Grand Hospitality at a Dagestani Xanadu

One of the Khachilayev brothers, Nadir, is a member of the Russian parliament, so he has given us the private telephone number of his younger brother Jabrail in Dagestan. We are not entirely prepared for the full embrace of the hospitality of the Caucasus that this gesture entails.

When we arrive at his imposing, brand-new, red-brick mansion, we are ushered into a marbled room that serves as an antechamber. Such houses all have these rooms, where informal business is conducted and security men while away the hours.

Two television monitors show the driveway and approach to the house. An AK-47 automatic rifle is slung over Jabrail's chair, where his three-year-old son keeps bumping it with his tricycle. A Makarov pistol lies on the window sill. The bullet-proof vest draped over a chair has a spent slug lodged in it, dead center. "I tested it," explains a cheerful houseboy.

Jabrail, a strapping fellow in sandals, a Muslim skullcap, and a sandy, closely trimmed beard, minces no words. We are to be his guests for our stay in Dagestan. This is the custom. We should follow the local custom. If not, we will shame him before his elder brother. He says it with a touch of anxiety. He is serious.

That night, we have a big dinner of lamb pilaf at Jabrail's house. Then we meet the oldest Khachilayev brother, Magomed. The house is an over-the-top Xanadu of marble, oak, and gilt filigree. An arabesque Versailles. Every door a riot of stained glass and brass baubles. Life-sized oil portraits crowd each other on the walls. In the courtyard, a spotless, white Humvee sits next to a Jaguar and a Mercedes. This in an all-cash economy.

Magomed is a man of rangy muscularity. Head shaved, beard close-cropped, he gestures hugely and unpredictably with large hands and wrists. He was twice karate champion of the Soviet Union. Now he is Dagestan's minister of fisheries, but his daily concerns are larger than that: keeping peace between the multitude of Dagestani nationalities.

He leads us through one grand salon after another into his office. He sits under a portrait of the great 19th-century warrior dervish Imam Shamil. Wrapped in a linen cloth under his office window is a stack of a dozen military assault rifles and assorted knives and daggers.

The youngest Khachilayev brother, Adam, was three times Soviet karate champion, but he was murdered by a Chechen in 1993. The matter, says Magomed, is "settled. We don't have our brother back, but we have no debts." He doesn't explain further. Others tell us that the Chechen killer is still hiding in the mountains of nearby Chechnya, but that his father and a cousin have in turn been killed.

We eat another dinner, about two hours after the first, and again our hosts berate us for "eating weakly."

The southernmost city in Russia was named Derbent, or "locked gates," by the Persians, because they could never extend their empire past this point where the high Caucasus come closest to the Caspian coastline. Marco Polo came through here in AD 1295 on his way to reopen the Silk Road to China.

We have a shashlik barbecue of bull's "eggs" and other delicacies before boarding a sleeper train for Azerbaijan. The border had been kept closed by the Russians until recently, and we are roused for more than three hours of border checks and baggage searches by guards during the night. But we awake in a city that looks and sounds like an eastern outpost of Turkey - the once and future boom town of Baku.

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