In Dagestan, Laugh Track Echoes Across Mountains
By ELLEN BARRY
Published: February 16, 2010
MAKHACHKALA, Russia — A funny thing happened to Magomedkhan M. Magomedkhanov, an ethnographer from the Russian republic of Dagestan, on a recent visit to the United States. Surrounded by distinguished colleagues at Harvard University and sensing that there was only one way to put everyone at ease, he dusted off a favorite joke about a Jew in a pit full of wild animals.
As the silence congealed into something approximating hostility, Mr. Magomedkhanov was reminded that he was no longer in Dagestan.
He grew up among the Archi, a 1,200-member ethnic group that speaks a language of unknown origin and, for at least seven centuries, was connected to the outside world only by rugged mountain paths. This is fairly typical of Dagestan, a collection of 14 major and several dozen minor ethnic groups that formed in tide pools and cul-de-sacs off one of humankind’s great migration streams.
All this has proven exceptionally fertile ground for ethnic humor. Dagestanis can tell ethnic jokes for hours, returning to beloved themes like the muscle-bound denseness of the Avars, the naked commercialism of the Dargins, the bookish pusillanimity of the Lezgins, the slyness of Lakhs and so on. And that’s not counting jokes about especially dumb villages.
One example: An Avar is carrying a wounded Dargin off the battlefield. The Dargin entreats his friend to leave him behind, lest they both be killed, and asks the one favor of shooting him so he does not suffer. The Avar, finally convinced, pulls out his firearm but finds he has no ammunition. The Dargin roots in his pockets and pulls out a bullet. “I’ll sell it to you,” he says.
Or this one: An Avar is driving through Makhachkala with a Lakh in the passenger seat. Spotting a red light, he pumps the accelerator and speeds through it. “You just ran a red light!” the Lakh says. “Avars don’t stop for red lights,” the Avar explains, and speeds through another. In a few minutes, they come to a green light, and the Avar stops. “Why did you stop?” the Lakh asks. “You can’t be too careful,” his friend says, “an Avar might be coming the other way.”
Some say the joke-telling tradition grew out of topography. Before the Soviets connected village groupings, or jamaats, with paved roads, bards would hike from one to another, singing ditties about the neighbors’ peculiar clothes or mannerisms, said Enver F. Kisriev, a Dagestani sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Jamaats were so wildly differentiated — for example, Tsovkra, the village of tightrope-walkers, or Kharbuk, the village of dagger makers — that for centuries they had no choice but to trade across linguistic and ethnic barriers. This bred a bone-deep tolerance, he said.
“In Dagestan, everyone knows there are people who think in a completely different way,” Mr. Kisriev said. “A Russian person who lives deep in the countryside and has never seen a Caucasian person — for him, everything is unexpected and alien. In Dagestan, that feeling doesn’t exist. We are never surprised at the way people act.”
If Dagestanis feel relaxed joking about their nationalities, from the distance of Moscow they look like a minefield. Soviets bureaucrats managed Dagestan by painstakingly distributing influence between important clans, and to this day, upsetting that equilibrium can lead to disaster. Lezgins, for example, traditionally led the region’s federal tax service, and when Moscow appointed a Russian to the post last year, they protested in such numbers that the police persuaded his motorcade to turn around at the republic’s border.
When Vladimir Radchenko, the appointee, was able to show up for work, he was abducted — briefly, but long enough to convince decision makers in Moscow that the best candidate for the job was a Lezgin, after all. The appointment was quietly repealed. This complexity may explain why Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, hesitated for months before announcing his choice for the republic’s next president (his nominee, a Dargin, will replace an Avar).
Nationalities historically meant very little to Dagestanis, Mr. Kisriev said, but they flared up in the vacuum left by the Soviet collapse, as local clans built political forces along ethnic lines.
“Traditionally, you turn to the authorities or to the police for protection,” he said. “But if that power comes crashing down, people begin returning to their traditional networks” — in this case the jamaat, or village structure, which, starting in the 1990s, would send buses of armed men to protect a member in trouble, he said.
In this atmosphere, ethnic jokes serve as a safety valve; failure to enjoy them is viewed as “a shortcoming in a man’s character,” said Mr. Magomedkhanov, whose scholarly works include “Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Dagestan.”
One anecdote has a guy approaching his neighbor Gitya, an Avar. He says, “Gitya, I heard a great joke the other day, but it’s about Avars. I don’t want to offend you, so I’ll tell it about Azeris.” He tells the joke, and Gitya laughs so hard that tears stream down his face. “Man,” Gitya gasps, catching his breath. “Those Azeris sure are idiots!”
There are, of course, limitations on the practice. One is that not one joke mocks a woman; in fact, it would be considered a monstrous offense even to ask a Dagestani if his wife was in good health. And if you are thinking of offending a Dagestani, consider that full-on brawls are so common that some restaurants in Makhachkala list the cost of replacing chairs and tables on their menus.
Magomed Sagatov, 52, who lives in the village of Gunib, gave a dry little smile when asked about humor. Standing on his balcony, he could point to the four or five nearest villages through the mist on the snow-covered hills.
“When you’ve had to live 1,000 years with your neighbors,” he said, “you learn not to make offensive jokes.”