For the last 18 years, photographer Rena Effendi—born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan—has repeatedly visited and chronicled the remote mountain village of Khinaliq (population: 2,000), the country’s highest inhabited point, where evidence of human civilization dates to the Bronze Age. There she’s documented the intersection of ancient traditions and insular customs with encroaching modernity. Writer and comedian Negin Farsad, who has familial roots in Azerbaijan, recently spoke with Rena about her project.
Negin Farsad: What initially led you to Khinaliq?
Rena Effendi: I’d heard about this place that was near Russia in the mountainous Guba region. I heard it was extremely difficult to get to and that it was impenetrable. I thought, “Wow, how exciting. This would be an amazing journey.”
Among the people who went there, there were all these legends and rumors [about the residents]: “Oh, these people, they’re different. They’re taller than we are, they’re blond and blue-eyed and they speak their own language. It’s almost like you’re in a time capsule.”
So, I decided to go. At the time you could only get there with local Khinalug drivers, who were also shepherds. They were also the people who would feed the village, because they went to the market down below in Guba, where they would pick up all the products because nothing grows in Khinaliq. The village is above the tree line, so they have to buy everything down below and then bring it up. Anyway, I got in one of those cars, and we got stuck three or four times in rivers and streams. At one point, water was coming inside the car. Thank god, there are some villages on the way where you can ask for support. The drivers would go up to the village and get other drivers with cars to pull us out of the river.
Negin: In the years since that first trip, the government built a better road, right? Rena: Just before they started building the road in 2006, I went again. Then I went back in 2009. Khinalugs are a semi-nomadic people. They would spend summers in the village, and during the winters, many would go down to lower pastures with the flock. When the government built the road, it became not necessary to travel so much. Yet many of them still prefer to. They built the road and things became easier in terms of ferrying food and supplies, and it’s become a little bit more connected. Also, the physical look of the village has changed, because people have access to cheaper and more convenient construction materials.
Obviously, plastic windows and door frames are easier and more practical than their old wooden rickety doors and windows. Those started appearing, and they’ve changed the look of the houses. In some of the older photographs, you can see the way they used to hand paint the walls.
Negin: They’re beautiful. Rena: That’s disappeared, because they’ve started plastering the walls, just like apartments in cities. You can’t judge them for it. They want their home to be convenient. It’s their home. Who are we to tell them, “No, you should keep the culture and keep the authentic look”? We don’t live in their home.
Negin: I think it’s a hard needle to thread. That thing where you want to keep something looking old and beautiful and interesting. I was looking at those hand-painted walls and I just thought, “I want my apartment in Manhattan to look like that.” It looks so beautiful. As you’re describing how they live, how they leave in the winter and come back in the summer—and how difficult it was to get supplies in those early days—the question that kept coming up in my mind was, why did they stay?
Rena: One of the reasons I kept going back [to the village] is because that’s the same question I asked myself. I asked them as well and I couldn’t really get an answer that made any sense to me. When I asked them, they said, “It’s our land and that’s enough.” For me, because I’m such a nomad, and I’ve been living in places and traveling all the time, I don’t have that emotional attachment to a piece of land that they do. I want to say I understand them, but it’s on a very abstract level. I can’t fully grasp this idea of being so attached to your homeland. It’s their ancestral homes; it’s their lands that they want to pass on to the next generation. It’s also their way of life that’s been passed on from one generation to another.
It’s a village of shepherds. It’s not a bad livelihood. I think that’s the reason why it continued in spite of hardship. I talked to the people and I said, “Look, how beautiful it is.” They said, “Well, beautiful but difficult.” That was their answer.
Negin: I was looking at one of your photos that had a bunch of kids looking at a cell phone. A lot of the kids have left over the years you’ve documented the village. Do you think that the [arrival of the] smartphone contributed to that? Rena: I think so. When I went there for the first time in 2003, the only way for the village to communicate with the outside world was a post office and a man on horseback. I met him. He was the village postman, and he was the way the village communicated with the outside world. When they built the road, slowly telephone networking came in. Then finally, in 2010 or 2011, they put a cellular antenna in the village. Last time when I went in 2018, my phone worked. I could check my Instagram.
Negin: Terrible. Rena: It’s terrible in some ways. At the same time, I saw pictures that I’d taken of people over the years in their homes, printed from Instagram. The kids see more and more about the outside world. It’s not just the TV or the postman who brings the news. The floodgate has opened. They want to stay connected, and they want to have different jobs. Maybe they don’t want to be shepherds anymore. Maybe they don’t want the hardship. I met a couple of boys who I photographed when they were very young, and I met them again as young men. One of them was a soldier, just back from the army on a summer break. He was back home with his parents and he said, “It’s really boring for me. I don’t think I want to continue living here. It’s a small village.”
Negin: Once you get a taste of going to the club, you want to be around people your age, you want to have fun, you want to have adventures. Rena: It’s a global phenomenon. It’s not just there. I think it’s everywhere. I see it all around the world when I document small communities, rural communities. They’re losing their youth, and the old farmers don’t know who to pass the farm on to, unless you really entice them financially. It’s becoming harder and harder to do.
Negin: You talk to the older people there, and they’ve seen the road being built. They’ve seen the cellular network come. They’ve seen their own children leave. How are they handling that change? Rena: They’re philosophical about it. They say, “This is life.” I don’t think they’re trying to restrain the kids. They too understand the hardships of living there. They shrug it off. This is a fact of life.
Negin: What is the local religion in the village? Rena: Most of Azerbaijan is Shia Muslim. The country was part of the Soviet Union for 71 years, so we weren’t really allowed to practice any religion for many years. Today the country is very tolerant. It’s a secular society. Religion is not imposed on anyone.
In this particular village, they’re Sunni Muslim. They’re socially conservative but are quite accepting. They will not judge you based on your religion. You can be a Jew, you can be a Christian, you can be anyone you want, an atheist; they’re not going to judge you.
They’re socially conservative in the sense that families are quite traditional and women don’t live outside their home unless they’re married. Many marriages are arranged between relatives or other family members from the region.
Negin: You alluded to this a little bit earlier, but now it just seems like modernity is there, it’s in the village, it’s on the phones ... Rena: It’s at the doorstep. Yes.
Negin: It’s at their doorstep. Right. Are you worried? What are your predictions about this village?
Rena: I’ve been worried since 2006. I even thought, “OK, well, now they have the road and it will change dramatically.” To my surprise, I went back in 2018, and it hadn’t changed as dramatically as I had expected it to. The young people are connected to the outside world more through social media, but older people really don’t use [the internet] much.
Some physical appearance is changing as well, but it’s not as dramatic as I thought it could be. I’m still optimistic that it will continue to survive. Let’s see what happens. It’s a place that really draws me in, especially because I’ve been going for so long and I love drawing parallels and photographing the same people over and over again, and seeing how they change.
Negin: It makes me want to see this place. Your photos set the vibe so beautifully. It really does seem remarkable. Rena: For sure. It’s one of the most pristine, untouched village settings I’ve seen in Eurasia. It’s not for mass tourism, but it is for those adventurous travelers who want to come close to the culture, who want to understand the people. The Khinalug hospitality is very special. They welcome you into their homes and let you be part of their life for a few days without trying too hard to impress you. They’re very sweet and accommodating. Just lovely, lovely people.