22 January 2012

The Living Skansen


There is a peculiar type of museum, which we call "skansen." It's a Swedish name, but we use it because it's easier than the bulky "ethnographic museum" and more elegant than "open-air history museum." We've been to skansens in Poland, in the Czech Republic and in Georgia. The effect is generally the same: in the collections of old, tiny buildings, one feels the simpleness and smallness of life in the peasant classes of the past.
But it's also the present. In Xinaliq, it's a way of life. We stayed with a family in their house and felt the closeness of a timeless home.
In this room, three generations - some nine people - cook, eat, sleep, pray and watch TV. There is a low table, we sat on the floor. There is a stove, covered in pots. A stack of mattresses gets put away in one corner, the dishes are kept on a small shelf. When the electricity is on, there's a light overhead and the television blares Turkish music videos. When the electricity doesn't work, the only light is from a small hole in the ceiling - once the chimney for an open fire. The family's sheep are kept underneath in a low, dark barrow.
It is, in so many ways, exactly like the skansens. But it isn't a museum, and the people whose lives are contained in this room weren't eager to play the part of living history.
All of us curious travelers are attracted to Xinaliq because of its "unspoiled" culture. It is a place not yet fully modern, somehow. The people speak their own language, full of clicks and hard vowels. They dress in traditional clothes, have their own customs, live almost completely off their sheep. There is a sense that one is making first contact with an undiscovered culture - a perverse anthropological excitement. Hasn't this sort of thing disappeared?
Before we went, in a guesthouse room in Quba, our Xinaliq contact - a man named Xeyrradin -apologetically explained the situation to us. "There's no water, no hot water. The family only heats one room and it's very cold there. They don't have wood, so they burn dung. They will only eat soup, maybe, or some kind of potato, it's very simple." He paused and spread his hands out to us. "Most people go in the summer," he said, shrugging.
There is one other "finished" room, mostly disused, as well as a small entryway, plus a storage space - but these aren't heated, and aren't used much. We slept in the guest room, which was only a degree or so above freezing. The winter closes in the life of this family. They spend as much time as possible inside, watching the television or using their cellphones. At night, the piles of mattresses are spread out over the carpets.
Falling asleep in our cold, separate space, the sound of sheep below the floor mixed with the sound of the television in the next room.
We spent hours sitting on cushions around the table. There was a lot of simple food, and many cups of tea in between.
Maybe the biggest cultural oddity about the home wasn't something we expected - this family seemed almost doggedly resistant to making a connection. There were no introductions. No-one said goodbye when we left. There were very few attempts at crossing the language divide. Food was served to us, one of the men would bark at his wife to refill our tea cups. Rebecca and I would have our own conversation and the family would have theirs, even as we all sat around the same table. We felt lucky that there were two toddlers - at least someone looked at us. We spent two nights with this family and have no name to attach to them.
There are no hotels in Xinaliq, and no restaurants, and that somehow explained our loneliness. The family was providing a service to us - a place to stay, with meals served. In other words, they were providing access to Xinaliq, the town. It probably never occurred to them that we were interested in them more than the buildings.
When we walked between the old stones, the people who approached us wanted to suggest hiking routes, or tell us to visit the caves. They were friendly people. But there are mountains everywhere, and shallow caves too. What makes Xinaliq stand out isn't its location - rocky, hilltop towns are special, but not extraordinary. They exist. Most of them, though, exist only as places - not as a theater for life.

There was a man named Misha in Tbilisi, Georgia, who we met at our hostel. He was Polish, but he'd lived in the Caucasus for years - he'd traveled all the back roads, been to all the remote spots. When we told him that we were heading down to Azerbaijan, he told us about Xinaliq. "It's my dream to go there," he said.
Xinaliq is the dream that there are still untouched places on earth. Perhaps with better Azeri (or Russian), or with more time, or with more persistence we could have found some spark of recognition between us and the family. Instead, we found ourselves more and more settling into the role of watcher, as though we really were visitors to a museum.
But what an amazing museum! Accept the divide, and the display is magical. We saw wolf tracks in the snow, a bloody sheep's stomach in the mud and herds of goats in the narrow lanes. We watched groups of kerchiefed women fetching water for their tea and washing clothes outside in the snow. There were boys playing dominos beside us and homemade cheese on the table - and fresh lamb, pickles, and bread rising wrapped in blankets. We sat in a tableau of the ancient present and saw things that could only be re-enacted elsewhere. Waking in the morning, the sun rose over a wall of rocky peaks around us, the hilltop was as silent and static as it has been for thousands of years.
Maybe not making a connection is the difference. Maybe that's why Xinaliq is still so untouched.

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