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Alisa Ganieva: Праздничная гора (The Mountain and the Wall)

Dagestan is next to Chechnya and is also an Islamic country. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Islamisation has become stronger here, as elsewhere. There has also been some spillover from the Chechen war. Ganieva shows this in a prologue where we meet Zumrud, whom we will meet later in the book, and her extended family. There is much discussion within the family on the changing situation in Dagestan, with stories of apparently liberal people adopting Islam wholesale, liberal women taking the veil and men taking second (and more) wives. But there are also stories of jihadists as well as stories of how people do or do not observe the Koran. Inevitably, there is also much corruption. There is also opposition to this intense Islamisation, as some people fight for human rights and a more liberal state.

The main story starts with Shamil (it is no concidence that he is named after Imam Shamil) in the town of Makhachkala, where Ganieva spent some of her childhood. Shamil is working as a journalist for a local newspaper. Indeed, we meet him when he is visiting a village, where there are goldsmiths who have a long tradition of making beautiful items but now seem intent only on making items for the tourist trade. It is interesting that he starts his article by staying Religious extremism is on the rise in Dagestan. However, two key events happen at this point. When he returns to Makhachkala, he hears rumours of a wall that the Russians have constructed or are constructing between the Caucasus republics and Russia. At the same time, the mobile phone system seems to go down and no-one can phone anyone to get this rumour confirmed or denied. Things seem to be heating up and we learn of another issue in the region. The various constituent nationalities are arguing among themselves, each one claiming that their nationality is the superior one and the one that has been most oppressed. The Kumyks want their ancient lands back, while the Lezgians maintain that their lands have been stolen by the Azeris.

While it is the wall that dominates the story, we never actually see the wall or, rather, Shamil does not see it. Indeed, with the Internet soon going down and most TV stations out of action, no-one actually knows for sure, though some people claim to have seen it in their travels. Much of the rest of the book is a fascinating mixture of stories, first- and second-hand, about what happens post-Wall and accounts of the lives of a few individuals. Shamil seems to drift around almost in a daze. He was engaged to a woman, Madina, but has decided he really does not want to marry her. When he visits her house, he learns from her parents that she has has married one of what are called the beards, i.e. the radical Islamists, who seem to be gradually taking over. Her parents are furious about this and bitterly oppose it. Shamil is horrified, so much so that he goes round visiting all his ex-girlfriends.

We also learn more about his past, in particular a key event when he and his friend, Arip, go hiking. They see what looks a fortification high on the hill and climb up to it, where they find a village which is almost deserted. However, an old man takes them in and feeds them and talks to them, often in riddles or proverbs. They fall asleep and wake up on the mountainside. There is no sign of the village. Was it a dream? If so, both of them had the dream.

Another key character is Makhmud Tagirovich. Ganieva interestingly gives us several excerpts from the works of other people, including Makhmud Tagirovich. Makhmud Tagirovich started to write a novel, abandoned it and then started to write a long poem, before getting a sudden burst of inspiration and finishing the novel. We get excerpts from both. Makhmud Tagirovich is also something of a lost character, berated by his wife for his failure to achieve anything and all too often a victim. All he wants to do is write his poem and novel and spend time with his friend in the local bar. His father had been a poet and something of a colourful character. It is clear that Makhmud Tagirovich cannot live up to his father’s reputation.

The background to the story and to the stories of Shamil and Makhmud Tagirovich, is the changing situation. The airport is closed. The bosses seem to disappear. The police hide way and , when they appear, are often killed. The beards are taking over and are being ruthless in imposing what they see as strict Muslim standards. Inevitably, there is an economic crisis, with long Soviet-style queues for food. Madina comments the brothers aren’t terrorists, they are Muslims who want to live like Muslims. And soon everyone will live that same way . Even Arip says Maybe there’ll be some real change? We could have a new state, one that’ll care about truth, justice, and morality more than cash. But museums are sacked and destroyed, a Caucasian Emirate declared and a Mahdi is revealed as the new saviour, till he takes all the cash and disappears.

This is a superb book, giving us the Islamisation aspect from an insider’s point of view. There is a certain level of chaos in the novel, by which I mean, it jumps around. This, however, is definitely a positive, as it it gives us an impressionistic view of what is happening in post-Wall Dagestan, both the rise of a traditional Islam view and sharia law, as well as the viewpoint of those who are opposed and those who hover somewhere between the two, i.e. the Russians are bad and we should return to our old ways but this might be too extreme. There is no doubt that Ganieva sees the Islamisation as negative but she is quick to point out the failures of both the Soviet and post-Soviet systems. Just as importantly, for us, the readers, she tells an excellent story about the rise of Islam, the fate of the republics in post-Soviet Russia and the traditions of a people little known in the West.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Astrel
First English translation in 2015 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Carol Apollonio