Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Forbidden Love in Balkaria

Despite the moderating influences of the modern age, tribal divisions continue to have a devastating effect on people's lives in this North Caucasian republic

Frustrated by his parents' glowering disapproval and "old-fashioned" views, Azamat took it into his head to kidnap his Balkar bride. He would carry Fatima away to a remote mountain village, marry her in secret and face the consequences. Life, he reasoned, had no meaning if they could not be together.

They say that, against the dramatic backdrop of the Caucasus mountains and the swirling mists, anything seems possible.

In the old days, local traditions reflected the impulsive spirit of the Kabardinians and the Balkars. There was a time when a young man paid for his wife in sheep, cows and goats, then carried her off across the saddle of his horse. And clan loyalties were fiercely observed, so that tribal vendettas were passed down through generations and insults lingered like running sores.

It is a cruel paradox that these divisions are as strong today as they were a century ago, while the benign customs have been eroded. And, even if tribal differences are no longer settled with a curved kinzhal, they continue to have a devastating effect on people's lives.

Azamat was a Kabardinian, the son of a large Nalchik family who lived according to the age-old traditions. He had been taught to respect the opinions of his elders and to obey them in everything. His relatives eagerly looked forward to the day when Azamat would marry and bring his wife to live in the family house.

A year ago, Azamat met Fatima, who was a Balkar by birth and thus, according to local prejudices, his social inferior. They could often be seen walking together in Nalchik's municipal park which is famous for its rare species of tree and five artificial lakes.

But their happiness was short-lived. When Azamat's parents discovered that Fatima was a Balkar, they called a family meeting and attempted to reason with their son.

When Fatima heard of this development, she realised that Azamat's family would never accept her as a daughter-in-law. And, to make matters worse, her father and brothers banned her from having any further contact with the young engineer.

So they started meeting in secret, in the offices of a city newspaper, and they comforted themselves with the thought that they lived in a modern society where the old traditions had ceased to be relevant.

But Fatima's father had different ideas. He chose a more suitable fiance for his daughter, from among the Balkar people, and even fixed a day for the wedding.

It was then that Azamat decided to abduct Fatima and take her away to the village where his aunt lived. In Kabardino-Balkaria, it is a common tradition for a man to "kidnap" his wife, although this is usually undertaken with the prior knowledge of the bride. The girl's parents are informed immediately and the marriage is made legal in front of the effendi.

But Azamat tried to have the marriage sanctioned without the permission of the bride's parents. He went to a distant relative, who agreed to give Fatima away. But then the relative had second thoughts and informed the girl's family what was going on. Her brothers came to take her back, by force if necessary. There was a terrible scene and Fatima cursed her elder brother, who threatened blood vengeance against Azamat's family.

Eventually, they took Fatima back to Nalchik and locked her in her room for several months. She was forbidden to use the telephone, after her parents discovered her girlfriends were calling her at Azamat's request.

In the end, Fatima refused to marry the man that her parents had found for her. So her father took it upon himself to tell her employer that she had resigned and banned her from leaving the house unaccompanied.

And Azamat could think of nothing else but getting Fatima back. He recruited the girl's younger brother who took the couple's side. But the brother was powerless against his father and the force of his prejudice.

Azamat refuses to give up hope. The sociable, cheerful young man who played the accordion and danced all the national dances has become morose and reclusive. Most of all, he riles against a society which has been selective with its historical legacy.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, few of the ancient traditions have survived the depredations of the Soviet regime and infusions of Western culture. Before the 1917 Revolution, family values were sacrosanct. Parents demanded a tribute, called the uase, from eligible suitors - usually a quantity of cows, sheep or horses.

After the transaction had been arranged, the bride spent a year preparing her dowry, then was delivered to the groom's home with great ceremony. Respect for one's elders was paramount. The bride, for example, was only allowed to speak to her father-in-law after her first child was born.

On some occasions, when he could not afford the uase or the bride herself was against the marriage, the young man resorted to abduction. Usually, the marriage was then sanctioned because it was considered a great disgrace for a young woman to spend a night away from home.

A few traditions have been preserved in largely symbolic form. Some bridegrooms still pay a token uase, others put on a show of abducting their intended. But now wedding parties are held in restaurants - which was once unthinkable - and bodily contact is allowed during the dances.

In most respects, the people of Kabardino-Balkaria have entered a more liberated era but, despite the moderating influences, an almost medieval caste system continues to dominate local society. The Kabardinian elite, headed by the president, Valery Kokov, lords it over the Balkars, who, in turn, consider themselves socially superior to the Russian Cossacks.

Of the 1,250 marriages recorded in Kabardino-Balkaria last year, less than 40 involved members of different clans. Those who dare to cross the line face social ruin, some are even disbarred from the family circle. It is a strange paradox that the traditions which bring people together are eroded while the customs that drive them apart are carefully preserved.

Zarina Kanukova works for Elbrus and Oshkhamakho magazines in Nalchik