2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Bemoaning Young Zealots Over a Drink Or Three

Bemoaning Young Zealots Over a Drink Or Three

Vodka in Dagestan

We were lucky. Once we managed to get to the highway on the outskirts of Astrakhan the first car to stop after seeing our raised thumbs had the same destination as us: Makhachkala. Though it is the largest city in the Russian part of the Caucasus, it is little visited by tourists.

Dagestan’s reputation for excessive corruption, organized crime, and jihadism is not an attractive mix. But the region’s undeniable beauty and tradition of hospitality still manages to draw some people in.

The combination of the region’s push-and-pull factors made me decide that after several months of hitchhiking alone through Russia it was time to go in search of a partner, if not for my own safety then at least to help my mother sleep at night. An online trawl through several forums led me to Daryl, a Malaysian student attending university in Volgograd. His university had explicitly forbidden him from entering this part of Russia, but he didn’t know exactly why the decree had gone out; the warning itself was reason enough for him to want to take a look around. We crammed into a white Mercedes and introduced ourselves to Shamil, Haji, and Hussain.

As we made our way south, the guys gave us a choice: we could either wait till morning and go with them or we could continue by ourselves. We decided to stick with what we had, but soon started to regret it. While they caught up with old friends, we sat in a sparsely furnished small building without food, electricity, running water, a toilet, or any relief from boredom. With nothing better to do, we decided to go to sleep.

Not much later, we were woken up by a few men coming through the doors using their phones as flashlights. Somebody managed to switch on the power supply and soon enough we were sitting around a table eating little pieces of rotisserie chicken with flat bread as we took turns drinking vodka.

Between us we shared a liter bottle of vodka; not enough to let things get out of hand but enough to let the conversation flow despite a slight language barrier. Comic relief was provided by a guy bearing the nickname iPhone because he loves his phone more than his wife. At least that’s what his friends say: iPhone’s Russian is worse than Daryl’s or mine so he’s in no position to defend himself.

I tried to stay clear of discussing politics or religion but my curiosity got the best of me. I told Shamil the last thing I would have expected to be doing on my first night in Dagestan was drinking alcohol. In a region which has seen a more relaxed syncretic form of Islam lose a lot of ground to Wahabism over the last couple of decades, some convenience stores have taken to advertising the fact that they don’t sell alcohol in order to deter would-be attackers. Shamil bemoaned the young zealots and stressed Dagestan’s traditional tolerance. Besides, he said, he and his friends only drink a few times a year.

The next morning the guys were back, and after a quick visit to a Shamil’s uncle we were on our way to our destination. We were dropped off in town as they made their way to the mosque for Friday prayers.

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