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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Dagestan Bride, a Funereal Wedding Day

KHIV, Caucasus Mountains - The bride leaves her childhood home weeping. Clutching a handkerchief to her mouth, a veil shielding her face, Uma Askerova, 20, seems more a young widow on this, her wedding day.


She will be driven to a neighboring mountain village to dance once with her groom, eyes lowered, and then will be parked in a corner of her new home, alone.


At midnight her groom will return from his carousing to claim her. In the morning, if she cannot display proof that she arrived a virgin, her new family will send her back, unclothed.


If all is well, she will slip into the routine of her new family: hauling water on her back from the river far below, weaving carpets, cooking, milking, planting and bearing children, while her husband drinks and smokes and otherwise prepares himself for any "heavy" work that may arise.


This is love in modern Dagestan, a mountainous republic of 1. 8 million people in the untamed Caucasus that has served for centuries as both a land bridge and a wrestling mat for Slavs and Turks, Persians and Tatars.


The people of Dagestan, who speak 28 distinct languages, have been romanticized by Pushkin, envied by Tolstoy, conquered but never defeated. Nominally part of Russia, this remote village is as far from Moscow in miles as Vienna. In culture and language and breathtaking landscape, it is another world altogether.


Two young men of this aul, or mountain village, whose 2, 000 residents speak a language called Tabasaransky, have chosen this particular Sunday to wed. The wedding season is short, since snow or mud isolates the villages most of the year.


Sheep have been slaughtered for the feast. A band has been hired, known for its ability to keep a beat without falling out of an open-bed truck jouncing along precarious mountain roads. The local police lieutenant has combed his mustache and readied his hunting rifle for a welcoming salute.


By Monday morning, there will have been tears and wild dancing, as well as innumerable minor dramas and more than one drunken brawl. A cigarette lighter will have been stolen, in a shocking violation of the mountain code. Both brides will have proven themselves. and more than one guest will have waxed nostalgic about olden times, when weddings lasted three days.


Now weddings are one-day affairs. For notwithstanding the giant iron caldrons of lamb stew bubbling over wood fires and the huge pots of pilaf and the limitless jars of homemade wine, these are hard times in the Caucasus.


As everywhere in the former Soviet Union, order has given way to uncertainty. Men are underemployed and tempted by crime. Communism has vanished as a credo, while Islam, folk traditions and MTV confusingly vie to take its place.


Around Khiv, sheep wander on hillsides as green as a golf course and terraced by ancient floods. Fields of wild poppies startle with their color.


In the substantial stone home of town butcher Ramazan Shikhragimov, his son Nasruddin, 23, is upstairs drinking with his friends on the eve of his wedding.


Nasruddin's three adult sisters, cheerful and good-humored and intelligent, keep the table stocked with tomatoes, cucumbers and scallions from the garden; homemade cheese and flat bread; local wines and cognacs; soup with lamb and potatoes; and vodka.


Sunday morning, the festivities seem slow in gathering steam. Pockets of men in the village uniform of polyester suit jackets and mismatched trousers squat on their haunches, smoking, while others tend the outdoor fires. The groom, tentative and peripheral, hovers on the edge of the activity.


Finally, around noon, an old Volga sedan appears, and the sisters and cousins begin decorating it with ribbons and balloons. A doll in wedding dress is strapped to the hood. A bag of bread and other foods, a gift to the bride's family, is prepared, along with the wedding dress and jewelry she will wear today.


The bride, Uma, is waiting in her village a few miles deeper into the mountains. In the van following the groom's car to Uma's village, the sisters sing and shriek and order the driver to blow his horn as he careens through the dust kicked up by the car ahead. The sisters and other women climb to the second floor of the bride's more modest house, where Uma waits mournfully, and wrap a shawl around her neck, symbolically welcoming her into the family.


Then, as women and children cram into her room, the sisters take a round bread smeared with honey and break it over the bride's head.


Outside, Nasruddin waits in the car. "He must sit like a king and receive the bride like a present", one sister explains. When the bride finally appears in a crush of excited relatives, she is weeping; her childhood is over, and the rigorous, often cheerless life of a village wife awaits. Though some marriages are still arranged, this one is not. Nasruddin and Uma met and courted in the village.


After the wedding, the new bride is sitting silently in a downstairs corner of Nasruddin's house, waiting for him to return from carousing. Beside her is her "defender", a lone aunt who was permitted to accompany her, and whose morning task will be to retrieve the bloody cloth from the bridal chamber and show it to Nasruddin's parents.