs that the grandmother pointed to. Hadizha steamed them and we enjoyed conversation over the most fragrant cup of tea.
She was not aware that God wants our hearts more than our sacrifices.
The Tabasarans are as complex and celebratory as the carpets they make. Zarema, my friend’s mother, like other Tabasaran women, is an excellent carpet weaver. Each house has a carpet frame and threads set up, and women work on the rugs together. All the details of the patterns are ‘readable’, meaning they are symbols of the values and wishes for the owner of the carpet. Zarema considered herself to be a Muslim her whole life. But then her youngest daughter went on a trip abroad and came to hear about following God through a Saviour He sent, Isa Masih. She also learned about the character of God, that He wants to have our hearts and trust. It was the way those ‘followers of Isa’ interacted with each other that drew her in. Zarema never knew that God was loving and that is why He provided a way, Jesus, for her to be connected to God.
I went to her home to buy a carpet for my family. I love the North Caucasus and the people groups whom God planted here. In a local myth, an angel was flying over the world distributing languages when he tripped over the Caucasus Mountains and many languages spilled out of his sack. Only a handful out of 45 groups have the Bible translated into their language. Each of these people groups need to have that privilege.
Parched Soil & Deep Roots
Until the 1990s, there was little contact with the West, neither for Russia proper nor for the Muslim region of the North Caucasus under its control. A group of Americans living in Dagestan shared their faith with the local people there. One of them, an Avar man, later became a follower of Jesus and a small church was started. Christians comprise about 0.05% of the population and they are not accepted well by their Muslim neighbours. A few years ago, local extreme Wahabi Muslims issued death threats to the church leaders. My family got one too. A few days later, they followed through on their threat and shot our leader, Amir. As often happens in Christian history, suffering and trials fertilised the soil of many people’s hearts. The few local believers were even more sincere in their faith. As we stood over Amir’s open casket during the funeral, we could still see the blood-soaked bandages around his left temple. And there was Amir’s widow, encouraging us all to remember that he is in Heaven because that’s what the Scripture says about those who follow Jesus.
God Moves Mountains
Madina is a church leader’s wife in a small town in the North Caucasus. She is a part of a nomadic tribe in the plains of Dagestan. I asked her why there are so few followers of Isa in this land. She said that just as the mountains are hard to access, so are the barriers that face the gospel message. Some regions are cut off geographically with simply no access to the Bible in their language yet. There is, however, a community in the rest of the world that loves the people of the North Caucasus.
Dear friends of mine, Gabe and Jessica, lived in the region for a few years and built friendship bridges with the local people. They have taken these people into their hearts and, although they are not there now, they continue to maintain friendships with local friends, pray for them and encourage local believers. In the last few years, they have developed social media projects and written and translated books, including Proverbs, into local languages.
Jesus loves these beautiful souls who live in the North Caucasus. Pray for the people of Dagestan to be reached and for open hearts as God weaves them into His multiethnic family.