A wild wedding in Dagestan

On August 22, Gadzhi Makhachev married off his 19-year-old son Dalgat to Aida Sharipova. The wedding in Makhachkala, which we attended, was a microcosm of the social and political relations of the North Caucasus, beginning with Gadzhi's own biography. Gadzhi started off as an Avar clan leader. As Soviet power receded from Dagestan in the late 1980s, the complex society fell back to its pre-Russian structure. The basic structural unit is the monoethnic "jamaat," or commune. The jamaats within each ethnic group have been competing with one another to lead the ethnic group. This competition is especially marked among the Avars, the largest nationality in Dagestan.

Gadzhi has cashed in the social capital he made from nationalism, translating it into financial and political capital—as head of Dagestan's state oil company and as the single-mandate representative for Makhachkala in Russia's State Duma. His dealings in the oil business—including close cooperation with US firms—have left him well off enough to afford luxurious houses in Makhachkala, Kaspiysk, Moscow, Paris and San Diego.

Gadzhi's Kaspiysk summer house is an enormous structure on the shore of the Caspian. The house filled up with visitors from all over the Caucasus during the afternoon of August 21. Though Gadzhi's house was not the venue for the main wedding reception, he ensured that all his guests were constantly plied with food and drink. The cooks seemed to keep whole sheep and whole cows boiling in a cauldron somewhere day and night, dumping disjointed fragments of the carcass on the tables whenever someone entered the room. The alcohol consumption before, during and after this Muslim wedding was stupendous. Amidst an alcohol shortage, Gadzhi had flown in from the Urals thousands of bottles of Beluga Export vodka.

An hour before the wedding reception was set to begin, the 'Marrakech' reception hall was full of guests. Gadzhi was locked into his role as host. He greeted every guest personally as they entered the hall and later moved constantly from table to table drinking toasts with everyone. The 120 toasts he estimated he drank would have killed anyone, but Gadzhi had his Afghan waiter Khan following him around to pour his drinks from a special vodka bottle containing water. Still, he was much the worse for wear by evening's end. At one point we caught up with him dancing with two scantily clad Russian women who looked far from home.

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